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: a turning point

Before I consider some of the issues faced by Ahmadi asylum seekers in the UK in recent years and how the Ahmadi jama ‘at has engaged with Ahmadi asylum seekers and the immigration authorities, I begin with the arrival in England, in April 1984, of Tahir Ahmad, the fourth Ahmadi khalifa. His journey into exile from Pakistan marked a turning point for the Ahmadi diaspora and it is from 1984 that more and more Ahmadis have left Pakistan and sought asylum, mostly in the UK, Germany, the US and Canada. By 1984, or thereabouts, there were already, according to the UK national president of the Ahmadiyya Association, some 10,000 Ahmadis in the UK, and most of them, according to the Ahmadis, were British citizens at this time (HO 1984—5:325/617).13 However, some well-informed Ahmadis I have spoken with consider the figure of 10,000 is high and would significantly reduce the estimated number of Ahmadis in the UK in the mid-1980s. Those who came to the UK had done so in part because of a long history of transnational migration, because of family connections, as well as because of the deep links between the UK and the subcontinent. But they now also began to arrive to be close to their spiritual leader and the living centre of their faith.

In 1984, however, the prospect of an extended, or possibly permanent, stay in the UK by Tahir Ahmad was not one that the British authorities were relishing. While it was recognized that the Pakistan Martial Law Ordinance of 1984, which in effect criminalized followers of Ahmadiyyat, amounted to religious discrimination, at the time it was considered that it was not ‘being strictly enforced or that there [was] any all-out persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan' (HO 1984-5:325/617). By early 1985 the immigration situation of Tahir Ahmad had changed from that of a visitor to the UK to one where he had ‘applied, with the personal support of Mr Mellor, the MP for Putney, to be allowed to remain further as aminister of religion'.14 A letter, dated 25 April 1985 from Lunar House, Croyden, the headquarters for UK visas and immigration, noted that ‘[t]he Foreign and Commonwealth Office were consulted and, although not entirely happy at the prospect of Tahir Ahmad extending his stay here, raised no objections’. The letter goes on to explain that because ‘Tahir Ahmad is the head of the movement he is not an ordinary “minister of religion” ’, there was ‘no good reason why he should not be treated as such’. The ‘usual entry clearance requirement' was therefore waived and he was allowed to remain until 18 March 1985.

The option of allowing him to extend his stay as a minister of religion15 was a legitimate, but also diplomatic, way of avoiding the inevitable negative repercussions with Pakistan which would have arisen had he been granted refugee status. As the letter acknowledged:

[h]ad we attempted to refuse the application there would have been a right of appeal and Tahir Ahmad might well have sought asylum here, making it very difficult in the present climate in Pakistan to insist on his return there. He is therefore here under the Rule as a minister of religion, and although this gives the prospect of settlement in four years’ time, it is a much less contentious status than asylum.

In this latter situation, the British government would have risked undermining the politically necessary cordial relations ‘to further United Kingdom interests’16 that had been established with Zia ul Haq, the ruling military dictator, and would have acknowledged that the British government accepted that persecution of Ahmadis was indeed taking place in Pakistan. This would also have been counter to the official line being taken by the British government which was to downplay the severity of the immediate and potential future consequences of the Martial Law Ordinance of 1984, and officially to accept that the Pakistan government’s intention was, in fact, to protect the Ahmadis from persecution by extremist elements.

The British position was clearly stated in letters sent by Baroness Young, the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in response to enquiries made by MPs following letters and visits from their Ahmadi constituents across the country:

We are aware of the recent measures introduced by the Pakistan Government, restricting Qadiani activities, in particular Martial Law Ordinance of 26 April. We understand your concern about the renewed agitation against Qadianis in Pakistan. However, we note that the Pakistan Government have not acceded to the more extreme demands made during the recent agitation, for example, the Qadianis should be dismissed from all government posts.

You may wish to know that at our request our Ambassador in Islamabad has recently discussed this matter with the Pakistan authorities, making the point about Pakistan’s international standing.... They emphasised that there was no question of permitting persecution of the Qadiani community. Their aim was to defuse the situation and to protect the Qadianis from extremist

Asylum and the Ahmadi diaspora 135 elements, some of whom had been arrested. The Pakistan authorities also indicated that any violence or further action against Qadianis would be severely dealt with.

  • (letter to David Mellor from Baroness Young,
  • 15 May 1984 in FCO 1984 37:3833)

Baroness Young’s assessment here follows closely the evaluation by Sir Oliver Forster, ambassador to Pakistan from 1979 to 1984, offered in a restricted telegram sent to the FCO on 4 May 1984. The telegram accepts at face value the disingenuous claim made by Pakistani ministers that by passing anti-Ahmadi legislation the Pakistan government was in fact ‘protecting Ahmadis’. Sir Forster explains that at a function with the Minister of the Interior and the President's Adviser on Minorities, and including the Finance Minister, he was told ‘there was no intention of allowing a persecution of the Qadianis, as happened in earlier years, and that the measures that had been taken were basically for the protection of the Qasianis' [.sic] (italics added) (FCO 1984 37:3833). Forster added that the Pakistan ministers went on to say:

there had been a sudden upsurge of anti-Qadiani feeling (they were not sure who or what had touched this off) which the government judged could well get out of hand if they did not move quickly. Accordingly, they had acted to defuse the situation by passing the ordinance restricting Qadiani activity.


In effect, this amounted to saying that in order to prevent extremist agitations calling for Ahmadis to be discriminated against, the government of Pakistan had passed legislation designed to discriminate against Ahmadis.17

This marked a distinct change of strategy from earlier official responses to anti-Ahmadi agitations as when, for example, Pakistani judges had investigated the anti-Ahmadi violence that erupted in the Punjab in 1953. The report which resulted from this earlier inquiry had made explicit the malice of religious leaders and the machinations of politicians in fomenting unrest for their own religious and political ends (Report of the Court of Inquiry 1954). And while, in 1984, the notion that legislation that discriminated against a segment of the population was actually a form of protection for that community may perhaps have been what the British authorities believed, or considered it politic to believe, ‘some of the more extreme demands made during the ... agitations' which were not acceded to at the time were, in fact, granted in the years and decades that followed. For example, the Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference speakers who (as widely reported in the Pakistani and British national press at the time) were instrumental in escalating the disturbances of 1984, demanded not only the removal of all Ahmadis from government posts but also the removal of the name Rabwah from the town bought and built by the Ahmadis post-partition. Today there are in Pakistan no Ahmadi senior officials in government, those who remain in the military are denied promotions,

and Rabwah was renamed Chenab Nagar, against the wishes of the residents, in the Punjab Assembly on 14 February 1999.

Tahir Ahmad was never able to return to Pakistan and died in the UK on 19 April 2003, some 19 years after his enforced flight to avoid arrest. The following afternoon Masroor Ahmad arrived in London from Pakistan, with some 200 or so other senior Ahmadi men who were either already in the UK or who came from across the globe, to take part in the selection of Tahir Ahmad’s successor. On 22 April Masroor Ahmad was elected as the fifth Ahmadi khalifa and with this found himself, as had his predecessor, unable to return to Pakistan. His wife and children soon joined him in the UK and had to begin to adjust to a life that none of them had ever expected to lead. In Masroor Ahmad’s case, as in that of his predecessor, the option of the right to remain in the UK as a minister of religion was available but required a tier two visa, which also meant that the post he sought would need first to be advertised in the UK to see if any suitable applicant was already in the country. This was clearly not going to be the case, and in the event I was told that Masroor Ahmad, because of his position as leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, was granted indefinite leave to remain by the British authorities in an exceptionally short period of just a few months.

Such expedited avenues to indefinite leave to remain, options for the very highly placed and indisputably at risk members of the jama ‘at, are not, however, available to the majority of Ahmadis who arrive in the UK and seek asylum on or soon after arrival. For these latter, negotiating the asylum system can be a long drawn-out and costly affair. And yet, the flight of Ahmadis from Pakistan to seek asylum in the UK was not unforeseen. One of the concerns repeatedly raised and discussed in the FCO and HO papers during the mid-1980s was the fear that the situation in Pakistan might result in the arrival of increasing numbers of Ahmadi asylum seekers. As the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, wrote to Sir Geoffery Howe on 29 April 1985:

It appears that the anti-Ahmadi laws are not being enforced rigorously and, as you know, I do not at present consider that the fact that a person is an Ahmadi from Pakistan is of itself ground for asylum here. The few Pakistani Admadis [szc] who have so far sought asylum here have been refused; but should individuals arrive here in the future who have suffered direct persecution in Pakistan on account of their religious beliefs or should the discrimination against Ahmadis in Pakistan develop into persecution then the number of those arriving in this country with a strong claim to asylum could increase significantly.

(HO 1984-5:325/617)

This concern was one that had been highlighted a year earlier by the British Consulate General in Karachi, in a letter dated 9 May 1984 and headed ‘The Qadiani Sect’, quoting a report from a routine ‘Dear Department’ letter of 29 April that had raised ‘the possibility of our receiving a number of applications for political asylum from members of the Qadiani Sect’. The letter made clear that no such applications had actually been received but expressed the fear that such applications might follow shortly because of the ‘out-lawing of the sect by Government decree’, and also because of a visit from a Mr Hifazet Syed who apparently, after detailing a series of ‘outrages against Quadianis’, had added:

that under the new law, Qadianis could be imprisoned without trial, merely for claiming themselves to be Moslems - which they believed themselves to be although their belief in the last prophet being alive and well and living in London is unacceptable to orthodox Islamic theologians.

(FCO 1984 37/3833)

It is not clear from this if it is Mr Syed who did not understand the Ahmadi position on prophets and whose lack of understanding on the matter was being correctly quoted, or if it was the British official reporting this exchange who misrepresented the Ahmadi theological position. From the report, however, what is clear is that Mr Syed was a solicitor seeking advice on how best to advise his Ahmadi clients who were considering applying for political asylum.18 The letter writer, I. H. Davies, asked for advice on how to handle potential asylum seekers who applied for entry clearance and wondered if they should be granted the ‘earliest-possible interview date’ or if such a course of action would simply encourage queue jumping. He further wondered if Mr Syed’s request to waive the ‘Visa Applied For’ stamp in the passports of those seeking political asylum could be granted as ‘such a stamp in a passport could alert the authorities to the applicant’s intention to leave the country, with the possibility of unfortunate repercussions’. He then added that not putting the stamp in a passport might result in ‘deliberately suppressing a useful signal' (FCO 1984 37/3833). It is not entirely clear if this ‘useful signal' was for the benefit of the British or the Pakistani authorities, or perhaps it was meant for both. It was clearly not a signal that was going to be ‘useful’ for the Ahmadi seeking a visa to leave the country because of persecution.

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