Ahmadis Disenfranchised from Pakistan’s Elections

Originally published in ILLUME Magazine in May 2013

This year’s general elections in Pakistan marks a turning point as its elected government completes its five-year constitutional term for the first time in its country’s history, allowing for its first civilian to civilian transfer of power. However, on election day members of the Ahmadiyya community will be sitting at home, unable to cast their votes to take part in this historic moment.

Discriminatory laws implemented under General Zia-al-Haq have alienated the Ahmadiyya community from the electoral process since 1985. This year’s election is no exception, as four million Ahmadis will be disenfranchised from the elections because of their refusal to give up their Muslim identities and beliefs.

Since 1974, Pakistan has relegated Ahmadi Muslims to the status of legally non-Muslim because of their belief in the prophethood of Ghulam Mirza Ahmed, who they consider to be the messiah sent after Prophet Muhammad. For many Sunni and Shia Muslims, the idea of a prophet after Muhammad, who they believe to be the final and last prophet in the succession, is blasphemous. Consequently, criminalization of Ahmadiyya beliefs and identity in the legal system has spurred decades of intense sectarian violence and exclusion from political processes.

Qasim Rashid, national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and a human rights activist, said sitting out the elections is a form of protest against extremism in the government.

“You don’t combat extremism by acquiescing to it, you combat extremism by having the moral courage to stand up to it,” he said.

In order for Pakistani citizens to vote, they must sign a “declaration of faith” on their voting ballots. Muslim citizens, in addition, must declare their belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad and deny the prophethood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. As religious self-determination and identification is a central belief in the Ahmadiyya community — rightfully so — Ahmadis are left with two unseemly options: deny their Muslim identity in order to vote or forgo voting all together.

“Ahmadi Muslims are not willing to [deny their faith] because we are Muslims,” Rashid said. “We read the kalama (profession of faith) ‘la illaha ilillaha illalahu muhammaddar rasullah,’ there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad is his prophet. The same kalama that Islam requires.”

Prior to 1985, Ahmadis voted alongside all Pakistan citizens in joint electorates. However, this changed after Zia-al-Haq’s militant regime introduced the Ordinance XX clause to the constitution. The ordinance banned Ahmadis from Muslim titles and descriptions and language, such as the Islamic greeting “Asalamu alaikum.” In addition, al-Haq ordered the separation of electoral rolls for Muslim and non-Muslim. This allowed non-Muslims, which legally included Ahmadis, the right to vote for only five percent of the National Assembly seats allocated to minority representation.

In 2002, President Pervez Musharaf reversed this decree after he received pressure from the international community to reinstate the joint electorate. Under the joint electorate, all Pakistanis were able to register to vote on ballots that did not require mentioning their religious affiliations.

Dr. Faheem Younus, an Ahmadi physician originally from Lahore who currently lives in Maryland and is an outspoken critic of Ahmadi treatment in Pakistan, was overjoyed when he heard the change in policy that would allow him to vote.

However, this policy lasted only four months before Musharaf succumbed to the pressure of religious clergy and signed an executive order that required Muslims to sign a declaration of faith.

Ahmadi voters who refused to sign the declaration were removed from the joint electoral roll and placed on a supplementary list as non-Muslims. The supplementary list was and still is exclusive to Ahmadi Muslims and does not apply to other religious minorities, such as Hindus and Christians. Though the list allows Ahmadis the ability to vote on all general assembly seats, it is a marker of their continued symbolic and systemic discrimination and persecution in Pakistan.

Younus said he does not understand the purpose of the supplementary list other than a means to marginalize a group of people.

“What is the purpose of creating a list that only dehumanizes four million people,” he said. “Imagine if there was a section of the voting list [that required you to say] I am not a Muslim [in America], and God-forbid, God-forbid you have to send curses upon Prophet Muhammad. Can you imagine that? It gives me goose bumps to even say that.”

Despite this overt discrimination and disenfranchisement of Ahmadis from Pakistan’s first democratic process, very few people have brought attention to this critical issue.

“Today the law is equal for everyone except Ahmadis,” Younus said. “We are always the one last exception that nobody likes to talk about.”