By Kunwar Khuldun Shahid
Every few minutes for the past week, a viral meme entitled “coronavirus timeline in Pakistan’ has been shared by social media users in Pakistan.
Written in Urdu transliterated into Latin script, the meme helpfully conveys the evolution of Pakistani conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 from January 2020 till May, as coronavirus has mutated from “Allah’s wrath on China” (January) to the globe-spanning claim that it’s a “hoax designed by Bill Gates to forcibly implant microchips” (May).
A Sunni Muslim prepares to torch flags of US, India and Israel during a rally against Israel and United States to mark the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Ramadan. Peshawar, May 22, 2020Credit: AFP
Tucked in for April is: “American and Israeli conspiracy.” No anthology of conspiracy theories in Pakistan could be complete without superlatively imaginative attributions to Israel. In fact, had the meme been ranked by the degree of fixation of the conspiracists, and not a take on the evolution of the theories, Israel would’ve won first place in a walkover.
In meme terms, Israel would be best described by the baton roué, or bike fall, template in Pakistan: the country is riding along steadily, when the movement is arrested by an obstacle of its own making. The bike falls, and the rider blames Israel.
As the perpetual imagined enemy of Pakistan, Israel is almost always hyphenated with its “partner in crime”: the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a revivalist, messianic Muslim sect founded in the late 19th century Punjab, in then-British India, with a following of 10-20 million, of which four million adherents live, precariously, in Pakistan.
Excommunicated in the very text of Pakistan’s constitution, forbidden by its Penal Code from “posing as Muslims,” the Ahmadis, like Israel, are designated as “enemies of Islam” – and hence of Pakistan – with the two accused of working in tandem to provoke crises across the Muslim world.
To obtain a Pakistani passport, if you check the “Islam” box then it is mandatory to formally denounce Ahmadi Muslims as heresy, and to curse its founderCredit: Twitter
On cue, conspiracy theories surrounding Pakistan’s two greatest imaginary enemies have been wildly reimagined during the pandemic, with allegations in the local Urdu press calling coronavirus everything from an “Israeli plot to shut down mosques” to a pretext to disguise and indeed propagate “anti-Islam” Ahmadiyya beliefs.
The clerics of Pakistan’s fifth largest political party, the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, warned Pakistanis to be on their guard against the Ahmadiyya “conspiracy” to use the coronavirus crisis to undermine the true faith, and to consider them the “eternal enemies not only of Pakistan but also of Islam.”
The words could have been lifted from a description of the Jewish conspiracies against Pakistan so beloved of many Pakistani politicians; indeed, the head of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, Fazlur ul-Rahman, has previously warned that “the Yahoodi (Jewish) lobby’s money is working [for Prime Minister] Imran [Khan]” and that Khan is “an agent of Americans, Jews, Ahmadis.”
The charge that “Qadianis” – the ubiquitous and derogatory term for Ahmadis – are a “virus worse than coronavirus” has been reiterated by multiple Urdu publications in recent months as part of the successful bid of Islamist groups to pressurize the government into removing the Ahmadiyya community from a recently formed minority rights commission.
With COVID-19 offering a unique opportunity to pin a pandemic on the “Jewish-Qadiani” nexus, it was time to rehash the half-a-century old, regularly regurgitated “evidence” that “irrefutably” establishes the Ahmadi-Israel collaboration against Islam.
On April 28 and 29, two rabidly Islamist Urdu newspapers, Daily Ausaf and Daily Qudrat, curated an article – which the former posted again on May 3, under a different headline, in case someone missed it – first published in Nawa-e-Waqt on December 29, 1975, and reproduced on innumerable occasions since The article claims that ‘Pakistani Qadianis are deployed in the Israeli Army.”
The piece, which claims that 600 Pakistani Ahmadis serve in the IDF, quotes the 1972 book “Israel: A Profile,” written by political scientist Israel T. Naamani. The author’s name has been misspelt across publications throughout the 45 years since the Nawa-e-Waqt article cited the book; however, the number of “deployed Pakistani Ahmadis” has remained fixed at 600 for five decades, since the same passage from the book has been repeatedly – and incorrectly – quoted in Urdu publications.
Page 75 of the first edition of “Israel: A Profile” under the chapter ‘Religion in the Holy Land’ states that: “Two other small non-Arab Muslim groups, the Circassians, who came in the ninth century from Russia and now number about 2,000 souls, and the Ahmadi sect of some 600 people from Pakistan, can also serve in the army.”
As is evident from the passage, and further elaborated by the preceding and following texts, Naamani merely underlines the freedom that persecuted sects from the Muslim world can enjoy in Israel, including the possibility of being conscripted into the army unlike Arab Muslims, who are exempted from the draft and can only volunteer.
With 1,700 Bedouin Muslim soldiers as of 2015, and a growing number of Arab Muslims joining the IDF, Ahmadis would be one of many Islamic sects represented in the Israeli army. However, what none of them can be is a Pakistani.
Pakistani passports are “valid for all countries of the World except Israel.” The document unites Ahmadis and Israel in its bigotry by making it mandatory for anyone wishing to check the “Islam” box for their religion to formally denounce the sect as heresy, and to curse its founder, to obtain it.
Ahmadis were legally sanctioned as “heretics” by the second amendment to the Pakistani constitution in 1974. Hence, the 1975 Nawa-e-Waqt article came at a time when the anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment was at its zenith. This might also explain why another Nawa-e-Waqt report, from May 1, 1976, isn’t quite as enthusiastically quoted.
In it, the then-Minister for Religious Affairs Kausar Niazi categorically said that “no Pakistani Ahmadi is in Israel,” citing the restrictions imposed by Pakistani passports.
The Ahmadiyya presence in the area that has since become Israel predates the Jewish state’s creation – ironically, just like its existence in Pakistan predates the birth of the Muslim state. The Ahmadiyya community established its presence in Haifa in 1928, as part of its missionary work, when Palestine was under British Mandate rule.
Indeed, a month after the 1929 Palestinian riots, the community organized an event in Qadian – now in India, where the sect was founded – to formally condemn British plans to create a Jewish state in the territory.
After successfully founding a nation-state based on Muslim nationalism, Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Zafarullah Khan, passionately opposed the creation of its Jewish counterpart in the October 1947 United Nations General Assembly session, calling the move an ‘artificial’ result of “immigration” that damaged Palestinian rights.
Despite the Ahmadis’ wholehearted participation in what became an Islamist separatist movement for the creation of Pakistan, demands for the community’s excommunication were already echoing around the political and religious sphere in 1930s owing to the Ahmadiyya belief in the prophetic status of its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, deemed by clerics of other sects an apostasy against the status of Muhammad as the final prophet of Islam.
But at that point there was still pushback from the highest political echelons,: the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, stated in 1944, “Who am I to declare a person non-Muslim who calls himself a Muslim?” and promised equal rights and sanctuary to Ahmadis who migrated from India.
But that period of official tolerance was short-lived. Following Pakistan’s creation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots grew into formal excommunication, and by 1984 it had been codified as a veritable apartheid system – the same system Pakistan vociferously accuses Israel of undertaking in Palestine. The Ahmadis are legally barred from self-identifying as Muslims in Pakistan, where anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment has been weaponized over the decades.
In the meantime, efforts to conflate Ahmadis with Pakistan’s foes – actual and fabricated – have persisted. In addition to Israel, the Ahmadiyya community is also falsely accused of working in tandem with the India’s radical Hindu organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Where “Zionist-Hindu conspiracies” were peddled by the Pakistani media during Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the Urdu press also had a field day over the Indian premier’s meeting with the head of the Ahmadiyya community in Israel. Of course, column inches aren’t similarly filled with self-congratulatory bigotry over Modi’s bonding with the Saudis.
Meanwhile, a daily expose of “Jewish-Qadiani” conspiracies continue to be published without any consideration for ethics or facts. Sometimes the conflation goes as far as calling the only Ahmadi majority city in Pakistan (a haven for the persecuted minority) a “mini Israel.” The analogy suggests Ahmadis are behaving like Israeli settlers, “purchasing land” to crowd out the “real” Muslims.
Imran Khan has conscientiously addressed this persecution with full-scale appeasement. He allowed state television to air fabricated stories on Ahmadiyya-RSS links, requested that an Ahmadi economist step down from a financial advisory body owing to his faith and most recently by expelling the community from a human rights commission that merely accepts the fact that they a minority living in Pakistan.
Khan, long accused of being a “Jewish agent,” seems to think his best strategy is to performatively display a hardline Muslim “authenticity.” He has now surrounded himself with ministers who vow the “destruction” of ‘those accepting Israel’ and openly call for the decapitation of heretics (which would include the Ahmadiyya.)
The cricketer-turned politician loves to boast about Pakistan’s protection of minorities, particularly when he speaks to foreign audiences, and especially to contrast it with what he describes as India’s turn towards Nazi-style state-sponsored bigotry.
But as Pakistan experiences a drastic surge in coronavirus cases and what medical workers have termed Khan’s complete “lack of strategy” for dealing with the pandemic, the prime minister (and his pet media outlets) knows that a hate campaign against Pakistan’s perpetual domestic scapegoat, the Ahmadis, with the added bonus of their automatic connections to puppetmaster Jews – is a politically priceless explanatory narrative for how Pakistan finds itself in crisis.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist