Pakistani clerics fight over status of Ahmadiyya sect

Two Pakistani clerics have come to blows at a meeting of the religious establishment over the fraught issue of the status of Ahmadis, a Muslim sect that hardliners want declared apostates.

A scuffle broke out on Tuesday between the two at a gathering of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) when the chairman, Mohammad Khan Sherani, called on the group to consider whether Ahmadis, who are declared non-Muslims by the constitution, should be considered murtads that have rejected Islam.

A declaration of apostasy by the constitutional body charged with advising parliament on lawmaking would likely put Ahmadis in even greater peril, given that many interpretations of Islamic law prescribe death for people who quit the religion.

Tahir Ashrafi, a liberal-minded voice on the CII, strongly opposed any discussion of the incendiary issue, prompting a furious confrontation with Sherani, who is also an elected member of parliament.

Ashrafi, who is obese and has limited mobility, said he was unable to move from his chair when Sherani lunged at his throat, ripping his shirt and scratching his neck. One of Sherani’s assistants attempted to punch Ashrafi, but was restrained by others at the meeting in the CII headquarters in Islamabad’s government district. The meeting swiftly broke up.

Ashrafi, who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council, said discussion of the Ahmadi issue would have been dangerous. “Even if five members of the council agree they are murtads it will be a big problem, it will create violence across the country,” he said.

Ashrafi said any attacks on the Ahmadi, also known as the Ahmadiyya, community would likely be worse than riots in previous decades, given the current strength of extremist groups. “We have made a lot of effort for interfaith harmony and then [Sherani] puts himself at the head of the extremists,” he said.

Pakistan’s 5 million Ahmadis already face considerable persecution because of their belief that the movement’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a messiah.

Laws ban Ahmadis from describing themselves as Muslims or carrying out core Islamic practices such as performing the call to prayer or building minarets on their places of worship, which they are banned from calling mosques.

In recent months, a mob burned down an Ahmadi-owned factory in the city of Jhelum and hundreds of people protested against police after they removed anti-Ahmadi signs from a shop window in Lahore.

The CII regularly makes headlines with its suggestions for strengthening the role of sharia law in Pakistan, which in recent years has included a ruling that girls as young as nine should be able to marry if they have reached puberty.

Another controversial ruling said DNA could not be used as primary evidence in rape cases as Islamic law required four witnesses to determine whether a rape has taken place.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sherani also attempted to force a discussion on whether millions of non-Muslims in Pakistan should be subject to the medieval practice of paying a jizya tax, despite enjoying equal rights under the constitution.

Ashrafi said the grip of Sherani and other hardliners over the council had been weakened after the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, appointed nine relatively moderate new members.