Some years ago I travelled to Pakistan to make a set of images about religious persecution. I lasted only a few days – for the first time in my career, I left a story because I honestly felt that my presence was putting lives at risk.
I had been invited to Rabwah, the spiritual home of the Ahmadiyya community, a peaceful minority Islamic movement that questions the finality of the Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is the only country to classify Ahmadiyya’s as non-Muslims.
In 1984 General Zia issued Ordinace XX supposedly to prevent “anti-Islamic activities”. It forbids Ahmadiyya’s to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques and worship publicly. It forbids them from quoting from the Koran, preaching in public, seeking converts, or producing, publishing, and disseminating their religious materials. To gain a passport, all Pakistanis must declare themselves non-Ahmadiyyas.
The repression is of course a smokescreen to hide Pakistan’s myriad social and political problems and the Ahmaidiyyas are a perfect scapegoat. This is not about religion, it’s about state power. As Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books in 2007:
“Back in the heart of Pakistan the most difficult and explosive issue remains social and economic inequality. This is not unrelated to the increase in the number of madrassas. If there were a half-decent state education system, poor families might not feel the need to hand over a son or daughter to the clerics in the hope that at least one child will be clothed, fed and educated. Were there even the semblance of a health system many would be saved from illnesses contracted as a result of fatigue and poverty. No government since 1947 has done much to reduce inequality”.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch told the BBC the worshippers were “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who consider the Ahmadis to be infidels. The Pakistani state is in trouble however and Ahmadiyyas are not the only minority to suffer persecution. According to Minority Rights, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Christians all suffer.
Today, I read with interest an opinion piece in Dawn by Moshin Hamid (an author whose Moth Smoke I read and enjoyed some time ago) called Fear and Silence from which I take the liberty of quoting from at length. I think it elegantly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous (attributed) quote “First they came for the Jews…”. Hamid says:
“Because the heart of the issue isn’t whether Ahmadis are non-Muslims or not. The heart of the issue is whether Muslims can be silenced by fear.
Because if we can be silenced when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.
That is the point. ”
One can only hope that all people of tolerance and faith will not be silenced.