by Nayyar Khokhar
A few years ago, my parents decided to perform Umrah (a lesser pilgrimage) to the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia. Carrying Pakistani passports and belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a reformist community labeled and marginalized by a majority of Muslims as heretics and enemies of Islam, it was no surprise that they were concerned about their status quo and whether Saudi authorities would even allow them to undertake this journey. Nevertheless, driven by their love of Islam and their spiritual master, Prophet Muhammad PBUH, they mustered the courage to complete the Umrah.
In anticipation of their travel, my mother had to make a quick visit to a local ministry in Abu Dhabi (place of residence) where an officer asked my mother, what is your sect in Islam? Are you a Sunni or a Shia? My mother, with a cracking voice responded by saying she was an Ahmadi Muslim. The officer was rather surprised by her response and asked her again, is that Sunni or Shia? Lost for words she remained quiet to which the officer quoted the words of the declaration of faith, do you believe there is No God but Allah, and Prophet Muhammad PBUH is his Messenger? My mother responded in the affirmative, to which the officer agreed and stamped her passport for travel. I cant imagine the excitement and happiness my mother experienced in that moment, the relentless anxiety and worry, all but evaporated in this moment. My mother, a devout follower and a patient woman, felt all her prayers throughout the years were finally heard by the Almighty God.
The miracles of their journey didnt end with this incident but it has a deep link to the infamous blasphemy laws of Pakistan that have disrupted and destroyed nations before. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is not recognized as an Islamic sect and given the current political climate in Pakistan, the community members are worried about their status after Tehrike Insaaf (a political party) leader Imran Khan has become a likely candidate for Prime Minister of Pakistan. In his recent remarks, Imran Khan has promised to defend the blasphemy laws. Whether this was a political statement to appease his right-wing supporters, or a genuine feeling, only time will tell. However, one cannot consider such a statement as benign because all tumors, no matter how small, eventually grow into full-blown aggressive cancers.
To fully comprehend this problem, I will narrate a historical perspective on this issue. Saudi Arabia is on a positive trajectory for world recognition having lifted the driving ban on women, opening cinemas and as an emerging leader in the stock market.
Not very long ago, all was not well in the Saudi Kingdom with its strict Shariah Law and an aristrocratic establishment that believed in a totalatarian style leadership. In the 1970’s, Saudi Arabia was responsible for its political campaign against Muslim minorities such as Shia, Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus and Christians which led many other Muslim countries to hold similar beliefs or worse. Pakistan, being a young nation in the 70’s, passed the infamous blasphemy laws in 1974 which barred Ahmadi Muslims and other minorities from declaring or practising their faith openly. Those who did were charged with blasphemy under the penal code and some were even sentenced to death.
Putting all of this into perspective, my mother journeying to Saudi Arabia and to openly declare to authorities that she is an Ahmadi Muslim was a brave act, but some may paint it as borderline eccentric. What good is faith if you cant openly declare it? Belief in something or someone is a fundamental right of every human being whether Muslim or otherwise. The Quran states “There is no compulsion in matters of faith” (Chapter 2 verse?). The Quran offers a simple yet comprehensive solution to all religious conflicts and matters of jurisprudience. We cannot assert our authority or incite violence or hate against any minority just because we disagree with their faith or vice-versa.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan stated in his 14 points of constitution that “Full religious liberty i.e. liberty of belief, worship and observance, propaganda, association and education shall be guaranteed to all communities”. This clause says it all. Putting his faith into practice, his cabinet members comprised a devout Ahmadi Muslim, Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan and a Hindu, Jogendra Nath Mandal, as minister of law and labor.
All considered, Imran Khan may as well stand as a beacon of peace and reconciliation for our society, but I caution him and leaders alike. It is important to be versatile in approach and to prevent such laws from becoming the reason of a nation’s downfall. Let’s not forget that Achilles was only as strong as his heels.