It is one of the great paradoxes that characterizes Pakistan; a state founded in the name of Islam, whose citizens are overwhelmingly Muslim, and where the majority religion enjoys unquestioned influence over policy and the public discourse, continues to find itself recoiling in fear from allegedly unprecedented threats to the integrity of Islam within its borders. Earlier this week, in a judgement that rests upon extremely questionable logic and a mindbogglingly wide interpretation of the constitution, the Islamabad High Court has ruled that all citizens who aspire to work in the civil service, judiciary, or armed forces will first need to declare their religion, and that the religious affiliation of Pakistan’s citizens must be recorded on all official identity documents, including national ID cards, passports, and birth certificates. Essentially, in response to a petition, filed by Maulana Allah Wasaya and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), which demanded that the court ensure the removal controversial clauses of the Election Act that made minor changes to the oath taken by potential lawmakers regarding the Finality of Prophethood, the Court has essentially decided that an oath affirming belief in the Finality of Prophethood is now a mandatory requirement for all citizens to undertake should they ever aspire to work in the public sector.
This decision by the Islamabad High Court is problematic at multiple levels. For one, as anyone who has been following the events of the past few months could attest, the petition the Court was responding to referred to a matter that had already been resolved by parliament; when objections were raised regarding the changes made by the Election Act of 2017, the government quickly backtracked on its position, reversed the controversial changes, and attributed them to a clerical error. The matter should have ended there but instead, the country and the world bore witness to how the TLYR took this issue and used it to engage in an extremely disruptive sit-in in Islamabad at the end of which a clearly defeated government caved in to a series of demands that ostensibly satisfied any remaining concerns the self-appointed defenders of Islam might have had regarding the law.
In this context, it is not immediately clear why the Islamabad High Court felt it necessary to rule on this matter or direct the government to take any action given that the initial cause of offence had already been dealt with. It is certainly not clear why the Court would go a step further, in what is arguably an instance of judicial overreach, to engage in such a questionable interpretation of the Constitution to justify a decision that, in addition to being deeply unsettling, also amounts to enacting new laws concerning the conduct of governance and the nature of citizenship in Pakistan.
The Court itself agreed with the petitioners when they stated that this was a matter of utmost importance given that the passage of the Election Act of 2017 had created a serious law and order situation in the country. What was missing from this declaration, of course, was the fact that the petitioners themselves were solely responsible for creating this situation (something which they cannot be held responsible for, courtesy of the deal they made with the government at the end of the Faizabad sit-in). An alternative interpretation of the Court’s decision to rule on this case, however, might suggest that it is nothing more than the continuation of a long-running tendency in Pakistan to appease the Religious Right by systematically targeting religious minorities.
It is blatantly obvious from the tone and nature of the judgement that Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui and the Islamabad High Court have actively sought to further marginalize and victimize Pakistan’s Ahmadis, further institutionalizing and endorsing the discrimination and persecution that they face in this country. According to Siddiqui, Pakistan’s Ahmadis, who constitute a miniscule and ever-dwindling percentage of the country’s population, have been engaging in widespread attempts to get government jobs by misrepresenting their faith and passing as Muslims. This apparently constitutes nothing less than treason, as Siddiqui’s ‘creative’ interpretation of Article 5 of the Constitution has taken any misdeclaration of faith to be tantamount to disloyalty to the state. Why one should follow the other is not clear, but there it is.
The very choice of language used by the Court to describe the positions in government allegedly being unlawfully occupied by Ahmadis – ‘sensitive’ and ‘dignified’ – automatically implies that the Court does not believe that non-Muslims have a right to dignity in the Land of the Pure. Indeed, Siddiqui and his Court have decided that citizenship in Pakistan is premised upon a religious test; those who pass it will be entitled to the full rights and privileges that come with membership within the nation, while those who do not will forever be relegated to second-class status. This was already the case prior to the Court’s ruling (as evinced by, for example, the rules against a non-Muslim ever becoming Prime Minister), but what has been done now is a tremendous extension of this exclusionary principle.
Matters are made worse by the reality that the effects of this decision will not simply be felt in terms of jobs and employment in the government. Ahmadis are routinely subjected to violence by a range of extremist organizations and groups in society, and forcing them to publicly declare their faith on every single identity document will simply mark them out for yet more persecution. At every single checkpoint, police cordon, polling booth, and government office in the land, Ahmadis understandably wishing to conceal or at least not advertise their identity will be compelled to do so and will be left to the tender mercies of a society that has been systematically conditioned to discriminate against them.
Since the early 1950s, when the question of Ahmadis and the Finality of Prophethood first assumed political significance in Pakistan, it has been clear that this issue has been used for little more than the pursuit of political gain, either by governments seeking to use the ever-emotive issue of religion to garner legitimacy and support, or by religious zealots attempting to carve out yet more space for themselves in the public sphere. The tropes that have accompanied this narrative – accusing Ahmadis of blasphemy and treachery against the state of Pakistan – have no basis in fact and yet, have been trotted out time and again to stoke the fires of sectarian hatred. That a community of less than a few hundred thousand adherents could pose a threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan and Islam, a religious with more than a billion followers, is an idea that simply boggles the mind and flies in the face of reason. Yet, that is precisely the idea that the Islamabad High Court has given credence to. It will not be long before the Islamic Republic of Pakistan will do away with even the pretence of tolerance, and will simply compel all those who do not conform to the parochial religious dictates of an extremist fringe to submit or face the consequences.