There are still a lovely, hardy few who believe in an inclusive Pakistan. I watched their hopes surge when Princeton’s Professor Atif Mian was appointed to Prime Minister Khan’s new Economic Advisory Council, despite the award-winning academic’s Ahmadi background. A week later when Mian was fired, they bitterly condemned the government for its bigotry and weakness. In fairness, this U-turn was only the latest episode in sixty plus years of state capitulation. No Pakistani government has ever successfully protected an openly Ahmadi official targeted by the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Movement (KNM), regardless of the individual’s professionalism and patriotism. This once fringe Deobandi movement is now championed by Barelvis, Jamaatis and Shiites, the PPP, PML and PTI. It has somehow become the definitive test of good Muslims and good Pakistanis, transcending denomination or party.

So how did it come to this? KNM’s success didn’t occur because Pakistanis became better Muslims. For two generations anti-Ahmadi polemics were confined to clerics and cranks until the (Deobandi) Majlis-e-Ahrar party discovered how to sell it to the mainstream. The secret to its mass appeal is the extreme anxiety that so many Pakistanis feel about who is really running the state, and whether the powers-that-be reflect their identity and interests. In 1935 Iqbal became the first to claim that Ahmadi beliefs threatened the creation of a united Muslim polity in South Asia; Jinnah rejected this and faced little pushback for doing so. A turning point came after Partition, when displaced survivors in a brutalised west Punjab faced shortages of food, housing, land and funds, while an often corrupt state struggled to provide for its citizens. Pakistan’s survival seemed an open question. In this traumatic environment, Ahrar refugees loudly pointed out how much quicker than others migrant Ahmadis bounced back on their feet. They claimed that the disproportionate number of senior Ahmadi civil servants (the result, supposedly of British patronage) were favouring their own kind, and leaving the rest behind. The idea caught on.

A coalition of ulema parties launched the first targeted post-Partition campaign in 1952 against the foreign minister, Sir Zafarullah Khan, a senior confidante of Jinnah for decades. Chief Minister Daultana in Punjab had quietly allied with the Ahrars, and Prime Minister Nazimuddin wanted to protect Zafarullah without confronting the maulvis. Confrontation came anyway during the ‘Punjab Disturbances’ of 1953 when supporters of the ‘religious’ parties rioted across the province and seized Old Lahore. Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed reacted sharply, dismissing the Daultana and Nazimuddin governments; martial law made its debut and the Army was sent in. A court of inquiry led by justices Munir and Kiyani was instituted, and their report strongly warned against political and ideological compromises with the ulema. The generals and judges seemed to agree that the clerics and politicos couldn’t be trusted to run the show. Despite this, Sir Zafarullah nevertheless felt compelled to leave the cabinet and the country. It seemed better for all concerned that he represented Pakistan on the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Soon after the clerics were released. It was a sign of things to come.

Largely forgotten, but at least as important, is the case of the distinguished civil servant, Mirza Muzaffar Ahmad. MM Ahmad played the key role in economic management under the Ayub and Yahya Khan regimes. Unfortunately, his time at the top coincided with Pakistan’s next round of anti-Ahmadi campaigning. Following the 1969 popular uprising that brought down Ayub, the Army under Yahya transitioned to a managed multi-party democracy by allying with right-wing and Islamist groups against leftist and ethnic parties. The atmosphere of impunity produced superheated hate-speech and blowback that current readers will find terribly familiar. In Friday sermons and publications like Chattan, MM Ahmad was repeatedly accused of being a CIA and Indian agent who deliberately aggravated economic inequality between East and West Pakistan in order to foment separatism among Bengalis. This soon had the desired effect. On the 15th of September, 1971 a CDA lift operator named Aslam Qureshi nearly stabbed MM Ahmad to death in the Ministry of Finance. Qureshi was swiftly tried the next month in a military court, and sentenced to 15 years of rigorous labour. He was defended pro bono by Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, the PML general secretary in Rawalpindi. Not long after, MM Ahmad, following in Sir Zafarullah’s footsteps decided to leave the country and serve Pakistan abroad at the World Bank in Washington DC. This proved wise because only two years later, Prime Minister ZA Bhutto pardoned and released Aslam Qureshi, a prelude to the passage of the Second Amendment.

What do these vignettes tell us? Anti-Ahmadi sentiment is a symptom of something much deeper. Pakistanis, almost from the start, have held deep fears that their state does not serve them, does not represent them and may not survive. Allowing these emotions to be redirected against Ahmadis has permitted those in power to survive without making real changes. For the religious parties who can agree on very little, it has provided a rare common platform with each other and ordinary Muslims. Inevitably, as the designated scapegoats for very real problems, the position of Ahmadis has continued to deteriorate along with Pakistanis’ trust in government. For those who think this isn’t their problem; if the Ahmadis are driven away or destroyed, the republic will need some other group to fill their bloodied shoes. It could be yours.

n          The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is also an independent consultant.