BY HANIYA JAVED
Twenty-four-year old Talha Saeed’s eyes keep flickering from the windscreen to the rearview mirror as he drives to Long Island from work at 3 a.m. He is aware that he’s now safe living this far away from Pakistan, but whenever a car pulls up behind him the events of 2010 keep coming back to him.
In these moments, Saeed slows down to let the car overtake him. “Or if I have a feeling that it is the same car that has been following for a distance” Saaed said, talking over the phone in a hurried tone, “I don’t go straight to home. I drive somewhere else and only go back once I’m sure the car isn’t near.”
Six years ago, Saeed, his younger sister and mother were driving home from a wedding in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan when two men on a motorbike followed them. “They were the same men who had tried talking me into abduction when I had visited my uncle’s house in Mardan,” said Saeed. “The street on which my uncle lives on is famous for housing Ahmadi Muslims. They knew I was one.”
An Ahmadi Muslim is a follower of Ahmadiyya faith of Islam. The sect was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed in Qadiyan, India in 1889. Ahmadis believe that Ahmed was the promised messiah whose arrival was prophesized by Prophet Muhammad (the last messenger of Allah) and Quran. Owing to the differing views from the rest of the Muslims, Ahmadis are persecuted and victimised in a dozen countries around the world including Morocco, Indonesia, Algeria and Pakistan.
There are as many 5000 Ahmadi Muslims, similar to Saeed, living in the tristate area of New York. Seventy percent of them are Pakistanis, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim Communtiy, USA. The highest numbers of asylum seekers are from Pakistan because of the anti Ahmadi laws and constitutional amendments introduced in 1974 that declared the community non Muslims and made it a criminal offence for them to pose as Muslims. An Ahmadi can be charged under the Pakistani Penal Code for reciting Quran in public, greeting someone in Arabic and referring to their places of worship as mosques, for example.
Saeed’s parents made their move for asylum when the extremists started targeting their kids. “You can bear anything on your own but when it starts affecting your kids, you can no longer sleep or eat. We had to get out,” said Saeed’s mother Tahira, who had been forced to leave her job at two different instances in Pakistani museums, for being an Ahmadi and a kafir (disbeliever).
Another local Ahmadi Muslim refugee , Anila Nawaz, 24, told a similar story of shunning and discrimination. In Karachi, Nawaz, was not allowed to eat with her colleagues at a public university in Karachi. When she offered prayers, they called out, “Look a qadiyani (a derogatory term for Ahmadis) is praying.” A man with a long beard in shalwar qameez would follow her to university. “He would watch me from distance as I would leave the house for university. Once I got down from bus and a bike interrupted me in my tracks. The same man turned around and looked at me. I felt as someone had cut the ground under my feet,” she said, talking in a low voice, her eyes shining bright.
Nawaz’s family has felt isolated since 11 September 2012. Two men on a motorbike had chased her father, Muhammad Nawaz, a police constable, and gunned him down on his way to duty. After the assassination, the family of four would often found themselves huddled together in a corner of their house, their heads between their legs as men would fire at their main gate, or pelt stones. “The grocery store from where mother would shop stopped giving us stuff. The house electric supply was cut and the regular electrician wouldn’t fix it because they threatened to kill him if he did,” The family vacated the neighbourhood but still freeze each time someone knocked on their door.
The hatred of Ahmadiya even reached Hollywood. A week earlier, Mahershala Ali made history for being the first Muslim actor to win and Academy Award for his role in Moonlight. Ali is neither a Pakistani nor is he remotely related to the region. Yet, the win resonated in Pakistan. Ali belongs to Ahmadiyya community.
Reactions against Ali’s win multiplied when Pakistani envoy to United Nation, Maliha Lodhi, replied ‘That’s a First” in a congratulatory retweet. Moments later, Lodhi’s tweet disappeared, sparking a debate on the status of Ahmadis in the country’s legal system. Between 1984 and now, 1085 Ahmadis have been booked in cases on religious grounds and 260 have lost their lives to violence.