Ahmadiyya Community — [Annette Brooke in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 20th October 2010.

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Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 2:30 pm, 20th October 2010

Let me start by apologising for any words that I may pronounce incorrectly. No insult is intended, and I stand to be corrected on my pronunciation. For someone with a name like Siobhain McDonagh, that is quite a thing.

Britain's Ahmadiyya Muslims work hard and contribute greatly to this country. Their belief in peace and religious tolerance is an example to us all, and is to be expected from a community whose motto is, "Love for all and hatred for none." Their fifth spiritual head, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, lives in the United Kingdom, and their headquarters are in south London. Indeed, one of the world's biggest Ahmadi mosques is in Morden. It has capacity for 10,000 people, which means that I have many Ahmadi constituents, as do many neighbouring seats. I am pleased to say that we now have the backing of enough parliamentarians to start up an all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyyan community, and we will hold our first ever meeting in the next few weeks.

In my experience, my Ahmadi constituents are well-educated, cultured and have a sophisticated and peace-loving approach. I am therefore delighted to be granted this opportunity to talk about the Ahmadiyyan community. I understand that this is the first ever parliamentary debate specifically to discuss the Ahmadiyya faith, and it is a great honour to be leading it. However, I am extremely sorry to bring this community's concerns to the House at this particular time. The circumstances that led me to ask for a debate are extremely sad. On 28 May, nearly 100 Ahmadiyya Muslim worshippers were brutally murdered in two separate attacks in Lahore. However, what makes the story especially poignant is not just the fact that the Ahmadi are so peaceful but that their murderers were also Muslim. What I hope to do today is to examine why the attacks took place, then ask whether there is anything that we in Britain and the wider community can do to prevent such atrocities happening again in the future. Finally, I want to assess what the implications are for Britain of how the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is treated and what we can do about it.

To begin, I need to say a few words of introduction about the Ahmadiyyans. Despite the fact that they have translated the holy Koran into more than 60 languages, span 195 countries and have more than 15,000 mosques and a membership exceeding tens of millions, theirs is a faith that is little known outside their community. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community was founded in 1889 and arose out of the belief that the long-awaited Messiah had come in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. Ahmad claimed to be the metaphorical second coming whose advent was foretold by Mohammed. Obviously, that contradicts the view of mainstream Muslims who believe that Mohammed is the last prophet. Nevertheless, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is a very peaceful religion. They believe that there are parallels between Ahmad and Jesus, as God sent both to end religious wars, contend bloodshed and bring peace. For instance, they reject terrorism in any form. Ahmad declared that jihad by the sword had no place in Islam. Instead, he wanted his followers to wage a bloodless, intellectual jihad of the pen to defend Islam.

In a similar vein, Ahmadis believe that theirs is the only Islamic organisation to endorse a separation of mosque and state and to champion the empowerment and education of women. Ahmad also warned his followers not to engage in irrational interpretations of the Koran or to misapply Islamic law. In Britain today, we regard such attributes as modern and tolerant. However, those values are not shared by some other Muslim traditions, particularly those with a more fundamentalist viewpoint. For such fundamentalists, belief in a false prophet is heretical enough, but for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community also to follow teachings that fundamentalists believe are wrong is adding insult to injury. Consequently, Ahmadis have long faced persecution. Their first martyr was killed in custody in 1901, and it is estimated that there have been about 200 deaths in total. Of course, religious disagreements have cost countless lives over the years throughout the world. Religions have a long and very unhappy history of attacking each other for worshipping the wrong prophet, even much closer to home than in Pakistan.

I am a Catholic and we are as guilty as anyone. A Catholic pope promised heaven to mediaeval thugs who took part in murderous crusades against followers of a prophet whom they believed was false-Mohammed. That period of history continues to haunt us. This country is not immune to using discrimination against religions we have not liked, with Catholics on this occasion often being the victims. It is only a few years ago that I helped to change the law to allow former Catholic priests to become MPs. Although that law was a throwback to a much earlier time, there are, even in our more recent history, examples of discrimination of which we should not be proud, particularly in Northern Ireland. It is hard therefore to stand here and lecture other countries about their practices, and we need to remain humble. The fact that religions have been persecuting each other for centuries does not make it right, especially in Pakistan where extreme groups such as the Taliban are already very active in creating a lot of volatility.

We are lucky in this country in that, on the whole, our religions can carry on side by side without conflict, respecting each other's right to worship. In Pakistan, most mainstream Muslims are horrified that anything could happen to their fellow countrymen just because they have a different religion. They are as shocked as we are by attacks such as those in Lahore. However, discrimination is an everyday reality for many Ahmadis living in Pakistan, and it is embedded in the Pakistani constitution.

Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, may have said that the country should be a secular state in which all were equal and religion was no business of the state, but today's Ahmadis do not enjoy equality. Pakistan was created in 1947. In 1948, Major Dr Mahmood Ahmed was lynched by a mob at Quetta. In 1950, Ahmadis were murdered in Charsadda, Okara, Rawalpindi and Mansehra. By 1974, riots and killings, attacks on mosques, assaults, arson and looting were widespread, and the organs of the state were not neutral. The police arrested victims and not perpetrators. In September 1974, Prime Minister Bhutto amended the constitution and declared that Ahmadis were officially non-Muslim. That was followed in the 1980s by measures introduced by Zia ul-Haq's Government to Islamicise Pakistan's laws.

In 1984, Ordinance 20 significantly restricted Ahmadi freedom of religion or expression, threatening up to three years in jail for any Ahmadi who, for example, called themselves a Muslim. Since then, thousands of Ahmadis have been arrested. In 1989 and again in 2008, the entire 50,000 population of the Rabwah was charged with practising Islamic worship. Ahmadis are prevented from holding public meetings and are not even able to vote or to register to vote because registering to vote would require them to deny their faith. Ahmadis are barred from entry to public office except at the lowest level. In order to claim to be a Muslim on the Pakistani passport, they are forced to sign a declaration that says:

"I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad to be an imposter."

Persecution by the state is at times systematic. My fear is that such discrimination helps to feed the ideology of groups such as the Taliban and offers them a justification for some of their worst excesses. It does not legitimise what they do, but it might make them feel, wrongly, that they have some kind of legitimacy. Even if there was no violence, it makes Ahmadis feel threatened. Therefore, the Pakistan constitution poses a problem, as it gives some perverse encouragement to extremists and belittles the Ahmadi community.

Non-state persecution of Ahmadis is very worrying and appears to be growing. According to Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, Ahmadis face the worst treatment of anyone in Pakistan. The media there are often virulently anti-Ahmadi, broadcasting phrases such as, "Ahmadis deserve to die." In particular, the Khatme Nabuwwat movement carries out regular activities to oppose Ahmadi Muslims. It calls for the banning of Ahmadiyyat and for the killing of Ahmadis. It incites attacks against Ahmadis in speech and broadcast, and is credited with introducing the widely used phrase, "wajibul qatl" which means "those who deserve to be killed".

In the past decade, there has been an increasing number of murders and attacks of Ahmadis, and an increase in the number of pre-planned and targeted attacks on Ahmadi mosques by Islamist militants. As we know, those attacks culminated in the Lahore attacks, when two mosques were stormed in a well-planned assault that lasted for about four hours. At one stage, more than 1,000 worshippers were trapped in the Darul Zikr mosque, trying to escape militants armed with guns and grenades. The Baitun Noor mosque was also stormed in a co-ordinated attack. The multiple suicide attacks by the Punjabi Taliban took place slowly, with terrorists methodically throwing hand-grenades among their hostages and climbing the minarets to fire at them from above. When the attackers started to run out of ammunition, they began detonating their explosive vests. Although the police came, they arrived late-even after the media arrived-and the only attackers who were caught were captured by unarmed Ahmadis.

The loss of life and the prolonged and bloody siege prompted widespread condemnation and global media coverage, and it is the reason why we have asked for this debate today. Many people have been in touch with me about the outrage in Lahore. Shortly after the murders, I spoke personally with Rafiq Hayat, the head of the UK's Ahmadi community. I wanted him to know that I was very concerned about what had happened and I wanted to see if I could do anything more to help.