My family left Pakistan 33 years ago before I was born. For so many reasons. The most important and dangerous being that we are a heavily persecuted minority sect in Islam, we are Ahmadi Muslims (no relation to my last name). Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father) declared Ahmadis non-Muslim in 1974 by constitutional amendment, and his successor through military coup Zia al Haq banned us from identifying as Muslim in 1984 and sparked waves of violence against Ahmadis that has never ceased to this day. Pakistan’s penal code contains the most strict Blasphemy Law of any Islamic Republic, making “insulting” a Muslim or defiling the name of the Holy Prophet, including just by being an Ahmadi Muslim, punishable by death, and yes many Ahmadis have been executed under this law. Not that the fanatics need the law since waves of vigilante violence against Ahmadis go unpunished or even condemned by the government. Ahmadis have lived with this government sponsored persecution (discrimination, murder) ever since, rendering us second class citizens often discriminated against with government support. Yes members of my family have been persecuted. An Ahmadi’s Pakistani passport will state “non-Muslim”, something my brave grandmother in her recent passport renewal application refused to say or sign. The most recent wave of violence occurred last May, 2010, where the Punjabi Taliban massacred Ahmadis in their mosques while praying, killing 90 people and finishing more off by attacking the hospitals survivors were taken to. It is this very law that has led to the recent death sentence of a Christian woman Asia Bibi after she got into an argument with Muslim women she was working with in the field after they refused water she offered them because she was Christian. This fanaticism also led to the assassination of the Governor of Lahore this January (while we were in Pakistan) by his own security guard when he announced his support in repealing the law, followed by 1,000s of people rallying insupport of the murderer. Please see this informative Human Rights Watch report on the May 2010 massacres and on the plight of Ahmadis in general.
Although I had visited 22 years ago, and my mother returned several times (although never openly declaring she was Ahmadi for fear of persecution), my father never went back. Having survived the bloody partition of India in 1948 into what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, a war that resulted in the largest mass forced transfer of people in recorded human history, and barely escaping with his life at just 9 years old (surviving several blood thirsty mobs and a refugee camp), and then the persecution of Ahmadis later in Pakistan, I can’t blame my father for not wanting to go back.
But in the end it is still our homeland. And I wanted my father to return to our homeland just once, and as I had no real memory of Pakistan either, I wanted to make this pilgrimage with him. Though it was obviously dangerous and I knew it was going to be emotionally difficult, I still felt that human instinct to return to one’s home. And I refused to be afraid. I am, afterall, my father’s daughter.
What hit me first and lingers with me even now is the suffering. Pakistan is such a brutal land, not only politically but physically in how difficult it is to survive and hack out a means of survival. And it wasn’t like the U.S. where you can shut out the suffering by stuffing it in impoverished communities and neighborhoods–the suffering was everywhere. And it clung to you. Beggars and poverty on every street corner, outside affluent malls and stores, banging on your car window with the child beggars carrying even younger children who are usually drugged to keep them from crying, children deliberately maimed to make them better earning beggars for their pimps, people languishing in the UN Flood Victims camps. The skeletal horses and donkeys forced to carry loads far too heavy for them, the starving and abundant stray cats and dogs, live animal markets with chickens and turkeys crammed into cages with no water.
And yet so much of this suffering is preventable, if you had a government who cared or an education system that empowered people to fight back against government corruption. It is this kind of suffering, corruption and governmental neglect that leaves the population vulnerable to any number of forces, particularly those that are seen as the alternative saviors to the poor who have been so neglected by their government. There are no social services, no welfare, food stamps, education outreach. In this vacuum enters the much more conservative Taliban influences, particularly in the north near the Afghanistan border in Peshawar, and it slowly spreads like a cancer. The Taliban runs nearly completely unchecked by the Pakistani government, resulting in one of the stated reasons for U.S. drone attacks in the north. And the people need something to hold onto when their government completely abandons them and they are being attacked by the U.S. Like ultra conservative Islamic movements, the Taliban for instance, the mullahs supporting the brutal Blasphemy Law. Yet without government funding of education, food banks, and the general welfare of its people, it is hardly surprising that desperate people are sitting ducks for any group claiming to lead them in some sort of direction or give them some answer as to why things are the way they are.
Like how Musharaf was a dictator taking over Pakistan in a military coup …and yet to the average Pakistani, Musharaf was much “better” than Zardari (the current President) because at least Musharaf provided the people with the basic necessities of life- electricity, heat, and gas. And what else can you worry about when you are worried about your basic survival? Under Zardari, it’s the first time in the recent memory of many Pakistanis where there are daily power outages for several hours, as well as daily gas outages which means no gas for cooking, heating water or heating your home. And in northern Pakistan like Peshawar, the temperature drops to the 30’s. Of course this is the same Zardari who was known as “Mr. 10%” (while married to the late Prime Minister and equally corrupt Benazir Bhutto, taking after her father) since every government contract had to provide Zardari with 10% of the proceeds, so what can we really expect?
But the hardest for me was to stand witness to the UN Flood Victims camps. My cousin who works for the World Health Organization took me to visit the camps and the people languishing there after the flood displaced them almost a year ago, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. Absolutely no money comes from the Pakistani government to alleviate their suffering, all of the aide provided for the camps is from the UN and other international humanitarian relief organizations. It’s not surprising since when the flood occurred last summer, Zardari left the country for “official” visits at the height of the flood catastrophe. People are living in tents with no running water, no heat, no electricity. Their “kitchens” are a few bricks surrounding a camp fire. The hospitals are bamboo huts with a single patient bed for examination. The children go to school in a larger “children friendly space” tent. A few families were able to get their hands on precious gas heaters to heat their freezing tents at night, which seemed like a blessing to a family of 5 with a new young infant of 3 months. But a few nights before we visited the camps, the family’s tent caught on fire from the gas heater, killing all 5. No one was saved because there was no money to have a doctor on duty at night at the camps. When we visited the camp, the remains of their tent were still there. Upon seeing the photos, my father said it reminded him of his experience in the refugee camps during Partition, but he said those camps were even worse than these. I can’t imagine the horror.
I became much more acutely aware of my U.S./western privilege visiting these camps. It was cold, dirty, and desolate, and yet I knew I would be returning to a home, where we at least had gas heaters that worked, sometimes. We had showers and food. And I knew that soon I would be returning to the U.S. where we hardly ever face power outages on the grand and regular scale Pakistanis do. But life in the states didn’t provided my family with refuge completely. Ahmadis are persecuted and shunned by other Muslim communities in the U.S. to this day, even kicking my family out of a mosque in Wisconsin. Or post 9/11 when Muslim leaders were invited to participate in talks about the violent backlash against Muslims, other Muslim leaders refused to attend the meeting if our religious leader was invited. Persecuted within an already persecuted community. In a time when we need to find unity in our global Muslim community as we are increasingly targeted by our own government and conservative forces worldwide, when our name is being dragged through the mud by the Taliban and others who exploit the name of Islam, the most heartbreaking part of all of this for me is that we are divided, and when you are divided as a people, you are easily conquered and subjugated.
As I watch the revolutions happening for the past few weeks in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and now Syria, and the people uniting to shake off oppressive governments, often puppets of our U.S. regime, not letting divide and conquer subdue them, I wonder if Pakistanis will one day have enough of military dictatorships and rigged elections, poverty, U.S. drone attacks, internal divisions and the persecution of their fellow Ahmadi people. Will we find our place in the revolution? Will we make a revolution of our very own?
– Bina Ahmad is an attorney, human rights and animal rights social justice activist. She is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and an Ahmadi Muslim, a heavily persecuted sect in Islam. She has worked on social justice issues her entire life, and worked with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the New York branch of the ACLU, Al-Haq (the oldest Palestinian Human Rights NGO based in Ramallah, West Bank), and PETA. She strives to make the connection between human and animal oppression, and hopes you will join her in the struggle.