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.

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

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot