Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari championed a “moderate, modern and loving Islam” in a stirring speech at the United Nations on Thursday. “Islam is tolerant of other religions and cultures and internally tolerant of dissent,” he told a packed audience of world leaders attending the interfaith conference. And he forcefully asserted that he, like his late wife former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, believes that the basic dignity of human beings “must be universally recognized and respected”–that, indeed, “There is nothing more un-Islamic than discrimination … [and] terrorism.”
It’s a lovely picture, and one that accurately represents the Muslim faith I profess. Unfortunately, it does not represent the Pakistan that Mr. Zardari now leads.
It’s not Mr. Zardari’s words that are the problem; rather, it’s the actions of his government that for decades has institutionally discriminated against religious minorities. This discrimination has, at best, led to disenfranchisement and religious persecution; at worst, to violence of the ugliest kind. If Americans expect Pakistan to be an ally in our war against religious extremism and terror, we need better.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which numbers in the tens of millions, has suffered the brunt of this persecution in Pakistan. While Ahmadi Muslims believe in all the tenets of Islam, there is one major difference between us and mainstream Muslims: Our belief that God sent a messenger in the 19th Century to reform Islam for the modern age. And that singular point is what has made our community the subject of something so “un-Islamic” as discrimination.
I don’t believe the “basic dignity” of my paternal uncle, an attorney and prominent advocate of our faith community, was recognized when he was gunned down inside his home in Sargodha, Pakistan, in August 2004. His death was a result of his affiliation with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, but his assassins were never brought to justice. And I don’t believe the basic dignity of Dr. Abdul Mannan Sidiqqui, an American citizen and Ahmadi Muslim who returned to Pakistan to run a clinic serving needy patients in his native Sindh province, was recognized when he was murdered this September, just two days after a prominent Pakistani television host declared Ahmadi Muslims “worthy of death” on national television.
These indignities would perhaps be easier to stomach if they could be swept aside as the actions of a few extremists beyond the fray. Unfortunately, the institutionalized persecution of Ahmadi Muslims dates back to 1974, when, under the leadership of then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani constitution was amended to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Four years later, Ahmadis were “for all practical purposes barred from voting,” according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, when a series of laws created a separate electorate system for non-Muslims. In 1984, the Pakistani constitution was amended once again, prohibiting Ahmadi Muslims from professing their faith publicly, building mosques, making the call for Muslim prayers, using Islamic language and more–effectively turning any public act of worship by Ahmadis into a criminal offense punishable by death. Officially, Ahmadi Muslims cannot name their children Muhammad or utter the word “Salam.”
For years, organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State have documented these injustices and have called upon Pakistan to reverse its ugly discrimination. In fact, the State department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report stated the Ahmadiyya community continued to face governmental and societal discrimination and legal bars to the practice of its religious beliefs. But nothing has changed. Today, as the United States continues to work with Pakistan in the war on terror, it’s hard to believe that such a country can serve as a credible partner. Until such persecution–gleefully championed by the mullahs who seek to destroy the United States and its allies–is unambiguously stamped out at the federal level in Pakistan, how can we expect the country to rein in its extremist factions?
During Ms. Bhutto’s two stints in office, she was unable to stand up to religious extremists in Pakistan and did nothing to repeal the discriminatory laws against Ahmadi Muslims. While her husband’s rhetoric on Thursday was a step in the right direction, it rings hollow. If Mr. Zardari really wants to be an example of Muslim tolerance, he needs to repeal the amendments and ordinances in the Pakistani constitution that disenfranchise millions of voters and ban religious freedom for an entire population. Ironically, at the end of his speech, Mr. Zardari said “Injustice and discrimination on the mere basis of one’s faith must be discouraged–not only in words but through meaningful actions.” Here’s hoping he finds the courage to follow his own advice.
Ismat Sarah Mangla is a reporter at Money magazine, where she writes about banking and credit. She is also the founder of Nirali, an online magazine for South Asians in the West. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Ismat lives in New York City.