With just hours left before voters begin casting their votes for Pakistan’s next leaders, political posters are plastered across markets, convoys of motorcycles and cars flying party flags clog major thoroughfares, and raspy-voiced candidates make their final appeals to throngs of people.
Election fever runs high everywhere, it seems, but in Rabwah.
The city nestled alongside the Chenab River in Punjab is home to an estimated 40,000 potential voters, but the vast majority of them will not be voting in the upcoming election due to their faith. Rabwah is a haven for Ahmadis, who make up over 95 percent of its population. While Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, the Pakistani government has officially declared them otherwise.
The groups’ adherence to Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, a man they see as a prophet, is heretical to most Muslims, who hold that the Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of God. This difference of beliefs has made Ahmadis the subject of scorn in Pakistan, where they could be subject to death for practicing their faith since doing so would mean engaging in the illegal act of “posing as a Muslim.”
While they aren’t officially barred from voting, Ahmadis must sign a statement renouncing their faith in order to cast a ballot.
“I’m 37 years old and I’ve never voted in my life,” says Amir Mehmood, a lifelong resident of Rabwah.
Mehmood says that he follows politics closely, but having to deny his beliefs to vote is more of a sacrifice than he is willing to bear.
“If the state thinks that I’m not a Muslim, that’s fine. I can’t change the state. But how can I say that I’m a non-Muslim just because the state tells me to? I consider myself to be a Muslim.”
A 1974 amendment to the Pakistani Constitution explicitly declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, and a few years later separate faith-based electorates were created that forced Ahmadis to vote as non-Muslims. Instead of doing so, most Ahmadis refused to cast a ballot-and have maintained their non-participation in the country’s politics ever since.
While President Pervez Musharraf unified the electorate in 2002, he soon bowed to religious extremists by inserting one glaring exception to the rule: Ahmadis would have a distinct voter list. All those who tick the box “Muslim” in the religious affiliation column of their election ballot must sign a statement certifying that they are not Ahmadi.
Due to this requirement, the upcoming election will be the eighth one in which Ahmadis refuse to take part. But Saleemuddin, a spokesperson for the Ahmadi community who uses only his first name, says this does not amount to a boycott.
“We don’t approve of the word ‘boycott.’ We’re not boycotting. We’ve been so clearly discriminated against that we’ve been essentially prevented from casting votes in these elections.”
Saleemuddin says by phone from Rabwah, “Like anywhere in the world, voting rights should be based on citizenship. In fact, they are in Pakistan too, but one executive order has brought in religion and kept my community from voting.”
He says every government has continued to propagate a second-class status for Ahmadis because of the power that religious extremists and powerful clerics exercise over the country’s political arena. While this election will mark the first time one democratically-elected government will pass the mantle to another, for Saleemuddin, this milestone is undermined by the state’s unwillingness to let Ahmadis vote in a free and fair manner.
And few candidates are willing to address the issue of religious freedom.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “The elections will hardly bring any respite to religious minorities because the societal groups and parties that target them do not get their votes.”
According to Rizvi, politicians don’t have much to gain from courting the votes of religious groups like Ahmadis, Christians, or Hindus. “These votes which are small and scattered cannot generate enough political clout to pressure political parties effectively.”
This amounts to a sort of catch-22 for Ahmadis since politicians do not feel politically bound to respond to their plight, something they cannot address without allies in the government. Saleemuddin says he had some hope that the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan might herald in a new era of religious freedom but Khan overtly declared his accord for the status quo saying in a video statement, “I have read the Qur’an very closely and I know that those who do not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet are not Muslims.”
“Imran Khan has claimed that he’s going to create a ‘New Pakistan,’ but before he’s even had the chance to do so, he’s declared that Ahmadis will be stuck in the same ‘Old Pakistan’ that we’ve known for too long,” Saleemuddin laments.
Many Ahmadis feel that Khan’s statements shamed his party’s name-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf or the “Justice Party” -but Bilal Haider, an Ahmadi living in Karachi, says Khan is no different than other politicians.
“All of these parties have written into their agendas that they want equal rights but none of them actually [do away with discriminatory laws] once they get into power,” he says.
While there are an estimated four million Ahmadis in the country, most politicians think appealing for their vote will do more harm than good since bias against the sect is widespread-and it isn’t limited to election season or political rights, says Haider.
“Each and every Ahmadi family is now connected to someone who was martyred. It’s not only about silent discrimination, it’s about literal attacks.”
One of Haider’s uncles, along with his wife’s father, was killed in May 2010 in synchronized attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, which resulted in the deaths of over 80 worshippers.
Haider is hopeful that when he has children, they’ll be born into a more tolerant Pakistan.
But for Saleemuddin, the current situation is vexing enough. “My daughter watches TV and sees all of the political advertisements and news of the election,” he says. “She asks me which candidate our family supports. She’s only in 6th grade and it’s really hard to explain to her why we’re not voting. ‘Our town is so big,’ she says, ‘So how come there isn’t a single political poster or party banner here?’”
He says it’s difficult to tell her that no politician is willing to change the laws so that his community in Rabwah can cast ballots without having to cast aside their faith.