The Azadi March (Freedom March), a protest rally orchestrated by the Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) Chief Fazlur Rehman, took off from Karachi on Sunday with the plan to enter Islamabad on Thursday, October 31.
Rehman’s demonstration targets the incumbent Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, which the JUI-F chief accuses of coming to power owing to “massive rigging.” The rally demands the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
While staging a dharna (sit-in) inside the capital has become a frequent expression of opportunist dissent in the country – popularized by Imran Khan himself with a 126-day siege of the capital in 2014 – the Islamist identity of the demonstrators means that religious minorities are wary of being targeted in the political tussle.
Rehman, the JUI-F chief, also spearheads the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which reunited ahead of last year’s elections to ensure “true Islamization” and enforcement of Sharia in the country.
In the lead-up to the Azadi March, Rehman regularly repeated his accusation of Khan being a “Jewish agent,” citing the Pakistani premier’s meeting with George Soros in New York last month.
The JUI-F leadership has also maintained that their protest rally is “against those who set free” Asia Bibi, a Christian woman acquitted in a blasphemy case. The party leadership protested against her acquittal last year as well.
In using Islamist rhetoric and hate speech against religious minorities to target the political leadership, the JUI-F is following the recent footsteps of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which camped inside the capital for weeks in November 2017 and staged multiple protests last year.
And just as the case was with TLP’s demonstrations, those that fear the worst amidst the JUI-F rally are members of the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
In the lead up to the Azadi March, the JUI-F Karachi Head Qari Usman said on national television that the party is protesting against the government because it “released Christian woman Asia Bibi” and “hired an Ahmadi for the Economic Council,” referring to the appointment of Atif Mian last year, which was annulled following TLP’s announcement of nationwide rallies.
As a result, the Ahmadis are wary of a violent backlash from the protesters, reminiscent of the fallout from TLP’s 2017 rally, which saw edicts of the community being wajib-ul-qatl (liable to be murdered) echoing nationwide in addition to multiple incidents of violence and desecration.
The Ahmadiyya sect of Islam was excommunicated in 1974 by the second amendment to the Pakistani Constitution following years of Islamist unrest, exemplified by the violent demonstrations of 1953. The hatred owes to oft misinterpreted differing theological positions, specifically regarding the Ahmadiyya belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as their messiah.
In 1984, under the Islamist military ruler Gen Zia-ul-Haq the Pakistan Penal Code’s Ordinance XX was passed, sanctioning prison for Ahmadis “posing as Muslims,” along with the death penalty for blasphemy.
“I think all political issues are settled on us – whether it was ’53, ’74, ’84 or now. All political issues, which have nothing to do with us, see us becoming the scapegoats,” says the Ahmadiyya community’s spokesperson, Saleem Uddin.
“Our community’s name is always misused to encourage Muslims to agitate over the issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat [Finality of Prophethood]. Nobody actually ever bothers to ask us about our own beliefs, which are misinterpreted to extract misplaced anger,” Uddin adds.
Observers note that a major reason why the Azadi March is religiously charged is owing to the JUIF’s resistance to the government’s proposed reforms to nationwide madrassas, from which the party extracts much of its street power.
The Ahmadis fear that the government might go out of its way to distance itself from the Ahmadiyya community given the JUI-F’s vocal propensity to label the PTI and Imran Khan as “sympathizers of Jews and Ahmadis,” with conspiracy theorists often labeling the Ahmadiyya community of working at the “behest of Zionists.”
That might explain the national broadcaster, Pakistan Television (PTV), on October 6 airing a six-year old interview of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Shankersinh Vaghela, where he alleged that the Ahmadiyya community was working in tandem with India’s radical Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
“Given the current crisis in Kashmir and the turmoil between Pakistan and India, the timing of that six-year old video is clearly intended to target the community. Ahmadis have never been affiliated with any radical group or terrorist activity throughout history,” says Amir Mehmood, who is in charge of the Ahmadiyya Media Cell.
Vaghela’s statement was condemned by the Indian Ahmadiyya Muslim community at the time. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan has lodged an official complaint with Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), but is yet to receive a response.
In addition to PTV airing Vaghela’s interview from 2013, pro-PTI social media accounts have started sharing fabricated messages written on behalf of the Ahmadiyya leadership, wherein the community members are being asked to join the Azadi March in a bid to discredit the JUI-F’s protest.
With both the government and the protesters looking to scapegoat the Ahmadiyya community for political mileage, the Ahmadis’ increasing vulnerability to violence was underlined when a mosque affiliated with the sect was destroyed in Hasilpur tehsil of Bahawalpur in southern Punjab on October 25.
Hasilpur’s assistant commissioner of police, Mohammad Tayyab, led the destruction of the mosque’s mihrab on Friday, with local clerics deeming that the mihrab, being an Islamic symbol, should not be allowed on an Ahmadi “place of worship.”
Locals reveal that an Islamic cleric in the village, Mohammed Ishaq, had been agitating against the mihrab for the past few months, asking the police to demolish it. The assistant commissioner had initially asked for a wall to be constructed to cover the mihrab, which was then built by the Ahmadiyya community.
But on October 25, the police succumbed to Islamist pressure, using encroachment as an excuse to demolish the mihrab.
An Ahmadi man who asked the police officials for a court order mandating the demolition, and another Ahmadi youth filming the demolition, were arrested by the police under Sections 506 and 186 of the Pakistan Penal Code for “criminal intimidation” and “obstructing public servants.”
With the government acquiescing to the marginalization of the Ahmadiyya community in some instances, and actively participating in the persecution in others, the Ahmadis have long lost any hope in the state safeguarding them.
“Our persecution is state sponsored. The state declared us non-Muslims, the state brought in Ordinance XX against us – and it is the state that subjugates us to settle political disputes,” maintains Saleem Uddin.