Indeed, the systematic persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan is Exhibit A in the case that religious intolerance can fatally weaken liberal democracy. The State Department’s annual report concerning Pakistan, which makes mention of Ahmadi Muslims on 101 occasions, details what can only be described as religio-political apartheid directed at Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. Not only are members of the community expressly declared non-Muslims under the constitution and the subject of specific anti-Ahmadi provisions in Pakistan’s penal code (commonly referred to as the “blasphemy laws”), but they are also denied the most basic right in a democracy - the right to vote - through a series of extraordinary legal provisions.
From 1947 until 1978, all Pakistanis had an equal vote irrespective of creed. But in 1977, the military dictator Zia ul Haq took power, and the following year, he decreed that non-Muslims would have to register on separate “non-Muslim” electoral rolls. Apart from disenfranchising non-Muslims who did not want to be segregated in that manner, the decree was specifically targeted against Ahmadi Muslims because it would force them to disavow their Muslim identity by registering as “non-Muslims” on the electoral rolls. Naturally, Ahmadi Muslims, forced into a Hobson’s choice that would require them to declare themselves non-Muslims regardless of which option they chose, have had to sit out national, state and local elections.
The separate electorate system for Muslims and non-Muslims remained in place even after Pakistan returned to a democratic form of government. Ironically, Pervez Musharraf, yet another military dictator of a more liberal bent than Zia, issued an executive order calling for its elimination in 2002. President Musharraf was duly hailed as a benevolent despot for restoring the rights of non-Muslims and Ahmadis, but the true extent of the power of Pakistan’s religious extremist element became apparent when, within a matter of months, he was forced to reverse course.
While continuing to allow non-Muslims to cast their votes alongside Muslims in a joint electorate, subsequent amendments to Musharraf’s original Order specifically stated that the “status of Ahmadis [was] … to remain unchanged.” As a result, Ahmadi Muslims presently are the only religious community in Pakistan who cannot freely vote.
This system of religious segregation at the voting booths is enforced through national identity cards that require each individual to list their confessional creed, and anyone wishing to be listed as a Muslim must denounce the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s founder - Mirza Ghulam Ahmad - as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim.
Pakistan’s apartheid regime is not only a human rights travesty, but also a national tragedy since Ahmadi Muslims are considered to be among Pakistan’s most literate and educated citizenry (notably, the country’s only Nobel Laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam, was an Ahmadi Muslim - having ignored his achievements during his life, the Pakistani state ordered that the word “Muslim” be effaced from his gravestone).
Since Musharraf backtracked on the issue of voting rights for Ahmadis in 2002, Pakistan has been graced with yet another democratic government, this time led by Asif Zardari. And yet, there has been no public discussion regarding the re-enfranchisement of Ahmadis, and the religious parties have consistently blocked any attempts to amend the constitution to remove the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims. It bears noting that Mr. Zardari’s father-in-law, the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was responsible for the enactment of that declaration into the constitution.
There can be no doubt that something is rotten in the state of Pakistan. Secretary Clinton’s remarks provide an astute diagnosis: state-sanctioned religious intolerance lies at the very heart of Pakistan’s problems, and there is nothing that the extremists are more willing to fight to preserve than the apartheid regime enforced upon Ahmadi Muslims by the Pakistani state. These extremists include not only the terrorists but also their fellow travelers, such as the Jamat-e-Islami, a political party which has made the anti-Ahmadi cause its raison d’etre.
Thus, the true test of Pakistan’s mettle will be if it can stand up and finally rid itself of the ugly stain of religious persecution and once again be counted among the community of free and democratic nations. And President Zardari can demonstrate that he is committed to that goal by signing an executive order re-enfranchising Ahmadis. And it is incumbent upon the United States, along with the wider international community, to match its rhetoric with action in pressing for equal voting rights for Ahmadis.
N. Mahmood Ahmad is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. Amjad Mahmood Khan, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is national director of public affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
By N. Mahmood Ahmad and Amjad Mahmood Khan | January 19, 2011; 1:30 PM ET