An Abandoned Man

If tear-streaked faces of broken families

begged you to stop killing their sons,
would you reflect and see your wrongs,
or would you still load your guns? 

For every girl who lost a father,
every wife now a widow,
I hope you see that you have spilled,
the blood splattered on my window *


 High on testosterone and brimming with teenage angst, we entered the office of the Chief Minister of Punjab. The object was to get a personalized license plate for my friend’s new car. The plan was that in order to get through the “gatekeepers,” I would claim to be the Chief Minister’s nephew, but we hadn’t a clue of what we would do if we were granted audience. I had probably imagined that the innocence of our request and confidence in our ability to access a high ranking official would be enough to charm the man. Or perhaps, we were sure that we wouldn’t get that far. And we did not. But that provided us with something to laugh about for years afterwards.

We had met in college. New to the city and facing similar issues of unfamiliarity with our surroundings, we started spending time together. For two years, until our lives took us on divergent paths, we were together in class in the morning, playing cricket in the afternoon, taking tutorials in the evening, and roaming around the city at night. We became the best of friends, and have remained so. In time, our families too developed cordial ties.

Not too long after we met, he matter of factly told me that he was an Ahmadi. My heart sank. I thought to myself: why me? Why do I have to be the one who has to decide whether or not that should matter? And, what would my parents say? While I was thinking about what that revelation meant for me and our friendship, I didn’t much reflect on how often he must have been shunned and ostracized in the aftermath of revealing this information to others. That his cautious pace of befriending people, the degrees of closeness, the maintenance of various gradations of friendship and the concordant measured dissemination of personal information, is not merely a matter of his introverted personality and its attendant quirks, did not dawn on me at the time.

The easiest way to proceed was to ignore the differences between us, and to avoid talking about religion. Shared culture and language, common generational concerns and interests, and most important of all, the glue of friendship was enough to hold us together through the years and even across continents. But that was my escape into the liberal conceit of “tolerance,” whereby even as I acknowledged his humanity, I did not have to engage with his experience as a Pakistani Ahmadi – and therefore my own complicity in the violence inflicted on Ahmadis. For a gaze that sees all things religious and signs of religiosity as essentially pre-modern or anti-modern, and religious differences and the terrifying violence they spawn as mere internecine squabbling that it transcends and is not implicated in, it is perhaps easy to accept an Ahmadi as an Ahmadi and as a Muslim. But this self-serving acceptance, convinced as it is at not having a dog in this fight, consigns itself to irrelevance vis-à-vis the thus far largely, and increasingly, one-sided conversation that needs to be engaged, and the history of violence and marginalization that needs ceaseless elucidation, dissemination, and popular and state acceptance, in order to not only restore but also sustain the full citizenship and socio-cultural standing of Ahmadis in Pakistan.

That history of violence rears its ugly head in the spectacular acts of terror, such as last year’s attack on what was reported as Ahmadis’ “place of worship.” These events are then explained away as aberrations, and the work of a few bad apples. Conceived as polar opposites, terms such as Sufi/Salafi, secular/fundamentalist, moderate/extremist, are routinely employed to analyze and make sense of such events. But they obfuscate and mystify, and for analytic purposes they are inadequate and ultimately unhelpful. Since there is no internal stability and coherence to these terms, they end up being used as a device to place the self in the former moderate category and the purveyors of violence in the latter extremist category, and thereby excusing oneself by finding only and all of the culpability in the latter. Their pernicious effect is to exceptionalize brutality as something that only monstrous life-forms are capable of, instead of seeing brutality as a human trait and that those thought to be brutes are in fact human like the rest of us.


 [Dipesh] Chakrabarty points to the everyday behavior [in India] that in Europe or Australia would indicate racism, for example, informal unwillingness to sell property to Muslims – to which one could add references to Muslims as dirty or having too many children, or, as in the American South, the remnants left when the smart ones go north. No analogy is perfect: others have found anti-Semitism a useful parallel. One can also link Muslims, Copts, Ahmadis, and Bahais who are labeled in their respective countries as the cosmopolitans, people of mixed loyalty with links to outsiders, secretly privileged and powerful, in short, the language once used of European Jews. In all these cases minorities are forced to play roles not of their own choosing, not least that of foil against which the unity of others – Hindus, the nation –can be constituted, and injustices of class and wealth obscured. The history that identifies Indian Muslims as aliens, destroyers, and crypto-Pakistanis, with its profound moral and political implications for citizenship and entitlements is critical in sustaining that role. It presumably cannot be successfully challenged until, as has happened only partially and very recently in the United States in relation to African Americans, the social and political interests that sustain belief in fundamental difference are changed.

                                                            Barbara D. Metcalf, “Too Little and Too Much”

It is tempting think that those spewing hateful misinformation and spreading rumors are simply misinformed or more derisively as ignorant and therefore innocent of willed bigotry. That may be, but it is not, or not merely, ignorance or not knowing. It is also the unknowing of what one knows – that Ahmadis live within and transgress the societal norms as much as non-Ahmadis do; that they are shaped by the society at large and the various local, national, and global dynamics, in varying ways and to different extents, just as non-Ahmadis are, and hence have as much of a claim in defining and shaping the society at large or what is called the national culture – and having filled the lacunae with a kind of bad knowledge acquired actively or accumulated passively over time. Constructed meticulously from the available reservoir of rumors, caricatures, and stereotypes, this bad knowledge is tied to a malignant project of homogenization through dominating and exterminating those deemed different and beyond the ever-shrinking pale.

Is that judgment too harsh? After all, don’t most sects, religions, and secular ideologies have some variant of the idea of the “chosen people,” the real this-that-or-the-other, which eventually is damning for all else or some particular “others.” I, too, have thought in such terms: “well, they think they are the true Muslims and we think we are – same difference.” But, this difference is not a difference the weight of which is spread equally between two people: I am as different from him as he is different from me, and I have my religious beliefs and practices (individual and collective), and he has his. No. “They” are different from “us” in a specific way and that has very specific and dire consequences for them and none for us for being different from them, other than perhaps their justified suspicion and hesitance in letting us into the inner sanctums of their socio-religious lives.  Divorced from troubling questions of power and culture this sometimes desired equivalence of religious difference, read as reality on the ground, becomes false equivalence, one that eschews, covers over, and perpetuates the invisibility of the long history of persecution and violence visited upon those deemed different from the majority “us.”

That “they” share cultural, class, ethnic, and yes, religious past and present, with the rest of us, and like the rest of us participate in all the contestations therein, albeit at a grave disadvantage, is beside the point. They are marginalized and penalized because of that difference, which is after all minute in comparison with the similarities and commonalities between them and other groups within the same class and location. That over-determined difference is assigned a politically charged value. A hierarchy of social power is constructed on the basis of this difference whereby one does not win much solely by being a Sunni (there is, of course, no shortage of poor and marginalized Sunnis), but one sure gets docked for not being one, and much more so for being an Ahmadi. That is where being a Sunni in Pakistan becomes an unfair and unjust advantage and a privilege, making it nearly impossible to be Sunni (though, not only) and not be complicit in the gross injustice meted out to Pakistan’s “minorities.” Such is the hegemony of systems of dominance that it makes collaborators of even those grinding under its weight, pitting one against the other, whereby having a scapegoat or a shared object of ridicule, derision, and bigotry (a class/cultural/religious/linguistic/ethnic/racial/sexual other, or a national enemy within or without) provides a form of social bonding and upward social mobility, however limited.

It is worth quoting Gyanendra Pandey at length, here: “When used in conjunction with ‘religion’ or ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture,’ these terms [‘minority’ and ‘majority’] result in a curious ambiguity, as Talal Asad has reminded us. For whereas majority and minority belong primarily to a vocabulary of electoral and parliamentary politics, and the shifting terrain upon which these politics are supposed to be carried out, culture (like religion, race, and so on) is ‘virtually coterminous with the social life of particular populations, including habits and beliefs conveyed across generations.’ To speak of cultural, ethnic or religious minorities is therefore to posit what Asad calls ‘ideological hybrids.’ It is ‘to make the implicit claim that members of some cultures truly belong to a particular politically defined place, but those of others (minority cultures) do not—either because of recency (immigrants) or of archaicness (aborigines).’ Or, one might add, simply because of unspecified, but (as it is asserted) fundamental, ‘difference’—as in the case of the Indian Muslims.”

The anti-minority nationalist juggernaut of Sunni dominance that seeks to constitute Ahmadis not only as a numerical minority but also as a social, cultural, political, and economic minority in Pakistan, and thereby constituting a majoritarian unmarked “self,” feeds on the petty social biases and bigoted views of average decent people like ourselves, our neighbors, uncles, and parents. Such views are considered either justified, or ignored (how could uncle Iqbal be a bigot? he’s a nice person after all!), or brushed aside (yes, but uncle Iqbal is a charitable person, and he is not against Ahmadis as persons, and is not rude when he sees one), or defended as benign, or not mal-intended, or at least not explicit, not overt, or not rabid (it’s an ever-sliding scale!). But they are not divorced from questions of socio-political power and machinations of the state, which implicate the good uncle Iqbal in the steam-rolling and hounding of minority “others.”


 Galtung’s theory, highly valued in peace and conflict studies, provides a framework for explaining the interdependence and functions of structural, cultural and direct violence in bringing about the systemic exclusion of a population. Structural violence – for example, poverty – among a particular ethnic group such as dalits, encompasses different forms of domination, exploitation, deprivation and humiliation that emanate from societal structures, [and is] often cited to describe the prevalence of caste, class and ethnic inequalities, power relations and domination occupy a central place. Direct violence – for example, a street fights or an inter­national war – harms or kills individuals or members of a group in a targeted manner. Cultural violence refers to those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, art and culture, and empirical and formal science – that are used to justify or legitimise violence in its direct and structural forms.

[…] Galtung theorises that when the triangle of violence stands on legs of direct and structural violence, it projects the image of cultural violence as the legitimiser of both. When the head is direct violence, an event, an image of the cultural and structural sources of violence is revealed. When direct and cultural ­violence are at the foot, structural violence is revealed in the social, economic and poli­tical status of the violated. Galtung claims cultural violence ­motivates actors to commit direct violence and omit counteracting structural ­violence insofar as it imbeds the inevit­ability and righteousness of violence into people’s world views …

Taha Abdul Rauf, “Violence Inflicted on Muslims: Direct, Cultural and Structural,” EPW,  VOL XLVI NO. 23, June 04, 2011

The violence inflicted on Ahmadis affects all areas of their life: admissions in school, making friends, dealing with mean kids in the playground spewing venom that they have heard their elders speak, employment opportunities, choice of profession, career graphs, marital choices, what they can or can’t say, and whether or not they will live out their whole lives in their own country or will they be chased out, or meet an assassin’s bullet, or be lynched by a mob, – all the while living under the Sword of Damocles.

 Though the legal battles involving Ahmadis about who can pray behind whose imam and who is or isn’t a Muslim go back to the early twentieth century, and are successors of the 19th century Ahl-iHadth vs. Hanafi/Deobandi conflicts over the said issues, as Manan Ahmad explains, “Until 1974, Ahmadiyya were a religious minority within Islam – they could contest elections as Muslims, hold posts, get married, own land – their status was no different than the Sunni majority. Their status was secure in Indian legal code – as above – and it was re-affirmed under Government of West Pakistan v. Begum Agha Abdul Karim Shorish Kashmiri (1969) which judged Ahmadis to be citizens, to be Muslim, and protected under the fullness of law.” In the “legal shift of the Ahmadis’ status from Muslims to religious minority and then to potential blasphemers there were two key moments,” according to Asad A. Ahmed whose detailing of the said process I will attempt to summarize here[1]. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim in 1974, but no legal means of enforcing this decision were enacted. This allowed Ahmadis, who in their religious praxis were by and large not differentiable from Sunni Muslims, to continue to act and be recognized as Muslims, leaving the anti-Ahmadi agitators legally hamstrung in preventing Ahmadis from being and behaving as Muslims. That Ahmadis “pose as Muslims” (that standard fare of anti-Semitism, or Western Islamophobia, or Hindu nationalist propaganda in India that “the enemy within” is duplicitous, dissimulative, and deceptive) became the center of political (and later, judicial) activism which materialized in the introduction of Ordinance XX in 1984. This ordinance criminalized Ahmadi usage of Muslim terminology such as epithets to refer to holy persons, calling their place of worship a masjid (mosque), and the call to prayer, azan; and prohibited Ahmadis from Muslim ritual practices such as the actual calling of the azan.

The next round of agitation and the second critical moment in this politico-legal violence on Ahmadis centered at the Ahmadi recital of the kalima, which was not specifically criminalized by the aforementioned ordinance. The courts ruled that the recitation of kalima would constitute Ahmadis as “posing as Muslims” and is thus within the scope of the Ordinance; therefore outlawing the very core of Ahmadi faith. When argued that the Ordinance violated the constitutional right to assembly, freedom of speech, and religion, the court ruled that the Ordinance did not violate the said constitutional rights since these rights were subject to other provisions of the constitution dealing with public order and morality and that the Ordinance was issued because of Ahmadi insistence to claim a Muslim identity — an act that was itself unconstitutional since the constitution declares them non-Muslim, highlighting once again the irresolvable contradiction between recognizing freedom of religion as a constitutional right and in the same document laying the foundation of restricting Ahmadis from practicing their religion in their own way. The judge, then assumed the role of interpreting the Ahmadi faith, praxis, and intent, and argued that the various resemblances between Mirza Ghulam Ahmed and the Holy Prophet, as laid out by the Ahmadi literature, amounted to the concept of reincarnation, pressing Hinduism (read: India) — that other religious and national “Other”— into service, concluded that it is thus foreign to Islam (read: Pakistan). He then concluded that when Ahmadis recite the kalima they refer to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and that therefore amounts to defiling the Prophet and under the purview of Section 295-C, the blasphemy law, enacted in 1986 to criminalize the defiling of the Holy Prophet’s name.

In another legal case of consequence, the court held that by reciting the kalima, Ahmadis were violating the constitutional demarcation between the parallel communities of Ahmadis and Muslims, the former having been severed from the latter through the severance of the former with Prophet Muhammad. This time around the court held that when Ahmadis recite the kalima, they refer to both Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and Prophet Muhammad simultaneously. So, by referring to Prophet Muhammad along with the prophetic founder of the Ahmadi community, they appropriate the religious identity of another community and therefore ‘pose as Muslims,’ which is blasphemous. It is as if the alleged parallel communities are fundamentally different from one another with no points of contact, cross-pollinations, common beliefs and practices, and shared histories. Instead, they are columns under the heading of one could be written masjid and that of the other ibadatgah (place of worship).

To sum up, Ahmadis were first declared non-Muslims, and then hounded through legal means as posers and frauds, and therefore always already potential blasphemers. With the criminalizing of the defiling of the Holy Prophet by misrepresentation, construed as such presumably by officially sanctioned/defined/recognized Muslims, the sword was firmly in place that cleaved the populace into a privileged majority that was spared and those that were not. This sword was to cut down whomsoever challenged the tyranny of a majoritarianism constructed through the liberal legal concept of property rights[2] that submitted Islam and Muslim-ness to the exclusive ownership of Muslims, as recognized by the state and law, and defined as those who believe not only in the finality of Prophet Muhammad, but were also willing to condemn Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (a state-modified kalima, if you will) and therefore legally willing to be accomplices in the persecution of Ahmadis (or else!).


That Zafarullah Khan’s memory has been so thoroughly erased from everyday lives – where theorists often prattle on and on about the long memories of the nation-state, such intense and immediate silencings are rarely noted – is indicative of the changed narrative about Ahmadis inPakistan– who are now simply heretics and infidels to be eliminated indiscriminately.

Manan Ahmed, “We Are All Ahmadi V: Erasures”

[…] Giorgio Agamben has written […] about a figure found in ancient Roman law called the homo sacer. This is a man who is the most vulnerable denizen of the political community, because his absolute vulnerability is the condition for the absolute power of the ruler. The homo sacer is placed under a ban – that is to say, he is banished from the company of other men, and at the same time abandoned by the legal and juridical order.

This state of banishment and abandonment renders the life of the homo sacer less than the politically-defined and legally-protected life of a citizen: he is reduced to what Agamben calls “bare life” or “naked life”. In this state, which lies outside the realms of both politics and the law, the homo sacer may be killed, without any entailment in the form of punishment or reward, by anyone who wishes. […] The life of the homo sacer is less than a life; consequently, it can be extinguished with impunity.

            Ananya Vajpeyi, “The Bare Life Of S.A.R. Geelani, Ph.D”

 The state claims to be merely the nation’s representation and self-realization in whose interest it selflessly acts. But it is, in fact, a self-interested arbiter of the politics and culture of the very nation it shapes and constitutes. The state of Pakistan has, through legislative and juridical means, not only made it increasingly harder for Ahmadis to live as Ahmadis by criminalizing Ahmadis to live as Muslims, but also by being unable and/or unwilling to hold vigilantes to account, has made it fair game for Ahmadis to be coerced, violated, or killed as the persecutor sees fit. Those with a grudge against an Ahmadi have the legal route at their disposal to inflict violence through the state and/or hang a target on his head through the blasphemy law which would materialize in the state or a vigilante doing the job for free.

Not too long ago, it was reported that a pamphlet was openly distributed in Faisalabad deeming Ahmadis “Wajibul Qatl” (‘liable to be murdered’) and inciting people to kill them. It listed the city’s prominent Ahmadis. The name of my best friend, the same college friend who told me that he was an Ahmadi, is on that list. He is a marked man. Abandoned by the state and the society, he is left to fend for himself.


[1] Asad A. Ahmed, ‘The Paradoxes of Ahmadiyya Identity: Legal Appropriation of Muslim-ness and the Construction of Ahmadiyya Difference,’ published in ‘Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan,’ ed. Naveeda Khan (London andNew Delhi: Routledge, 2009)

[2] “It is thus clear that intentionally using trade names, trademarks, property marks or descriptions of others in order to make others believe that they belong to the user thereof amounts to an offence and not that they belong to the user thereof amounts to an offence and not only the perpetrator can be imprisoned and fined but damages can be recovered and injunction to restrain him issued. This is true of goods of even very small value. For example, the Coca Cola Company will not permit anyone to sell, even a few ounces of his own product in bottles or other receptacles marked Coca Cola … the principles involved are; do not receive and do not violate the property rights of others.” (Zahiruddin v The State, Supreme, 1993, Supreme Court Monthly Review, 1753-54). Ibid, p 303.

4 Replies to “An Abandoned Man”

  1. Salam,

    thank you very much for this essay. It is really a breath of fresh air. Touching and analytic at the time.

    Iftekhar Ahmed
    An Ahmadi MUSLIM

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