The killing last year of a Glasgow shopkeeper highlighted divisions around this Islamic sect, and the discrimination it faces across the globe.
On the outer edges of the town of Rabwah, Pakistan, a group of mourners gathers for the last rites of Malik Saleem Latif. An Ahmadi Muslim, Latif was gunned down the previous day in a religiously motivated killing claimed by jihadi group Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). He was one of four Ahmadis killed over a five-week period between March and May 2017 in various targeted attacks.
Latif was the cousin of Professor Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has become a symbol of the Ahmadiyya movement in Pakistan. In December 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government renamed the National Centre for Physics at Qaid-i-Azam University after Salam. On the same day the announcement was made, police carried out an unauthorised raid at the headquarters of the Pakistani Ahmadi Muslim Community, which numbers between 250,000-400,000. Four of its members were arrested on charges of spreading "hate speech." One of the accusations was excessive use of Quranic verses and hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) in publications meant for community use. These incidents, along with the 2017 killings, paint a picture of the kind of persecution the community has faced.
The Ahmadi Muslim Community was founded in the late 19th century in British-controlled India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in the town of Qadian, Punjab. Ahmad claimed to be the 'Promised Messiah' and 'Imam Mahdi' awaited by the Muslim world and, in this capacity, a prophet of God. This contradicts the mainstream Islamic belief that Mohammad is the last Prophet. Ahmad believed Jesus was crucified and survived, later dying of natural causes, and that he was buried in Kashmir under the name Yuz Asaf. He forbid jihad against the British on the grounds that they afforded full religious freedom to their citizens. His teachings were anathema to orthodox Muslims who declared him an apostate and an agent of the British Raj.
Ahmadis have faced persecution since their formation. Before partition they were harassed, ostracised, and even murdered for their perceived heresy. Since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the community has faced a series of oppressive measures. In the early years, groups like Majlis Ahrar called for Ahmadis to be expelled from the wider Muslim body and removed from government posts, leading to the provincial riots of 1953. The issue flared up again in 1974 when the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto legally defined Ahmadis as non-Muslims through the second constitutional amendment. A decade later, military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq went even further by promulgating Ordinance 20, which added specific laws against Ahmadis to the Pakistan Penal Code. Ahmadis were forbidden from using the common greeting of asslamu alaikum or other Islamic terms, from preaching or propagating their faith, or from 'posing' as Muslims under threat of a three-year prison sentence or fine.
Anti-Ahmadi attitudes can be found across all sections of Pakistani society, and have led to acts of religious intolerance and extremism. Since 1984, 260 Ahmadis have been killed for their faith and more than 320 have been victims of attempted murder; 27 Ahmadi mosques have been demolished; and 21 have been set on fire or damaged, often in mob attacks. Ahmadi graves are also routinely desecrated. The bodies of 54 Ahmadis have been exhumed after their burial and, on 39 occasions, Ahmadis have been denied burial in public cemeteries. The worst of the atrocities was in 2010, when 86 worshippers were killed during an assault on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore. It remains one of the deadliest terror attacks to have hit that city.
Elsewhere, Ahmadis have found themselves caught in the crossfire as governments in Muslim-majority countries face rising fundamentalism. In 2005, Indonesia's leading Islamic body issued a fatwa declaring Ahmadis a 'deviant' sect of Islam. A 2008 law imposed restrictions on them from spreading their faith. This was followed by various provincial legislative measures. Most notably, in 2011, the governments of East and West Java banned the 'activities' of Ahmadis. This week, a rights group said Ahmadis issued a complaint that a local government had breached their human rights by refusing to issue them state ID cards unless they renounce their beliefs.
Following a similar pattern to Pakistan, Indonesia has seen violence against Ahmadis along with the delegitimisation of the group based on their religious beliefs. In 2011, Indonesians were left reeling when chilling mobile phone footage showed the lynching of three Ahmadis in the village of Banten. In the footage, young men took turns to hit the bodies of the victims as police stood by and watched.
Other countries to have enacted regulatory measures against the sect are Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Gambia, and Algeria. In Algeria, the government recently undertook a string of mass arrests and detentions on the grounds that Ahmadis posed a threat to national security. Algeria's Minister of Religious Affairs Mohammed Aissa has claimed the arrests were for criminal offences and not because of Ahmadi beliefs. However, other leading political figures have publically stated that the Ahmadi Muslim Community does not belong in the country.
In May in Bangladesh, an Ahmadi missionary was left critically injured when three men stormed a mosque in Khanpur and attacked him with a cleaver. In 2015, a suicide bomber attacked another village mosque belonging to the group, wounding three worshippers.
There have also been incidents of anti-Ahmadi violence in the West, with attitudes imported via diaspora communities. In March 2016, in the UK, where there are estimated to be some 20,000 Ahmadis, Ahmadi shopkeeper Asad Shah was murdered in Glasgow. His killer, Tanwir Ahmad, had driven from Bradford after taking offence at one of Shah's Facebook posts.
In wake of the killing, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) issued a statement expressing condolences. While urging "Muslims to be sensitive, and above all, respect all people irrespective of belief or background" the MCB also stated that "Muslims should not be forced to class Ahmadis as Muslims if they do not wish to do so," highlighting the divisions around the movement. Later, a BBC investigation found leaflets in a south London mosque calling for Ahmadis to be killed if they refuse to convert to orthodox Islam. The mosque has been linked with the Pakistani Khatme Nabuwwat (Finality of Prophethood) movement, founded in the 1930 in opposition to the Ahmadi Community.
The community itself adheres to a policy of zero-retaliation or protest in accordance with its understanding of Islam. Responding to the 2014 arson attack on an Ahmadi home in Pakistan, which left three people dead including a seven-month old baby, the current spiritual head and caliph of the community said: "We should not let our prayers lessen. While other Muslims respond to persecution aggressively to get even, our way is to turn to God in our grief and thus settle it."
Hostility towards Ahmadis in the Muslim world has direct implications not only for Ahmadis themselves, but wider social cohesion and harmony within Muslim communities, and beyond. Overcoming the normalisation and spread of anti-Ahmadi hatred needs to be recognised as a prerequisite in the struggle to curb Islamist extremism.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics.