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Pakistan sect endures persecution

No Pakistani minority is as victimized as the country's 4 million Ahmadis, who believe in Islam but are viewed by the rest of the country as heretics. There are even legal restrictions on them.

By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

2:39 PM PDT, July 6, 2010

Reporting from Faisalabad, Pakistan

Rifles slung over their shoulders, the guards pacing in front of Naeem Masood's fabric shop glower at anyone who walks by. It's not thieves or vandals that Masood is worried about. He needs protection from assassins.

In April, the 29-year-old boyish-faced Pakistani found his father, brother and uncle slumped over in the seats of their car, their faces and chests riddled with more than 60 bullets. All of them were dead, victims of what Ahmadis in their Faisalabad enclave say was a deadly warning from extremists: Renounce your sect or leave the city.

No Pakistani minority is as victimized as the country's 4 million Ahmadis, who believe in Islam but are viewed by the rest of the country as heretics. Because they revere another prophet as well as the prophet Muhammad, the Pakistani government has declared Ahmadis "non-Muslims," made it a crime for members to refer to their places of worship as mosques and even barred them from extending the common Muslim greeting, salaam aleykum.

The Ahmadi community's vulnerability was evident May 28, when Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, and killed more than 90 people caught in a maelstrom of gunfire, grenades and suicide bombings.

Though Pakistan is a multiethnic and multilingual society, it has a long history of marginalizing minority groups. Shiite Muslims have been the target of radical Sunni Muslim groups for years. Last year, in the central Punjab city of Gojra, a mob of 1,000 angry Muslims set more than 40 Christian homes ablaze, killing seven people.

The plight of the Ahmadi community, however, provides a window onto the intolerance that permeates Pakistani society. Ahmadis say the risk they face is heightened by the fact that, in a society where hard-line religious parties wield unchallenged clout, they are viewed as traitors to Islam.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims but believe that their late-19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet of God, a belief viewed as heresy by Pakistani Muslims who regard Muhammad as Islam's final prophet.

The sect's marginalization was set into motion in 1974 when Pakistan's parliament enacted the law branding Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The crackdown on the Ahmadis intensified in the 1980s during the rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who ordered a maximum three-year prison term for any Ahmadi who called himself a Muslim, carried out the Muslim call to prayer or referred to an Ahmadi place of worship as a mosque.

"As a result of Zia's decrees, the state facilitated the mullahs who were already against us," said Syed Mehmood, spokesman for the Ahmadi community in Faisalabad. "That's when the persecution started. Hundreds of Ahmadis were jailed just because they said Salaam aleykum."

Mehmood said the persecution continues today, forcing Ahmadis in Faisalabad to find creative ways to survive. As a result of the killings of the three Ahmadi businessmen in April, along with recent kidnappings and other acts of violence against Ahmadis, community members routinely change their routes to and from home, vary the time of day they arrive and leave work, and lie when asked on the phone about their whereabouts. Many of them have put their social lives — going to parties, meeting friends for lunch or tea — on hold.

At Zaheer Malik's Toyota dealership, a gleaming glass and silver-paneled building out of place amid the cinder-block merchant stalls on the outskirts of Faisalabad, tall, broad-shouldered armed guards stand watch in the parking lot as well as at the foot of the stairs leading to Malik's second-floor office.

Malik, a wealthy Pakistani Ahmadi in his mid-30s, says he has received several threats recently, including one in May in which a man came to the showroom and urged his driver to quit. "They told him, 'Your boss is not a Muslim and we might do something to him,' " Malik said. " 'It'll be better if you leave the job. We don't want you to die with him.'

"For last the month, I can't go to the gym, I can't go anywhere to have dinner, can't go to parties, I just stay home," Malik said. "Every day I'm changing schedules, changing cars. Every day I'm telling someone I'm in Lahore when I'm really in Faisalabad, or I'm in Dubai when I'm actually in Karachi."

Omar Ahmed, 27, keeps a pistol with him at all times and stations armed guards outside his jewelry store. Ahmed took over the shop after his father, Ashraf Pervaiz, was killed in the same hail of bullets that killed Masood's father, Masood Javed, and his brother, Asif Masood. Ahmed says that if he could leave Pakistan, he would. But his predicament is the same as Naeem Masood's: As elder sons, they have to stay for the sake of their families and the family businesses.

"We're in a battlefield every day," Ahmed said. "We have to live with the fact that we are Ahmadis."

Ahmadis say they don't expect much help from city police, who they say have shown little interest in solving crimes committed against their community. Masood said he recently visited police headquarters to ask whether investigators had made any progress finding the killers of his father, brother and uncle.

"They said, 'You tell us the names of the gunmen, and we will go and capture them,' " Masood said.

Rao Sardar, a top Faisalabad police official, said it's not a question of police indifference but a simple matter of manpower. The Faisalabad district has a police force of 7,000 officers charged with securing a population of 8 million, he said.

"That's a very low ratio, and that's the problem," Sardar said. "We're doing all we can do."

Ahmadis say police indifference is only part of the problem. Laws that brand Ahmadis, a minority regarded elsewhere in the world as a Muslim sect, as non-Muslims only serve to breed intolerance within Pakistani society, large segments of which are illiterate and easily swayed by radical imams and the country's powerful patchwork of religious parties.

A neighborhood's lack of reaction to an act of persecution against an Ahmadi often provides an example of that intolerance. A year ago, Laeeq Ahmed was driving home from work when, a few hundred yards from his house, gunmen sprayed his car with bullets. Ahmed's wife, Nuzhat Laeeq, rushed to her husband, who was still alive but unconscious, and pleaded with bystanders to help. The crowd ignored her, she said.

Ahmed died the next day in a hospital. Later, witnesses of the slaying described to Laeeq what had happened, how the gunmen had celebrated afterward by chanting, "We have killed an infidel!" Despite the presence of witnesses, however, the crime remains unsolved.

"We believe that the government, its legal system and the people here won't help us," Laeeq said, speaking in a hushed, quavering voice behind a black veil. "The police won't give us any kind of investigation. We have left our fate, and this case, up to God."