LONDON (Reuters) - Perhaps the text messages foreshadowed what was about to happen in Pakistan. One in June telling him his services as a London taxi driver would not be needed. A second in July: “u r qadiani and qadianis are not muslims. They r kaafirs”.
And then a phone call from an anguished relative back home. Police had come to their mosque, the pride of the local Ahmadi community, in the town of Kharian in Pakistan’s Punjab province and torn down its minarets.
“It was a very beautiful mosque,” recalled Munawar Ahmed Khurshid, the imam who laid the first stone when the mosque was built, and who like many Ahmadis has since moved to Britain after Pakistan’s laws turned increasingly hostile to the sect - often known by the derogatory term Qadiani in Pakistan and dismissed as kafir, or infidels.
Begun in 1978 to replace the old mosque where Ahmadis and non-Ahmadis had once prayed together - “We were in such harmony; they prayed on one side and we on the other,” said Khurshid - it was a big Moghul-style, two-storey structure.
It had two large minarets and eight smaller minarets, and everyone in the community - labourers and professionals alike - had worked side-by-side to build it.
Then on July 10, police destroyed the smaller minarets to enforce laws passed by Pakistan’s then military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1984 which forbid Ahmadis from doing anything associated with Islam - backing up with zeal a parliamentary decision from 1974 declaring them non-Muslims.
According to people from the town, the police used Christians - poor men who worked for municipal authorities cleaning the streets and the drains - to deface the Kalima, the fundamental tenet of Islamic faith inscribed in Arabic calligraphy outside the mosque.
And such is the intimacy between Pakistan and its 1.2 million-strong diaspora in Britain that not only did the Ahmadi community in London learn the details from their families before it was reported in the media, they have seen the echoes of the same persecution here.
Or more strangely, a foreshadowing.
Hence the texts to the taxi driver - whose name has been withheld for security reasons - who broke off from a conversation about events in Pakistan to bring out his phone to show the messages he received in London.
Qadiani is an insult which deprives Ahmadis of a description associated with Islam. It is based on the name of the town in what is now Indian Punjab where the sect’s founder began the reformist movement in 19th century British India.
The term kafir, or infidel, has been most powerfully associated with the takfiri tradition of al Qaeda in deciding who should be accepted as Muslims, fuelling violence among Islam’s many sects in Pakistan and elsewhere.
In Pakistan, the Ahmadis have become particularly vulnerable since 1984. In May 2010, at least 86 people were killed in militant attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Punjab’s capital Lahore. Every month or so in Pakistan, Ahmadis are killed in ones or twos - sometimes stabbed, sometimes shot.
In Britain, which the spiritual leader of the sect has made his home, there have been, as yet, no deaths.
Yet the threat is there in the text messages. It is there in the boycott of a butcher because people are told his meat is not halal even though it comes from the same slaughterhouse as that sold by non-Ahmadi butchers. It is there in leaflets distributed quietly in London declaring that Ahmadis are “wajib ul qatl” - worthy of death.
THROUGH A DISTORTED MIRROR
The social pressures behind challenges to Ahmadis are not the same in Pakistan and Britain but the impact is similar.
In Pakistan, the Ahmadi question was more than a sectarian rift; it was also about competition for economic and political power - the community was hard-working, close-knit, often well-off and in the past, politically influential.
They were an easy target for right-wing religious parties in anti-Ahmadi protests in 1953 - violence which led to Pakistan’s first imposition of martial law in Lahore.
Their targeting was also the first to reveal the faultlines between Pakistan’s many sects which has made it so hard for the country to find a common identity in Islam.
Since the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in 1974, fresh rifts have developed, with Shias targeted as infidels and fighting even between different Sunni sects. It is a splintering which is finding its way into the diaspora.
In Pakistan, sectarianism flourished particularly in Punjab province, original home of the Ahmadis, where a permissive attitude to Islamist militancy has made it - far more so than the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - the real centre of gravity for the country’s many religious and ethnic divides.
Many Ahmadis came to Britain along with their spiritual leader - leaving behind an estimated four to five million who either chose to stay or could not afford to leave. They were followed.
The Khatme Nubuwwat, an organisation set up in Pakistan to counter the Ahmadis and prevent them from proselytising, established a presence in Britain.
Its activities are often under the radar in Britain, where laws against inciting religious hatred can be difficult to enforce without clear proof of intent.
Thus the Khatme Nubuwwat has been able to quietly hand out leaflets declaring Ahmadis worthy of death on the grounds that they insult the Prophet Mohammed by appearing to question whether he was, as Muslims believe, the last prophet. Ahmadis dispute this interpretation.
More recently, according to the Ahmadi community in London, the Khatme Nubuwwat had produced new leaflets, handed out at market stalls on London high streets.
These are carefully argued seven-page texts stamped with addresses of the Khatme Nubuwwat in London and Lahore which mix social commentary with theology to declare that Ahmadis - people “who have established their colony near London” - deserve capital punishment under Islamic law.
The texts - written in the confident language of those claiming to be religious scholars - skirt around UK laws by arguing Ahmadis should not be killed within Britain itself.
“To administer capital punishment is the right of an Islamic state. If there is no Islamic state, individuals cannot and should not administer this punishment,” one leaflet reads. “Then what can be done at individual level? We should boycott them. We should not establish social ties with them.”
NO COURT ORDER
The Ahmadis noticed the appearance of the leaflets early this year.
Meanwhile back home in Pakistan, local mullahs and right-wing religious parties had begun to agitate against the mosque in Kharian. The Ahmadis refused to take down their minarets - they dispute a version of events, cited in the Pakistani press, that the destruction had been carried out by mutual agreement.
The police took action, they say, without even waiting for a court order.
“Here it is clear there is no court order,” said Naseer Dean, Regional Amir London of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK. “The worry is that we have moved from having a state where they used some kind of legality to persecute the community; now it is a free-for-all. There is no protection for Ahmadis at all.”
The anguished phone calls began - the detail recounted not so much in Pakistan but in London - while at home in Kharian came a few quiet expressions of regret.
Some of the Christians who had grown up in the same area had come to apologise, said one of the relatives in London. “They were forced to do it.” So too did one of the policemen - also a local man - who blamed the destruction of the minarets on pressure from outsiders.
Whatever regret was expressed remained quiet. In a country where leading politicians have been killed for challenging Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, few dare speak out to defend Ahmadis.
Even the more liberal English-language media is afraid to describe them as Muslims or their place of worship as a “masjid” or mosque for fear of retribution.
But everyone is speaking out in London, on both sides of the sectarian divide, with campaigns in Britain quietly influencing events in Pakistan just as the rifts seep back into the diaspora.
In another leaflet the Khatme Nubuwwat is emphatic that it is the duty of all Muslims to challenge the Ahmadis. It ends with an appeal to well-off British Pakistanis to send funds to a bank account in Lahore.
Editing by Pravin Char
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