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Photo taken from the August 2009 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Photo taken from the August 2009 issue of the Herald | Arif Mahmood, White Star

In the early hours of a chilly February day in 2007, Naeem, a 50-year-old carpenter in Karachi, left his house for Fajr prayers. Normally his sons would accompany him but the previous night two of them had gone to their village Lathianwala in Faisalabad.

The eldest son, Murad, was home but he stayed back with his first child who had been born a month ago. Within an hour of Naeem’s departure, the news came that he had been shot dead — seven bullets had been pumped into his body by “unknown people”.

Days later, a woman dropped by his house late one evening, to describe what had happened on that fateful morning. From her window, she had seen a bullet riddled Naeem lying on the ground, with two men standing around him and a third kneeling down, checking his pulse. He must have been still alive because the man who was feeling his pulse then straightened up and shot him in the jugular vein. The assailants checked his pulse again to confirm if he was dead. Then they high-fived and chanted “Allah-o-Akbar” and left on a motorbike.

Murad found out from his father’s friends that Naeem had been receiving threats since 2004, that is, when he took up the renovation of an Ahmadi place of worship. The family believes the police could have arrested the killers if the lone eyewitness, the woman watching Naeem’s murder from her window, had the courage to testify. But she refused to. Murad also had a hard time getting the First Information Report registered because the police refused to take him seriously. Says he bitterly, “The police consider us donkeys — it is as if we do not exist.”

It was only on the intervention of their town nazim, a close friend of a relative, that the case was finally registered. But nothing came out of it despite the fact that Murad and Jamaat-e-Ahmedia officials pursued the case for several months. Even though some police officers suggested that they knew who could have murdered Naeem, no arrests were made. In fact, the man they suspected of being involved had earlier confessed to killing another Ahmadi. But even with his confession he was bailed out and released. In his defence, he had argued that Ahmadis were wajib-ul-qatl (liable to be killed) — a line of reasoning that apparently appealed to those hearing his case.

Murad narrates all this in a quiet voice, revealing little emotion, on a rainy afternoon in his small home in Defence, Karachi. The bearded young man of average height and brown hair is the eldest of five brothers and two sisters and can talk at great length about his family’s experiences as Ahmadis. In 1982, the year Murad was born, his parents converted and became Ahmadis.

Their relatives living near their home immediately stopped interacting with them. They were no longer invited to weddings or other family events. Even if some relatives came visiting, they would refuse to have any refreshment or food.

Naeem and his wife found out that even their greetings during chance meetings with their relatives were not returned. This social ostracising took place despite the fact that they were not the first Ahmadis in their extended clan. Murad’s maternal grandfather, Zafar, was an Ahmadi, though his Jamaat had excommunicated him for letting his daughter marry his brother’s son, a non-Ahmadi.

Zafar later tried to return to the community but then “the community objected to” his active participation in politics. The community leaders had forbidden Ahmadis from taking part in electoral and parliamentary politics since 1974 when they were declared non-Muslims. After this official change in their status, they could no longer fight elections except as minority candidates. The Ahmadis, as a protest, have refused to take part in politics and elections at all because they do not regard themselves as non-Muslims.

The problems that Naeem and his family faced after conversion were not just limited to social interactions or lack thereof. He also started experiencing difficulties at work. So he decided to tell his prospective clients about his faith even before they would offer him work in order to let them make an informed decision on whether or not he was fit to work with. This enabled him to work with only those who had no problems with his faith. “When I decided to establish a construction business, I adopted the same strategy. This makes work and business dealings easy,” Murad says.

She tried to explain to her friends that the Ahmadis condemned black magic but they refused to believe her.

His childhood, however, was not so easy, though he calls it “peaceful”. He went to a school in Saddar, a multi-faith locality, where no one asked him about his religion nor did he feel the need to talk about it. This was as good as it could get for him, especially when contrasted with the treatment meted out to him elsewhere. For instance, he and his siblings were sent to a madrasah near their home to learn to read Quran. The madrasah was run by Jamaat-e-Islami and Murad and all his brothers and sisters were evicted from it the day the teachers found out that they were Ahmadis. For the next two days the madrasah was ‘purified’ — the premises were scrubbed clean and special prayers were said.

When Murad landed in S.M. Arts College for his Intermediate in 1998, his faith caused problems once again. “The Islami Jamiat Tulaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami in the college, printed anti-Ahmadi pamphlets and plastered them on the college walls. At times, students passing by would mutter insults such as ‘dog’ — loud enough for me to hear,” he says.

Murad’s wife, Shaheena, says her experiences were different from her husband’s. She never faced any hostility at school or college. Her family also had much easier time in their neighbourhood than what Murad and his parents faced. But her father’s colleagues did “try to get him removed from his post” because of his faith. He, however, “refused to resign under their pressure,” she tells the Herald, sitting beside Murad.

In the room next to the lounge where Murad tells his story, his younger sister Hafsa, 23, sits quietly at the edge of a bed, rocking her brother’s son to sleep. The pretty young girl has just given her BBA exams and can tell tales not very different from her brother’s. She remembers that during her matriculation exams, she attended a coaching centre where one day the teacher asked all the students about their religion. “My close friends’ attitudes changed that day,” she says. They accused her of not telling them earlier, “blaming our community of indulging in black magic and having kalma and namaz different from theirs.” She tried to explain to her friends that the Ahmadis condemned black magic but they refused to believe her. She even offered to show them how she recited the Quran and how she offered namaz but to no avail. Her friends cut off all contact with her.

Once Hafsa starts to talk, the incidents just roll out of her tongue — of the shock, hostility and contempt those around her expressed each time they came to know about her faith. During her bachelors, she was assigned a project along with a group of her classmates on packaged juices. A member of the group suggested they focus on a known and well-established fruit juice company. The others were unaware that the company was owned by an Ahmadi family. Once the project was submitted to their lecturer, “he became angry, declaring that it was un-Islamic to drink” the juices made by that company, she says. Other group members defended their choice of the company, at least until Hafsa was made to confess by her teacher that she was an Ahmadi.

Her admission ended the discussion in the class but not without repercussions for her. Once again the same questions were asked about her way of praying and her community’s deeds and misdeeds. Once again she offered to take them home and show them how she prayed but the entreaties fell on deaf ears. “One of them even said that it was haram for Muslims to visit Ahmadis,” she recalls. Her classmates stopped inviting her to events and their get-togethers. When asked if the loss of her friends and the absence of a social life have affected her, she puts on a brave face and vows to keep moving on with fortitude.

Naeem’s sister Perveen is a regular visitor to Murad and his family. She and her husband Bashir also became Ahmadis 13-years-ago. Because of the hostility they faced in their hometown in Faisalabad, they were quick to pack up when Naeem suggested they move to Karachi. “He said his neighbourhood would be relatively safer,” Perveen tells the Herald.

Now she has been living near her dead brother’s home for the past 10 years. Four of her daughters and two sons study in a private school in Defence Housing Society where they are frequently taunted and called non-Muslims. “My son often talks about picking up a fight with those teasing him but I tell him to be patient and pay no attention,” she says.

Perveen’s daughter, Maimoona, still lives with her maternal grandparents in Faisalabad. But she was in Karachi for the summer vacation when the Herald visited the family. “On the last day of the school this summer, my classmates found out about my faith. They said we pray and prostrate to the photograph of the founder of our sect,” she says. Confused and bewildered, the class six student confesses that she started crying and was consoled by a teacher. “She took me to the school principal who walked me home.” But the young girl seems to have learnt her lesson: she is adamant that the next time her schoolmates bring up the issue, “I will not talk to them about it.”

Naeem is buried in Rabwa as per his will. But two years after his death, his family is still not able to get over the tragedy. Fear dominates their thoughts. The wall chalking that used to malign his father “now target Ahmadis in general,” says Murad, adding that “we say all the possible prayers that we know when we leave our home as we are unsure of coming back alive.”

He is thinking of migrating to some other country though he and his wife have dedicated their kids to their Jamaat. “I want my daughter to become a doctor and my son to be a religious teacher so that both can serve their faith and their community.”

– Names have been changed to protect identity

An earlier version of this article was printed in the August 2009 issue of the Herald. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.