Persecution of the Ahmadiyya Community in Pakistan: An Analysis Under International Law and International Relations



Before September 11, 2001, the United States characterized the Pakistani government as an unstable regime with a tarnished history of corrupt dictators, military coups, and territorial violence along its borders. *1 Following the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, Pakistan became a leading partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, thrust into a position to bring “international criminals” to justice and to act as a hero for the “civilized” world.*2 Indeed, one of the lessons of September 11 is that exigencies often spur credulity. U.S. concerns with Pakistan’s human rights problems lost significance once Pakistan agreed to stand with the United States against terrorism.

Pakistan’s leaders saw September 11 as an opportunity to gain redemption. Blasted in the past for conducting nuclear testing, suspending its Constitution, and breeding Islamists, Pakistan, post-September 11, was in an excellent position to curry favor with its critics by suffocating terrorist networks. Seizing upon this opportunity, President Pervez Musharraf led a fight against militant Islam. This shift in Pakistan’s priorities resulted in a decrease in attention paid to the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan, once a recognized problem of serious internationalconcern. *3 The two issues of human rights and terrorism were treated as unconnected, without the slightest suggestion that addressing the former would be helpful in addressing the latter.

The problem of Pakistan’s treatment of its religious minorities once again merits consideration. Pakistan’s Penal Code carries specific provisions criminalizing behavior considered blasphemous to Islam. Apart from stifling religious freedom for non-Muslims, these provisions also target a particular group of minority Muslims that the Sunni Muslim majority deems heretical to Islam, namely members of the Ahmadiyya Community, a Muslim group of roughly four million adherents in Pakistan that has always considered itself as belonging to the Muslim ummah (or larger “community of Muslims”). The fundamental difference between Ahmadis and the Sunni Muslim majority concerns the identity of the Promised Messiah, the reformer that the Prophet Muhammad foretold would appear after him. *4Doctrinal interpretations peculiar to Ahmadis were deemed sufficient to place them outside the pale of Islam by the religious orthodoxy.*5

For over five decades, Ahmadis have endured senseless persecution. Their mosques have been burned, their graves desecrated, and their very existence criminalized. According to a 2002 United States State Department report, since 1999 316 Ahmadis have been formally charged in criminal cases (including blasphemy) owing to their religion. *6 Between 1999 – 2001, at least twenty-four Ahmadis were charged with blasphemy; if convicted, they could be sentenced to life imprisonment or death. *7 The offenses charged included wearing an Islamic slogan on a shirt, planning to build an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore, and distributing Ahmadi literature in a public square. *8

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and yet their persecution is wholly legal, even encouraged, by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and its leadership. As a result, thousands of Ahmadis have fled the country to seek asylum abroad. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the problem and the pressing need for action, the United States House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution in February 2002 urging Pakistan to repeal both the anti-blasphemy provisions in its Penal Code as well as the second amendment in its constitution, which declares Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. *9

This Article undertakes a legal analysis of the problem of persecution towards religious minorities in Pakistan. Surveying the rise of religious persecution towards the Ahmadiyya Community–including its gradual legalization–this Article makes a positive case for the repeal of the anti-blasphemy provisions in Pakistan’s Penal Code. Part II explores the background and history of the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan with emphasis on the legal entrenchment of the anti-blasphemy provisions in Pakistan’s Penal Code. Special emphasis is placed on Pakistan’s state practice with respect to the protection of religious minorities, illustrating the striking slide from its initial high regard for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to its current defiance of emerging international norms with respect to religious liberty. Parts III and IV survey the way in which Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy provisions violate both international law and prevailing international norms of religious liberty. Part V puts forth the competing policy paradigms for and against the repeal of the anti-blasphemy provisions. Finally, Part VI concludes with recommendations on how best to synthesize the policy paradigms and present a solution that is viable to both Pakistani and U.S. interests.

Two main issues underlie the following analysis: (1) whether Pakistan has violated international covenants and customary law in promulgating the anti-blasphemy provisions in its Penal Code; and (2) whether the international community can intervene on behalf of Ahmadis in Pakistan, given that the majority of Pakistan’s people seem to favor the anti-blasphemy provisions currently in place. This Article concludes that both questions can be answered in the affirmative, and that addressing the situation of the Ahmadis through international law can enable the United States and other Western democracies to uproot militant Islam in Pakistan more effectively.


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About the author

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Amjad Mahmood Khan

An attorney by profession, Khan is National Director of Public Affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

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