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The Pakistan general election is fast approaching - but one community will not be casting votes

Samira Shackle talks to members of the Ahmadiyya, a minority numbering 4 million. The Ahmadis are branded as "non-Muslims", suffer violent attacks on their mosques and will boycott this weekend's elections.

Campaigners protest the killings of Ahmadis at a mosque in Lahore.
Campaigners protest the killings of Ahmadis outside a Lahore mosque in 2010. Over 80 people died as squads of militants burst into prayer halls in May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Pakistan is gearing up for the historic election on 11 May that will mark its first democratic transition from one civilian government to another. Turnout is set to be higher than ever before. But there is one community, numbering around 4 million, who will not be casting their votes.

The Ahmadis are a vilified religious minority in Pakistan, who have undergone decades of persecution. It comes down to a theological dispute. Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their movement in pre-Partition India in 1889, was a messiah. That contradicts the central belief in mainstream Islam that Muhammad was the final prophet.

In 1974, a law was passed that not only declared Ahmadis non-Muslims, but banned them from “posing as Muslims”. They have not voted since; doing so would be a tacit acceptance that they are not Muslims, as they would be placed on a voter list with other religious minorities, such as Christians and Hindus. Voter registration forms require Ahmadis to disassociate themselves from the Prophet Muhammad; they say that to do so is against their religion, and so the stalemate continues.

“We are Muslims so we want the majority to accept us as Muslims,” Bilal Haider, the president of the Ahmadi Youth Committee in Karachi tells me when we speak on the phone. “Until then we cannot vote.” Like many young Ahmadis, he is angry. “When a political party confirms they will give us our rights, then we will vote for them. Until then, I cannot see the situation changing.”

Although the community has not voted for more than three decades, this year there was some fanfare around the boycott. This is because the level of official discrimination appears to be getting even worse. In 2011, the Election Commission issues instructions for an “Ahmadi-only” voter list, separate even to the other religious minorities. “It is the worst kind of discrimination and bigotry,” says Saleem Uddin, the spokesperson for the Jama’at Ahmadiyya, the community’s main organisation. “It is an attempt to exclude Ahmadis from the national discourse.”

Uddin lives in Rabwah, a quiet town in central Punjab where around 90 per cent of the population is Ahmadi, considered the headquarters of the community. I met him in the headquarters of an NGO in a central area of Islamabad, days after the boycott was announced. His statement created quite a stir on social media, with comparisons being drawn between the steady marginalisation of the Ahmadis to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The Ahmadi issue was a hot topic after a video surfaced in late April of someone from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party meeting with an Ahmadi community leader in London. Khan promptly released a video statement swearing that he had not solicited Ahmadi votes, and that if he was elected, he would not repeal anti-Ahmadi laws. As the only untested political force, Khan was the Ahmadis’ last hope for their cause to be taken up by someone in the mainstream. So his keenness to disassociate himself from this group as a depressing moment, for both Ahmadis and those concerned with human rights. This is one vote bank which no politician has any interest in winning.

Uddin, a large, softly-spoken man who shrinks from cameras, explains that the separate “Ahmadi-only” voter lists could have serious ramifications. He shows me a photocopied page from the electoral roll. The full address of each individual is listed. There is one column for “family number”, which typically consists of about five digits or letters. But Ahmadis do not have a family number: they are listed simply as “Q”, which stands for “Qadiani”, a common but derogatory term for Ahmadis. “We are already on the hit-list for terrorists,” says Uddin. “This list is made public for all cities, so people can now target us even more easily.”

The risks are very real. In 2010, more than 90 people were killed after the Taliban bombed an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore. Last year, more than 100 Ahmadi graves were desecrated in the city, with graveyards elsewhere in the country also attacked. Individual acts of vigilantism and official harassment are almost more disturbing than big terrorist attacks, because they are so routine. There are currently 278 legal cases registered against Ahmadis for “impersonating Muslims”. There are many recorded instances of people breaking into Ahmadi houses and forcibly removing Arabic inscriptions of Qu’ranic verses. Protected by the law, these vigilantes do not fear any consequences; indeed, it is often the police carrying out these acts.

In the province of Punjab, students must write down their religion when sitting external examinations, and many have suffered harassment not just from other students but from teachers. It is not unusual for individual Ahmadis to receive threatening phone calls and letters. “This is psychologically disturbing, because people do not always know how serious the threat is,” says Uddin. The situation has undoubtedly worsened as extremism and sectarianism have spread, but in the case of Ahmadis, the persecution, which has its basis in discriminatory laws, is state-sanctioned.

Uddin was in Islamabad to hold an informal Q&A session about the vote boycott. One young Ahmadi man, visibly frustrated, argued that the community must take part in the political process if it is to have any chance of bringing change. But the argument always ends with the same point: it is impossible for Ahmadis to participate without effectively renouncing the Prophet Muhammad, which their religion forbids them from doing.

Tentative attempts by President Musharraf to end the practice of separate voter lists in 2002 were shelved after pressure from the religious lobby. I ask Uddin if there is any hope of the situation ever improving. “Religion must stop being the dominant force in politics,” he says.  Given Pakistan’s current political landscape, it does not look like that is happening any time soon.

“It is disappointing that the Ahmadi community feels that they cannot be properly represented in the current electoral process in Pakistan,” says Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International. “This is yet further demonstration of the disenfranchisement of this heavily persecuted community. It looks unlikely the situation will change soon – in fact, it appears to be getting worse."

While the English-language media is cautiously sympathetic to the Ahmadi cause, the Urdu-language press, which has a much, much larger audience, is certainly not. Discriminatory and inflammatory statements are commonplace; “The US is destroying Pakistan through Qadianis” (The Daily Jang, May 2012); “Qadianis are enemies of Islam and agents of Jews” (The Daily Express, May 2012); and “Apostates must be killed. To declare Qadianis as a non-Muslim minority was an act of generosity for them” (The Daily Khabrain, July 2012).

Speaking after the conference, I ask Uddin whether being unable to vote is really the biggest priority for Ahmadis, given the scale of serious, daily persecution they face. “Oh very much so, it’s very important,” he says. His eyes mist up. “I would love to vote. I pay my taxes. I am a Pakistani. So why am I a second class citizen?”

Click here to read more from Samira Shackle on the run up to the general election on 11 May and the place of minority communities in Pakistan