“[Faced with the] 90 year-old problem of the Qadianis [Ahmadiyya] who challenged the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, [The PPP] shut them up, then broke the problem’s neck and buried it.”

These were the words of the former Prime Minister and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Raja Parvez Ashraf at a political rally this weekend.

Just over a month ago, on March 24th, the British media reported that a Muslim man was stabbed to death in a particularly savage attack in Glasgow shortly after he wished Christians a happy Easter on his Facebook profile.

British Muslims took to social media to express their outrage and to point out how intolerance, media bias, and anti-Muslim bigotry can inspire acts of violence against ordinary Muslims. Non-Muslims were urged to show greater tolerance and to curb their palpable ‘Islamophobia.’

But these self-righteous Muslim voices, calling for tolerance and decrying bigotry, suddenly fell silent as further details of the crime emerged. The suspected murderer, it turned out, was a Muslim, not an ‘Islamophobe’. And his victim happened to be a member of the Ahmadiyya community. It is believed that the suspect, Tanveer Ahmed, travelled over 200 miles, all the way from Bradford to Glasgow, for one purpose only — to murder an Ahmadi named Asad Shah.

Shah was stabbed over 30 times in broad daylight and in front of passers-by. He collapsed on the ground bleeding to death, but this did not satisfy the killer who continued his assault. Witnesses described how the killer savagely stamped on Shah's head and finally sat on his chest laughing. Shah was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Police have described the incident as a “religiously-prejudiced attack” and Tanveer Ahmed has been charged with murder. He has since released a statement claiming that:

“Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam . . . If I had not done this, others would have.”

This brutal murder has sent shockwaves through Scotland and the rest of the UK. Shah was a popular and much-loved shopkeeper in Glasgow. Several vigils were held in his memory, attended by hundreds of people, including Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister.

Asad Shah had left Pakistan in 1998. But it was events in Pakistan's history which unleashed the forces that killed him 18 years later in the UK. The Ahmaddiya community was declared to be ‘non-Muslim' in 1974 by an amendment to the Pakistani Constitution. Then in 1984, Ordinance XX was introduced that forbade Ahmadis from ‘posing as Muslims.’ Henceforth, they could be imprisoned for 'crimes' such as reading from the Quran, using Islamic greetings, or in any way ‘outraging the religious sentiments of Muslims.’

In the 1980s, blasphemy laws inherited from British Raj were expanded with a number of clauses making them Islam-specific and sanctioning the death penalty. Since then, accusations of blasphemy have become a popular way of settling personal, political, or sectarian grievances resulting in the current situation, where a mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to mobilise lynch mobs, who will torment and murder their victims in a pious frenzy — the same kind of ‘justified' derangement Shah’s alleged killer must have felt while stamping on his victim’s head.

Religious minorities have become easy targets for this kind of violence. Ahmadis, whose necks had already been figuratively broken by the government itself, could not hope for much protection. Thus, many Ahmadis, including their spiritual leadership, moved to Britain. Unfortunately, they did not find the sanctuary from sectarian hatred and persecution they hoped for. 

Khatm-e-Nubuwwat followed them and established a presence in the UK. Several years ago, leaflets were distributed arguing that Ahmadis deserve death under Islamic law, posters went up in the shops calling for Ahmadis to be shunned, and an Urdu-speaking satellite channel broadcast programs in the UK referring to the Ahmadiyya as 'wajib-ul-qatal’ (worthy of being murdered). As a result, Ahmadis became targets of harassment and intimidation and their businesses were boycotted.

British authorities had largely ignored the problem until Asad Shah was stabbed to death in Glasgow. The controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Act, passed by the Blair government in 2006, specifically outlaws the incitement of violence, but indifference to anti-Ahmadi hatred on the part of the authorities was most probably due to the fact that this was considered an internal Muslim affair. So instead, as in the times of the British Raj, the problem was carelessly referred down to 'community leaders' who were themselves responsible for the incitement itself.

In a wake of the murder, a BBC investigation found leaflets calling for the killing of Ahmadis in the Stockwell Green Mosque in south London. The same mosque had already been accused of helping to promote acts of sectarian terror and hatred in Pakistan in 2011. But back then, the mosque's trustee, a well-known 'community leader' named Toaha Qureshi, claimed:

"We do not have any linkage with this organisation [Khatm-e-Nabuwwat] that is promoting hate.”

Notwithstanding his denial, the BBC has now established that Stockwell Green Mosque is in fact Khatm-e-Nabuwwat oversees office in the UK. Saroop Ajaz from Human Rights Watch explains how the organisation operates in Pakistan:

"Khatm-e-Nabuwwat do not inflict violence themselves, but they provide an enabling environment for a number of actors to do so."

When accusations that Ahmadis are ‘zindiq' (dualist infidels) and therefore ‘wajib-ul-qatal’ (deserving of death) are continuously fed to an audience already inclined towards religious fanaticism, violence becomes almost inevitable. But it is not just Khatm-e-Nabuwwat that acts as an enabler. Takfir (the act of a Muslim accusing another Muslim of apostasy) has been enshrined as a legal principle in Pakistan’s constitution, making Ahmadis useful punchbags for Pakistani politicians. 

The ultimate enabler of religiously-inspired violence, however, is a deep-seated hatred of all those deemed infidels, heretics, or blasphemers, that festers amongst the ordinary Muslim population, springing from a fanatical reverence for religious authority, which in turn results in widespread institutionalised persecution.

The situation is equally dispiriting in Britain. After Asad Shah’s murder, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a nationally representative umbrella body with over 500 affiliated Muslim organisations, issued brief statement:

"There is no place for hatred of this kind.”

Had that statement been intended as a meaningful defence of religious liberty, the MCB would have asserted that Ahmadis, just like any other group of people, have every right to self-identify as they wish; they would have called for an end to the discriminatory anti-Ahmadi laws in Pakistan; and they would have addressed the blatant anti-Ahmadi bigotry blaring from too many Muslim institutions in Britain. Instead, just four days after Asad Shah was buried, MCB published another statement excommunicating murder victim as a 'non-Muslim' and distanced themselves from Ahmadiyya community.

Stockwell Green Mosque, where the BBC found the ‘kill Ahmadis’ literature, happens to be one of the MCB’s affiliates. Due to public pressure, the MCB have now suspended the mosque and are apparently launching an independent investigation into its conduct, albeit with an important disclaimer:

"The Investigation Panel shall not involve itself in matters of theology or in actions/conduct/laws in countries other than the United Kingdom."

Calls to expel Stockwell Green Mosque have put MCB in an embarrassing spot. According to both the MCB and the mosque, Ahmadis have made a grave theological mistake that disqualifies them as Muslims. However, the Stockwell Green Mosque is merely reminding us that, in line with medieval Islamic jurisprudence, apostates should be killed. This is a morally repugnant but perfectly consistent point of view. In contrast, the approach taken by MCB and by the majority of British Muslims is unintelligible — condemning violence, while simultaneously reaffirming the very concept that motivates it. This is an evasive and unsustainable position that smacks of hypocrisy.

The MCB is more than happy to exclude Ahmadis on the grounds of theology, but not an organisation that says Ahmadis should be murdered. It is easy to see why. The MCB would have to admit that death for apostasy is an abhorrent and inhuman law, thus forcing them to undertake the perilous task of reforming problematic aspects of Islamic theology. Conversely, the MCB would have to concede that Stockwell Green Mosque is indeed making an argument compatible with orthodox interpretations of Islam, thereby effectively handing a moral victory to those who describe Islam as a violent and barbaric religion, and whom the MCB routinely denounces as ‘Islamophobes.'

This small drama at the Muslim Council of Britain is a perfect illustration of the much bigger problem responsible for untold amount of suffering within Muslim societies. It is not just about the ‘misinterpretation' of religion by a handful of extremists — it is about orthodox interpretations of sectarianism, takfir, apostasy, and Islamic blasphemy codes, preached by Islamic institutions, politicians, and public figures, and uncritically accepted by the masses. This is the key driver of religious intolerance and, consequently, of violent extremism.

We can see it all around us: one group of Muslims claims to represent ‘true Islam’ and rejects other groups as 'non-Muslim,' just because their beliefs or their interpretation of the Islamic scripture differs. Supported by a doctrinal view that apostates deserve death, violence ensues.

Pakistan's Shias are now targeted more frequently than the Ahmadis, in attacks bearing a sinister resemblance to the violence that preceded the constitutional takfir of Ahmadiyya. Militants carrying out these attacks believe that Shias are ‘apostates’ for simply choosing to follow a different order for respecting the companions of the Prophet. The danger is that some future Pakistani government could eventually succumb to the shrieks of “Shia kafir!” from the self-appointed representatives of the ‘true Islam.’ After all, it would not be too difficult to further restrict the official constitutional definition of a Muslim to a reverence of the first three Caliphs of Islam, and thereby effectively excommunicate all Shias.

In Britain too, there is talk in the Sunni community that Shia are not Muslims. Anti-Shia rhetoric has hardened and became more prominent since Syrian war. It is no longer uncommon to hear the ‘rafida’ (rejectors) slur hurled at them. A Shia mosque in Bradford was defaced with sectarian graffiti last summer. But most disturbing of all, a BBC investigation has found that Sabir Ali, head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque, was formerly president of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the group which bears responsibility for a number of deadly attacks against Shias and other minorities in Pakistan.

If the followers of second largest branch of Islam are not safe from collective takfir, then no sect is. One would hope that at least Shias, who are often victims of sectarianism, would be sympathetic to sects smaller and weaker than themselves, but this is unfortunately not the case. Despite the sectarian chasm between the two, Shias and Sunnis often unite to persecute smaller sects like the Ahmadiyya.

Meanwhile, as the House of Saud and the Ayatollahs in Iran fight struggle for influence in the Middle East and the imposition of their own version of Islam, takfiri madness has plunged the region into an apocalyptic, sectarian bloodbath presently producing hundreds of thousands of Sunni and Shia corpses, and causing other religious groups to face the prospect of total annihilation. This conflict is now spilling beyond the region and it has become a serious security threat for the rest of the world. Europe is destabilised by the ensuing refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism, the scale and ferocity of which has not been seen before.

No doubt, some Muslims will say none of this has anything to do with ‘true Islam' hoping that reality can be wished away and blame assigned to someone else. No doubt, some Muslims will say that extremists have misinterpreted the teachings of Islam and others will even denounce them as 'non-Muslims.'

Is it not curious how takfiris from very different backgrounds – ISIS, Boko Haram, TTP and the deranged individual who stabbed an Ahmadi in Glasgow – all ‘misinterpret' their religion in exactly the same manner? There is little point in telling them that their Islam is wrong. It is not wrong to them. In their minds, they are the only ‘true Muslims' and their ideology requires them to excommunicate and kill anyone who disagrees. 

Their identity rests on belittling another’s faith, sect or denomination as a way of reaffirming their own. They expect everyone to adhere to one monolithic version of Islam and completely reject the idea that differences of opinion are a normal and healthy occurrence amongst people. Instead, they see it as unbearable and threatening to the point that it justifies any atrocity. The antidote to sectarian conflict, therefore, cannot be based on any notion that ‘our Islam is better than yours.’

Some Muslims will argue that the answer to sectarianism is to embrace a plurality of interpretations. A strong case for this can be made from within the religion itself. Islam has a long-standing tradition of ikhtilaf (difference of an opinion on religious matters) that stretches all the way back to the Companions of the Prophet. It is often noted that the founders of two widely-followed schools of thought in Sunni Islam, Imam Abu Haifa and Imam Malik, were in fact students of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam.

However, these commentators forget that later in his life, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was subjected to persecution, since his beliefs were perceived to be a political threat to Abbasid rulers. Accepting pluralism of interpretations has its merits, but it offers only a partial solution. Any system that marries religion to legal institutions will inevitably give the rise to sectarian strife.

A sect whose interpretation is accepted as the basis for legislation and political infrastructure holds political power, while all others are disadvantaged and marginalised, leading to persecution and perpetual conflict. Harmonious coexistence of plural identities and interpretations is only possible within a system that is neutral on matters of religion and does not advantage or disadvantage anyone based on their personal faith.

The Muslim world is now a battlefield of competing Islamisms, ideological movements seeking to enforce one particular version of Islam onto entire societies, all of whom articulate their political ideology through religious supremacism and claim to fight for a united Ummah, a goal that is apparently best achieved by excommunicating and murdering other Muslims.

“Who are the ‘true' Muslims?” one wonders. In reality, religious believers subscribe to ambiguous and often confusing ideologies. No one can possibly adhere to all dogmas and fulfil all religious injunctions at the same time. Everyone cherry-picks their religion — this is what we casually call an ‘interpretation.' Moderates emphasise compassionate parts of scripture and ignore others, while extremists do the opposite. The vast and contradictory nature of the texts makes this inevitable. 

Hence, it makes little sense to define Muslim identity exclusively as a theological checklist, especially since most of us were conscripted into this tradition by the accident of the birth. Regardless of what we actually believe, we are bonded to our Muslim identity through our family, ethnicity, citizenship, culture, and life experience. It is the reality we cannot escape. This alone underscores the need to foster an inclusive, pluralistic Muslim identity that is non-sectarian and it is not equated with an unquestioning adherence to theology.

Declaring any sect, group, or individual, unworthy of self-identifying as a Muslim, reinforces the idea of a ‘true Islam,’ which in turn, mobilises religiously-inspired violence that is currently destroying us from within. There is a desperate need to embrace secular ideals as the long-term solution to curb Islamism, sectarianism, and their violent manifestations. It is simple really – we can continue to believe in old ideas that bring us mayhem and misery or we can embrace new ones that could bring us peace and prosperity.