By Myra MacDonald
RABWAH, Pakistan, (Reuters) – At the office of what claims to be one of Pakistan’s oldest newspapers, workers scan copy for words it is not allowed to use — words like Muslim and Islam.
“The government is constantly monitoring this publication to make sure none of these words are published,” explains our guide during a visit to the offices of al Fazl, the newspaper of the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan.
This is Rabwah, the town the Ahmadis built when they fled the killings of Muslims in India at Partition in 1947, and believing themselves guided by God, chose a barren stretch of land where they hoped to make the Punjab desert bloom.
Affluent and well-educated, they started out camping in tents and mud huts near the river and the railway line.
Now they have a town of some 60,000 people, a jumble of one- and two-storey buildings, along with an Olympic size swimming pool, a fire service and a world class heart institute.
Yet declared by the state in the 1970s to be non-Muslims, they face increasing threats of violence across Pakistan as the country strained by a weakening economy, an Islamist insurgency and internecine political feuds, fractures down sectarian and ethnic lines.
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” says Mirza Khurshid Ahmed, amir of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan. “The level of religious intolerance has increased considerably during the last 10 years.”
The town, renamed Chenabnagar by the state government since “Rabwah” comes from a verse in the Koran, is now retreating behind high walls and razor wire, awaiting the suicide bombers and fedayeen gunmen who police tell them are plotting attacks.
Last May, 86 people were killed in two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, capital of Punjab; others were attacked elsewhere in the province. Many fled to Rabwah where the community gives them cheap housing and financial support.
Among them is 15-year-old Iqra from Narewal, whose shopkeeper father was stabbed to death last year as the family slept. “I was sleeping in another room when my father was attacked,” she begins in a small voice, pulling a black scarf across her face to cover her mouth in the style of Ahmadi women.
“The attacker wanted to kill all the Ahmadis in Narewal,” her brother Zeeshan continues. “My elder brother tried to help my father and he was stabbed and wounded too.”
Later police found the attacker hiding in a mosque. He had believed the mullahs when they told him that all Ahmadis were “wajib ul qatl”, or deserving of death.
Battleground for power
The Ahmadis follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who in the town of Qadian in late 19th century British India called for a revival of a “true Islam” of peace and justice. His teachings were controversial with Muslims and Christians alike.
He argued that Jesus did not die on the cross but escaped and travelled to India and was buried in Kashmir. And he claimed to be the metaphorical second coming of Jesus, destined to put Muslims back on the true path.
Many Muslims were offended by the suggestion he had come as a prophet, breaching a basic tenet of Islam that there can be no prophet after Mohammad, whose teachings are believed to be based literally on the word of God, perfect and therefore final.
Yet his call for peace, hard work, temperance, education and strong community bonds resonated, and over the years the proselytising movement acquired millions of followers worldwide.
At home, however, their history has been intimately bound up in Pakistan’s own descent from its relatively optimistic birth.
Lacking a coherent national identity, it has become a battleground for competing political, religious and ethnic groups seeking power by attacking others.
“The mistake of the Ahmadis was that they showed their political strength,” said an Ahmadi businessman in Lahore.
Better education he said, meant they obtained good positions in the army and civil service at first; strong community bonds made them an influential force in politics up to the 1970s.
But they also made an easy target for the religious right who could whip up anti-Ahmadi sentiment for political gain.
Ahmadis follow two different schools of thinking, but will argue, often with detailed references to the Koran in both Arabic and English, that they do not dispute the finality of the Prophet Mohammad. Their erudite theological arguments, however, had little chance against the power of the street.
After anti-Ahmadi violence, they were declared non-Muslims in 1974. In the 1980s, their humiliation was completed when legal provisions barred them from associating themselves with Islam, for example by using the call to prayer or naming their place of worship a “masjid” or mosque.
“You can say you don’t consider me to be a Muslim but you can’t force me to also say I am not a Muslim,” complains Ahmed, the amir, the pain clear in his voice.
Yet in the newspaper office in Rabwah, a white board displays the words they are not allowed to use — they could be accused of blasphemy, which carries the death penalty.
Spreading to other sect
Many Pakistanis, if you ask about treatment of the Ahmadis, shrug it off — it’s an old story, they say, dredged up by westerners who do not appreciate the importance of the finality of the Prophet.
Yet there are signs the attitudes first directed towards Ahmadis are spreading to other sects. In a country which is majority Sunni, and where insurgents follow Sunni Islam, Shi’ites and even Sufi shrines have been bombed.
A 2010 study by Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa of students in elite colleges found that while 60 percent said the government was right to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, a sizeable 18 percent believed Shi’ites were also non-Muslims.
These and other findings led her to conclude that radicalism was growing even among the educated youth — it is often, wrongly, blamed on poverty — which in its extreme form could lead people into violence.
Their tendency, she wrote, to see different groups with an unquestioned bias, she wrote, “especially coated with religious overtones or padded with religious belief prepares the mind to accept the message from militant organisations.”
In the nearest town to Rabwah, the central square as been renamed “Khatme Nubuwwat” Chowk, meaning the finality of the Prophet. Beyond, low jagged hills spike up above the dusty land, the summits of much bigger rock formations below the surface.
Many of the Ahmadis had been active supporters of the movement which created Pakistan and when they first came here they were inspired by a verse in the Koran, describing “an elevated land of green valleys and springs of running water.”
Now they are surrounded by a very different country.
Rabwah itself is open to the outside world — despite the high walls guarding individual houses, it is not a walled town.
“Under the circumstances we try to tke the best measures we can to protect ourselves,” says the amir. “But what we can do is very limited. We don’t have a mindset or training for that.
And in any case, he adds, “How many people can leave Pakistan or Rabwah?”