Pakistan Condemns Men to Death for Opposing Dangerous Speech

Three men face new death sentences in Pakistan, handed down Oct. 12. Their crime? Trying to remove posters bearing Dangerous Speech that urged Pakistanis to shun them and other members of the Ahmadiyya religious minority, as infidels. Mubasher Ahmad, Ghulam Ahmed, and Ehsan Ahmed were arrested in May 2014 in the village of Bhoiwal, near the city of Lahore. They were charged with blasphemy, since in addition to the hateful messages, the posters also contained Islamic verses, making their destruction a crime under Pakistan’s law against blasphemy. A fourth man, Khalil Ahmad, was also arrested but did not survive long enough to face an official execution. A local teenager walked into the police station where the men were being held, asked to see Ahmad, and shot him dead.

Although this case is extreme for the nature of the punishment, Ahmadis – who consider themselves Muslim but are denounced in Pakistani law and society as non-Muslims – are in perpetual danger of prosecution under the blasphemy law. They are also often the targets of violence: mobs have killed and beaten Ahmadis for their beliefs and many Ahmadiyya places of worship have been destroyed. In May of 2010, an extremist group attacked two Ahmadiyya mosques in Lahore with grenades, guns, and a suicide bomb, killing nearly 100 people and injuring more. In the vast majority of cases, police turn a blind eye to violence against the Ahmadi.

This is part of a larger system of persecution that was established by law and is maintained by mutually-reinforcing legal and social norms, and continual Dangerous Speech. In 1974, the Pakistani Constitution was amended to declare Ahmadiyya Muslims a non-Muslim minority. Today, in order to obtain a passport, all Muslim Pakistanis must sign a declaration that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect, was an impostor and that Ahmadis are not Muslims. Ahmadis can be sentenced to three years in prison simply for calling themselves Muslims or “behaving like a Muslim” for example, reciting Koranic verses or using the standard Muslim greeting Assalamu alaikum which means, ironically, ‘peace be upon you.’ And, as the death sentences demonstrate, Ahmadis can be punished even much more severely for trying to resist their own persecution.

The posters that the four men opposed, which non-Ahmadiyya people had posted in their village in May of 2014 are, sadly, not unusual in Pakistan. Signs barring Ahmadis from entry to shops and other public places, asserting that they are  “kafir” – infidels or unbelievers of Islam – are commonplace. In 2015, anti-Ahmadiyya signs were posted on stores in the Hafeez Centre, a high-end mall in Lahore. The signs read: “Qadiani (a derogatory term for the Ahmadiyya) are non Muslim and they ridicule the prophet and are without faith. That is why buying and selling with them is haram (prohibited for Muslims). That is why their entry here is prohibited.”

In a more recent, shocking example of Dangerous Speech against Ahmadis, on Oct. 10 Capt. Muhammad Safdar, son-in-law of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, gave a long rant against Ahmadis in Pakistan’s National Assembly, asserting among other things, “These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. This situation is heading towards a dangerous point.” Some Pakistani clerics go even further, not only justifying violence against Ahmadis by referring to them as infidels but explicitly endorsing it, by calling them wajib-ul-qatal (eligible to be killed). Within this context, the posters in the village of Bhoiwal were more than discriminatory – they were dangerous.

Appalled at all of this, some Pakistanis have spoken out against anti-Ahmadiyya Dangerous Speech – on social media, for example, after Safdar’s speech. Some even called for him to be held legally accountable for the way his speech might incite violence. For example, one wrote “We want Capt Safdar to be removed from Parliament and arrested [for] his hate speech in the Parliament.”

Others note that Muslims also face similar Dangerous Speech and persecution in other parts of the world. One Pakistani pointed out on Twitter, for example, “Captain Safdar’s ideas sound a lot like how the Rohingiyans’ persecution started in Myanmar years ago.” Some non-Ahmadi Pakistanis have been attacked, though, for being sympathetic to Ahmadis. This is another typical feature of Dangerous Speech, which often attacks members of the in-group just as severely as members of the out-group.

And in spite of the best efforts of their allies, Ahmadis in Pakistan are in a terrible double bind: do nothing about the Dangerous Speech that continues to incite violence against their community or fight back and risk being sentenced to death.