I often find myself defending Pakistan against the unbidden prejudices of the outside world. No, Islam is not the cause of terrorism. Yes, the Taliban is a complex phenomenon. No, Imran Khan is not a major political figure.
This past week, though, I am silent. The massacre of 94 members of the minority Ahmadi community on May 28 has exposed something ugly at the heart of Pakistan – its laws, its rulers, its society.
It’s not the violence that disturbs most, gut-churning as it was. During Friday prayers two teams of attackers stormed Ahmadi mosques in the eastern city of Lahore. They fired Kalashnikovs from minarets, chucked grenades into the crowds, exploded their suicide vests.
As the massacre unfolded, a friend called – his father-in-law, a devout Ahmadi, was inside one of the besieged mosques. The family, glued to live television coverage, were sick with worry.
Two hours later, my friend’s relative emerged alive. But many of his friends – old men, including a retired general and former judge – were dead.
The killers were quickly identified as “Punjabi Taliban” – a loose collective of local extremists with ties to the tribal belt. This was unsurprising. More dispiriting, however, was the wider reaction.
Human rights groups reacted with pre-programmed outrage; otherwise there was a virtual conspiracy of silence. A dribble of protestors attended street protests against the attack in Lahore and Karachi; eleven people showed up in Islamabad.
The normally vociferous media were unusually reticent. Commentators expressed dismay at the violence, but few dared voice support for the Ahmadi community itself. Politicians turned yellow.
Few visited the bereaved; still today, the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, has not visited the bullet-pocked mosques or offered compensation to the injured.
In the national parliament, three brave female MPs crossed party lines to propose a resolution condemning the attacks, in the face of massive indifference. The motion passed, just.
The reticence is rooted in law and history. Ahmadis believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century Punjabi cleric, was the messiah sent by God – a notion that deeply offends orthodox Muslims for whom Muhammad (P.B.U.H), who lived in 7th-century Arabia, is the final prophet.
The problem is that the state has taken sides in this religious argument. Since the 1970s, civilian and military governments have passed laws enshrining the discrimination against Ahmadis, today thought to number about 4 million in Pakistan.
And so they live in the shadows of society. Under the law, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims and may not refer to their places of worship as “mosques”. Orthodox Muslims applying for a passport must sign a statement deriding Ahmad as an “imposter”.
Any Ahmadi who defies these edicts can be sentenced to death; in 2009, 37 were charged under the blasphemy laws and 57 under Ahmadi-specific laws.
This state-directed discrimination has caused prejudice to soak into the bones of even well-educated Pakistanis. It is acceptable to denigrate Ahmadis as “agents of foreign powers” such as the CIA and Raw, India’s intelligence service.
In 2008 a prominent preacher on Geo, the country’s largest channel, suggested that right-minded Muslims should kill Ahmadis. Within 48 hours two Ahmadis had been lynched. The television presenter has prospered.
Last year a banner appeared outside the high court in Lahore, declaring “Jews, Christians and Ahmadis are enemies of Islam”. Few complained.
The silence that followed the Ahmadi killings was broken last week by a tsunami of outrage at the Israeli commando raids on boats headed for Gaza. Commentators and politicians fulminated at the treatment of the Palestinians – a minority that suffers state-sanctioned, religiously driven discrimination. Nobody got the irony.
It makes one realise how small the constituency of true liberals is in Pakistan – not Pervez Musharraf-style liberals, who drink whisky and attend fashion shows, but people who believe the state should cherish all citizens equally. That, after all, was the publicly expressed desire of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, 63 years ago. Today it lies in tatters.
Monday 7 June 2010