Parliamentary reports and debates
One strategy pursued by the Ahmadis to keep the issue of Ahmadi discrimination and persecution ever present in official and political circles includes collating and making publicly available up to date information about their situation in Pakistan.58 To this end, fact-finding missions composed of experts whose methods and conclusions it would be difficult to impugn are funded by the Ahmadis to produce substantial and carefully researched reports such as the 2010 Report of the PHRG [Parliamentary Human Rights Group] Fact Finding Mission to Pakistan to Examine the Human Rights Situation of the Ahmadiyya Community; the 2015 A Beleaguered Community: On the rising persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community; and the more recent 2017 Ahmadis in Pakistan Face an Existential Threat: the growing violence, legal discrimination and social exclusion since 2015.59
However, the first of the UK reports on the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan by the PHRG in 2007, Rabwah: A Place for Martyrs?, does not appear to have been funded by the Ahmadis (PHRG 2007). This suggests that the Ahmadis may have recognized, after this report was produced, the potential value to the community of up to date research undertaken by non-partisan researchers. The willingness to pay the expenses of the researchers in the later 2010, 2015 and 2017 reports, therefore, is one way in which the Ahmadi jama ‘at can provide support, at a remove, for Ahmadi asylum seekers as objective evidence from these reports also makes its way into the materials used to support individual asylum claims.40 These reports are, additionally, a means by which the Ahmadi community keeps the issue of discrimination and persecution in Pakistan constantly present in the political and public domain in the UK. As such the reports keep some visibility and pressure on Pakistan in an attempt to work towards improving the conditions for the Ahmadis who remain there and who cannot or choose not, for whatever reason, to leave to seek a place of safety elsewhere.
The 2007, 2010 and 2015 reports had forewords written by the distinguished British politician Lord Avebury,41 while the 2017 report includes a foreword by a former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and also, for good measure, a quote from Prince Charles on the global scale of religious persecution. The contents of the reports are produced by non-Ahmadi human rights workers, researchers and others whose work cannot be easily dismissed by immigration judges as self-serving or biased. And this matters when seeking refugee status as immigration tribunal judges will readily discount any material they consider to be advocating on behalf of an individual or to be lacking in objectivity. Insofar as these reports can be quoted by solicitors, expert report writers and others in support of the claims of individual asylum seekers, they serve as objective and impartial evidence.
The connections between these human rights reports and the situation of Ahmadi asylum seekers is made explicit in the 2007 PHRG report Rabwah: a place for martyrs?! This report is described in the preface by Lord Avebury as commissioned directly in response to the increasing numbers of Ahmadi asylum applications which were being refused because immigration judges assumed that the asylum seekers could return to live in Rabwah in safety. As Lord Avebury states:
In recent years, the PHRG has noted that an increasing number of Ahmadis, trying to escape the persecution in which they are trapped in Pakistan, have sought asylum in the UK, and although many have succeeded, our impression was that an increasing proportion were being refused. In a number of cases the reasoning was that, while the applicant might have had a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Refugee Convention if he returned to his locality of origin, he would be safe enough if he migrated internally to the city of Rabwah, founded by the Ahmadiyyah community and inhabited by a majority of Ahmadis. The anecdotal evidence we had from Rabwah was that life in Rabwah itself was severely restricted and that residents were subject to the same conditions, including occasional violence and intimidation, that occur elsewhere in Pakistan, and there was no real safety in numbers.
The purpose of the research carried out for the report was precisely to investigate the situation on the ground in Rabwah, and while Lord Avebury states that the report itself ‘draws no conclusions, allowing the facts to speak for themselves (PHRG 2007:iv), he ends his preface (discussed in Chapter 1) with the categorization of the town as ‘a ghetto' and ‘a dead-end' that is ‘at the mercy of hostile sectarian forces whipped up by hate-filled mullahs and most of the Urdu media’ (PHRG 2007:iv).
Beyond such prefaces, the language of these reports is, as one would expect, for the most part measured and, some direct quotes notwithstanding, information is fact-based and presented straightforwardly with supporting references. The PHRG reports are, therefore, extremely valuable and largely reliable sources of information about the Ahmadi community in Pakistan and I draw upon them heavily in my own account of life in Rabwah in Chapter 1. But some of the testimony I discuss there about the everyday life of Ahmadis in Pakistan was derived from Ahmadi participants speaking at a meeting of the APPG for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in 2018. This cross-party parliamentary group was established, initially, in response to the Lahore mosque attacks of 2010; it is one of a number of Parliamentary venues where the Ahmadi jama'at has been able to raise awareness of the conditions of Ahmadis in Pakistan. In the following paragraphs I consider the Westminster Hall debates, APPG meetings and House of Commons debates in order to show some of the ways in which the UK Ahmadi jama ‘at works with British politicians to effect change in Pakistan.
The violent attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore in 2010 may be considered a critical event as understood by Das (1996), a moment of social suffering so overwhelming it has the potential to upset routine understandings of the way things are, to compel new discourses, and to re-shape how ‘communities construct themselves as political actors’ (1996:2). This particular critical event also took the ongoing violence against the Ahmadis in Pakistan from a local matter to a globally reported incident drawing the world's media to Lahore and Rabwah. British counter-terrorism officers, for example, were on site at the Baitul Futuh mosque in London while the attacks in Lahore were still ongoing, and the impact of the violence in Pakistan, filmed for television news, was keenly felt in the UK.42 Immediately following the Lahore attacks, the police presence and general security at UK Ahmadi mosques were stepped up. The attacks served also as a primary impetus for the organization of the Westminster Hall Debate43 on the Ahmadiyya Community, the first ever parliamentary debate in the UK on the community, held on 20 October 2010.44 Siobhain McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden, made the motivations behind the debates clear in her opening statement, in which she also made explicit the role she hoped British parliamentarians would play in influencing future events in Pakistan:
I am extremely sorry to bring this community’s concerns to the House at this particular time. The circumstances that led me to ask for a debate are extremely sad. On 28 May, nearly 100 Ahmadiyya Muslim worshippers were brutally murdered in two separate attacks in Lahore. However, what makes the story especially poignant is not just the fact that the Ahmadi are so peaceful but that their murderers were also Muslim. What I hope to do today is to examine why the attacks took place, then ask whether there is anything that we in Britain and the wider community can do to prevent such atrocities happening again in the future. Finally, I want to assess what the implications are for Britain of how the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is treated and what we can do about it.
The visibility of the violence against Ahmadis made possible by the live media transmission of the attacks as they unfolded in Lahore was central to the shift in how British parliamentarians viewed the situation of the Ahmadis in Pakistan. The impact of the global media cannot be underestimated, as McDonagh went on to say in the debate itself: ‘the loss of life and the prolonged and bloody siege prompted widespread condemnation and global media coverage, and it is the reason why we have asked for this debate’. She also argued that asking for the debate to help Pakistani Ahmadis on behalf of her Ahmadi constituents additionally served the goal of protecting the general British public from future violence:
If we do not persuade mainstream politicians in Pakistan to stand up for the Ahmadi Muslim community, we risk further Islamicist militancy. Moreover, if the militancy continues in Pakistan, it not only threatens Ahmadis but the whole international community. After all, any increase in Islamicist activities also affects us here in the UK, so it is in our own interests for the Government to seek to persuade Pakistan’s Government to show more tolerance to the Ahmadi Muslim community.
The scale and duration of the attacks in 2010 not only spurred action in the diaspora, it also elicited some muted condemnation and sympathy in Pakistan itself (Saleem 2010). This, however, was so quickly and so forcefully condemned by anti-Ahmadi organizations that it compelled even national political leaders to find ways to retract their initial statements of empathy with the victims of the mosque attacks. Just days after the attacks, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), described Pakistani ‘Ahmadi brothers and sisters’ as an ‘asset’ to the country in which they were citizens (Dawn 10 June 2010). He was immediately rebuked by a range of organizations, including Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Jamaat-i-Islami, Wafaqul Madaris, Jamiat Ahl-i-Sunnat and Al-Hadith and Khatm-e-Nabuwat, who were insulted, among other things, at the thought that an Ahmadi could be the ‘brother’ of a Muslim and considered Sharif’s words also to be a ‘violation of the Constitution’ (Dawn 10 June 2010). It was left to a PML-N spokesperson to clarify on Sharif’s behalf that ‘Nawaz Sharif said what the Quaid-i-Azam had already stated, that all Pakistanis were brothers irrespective of their religion, language or caste’, and that those who were attacking him were simply exploiting the situation for their own ends (Ibid.). Even such muted public statements of sympathy for Ahmadis, as fellow citizens, in the wake of a terrorist attack are made at the speaker’s risk and routinely silenced in Pakistan.45
The same was not the case in the UK, and the Westminster Hall Debate allowed MPs to make explicit requests to the British government to intercede on behalf of the Ahmadis in Pakistan. In response Alistair Burt, then Parliamentary Undersecretary of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, described his regular exchanges with Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and praised the work he was doing to reform the blasphemy laws. A few months later, in March 2011, Bhatti was assassinated by the Taliban al-Qaida Punjab who scattered leaflets insulting Bhatti’s attempts to tackle the blasphemy legislation as they fled the scene of his killing (Walsh 2011). By the time of the most recent APPG meetings in May 2018 the Ahmadis themselves were no longer asking for the reform of the blasphemy laws, considering this to be unachievable in the current political climate.
The Westminster Hall debate in 2010 touched on many of the issues which continue to exercise ministers and politicians, and also the Ahmadiyya Muslim community members, both in the UK and in Pakistan. Such matters included the use of UK taxpayer monies to fund development programs, including educational ones, in Pakistan, and how these might be better monitored to ensure that no British funds are being used to produce textbooks that incite discrimination and violence against Ahmadis and other minorities. Other issues included forms of anti-Ahmadi discrimination that are commonplace in Pakistan but which have now also found their way to the UK, such as boycotting Ahmadi shops, refusing to serve Ahmadis in non-Ahmadi shops and restaurants, and handing out inflammatory leaflets (that allegedly included statements such as: 'Kill a Qadiyani and doors to heaven will open to you').*6
It was clear to the speakers in the 2010 Westminster Hall debate that the tactics and strategies of those who discriminate against the Ahmadis in Pakistan had made their way to the UK, and that the best way to ensure peace in the UK was by working to ameliorate conditions for the Ahmadis and other minorities in Pakistan. Pakistan’s long historical and political connection to the UK, its geo-political importance, the numbers of Ahmadis now settled and others seeking asylum in the UK, and the importation of forms of discrimination against Ahmadis originating in Pakistan are intertwined issues that directly connect the British Pakistani diaspora and British authorities to Pakistan. This makes what happens in Pakistan a matter of considerable significance to the British authorities which deal with the consequences of anti-Ahmadi ideas and practices in Pakistan as they then play out in the streets, on air and in the mosques of the UK.
The Westminster Hall debate in 2010 was soon followed by the formation of an APPG for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The APPG for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has since met several times, most recently in 2018. And another Westminster Hall debate on the Persecution of Religious Minorities in Pakistan, which included a good deal of discussion of the Ahmadiyya community, took place in 2016, just weeks before Asad Shah, an Ahmadi refugee settled in Glasgow, became the first Ahmadi to be murdered in the UK for simply being an Ahmadi. In 2015 two more APPGs were established, one on international freedom of religion or belief, and the second on Pakistani minorities. Both have extensively discussed the Ahmadi situation in Pakistan, and in 2016 the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief published a report on Pakistan and UK government policy which included a substantial amount of material on the plight of Ahmadis in Pakistan.47
In 2018 another series of APPG meetings for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was held, and the situation in Pakistan for Ahmadis was debated in the House of Commons on 24 May 2018. From 2010, therefore, there has been a
Asylum and the Ahmadi diaspora 153 significant increase in the amount of parliamentary time devoted to the Ahmadis, and the issues concerning the Ahmadis have moved from Westminster Hall and the discussions of informal groups of members of both houses to the centre of government in the form of a debate in the House of Commons itself.
This increasing visibility of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in political circles over recent years is indexed by the visits of the khalifa himself to attend Parliament, as he did for the first time on 22 October 2008 when a special parliamentary reception and lunch was hosted for him by the MP for Putney, Justine Greening.48 Along with the khalifa on this occasion were MPs from all parties, members of the House of Lords, including Lord Avebury, the Uganda High Commissioner, and several senior Ahmadi representatives, both women and men. The 2008 invitation was repeated in 2013 when the khalifa returned to the Houses of Parliament for a reception to celebrate the centenary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim jama 'at UK and on this occasion the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, were among those present.49 Both these events, the first to commemorate the centenary of the Ahmadi khilafat in 2008, and the second the centenary of the Ahmadi presence in the UK in 2013, were important occasions permitting the Ahmadis to make symbolic statements about their place at the centre of the state and to showcase the welcome they receive in Britain. Both occasions owed their success in no small part to the long-established Ahmadi practice of inviting MPs and local people of influence to Ahmadi events, such as the jalsa. Over many years, these invitations have helped to build networks and trust between politicians and the Ahmadis. The presence of an Ahmadi member of the House of Lords, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, also facilitated the welcome of the khalifa in Parliament.
Today’s British Ahmadis are thus not only local constituents who, by voting for their elected representatives, can shape the future of the country; they are also among those who stand for election and serve in the Houses of Parliament, thus directly influencing what happens in government. Over the course of the last century the Ahmadis have moved from being a virtually unknown sect establishing itself at the margins of the capital city to producing elected officials and representatives serving in government and on government committees such as the Community Engagement Forum set up in 2015 to help tackle extremism. Lord Ahmad, a British-born Ahmadi and at the time also Minister for Countering Extremism, along with two other Ahmadiyya Muslim representatives, were three of the 26-member group in the first Community Engagement Forum meeting.50
I now take a closer look at one of the debates on Ahmadi issues during the 2018 APPG meetings.51 The debate, which focused in particular on education, elections, asylum and British government funding for development in Pakistan, can serve as a lens through which to understand the interactions between British politicians, UK-based Ahmadis and Pakistan, focusing on the situation in Pakistan that generates Ahmadi asylum seekers as well as anti-Ahmadi practices in the UK, and what can be done about this.
The APPG inquiry into the denial of freedom of religion and human rights violations of Ahmadi Muslims and other religious communities in Pakistan
I discuss took place in Portcullis House on 23 April 2018. The meeting was chaired by Siobhain McDonagh, MP for Mitcham and Morden. I was present at this first meeting which focused on the historical context of the ongoing persecution against religious communities in Pakistan. Two Ahmadi representatives had flown in from Pakistan to attend the meeting. The first was Mr Mujeeb ur Rehman, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, who spoke about the Ahmadi situation in Pakistan and answered questions posed by members of both the House of Commons and the Lords during the two-hour session. The second Ahmadi representative was born in Rabwah but had spent much of his youth in the UK, returning to Rabwah after completing his university education in London.
After a brief historical outline of the situation for the Ahmadis in Pakistan the meeting moved on to questions about the current situation and what British MPs and the British government could do to assist. One question asked by Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and former brother-in-law of Imran Khan who was elected as the twenty-second prime minister of Pakistan in August 2018, was whether there was a political party in Pakistan today able to bring about the changes needed to make the Ahmadis safe in their own country. The answer was, perhaps inevitably, given in the negative. Further, Mujeeb ur Rehman also made it clear that there was no point at present even trying to repeal legislation such as the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan of 7 September 1974 declaring the Ahmadis to be non-Muslim.52 The position in the country had so hardened against the Ahmadis since that time that the only pragmatic approach to take at present, he argued, was to focus on subordinate legislation that might be amended, drawing less attention and inciting less opposition than the repeal of the Second Amendment inevitably would.
The secondary legislation that could be tackled included that dealing with the separate electoral lists for Ahmadi voters. Under Zia ul Haq non-Muslim communities were placed on separate electoral lists and required to vote for non-Muslim candidates. In 2002 General Musharraf abolished the separate electoral list for all communities, save the Ahmadis, and thus made the Ahmadis the only community to be discriminated against in this way in Pakistan.53 The electoral list issue was a pressing one at the time of the APPG meeting as the countiy was going to the polls on 25 July, just three months after the parliamentary meeting. The issue for Ahmadis is that:
Under Pakistan's election law, Ahmadis are effectively denied the right to vote and are disenfranchised unless they declare themselves as non-Muslims, which effectively would mean giving up their faith. The Electoral Commission of Pakistan has decided that Ahmadis can be permitted to vote only under a separate register and by self-identifying as a non-Muslim minority. This requirement to deny their faith to vote has caused their disenfranchisement from politics for more than 30 years, and worse still the separate Ahmadi electoral register is publicly available, making it much easier for extremists to target them.54
As the Ahmadi representatives expressed it in the APPG meeting for Ahmadis in Pakistan, one right, that of being able to self-identify as Muslim, is challenged by another right, the right to vote. The Ahmadis have chosen to prioritize their identity over citizenship rights and so are disenfranchised. Worryingly, the younger of the representatives then made it clear that because the Ahmadis have not voted in elections in Pakistan since the 1970s, younger generations of Ahmadis no longer-even feel the loss of a fundamental right they have never experienced. And yet, as this Ahmadi analyst also noted, if the Ahmadis were able to vote they would have sufficient numbers to make a decisive impact on 25 to 30 seats in the Punjab. And if 25 to 30 politicians needed Ahmadi votes to win their seats, then they might be encouraged to pay some positive attention to the Ahmadi community and its needs.
The way in which the Ahmadi issue is implicated today in the wider political landscape of Pakistan was also explained in the APPG meeting in discussions relating to the 2017 protests in Pakistan over changes to the Elections Reform Bill 2017. The changes involved minor revisions to the language in clauses relating to the finality of prophethood and the omission of clauses 7B and 7C of the Conduct of the General Election Order 2002, which mandated a separate voters list for the Ahmadiyya community (Ahmad 2017; Shahid 2018b). In response, a newly formed Barelvi55 Islamist religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party (TLP), launched a protest decrying the changes as blasphemous. The government quickly reversed the changes but not in time to prevent TLP supporters blockading roads in Islamabad and calling for the sacking of the law minister (Ahmad 2017; Sayeed 2017). These widely reported and socially disruptive protests were described by one Ahmadi representative at the APPG meeting as marking a change in the Pakistani anti-Ahmadi protests insofar as past organizations were not predominantly Barelvi ones and this recent development was therefore, as he put it, ‘more impactful' given that most Pakistani Sunnis are Barelvi. However, the same representative also considered that this religious political party was being supported by the Pakistan military as part of a strategy to weaken the government in the run up to the elections.56 The Ahmadi representative went on to say that after the sitting government lost the next election, as it was expected to and in the event did, the military would withdraw support and the TLP would weaken as a political force. In this reading of the anti-Ahmadi protests in Pakistan the community was a pawn in the power struggle between the ruling party and the military, with the TLP strategically deployed by the military against a soft target, the Ahmadis, to achieve their political ends.
Whatever the case may have been and whoever was supporting the TLP to whatever ends, the anti-Ahmadi protests by the Barelvi TLP made the immediate situation for the Ahmadis in Pakistan even worse than they already were, and this is one more mark of the hardening of attitudes against them in the country. As those present at the APPG meeting were informed, prior to the 1974 legislation declaring the Ahmadis non-Muslim, there was no general consensus on this issue in Pakistan and opinions among non-Ahmadis varied. The official position on the Ahmadis as non-Muslim was settled in 1974 and question then became one of what rights, as non-Muslims, Ahmadis should have in Pakistan. And today, the APPG meeting was told, the issue has moved on from a discussion about what rights Ahmadis should have to questioning if they even deserve to live in Pakistan at all.
Part of this hardening of attitudes in Pakistan has to do with the anti-Ahmadi content of educational textbooks in schools, and this was another area in which the Ahmadi representatives thought the British parliamentarians might assist their cause. When asked if the British government, which spends more on aid to Pakistan than to any other country,57 should withdraw funding if the Pakistan government does not work to improve the situation for the Ahmadis, the response from the Ahmadi representatives was a decisive ‘no’. The Ahmadis did not want any funding to be taken away from Pakistan but rather to have what the money was spent on closely monitored and for more, perhaps, to be channeled into inter-faith causes.
In relation to printed materials and religious literature the Ahmadis described how they have been impacted by what happened following a terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014 which left over 150 people, mostly children, dead. In response to this attack the government of Pakistan established the National Action Plan to tackle terrorist organizations. As part of a strategy to prevent future terrorist attacks, the National Action Plan included provisions to crack down on hate literature. Unfortunately for the Ahmadis, the Punjab Provincial Assembly set up a board of clerics, the Mutahiddah Ulama Board, to define what constituted hate literature, and they advised that all Ahmadi literature, including newsletters, periodicals, CDs, websites and all the books by Ghulam Ahmad should be banned under this legislation. One of the Ahmadi representatives at the APPG meeting described how he was called by fellow Ahmadis in the middle of the night and told to remove all his books from his shelves because they feared raids were imminent. This was not an unreasonable course of action to follow given that Ahmadis have had their printing presses and homes raided, and those arrested face a military court and a mandatory five year prison sentence.58 According to an Ahmadi website which tracks anti-Ahmadi materials and which collates information on acts of violence against them, the Mutahiddah Ulama Board, while finding Ahmadi literature to constitute ‘hate’ literature, simultaneously found that material produced by Khatm-e-Nabuwat was not hate literature because:
As Mirzais/Qadianis/Lahoris have been declared non-Muslims in the Constitution of Pakistan and they are forbidden by law to use Islamic terms [szc] but they continue to use these in violation of the law, and the Khatme Nabuw-wat literature that is produced in their rebuttal and designates them Kafir is in no way in the category of hate material. Thus the Home Department, the Police in general and the Government of Punjab in particular should take no action whatsoever against the Khatme Nabuwwat literature, its drafting, printing, distribution and sale. It was unanimously recommended that the Home Department should issue a notification in this regard.59
Again, as in the case of seeking amendments to electoral legislation, the Ahmadis encouraged the APPG members to support the call to overturn the provincial banning order which would thus allow them access to their own religious literature once more. As the process by which the ruling that all Ahmadi literature is hate material can be overturned is clearly set out, and as a provincial rather than a federal level ruling, the Ahmadi representatives considered that this might be a more achievable goal than repealing other explicitly anti-Ahmadi laws at the present time in Pakistan.
Some of the questions raised and information provided during the discussions at the APPG meeting in April generated material that found its way into the House of Commons debate held the following month on 24 May 2018. Participating in the APPG meeting is, therefore, one way in which Ahmadi representatives can shape debate, and ultimately perhaps also government policy relating to issues in Pakistan through the democratic process in the UK. At present the Ahmadis do not vote and hence have no political representation in Pakistan itself but, as one representative made clear in the APPG meetings, the Pakistani authorities listen most of all to the British. This, he stated, is so well understood by representatives of all countries that even when Canadian officials or officials from other countries visit Rabwah to find out first-hand about conditions there they inevitably ask ‘have you spoken to the British about this?’ And while, given the context, one might imagine that the Ahmadi representative wished to encourage the British parliamentarians by such flattery, the statement is also true given the historical connections between the UK and Pakistan, the large UK-based Pakistani diaspora, the level of British development funding for Pakistan and trade connections between the two nations.60
The politicians who spoke in the debate in the House of Commons on 24 May 2018 repeatedly referenced, as in many previous debates, the need to work to defuse and eradicate extremism in Pakistan in order to help arrest the spread of such extremism in the UK. It was clear that they were aware that what happens in Pakistan will make its way to the UK, and often sooner rather than later. Several MPs also made the now well-rehearsed point that Ahmadis experience discrimination in the UK from other Muslim groups. As MP John Spellar asked: ‘is it not also a problem that some of that hatred comes here from other countries? We have seen attacks on individuals - we have seen incidents in Glasgow and elsewhere, even if they do not lead to murder - as well as calls for boycotts on businesses owned by Ahmadis?’ Siobhain McDonagh agreed but added that the issue was broader than simply the importation of discrimination from outside, noting that ‘local authorities need to look to themselves as well, because Ahmadis are also excluded from most SACREs - standing advisory councils on religious education - in English councils, so some of these things are very close to our respective homes’. And this explicitly raised an issue in Parliament which some Ahmadis also discussed at length with me as a matter they consider infringes on their rights to self-define and participate in local government in the UK.
Although not explicitly discussed in this parliamentary debate, one of the SACRE cases known to Siobhain McDonagh, and the one she was perhaps thinking of as she spoke in the debate, went on for several years before it was finally resolved in Birmingham. In brief, Birmingham Council found itself embroiled in a controversy beginning in 2012 over the issue of allowing Ahmadi representation on its SACRE committee, the interfaith group local councils consult on how religious education is to be delivered in schools.61 The Muslim representatives on the Birmingham SACRE committee stated that they would only agree to the participation of the Ahmadis on the committee if they were prepared to identify themselves as non-Muslim and they also threatened to walk out if their demands were not met (Porter 2016). The Ahmadi response was to claim that the Labour-led council, if it acceded to the demands of the Muslim faith leaders, would have failed to promote and protect religious tolerance. Further, the Ahmadis argued, this was divisive and an example of unlawful religious sectarianism of a type that had made its way to the UK from South Asia. After a campaign that lasted some five years, involved a wide range of stakeholders, engaged legal advisors and required many meetings, the Ahmadis were eventually co-opted, in spite of the continued resistance of the Muslim representatives, onto the Birmingham SACRE Committee A in 2017.
Other examples of discrimination against Ahmadis in Pakistan which have made their way to the UK and were also raised in the House of Commons debate included the ‘editing out of any Ahmadi Muslim’s contribution to Pakistan's history'. And in this respect the life and work of the Nobel Prize-winning Ahmadi physicist, Abdus Salam, was specifically mentioned as having been deleted from Pakistani schoolbooks. These schoolbooks, it was further suggested, might possibly have been funded by British aid monies. This issue too, however, is not confined to Pakistan but has made its way to none other than Oxford University, as was also noted in the same House of Commons debate. Ahmadi student societies across the UK have over the years repeatedly stated that university Muslim student societies regularly undermine their activities and the recent Oxford case was just one in a long series of such instances. At Oxford University in May 2017, as reported in the Cherwell, an Oxford University student weekly newspaper, a documentary on the life of Abdus Salam was screened by the Oxford University Ahmadi Muslim Student Association (OU-AMS A). The AMSA had sought to cohost this event with the Pakistan Society (PakSoc). However, communications between AMSA and PakSoc appear to have been intermittent and misunderstandings clearly arose over a period of a few months leading up to the screening. The last minute action to advertise and offer to co-host the screening on the part of the PakSoc was considered to be no more than an attempt at ‘face-saving’ by AMSA, an accusation strongly denied by the PakSoc spokesperson (Morris 2018).62 As with the right to take part in British local government groups such as SACRE, or to screen films at university, the difficulties experienced by Ahmadis in the UK are examples of the forms of exclusion and discrimination which Ahmadis consider to be local versions of the exclusionary and discriminatory practices imported, as it were, from Pakistan. The difference between Pakistan and the UK, however, is that in the UK the Ahmadis can, and do, use the systems and processes in place to challenge any form of discrimination and exclusion they experience.
Towards the end of the parliamentary debate Mark Field, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), responded to the issues that had been raised in the debate by the various speakers. In response to the issue of whether or not British development funds were being used in the production of school textbooks that might promote intolerance, Field stated that he would need to look into the matter and reply in writing at a later date. He also made clear that the British government was actively seeking to develop trade and maintain good relations with Pakistan, in part at least because of its geographical neighbour, Afghanistan, ‘its relationship with China, and the sense in which the United Kingdom is a trusted partner at a time of uncertainty in that part of the globe’. It was part of the British strategy, he stated, to work quietly with the Pakistani authorities to keep communication channels open and maintain good relations between the two countries, ‘in private, rather than through megaphone diplomacy’. MPs earlier in the debate had asked about when the British might show their ‘teeth’ and make clear to Pakistan that the trade advantages it enjoys through the UK and EU, such as GSP+ (Generalized System of Preferences) status which grants developing countries preferential reduced tariffs or duty-free access to EU markets,63 could be at risk if Pakistan did not abide by international conventions concerning discrimination in regard to employment and occupation. The response to this from the FCO was not altogether unexpected.64 Field noted that the:
Department for International Development has its biggest single programme there [Pakistan], and efforts are being made to work with British Pakistanis to develop trade connections for the future. It all involves a huge amount of work, but that is not in any way to downgrade the work that we do in standing up for the Ahmadi community. I will take the opportunity to ensure that we raise that issue more extensively.
While trade and issues of geopolitical security may thus be prioritized, the minister also mentioned that he had raised relevant minority issues with the Pakistan Ministry of Human Rights, and that he had also written to the Foreign Minister, Khawaja Asif. Additionally, he noted that his ministerial colleague and ‘man of deep faith’ Lord Ahmad, himself an Ahmadi Muslim, had ‘raised this issue as recently as February with the Pakistan Minister of Interior’. And yet, it was also made clear in this debate that when British parliamentarians had recently spoken of the Ahmadi issue with the deputy high commissioner of Pakistan, they had left the meeting with the impression ‘that there did not seem to be an acceptance that there was, in fact, an issue for the community’. The Liberal Democrat Tom Brake added: ‘after reading out some quite detailed evidence, we were asked to provide more evidence to demonstrate that there was a problem’. So, while British ministers may be working quietly and conscientiously with their Pakistani counterparts to raise the Ahmadi issue without harming trade and risking wider geo-political understandings, it remains possible for senior diplomats such as the Pakistan deputy high commissioner to leave British MPs with the impression that the Pakistan government does not consider there to be an Ahmadi problem in Pakistan today. And while the situation is clearly very different to that in 1984 when British ministers and politicians, who sought to keep their good working relations with General Zia, were sufficiently reassured that the government of Pakistan was, by passing anti-Ahmadi legislation, actually working to protect the Ahmadis, the necessity the British government has to maintain links with Pakistan today means that pressing the Ahmadi issue with their Pakistani counterparts is one that diplomats and ministers may opt to shy away from if they can.
Picking up on points made by several others during the debate, Field also recognized the consequences for the UK of acts of persecution that take place in Pakistan when he stated that: ‘Incidents of religious persecution in Pakistan have a tangible impact on community relations in the UK, and we are working hard to reduce the risk of extremist influences being projected into our own communities’. And indeed examples of such ‘extremist influences projected into’ the UK were graphically described during the debate when Zac Goldsmith outlined how the UK registered charity, Khatam-e-Nabuwat had publicly congratulated Muslims after the murder of Asad Shah in 2016. Goldsmith went on to say:
Appallingly, that organization has been an affiliate of the otherwise respected Muslim Council of Britain. The MCB has since set up a panel to look at the group, but why on earth do we need a panel when the group has quite openly and brazenly celebrated the murder of people whose version of Islam they do not like? Even calling a panel to examine such a phenomenon is an insult. To add to the insult, two of the members that have been put on to it have strong ties to the very gr oup it is investigating. One of them gave a speech shortly before, saying:
having any sort of ties with them - Ahmadis - is far worse than being addicted to drugs and alcohol. ... I am humbly requesting you, do not meet them or your faith would suffer from an incurable cancer. . . . Leave this place with the promise that not only will you sever all ties with the Ahmadis but also with anyone who sympathizes with them.
Well, I guess that includes all of us in the Chamber today.
Concern about Ahmadis languishing in refugee camps around the world was also raised during the debate and a request was made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister to confirm that he would ask the Home Office ‘whether this country can take in more Ahmadi Muslims who are sitting forgotten in refugee camps’, and to ‘revisit our guidance on how Home Office officials are trained to consider asylum applications by Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan’. These matters were not explicitly dealt with by Field in his response to questions and issues raised during the debate, though he did discuss measures that might be taken to improve the screening of visa applications for individuals seeking permission to enter the country to make sure that they were not inclined to contribute to radicalization or promote violence and sectarian division in the UK.
Even if the language of the FCO minister was to suggest that quiet diplomacy behind closed doors, boosting international trade with Pakistan and increased diligence over the granting of visas to immigrants were the priorities for government, the debate was not unimportant. The very fact a debate took place at all marked a significant step forward in the visibility of British Ahmadis and also in the public recognition that the community is persecuted and discriminated against in Pakistan and elsewhere. As McDonagh concluded, *[n]one of us should underestimate the power and importance to the Ahmadi community of a debate of this sort taking place in the British Parliament, on the Floor of this Chamber. It means that they are recognised and heard - and they desperately need to be heard'. The debate ended by passing a resolution stating:
this House notes with concern the rising tide of persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Algeria and other countries around the world; further notes the effect that hate preachers have on radicalising people internationally and in the UK, through the media, social media and otherwise; notes with concern the past activities of hate preacher, Syed Muzaffar Shah Qadri, who radicalised Tanveer Ahmed, who in turn murdered Mr Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016; calls on the Government to make representations to the Governments of Pakistan and Algeria on the persecution of Ahmadis; and further calls on the Government to make more stringent the entry clearance procedures to the UK for hate preachers by ensuring that entiy clearance hubs and the Home Office have adequate numbers of Urdu speakers to monitor visa applications and online radicalisation.