Pakistan’s ‘Separate But Equal’ Elections
Originally published in Huffington Post
On May 11, the world’s second most populous Muslim country, Pakistan, marked a historic election. The country’s 66-year history is marred by the presence of martial laws and never before has one elected government replaced another. As Pakistanis rushed to the polling stations to cast their vote, more than 4 million people sat home, separated and disenfranchised.
They were the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a peaceful sect within Islam, who are the victims of this “separate but equal” electorate in Pakistan; a system rooted in religious discrimination.
Since the inception of Pakistan in 1947 to up until 1984, all Pakistanis voted on a joint electorate. Then Ahmadis were separated from the mainstream in 1974 when Z. A. Bhutto appeased the clerics by constitutionally declaring them “not Muslims.” A decade later, Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator, issued Ordinance XX, further silencing the Ahmadis who could then be imprisoned for up to three years for simply using Islamic terminologylike “Assalamu alaikum,” meaning “peace be upon you.”
In 1985, as a step toward pseudo-Islamization of the nation, Zia imposed a separate electorate for all religious minorities, including the Ahmadis, who were required to declare themselves non-Muslims in order to gain the limited right to vote for only the 5 percent minority seats of National Assembly.
Ahmadis saw such a self-declaration as a dissociation with Prophet Muhammad. “That’s too high a price to pay for our fundamental right to vote,” they said and sat out during the next election.
In 2001, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIR) called for an end to anti-Ahmadi discrimination in Pakistan. As the diplomatic pressure mounted, General Pervaiz Musharraf, proposed a joint electorate in January 2002. Millions of Ahmadis — including members of my family — were overjoyed at the prospects of enjoying equal voting rights but then came the religious hardliners, questioning the general’s loyalty to his faith. Musharraf caved into the demands, allowing the Christian, Hindu and other minorities to vote on the joint electorate, but created a supplementary voter list only for the Ahmadis.
In the May 11 elections, all Pakistani voters were required to check off their religion on Form 2 (Annex IV). Christians, Hindus and other minorities could simply check their respective box and vote. But Muslim voters were also made to sign a declaration on the reverse side of the form, rejecting the founder of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a false prophet. Ahmadis were left with only one option: self declare themselves non-Muslims by using the supplemental voting sheet.
That was a no-go scenario for a community that calls itself the renaissance of Islam.
Ahmadis are fully aware of the facts and the consequences. During the 2008 elections, the victory margin in 88 out of the 272 national constituencies was less than 10,000 votes. Early reports indicate similar tight margins in over 75 national assembly seats in this year’s elections too. The Ahmadi voting bloc could have been decisive in such races. By protesting against this “separate but equal” system Ahmadis brace for a further squeeze by politicians who see no electoral incentive in protecting their human rights.
Yet, some do stand up for justice. In April 2013, 33 members of the U.S. Congress signed ajoint letter to the Secretary of State John Kerry regarding the denial of Ahmadi voting rights in Pakistan. They indicated that if Pakistani Ahmadis are not included in the joint electorate they will not be able to endorse the results of May 11 elections.
Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who live in the United States and maintained their Pakistani citizenship had a right to vote in May 11 elections as overseas citizens. I call upon their conscience to renounce Pakistan’s “separate but equal” electorate by demanding a new presidential order. Unless that happens, the claim of a fair or historic election is a sham.