The Pakistani government took a positive step forward earlier this month in renaming the National Center for Physics after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam—a member of the Ahmadi community, a minority sect of Islam.
Even though Salam received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, his achievement was largely ignored in Pakistan because of the stigma attached to the Ahmadi faith in Pakistan. Ahmadis believe that the last prophet was not Mohammed but rather Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya religion who claims he is the Muslim messiah.
In what is likely a reaction to the government’s move to acknowledge Salam’s achievement, there have been at least two major incidents of religious persecution against the Ahmadis.
On Dec. 9, it was reported that an armed police contingent of the Counter Terrorism Department raided an Ahmadiyya central office in Rabwah. The armed police beat up staffers, made arrests without a warrant, and looted the office, stealing computers and printers. The Ahmadiyya Foreign Missions Office reported that this was the first time that a raid like this occurred in 42 years.
Then, in a second incident, a mob comprised of more than 1,000 individuals descended on an Ahmadi place of worship in Chakwal, Punjab. At least one Ahmadi was shot dead in the attack.
According to the Department of State’s 2015 International Religious Freedom report, 95 percent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim. Ahmadi Muslims, who according to a constitutional amendment are not allowed to call themselves Muslims, are estimated to number between 2 and 4 million.
Ahmadis have long faced severe persecution in Pakistan. In addition to making it criminal for Ahmadis to call themselves Muslim, Pakistani law forbids Ahmadis from calling their places of worship mosques and from proselytizing.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been used to target members of the Ahmadi faith, including earlier this year when Shakoor Shakoor was sentenced to five years in prison, according to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom’s 2016 report.
This same report called on the Office of International Religious Freedom to designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern,” in part because of its persecution of Ahmadis. The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom also recommends that special police forces be introduced in Pakistan specifically to protect religious minorities.
Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow for South Asia at The Heritage Foundation, noted in a recent journal article that, “Prioritizing protection of religious freedom is not only important as a human rights issue, but also as a strategic and security issue, since it must be part of a broader narrative that seeks to counter the message of Islamist extremism, which is threatening the stability of the Pakistani state.”
The U.S. government should acknowledge the positive step taken by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in recognizing the achievement of Salam.
Washington must also prioritize the issue of religious freedom in its bilateral engagement with Pakistan and work with Pakistan to improve rule of law responses to religious tensions in the country. Specialized police forces tailored to serve religious minority communities could provide the rule of law infrastructure necessary to prevent future raids and mob activity from being carried out against Ahmadis.