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Persecution of Ahmadis

Volume 684: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)

I am an Ahmadi—an Ahmadi Muslim. Ahmadis are a peace-loving community, whose motto is “Love for all, hatred for none”. At the core of Islam is a belief that the only true way to serve the Lord is to serve and love his creation. It is for this reason that Ahmadis devote themselves to serving the cause of justice and humanity everywhere. Sadly, however, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is an object of hate and suffers vicious persecution around the world. The epicentre of this hatred is Pakistan.

In the light of what the hon. Member has just said, is he aware that, only yesterday, another Ahmadi—Dr Tahir Ahmad—was murdered in Lahore, Pakistan by a teenager? Does he regard it as frightening that the most radicalised and anti-Ahmadi of the community in Pakistan tend to be the young?

I thank the hon. Lady. The tragic news of Dr Tahir and his murder was on Friday evening. A gunman came to their home and shot at him and his family. He sadly died immediately. His father, I understand, is still in a critical condition, fighting for his life. Other members of the family sustained gunshot injuries. I understand they are believed to be making it through. But this is simply a sad testament to the environment of hate and intolerance that is being preached in Pakistan.

This is what I was saying: the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is an object of hate and suffers vicious persecution around the world, but the epicentre of this hatred is Pakistan, where Ahmadis are the only religious community to be targeted by the state on the basis of their faith.

Maybe in a moment or two—I will just make a little progress, if I may.

In 1974, the Government of Pakistan kowtowed to the extremist hate-mongers that characterise a perverted form of Islam we now sadly see in so many corners of the world, when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shamefully amended the Pakistan constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. It is a tragic irony that many of the preachers of prejudice from Jama’at-E-Islami are the political heirs of the exact same people who fought tooth and nail against the great Jinnah in his struggle to establish the state of Pakistan, wherein all Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and others were promised the right to freedom.

Since then, increasingly more draconian measures have been inflicted on the Ahmadiyya community, including the promulgation of Ordinance XX in 1984 under the brutal dictator General Zia. Under that ordinance, it is punishable with three-year imprisonment, an unlimited fine and even the death penalty for Ahmadis simply to call themselves Muslim, or to call their mosques a mosque. As a consequence, Hadrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the 4th Caliph, was forced to leave Pakistan. Today, Ordinance XX is used to persecute minorities in Pakistan, including Christians and Hindus. Pakistan suffers the great ignominy of having codified and granted constitutional legitimacy to religious discrimination and persecution.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He touches on the nub of my intervention. Does he not agree that the real tragedy in Pakistan is that it is the very constitution and laws of Pakistan, particularly the blasphemy laws, that are so often the basis for the persecution of the Ahmadis and indeed other religious minorities, when, in any country, these should be the cornerstone of the protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of religion and belief?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, with which I agree entirely. Her points are incredibly well made. The great tragedy is that Pakistan was set up initially with a beautiful vision of a country that celebrated diversity and pluralism. Jinnah and the architects of Pakistan saw difference as the gold and silver threads that would weave into the tapestry of the state and make it stronger, not weaker. Jinnah’s lieutenant was Chaudhry Muhammad Zafarullah, with whom I grew up and had a very close relationship. He has been declared a non-Muslim. He was Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister, the President of the UN General Assembly and the President of the International Court of Justice. The state was built by great jurists who were great lovers of freedom and justice and that legacy has been shamefully discarded.

This persecution and that loss of the legacy that could have been are just as evident, sadly, in Pakistan’s civil society. Ahmadis are openly declared “wajibul qatl”, which means “deserving to be killed”, in the Pakistani media and by religious and political leaders. The recent successive murders of four Ahmadis in Peshawar is the evil evidence of just how impossible it is for Ahmadis simply to live and worship as they please. Those murdered include Mr Mairaj Ahmad on 13 August, Mr Tahir Ahmad Naseem on 29 July, Professor Naeem Ud Din Khattack on 5 October and Mr Mahboob Ahmad Khan on 8 November. All four men were murdered in the same city on account of their belief. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned, last Friday, 31-year-old Dr Tahir Ahmad was murdered at his home when a gunman shot at him and his family.

Horrifyingly, the vile abuse and persecution suffered by the Ahmadiyya Jamaat is not confined to those who are alive. Some 39 Ahmadi bodies have been disinterred from what should have been their final resting place, and 70 Ahmadi Muslims have been denied burial in communal cemeteries. This year, in July, dozens of Ahmadi graves were desecrated and their gravestones destroyed by Pakistani state law enforcement officials in Gujranwala district. Heartbreakingly, members of the Ahmadiyya community are spared no respite from persecution either in life or death. How is it possible that these atrocities occur in a country whose leaders answer when questioned that their constitution provides its citizens with the right to freedom of religion and belief?

I commend my friend the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this Adjournment debate. He is making a powerful speech. I am shocked not only by the deaths and murders he describes, but by the fact that the Ahmadi people are denied the right to call themselves Muslims and to call their place of worship a mosque, and that they are denied the vote. Does he agree that this is a shocking suppression and persecution of a people?

The right of people everywhere to live, work and worship as they choose is the most fundamental and universal right that we have. It makes no sense, either to an individual or to a state, to inhibit, stamp on or impede that right, because that means that the very blossom and flower of the state and of the children of the state is trampled on. We in this venerable place should not think, “Why would they do such a thing?” because what is happening is of no purpose and of no sense—it is senseless and deeply upsetting because of that.

Freedom of religious belief, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and other values that we in the United Kingdom hold dear, such as tolerance and celebration of pluralism, are not just ideals to be debated in this House, discussed in lecture halls or written about by academics; they have, as we have discussed, very real consequences for the lives of people everywhere.

My own family understand this only too well. I could place on the record the numerous attacks against my immediate family, my larger family and myself. For example, my first cousin’s Syrian husband, Dr Mousallam Al-Droubi, left Damascus and was worshipping at an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore in May 2010 when gunmen stormed in, massacred 87 supplicants around him and left him and over 120 other worshippers with grave injuries, all on account of their belief. Their crime? To worship as Muslims.

Pakistan is the world’s leading exporter of hate across the globe, which it fabricates on an industrial scale. This dangerous extremism and religiously inspired violence has been broadcast, transmitted and normalised in communities around the world, who ape this hideous behaviour.

For example, anti-Ahmadi hate speech has been broadcast through television and radio in the United Kingdom. Channel 44, an Urdu language current affairs satellite channel, was fined £45,000 by Ofcom for airing two episodes of a discussion programme which featured a participant making serious and unsubstantiated claims against the Ahmadiyya community. That was not the first such case. In 2013, Takbeer TV, a free-to-air Islamic channel, was fined £25,000 after broadcasting statements describing Ahmadis as having “monstrous intentions” and being “lying monsters”.

There is a direct connection and correlation between that sort of hate speech and violence perpetrated against members of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat. Freedom of speech certainly is a vital pillar of our way of life, but incitement to murder and violence is not, and never has been, freedom of speech. Hatred preached in Pakistan does indeed result in violence on the streets of the UK and around the world.

The 2016 murder of Scottish Ahmadi shopkeeper Asad Shah, while working peacefully in his shop in Glasgow, evidences that truth. His crime? Sending out Easter greetings to his Christian neighbours and friends. Like all Ahmadis, he felt a part of that community, and they a part of his. Here we see the Ahmadis’ belief in love for all and hatred for none juxtaposed against the peddlers of hate.

A report by the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community entitled “Suffocation of the Faithful” has raised concerns that the deliberate targeting of members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat in the United Kingdom originates from Pakistan—a result of the filthy reservoir of hate that Pakistan permits and enables. Worse, there is evidence, as outlined in the APPG’s report, that aid money given by Her Majesty’s Government is spent on supporting Government-run schools in Pakistan that encourage intolerance and hatred.

Professor Javaid Rehman provided damning evidence on nationalised schools in Pakistan when he spoke at the second session of the APPG inquiry, which the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) so ably chaired. He said:

“I was just horrified to see what is being taught to our young children, for example this word ‘Kafir’ non-believer or infidel is openly said about Ahmadiyya but also about other communities, it’s part of our teaching system”.

I fear that the international aid provided to Pakistan by Her Majesty’s Government for the purpose of helping education is, on occasion, unwittingly fuelling hatred and prejudice in a new generation of Pakistanis. In order to ensure that that never happens again, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can provide assurances from the Dispatch Box on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government that UK aid and development funding will not go to groups, individuals or programmes that are engaged in the promotion of hate, whether that be directed against Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis or others.

I have briefly outlined the nature of some of the outrages suffered by Ahmadis and their Jamaat, but what effect does the persecution and discrimination of the Ahmadi community have on Ahmadis and on Pakistan itself? Thousands of Pakistanis have sought refuge in freedom-loving western nations. Even the global Ahmadiyya headquarters were moved to the United Kingdom in 1984. Others, having escaped from Pakistan, find themselves in third countries where they are unwelcome and face again the horrors of persecution, predicated upon their faith.

I urge Her Majesty’s Government to employ their influence and create a coalition of our friends and allies to pressure the Government of Pakistan to reverse the abhorrent constitutional vandalism that has been engineered against the freedom of religious belief, and to release all Pakistani citizens from the bondage of zealous tyranny and the fear of persecution.

I congratulate the hon. Member on bringing this important issue into the public demain. He mentioned the large community who are established here, but will he also mention the huge contribution that they make in the United Kingdom particularly in charitable work and also in community work? Quite apart from their peaceful message, they play a very valuable and active role, working hard in the community.

I think it is well known that the Ahmadi community—wherever they stay and live, whether they are persecuted or otherwise, whether they are abused or celebrated—always come to be among the vanguard of the most loyal citizens, playing a full role in the country that they call home.

My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. The UK has been a welcoming home for the Ahmadiyya community. Indeed, many have settled in my constituency because of its proximity to the Baitul Futuh mosque in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK needs to continue to play a leading role in providing refuge and a safe haven for Ahmadis fleeing persecution across the world?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For Ahmadis and so many others, the United Kingdom has long been a beacon of hope and safety, and we should continue to provide this support and offer Ahmadis escaping religious persecution a route to safety. Sadly, Pakistan is not a lone perpetrator in the persecution of Ahmadis. There are many countries that maintain and enforce discriminatory laws against Ahmadis. The United Kingdom is a staunch friend of Pakistan. Ending the persecution of Ahmadis will serve to strengthen Pakistan and allow all those who truly love it to be active participants in their country’s life and future, fulfilling the dream of Pakistan’s founder, Quaid-i-Azam, who famously said the following words at the very moment of Pakistan’s birth:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan.”

As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, there are a number of powerful tools at our disposal that I urge him to employ to serve all the citizens of Pakistan, irrespective of their belief. The first is the establishment of a structured engagement at a senior level by the Foreign Office with Pakistan on the persecution and discrimination facing the Ahmadi Jamaat. The second is the employment of the Magnitsky-style sanctions established earlier in the year against preachers, politicians and others who incite and orchestrate violence and hatred against minorities, and the refusal of their entry into our country. The third is that the establishment of criteria when it comes to the protection and freedoms of all to live, work and worship as they choose in Pakistan should be tied to any future trade that Pakistan seeks with the United Kingdom.

I will be listening intently to my hon. Friend’s response as to whether Her Majesty’s Government are willing to consider employing such measures in the name of universal freedom and justice for all. In helping Pakistan to right the wrongs of persecution against Ahmadis, minorities such as Christians and Hindus, who also suffer great persecution and wrongs against them, will be protected. If we are to realise the vision of global Britain, we must be the ones to lead in defence of those innocents persecuted wherever they may dwell, and to champion and encourage others to follow suit.

It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate. I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) for securing it, and for his passionate, thoughtful and considered speech. I pay tribute to his work on freedom of religion and belief, including in promoting and protecting the rights of Ahmadi Muslims, and his work as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I am also grateful for the contributions and interventions of other hon. Members.

I thank the APPG for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community for its recent report. On 21 July, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, who is Minister for South Asia, spoke at the launch event for the report, and expressed the UK Government’s deep concerns about discrimination and violence against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, including in Pakistan. Today we have heard of the appalling discrimination suffered by Ahmadi Muslims in many countries. Hon. Members have mentioned Pakistan in particular, but, as we have heard, the UK is not immune from such religious intolerance—I think particularly of the horrendous case of the gentleman in Glasgow. That is why this Government work tirelessly to promote and defend the rights of people of all faiths and none around the world. People must be able to practise their faith and express their beliefs without fear or discrimination. I will address some of the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend.

The Minister has rightly drawn the attention of the House to the appalling incidents that take place at the extremes of the spectrum, but are there not also lower-level activities—for example, attempts to organise boycotts against businesses owned by Ahmadis and general lower-level harassment? Should not the authorities be cracking down on such activity and saying, “This is unacceptable in this country”?

The right hon. Gentleman is bang on; of course we should be calling out this behaviour. Many of these activities take place on social media. We will be bringing forward an online harms Bill, and we hope some of these issues will be addressed. In this country, we pride ourselves on people’s ability to practise freedom of religion or belief. He makes an incredibly important point.

We have heard about recent incidents of discrimination, including violence, against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan. Its constitution does not allow Ahmadiyya Muslims to call themselves Muslims. Ahmadiyya Muslims face violence, killings and attacks on their places of worship and, as I have said, social media hate campaigns and discrimination in employment and education. There have been recent horrifying examples of this discrimination. Lord Ahmad publicly condemned the murder of Mr Mahboob Ahmad Khan in Peshawar in November. Everything points to Mr Khan having been murdered for his faith, as an Ahmadiyya Muslim. We have heard from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the tragic killing of an Ahmadiyya Muslim, Dr Tahir Ahmad, in Nankana Sahib in Pakistan during Friday prayers last week. I extend my personal condolences to the families of Mr Khan and Dr Ahmad, and to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

Those are not isolated incidents; as we have heard, there have been other abhorrent murders in Pakistan of Ahmadiyya Muslims and other apparently religiously motivated killings. We condemn all these murders in the strongest possible terms. My ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad also raised the UK Government’s concern about these murders with Pakistan’s human rights Minister, Dr Shireen Mazari, as recently as 16 November. We have pressed for full, transparent investigations into these killings that result in the identification and prosecution of those responsible.

I am interested in these points. The Minister was saying that the Government are working tirelessly. I appreciate that and I welcome it, as everyone else does. Given that the Prime Minister of Pakistan was formerly of this country—he lived here for many years—do we not have a special relationship with him? Is there some way of encouraging, through that special relationship and good understanding, a repeal of those laws, so that the Ahmadiyya people can be reinstated as citizens and be able to practise their faith, like any other in Pakistan?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We regularly communicate our concern about these issues. People should be able to practise their religion and belief freely, without persecution. We regularly raise this matter with the Pakistan authorities. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knows the Ahmadiyya community well and knows his holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the spiritual head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The Prime Minister made it clear in this House, on 11 November, that we frequently raise our concerns about freedom of region or belief in relation to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community with the Pakistan Government.

I can also attest to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield’s “love for all, hatred for none” maxim by which the Ahmadiyya community lives. In my constituency, we had horrendous floods in 2015. The town of Tadcaster had its bridge destroyed and the town was separated. Many people came to support that community, not least members of the Ahmadiyya community, who came all the way up from London, at their own expense, and provided a fantastic resource for the community in bringing succour and support to families who had been flooded. I am incredibly grateful for all the support that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association provided to the people of my constituency, and I was more than happy to visit them at their mosque in south London shortly afterwards.

Earlier this month, officials from the British high commission in Islamabad visited Rabwah in Punjab province to meet representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. They were able to hear at first hand about the community’s experiences and challenges, as well as the concerning rise of persecution and the tragic rise of killings of members of that community. We also provide support to civil society organisations working on freedom of religion or belief issues in Pakistan. Our Aawaz II inclusion, accountability and reducing modern slavery programme will spend £39.5 million over five years in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is worth pointing out that followers of other religions, including Christians and Shi’a Muslims, also suffer discrimination and violence in Pakistan.

Let me take this opportunity to underline the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s due diligence in providing funding. We ensure that all organisations that receive funding have procedures in place to tackle any discrimination, including against religious minorities such as Ahmadi Muslims. We continue to urge the Pakistani Government to guarantee the fundamental rights of all their citizens and strengthen the protection of minorities in accordance with international standards. As part of that, we continue to raise our concerns about the implementation of blasphemy legislation and the misuse of anti-terror laws to discriminate.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of trade. The EU’s generalised scheme of preferences plus tier includes provisions that make preferential market access conditional on compliance with human and labour rights, environmental standards and good governance. On 1 January 2021, the UK will introduce its own generalised scheme of preferences. We are committed to securing Pakistani businesses’ ability to trade freely with the UK through an independent unilateral preferences scheme that will offer the same level of tariff-free access as the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences plus. The UK’s trade preferences scheme will replicate the EU conditions for the enhanced framework, similar to the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences plus tier, of which Pakistan is a beneficiary.

We work closely with United Nations agencies and civil society organisations to ensure that the immediate needs of any displaced refugees are met. We raise issues of Ahmadi Muslim persecution regularly with other Governments, including in Algeria, Thailand and Malaysia, and we engage with representatives in those countries.

My hon. Friend raised sanctions. Our global human rights sanctions regime is a powerful tool to hold to account those involved in serious human rights violations and abuses. That could potentially include those who target individuals on the grounds of their religion or belief. As he will understand, we do not speculate on who may be designated, as to do so might reduce the impact of those designations. To return to the issue of aid, our relationship with any Government is based on an assessment of commitment to our partnership principles, including human rights.

I turn to our counter-extremism work at home. We are committed to tackling those who sow hatred and division against any community in this country. Our counter-extremism strategy seeks to address all forms of extremism by challenging those who spread extremist propaganda. We need to strengthen communities and disrupt the most dangerous extremists. As the House will be aware, policy on this issue is being led by the Home Office.

My hon. Friend mentioned the media and how they can play a negative role in propagating harmful views, as can social media. Propaganda also finds its way into more traditional channels. We are working to tackle that by using existing legislation, and we are countering those damaging narratives with a range of civil society groups, including overseas groups. We are working with tech companies, law enforcement and our international partners to tackle the abhorrent exploitation of online platforms. As I said earlier, our online harms White Paper sets out plans for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. It will also introduce a new duty of care on companies and will be overseen by an independent regulator.

This has been a timely debate on an incredibly important issue, and I thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to the House.

Before the Minister draws his remarks to a close, can I ask whether officials are raising concerns about an issue that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) touched on—the fact that Ahmadis do not have an equal right to vote in Pakistan or to stand in elections as candidates, and that there is a separate electoral list kept of Ahmadis, which can unfortunately be used as a source of intimidation or harassment?

My hon. Friend, who is a long-time champion on issues of freedom of religion and belief, raises an important point. We see that issue in other parts of the world too, including with the Rohingya population in Myanmar. I struggle to see how any election could be called free and fair when large sections of society are denied the opportunity to participate.

Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), what consideration will be given to the point that I made about establishing structured engagement at a senior level between Pakistan and Her Majesty’s Government? I imagine that it may not be particularly popular with our high commission in Islamabad, but it may produce some good outcomes and enable us to discuss things issue by issue and find some common ground in a structured way. Will the Minister undertake to give it thorough consideration?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the House, and I can assure him that we will obviously continue to stand up for the rights of all religious communities, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, around the world. We will protect our communities here in the UK from hatred and discrimination. My colleague Lord Ahmad, who I understand is an Ahmadiyya Muslim, continues to raise this issue at the highest level with Pakistani Government officials.

It is without question that the Government will continue to defend the right to freedom of religion and belief for everyone, everywhere.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.