“I walked into the mosque, unafraid of what might happen to me,” said Ahmad Ali (name changed), a 29-year-old Ahmadi from Lahore. “There were body parts everywhere – severed heads and limbs. There was blood scattered all over. I remember seeing about 40 dead bodies. There was a strange stench, similar to that on Eid-ul-Azha when all those animals are sacrificed.”
It has been six years since that fateful day, but Ali still chokes up while speaking about the attack. “It was the worst day of my life,” he said.
On May 28, 2010, the Punjabi Taliban simultaneously attacked two places of worship of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore, killing nearly 100 people and injuring 120 more (In Pakistan, it is illegal to call an Ahmadi place of worship a mosque. However, several members of the community still refer to it as a mosque in defiance of the state).
This was perhaps the worst attack on the Islamic sect in a long history of persecution. In a coordinated attack that included suicide bombers, innocent worshippers were fired upon at Garhi Shahu and Model Town during Friday prayers. While the Model Town site was cleared a short while after the attack, a hostage situation ensued at Garhi Shahu and police cordoned off the area.
“When my friend Afzal and I reached Garhi Shahu, we could hear the firing from inside. It was surreal,” recalls Ali.
State of panic
It was about 1.45 pm when Ali was woken up by a call from his mother. He had spent the night at his friend Afzal's house. Ali isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t offer Friday prayers. However, his friend, Afzal regularly visited the Model Town place of worship. “Afzal did not go for his Friday prayer that day because of me,” he said.
Ali’s father, however, is a religious man and attended prayers at Model Town every Friday. He was there on that fateful day.
At around 1.40 pm, local media reported that some sort of an attack was underway at Garhi Shahu and Model Town. At that point, Ali’s mother had not realised the severity of the event. “Check on your father,” she said to him.
“We reached Model Town and saw that there were several ambulances and police cars,” said Ali. “Security officials were removing bodies from the mosque. I did not know if my father was still inside or had left. There used to be a young boy deputed at the gate for security. I discovered that he was one of the first ones to be killed. Afzal’s father was also supposed to be at this mosque. My mother and I were calling my father but he was not responding. I cannot describe that feeling to you. I don’t really pray, but I prayed that let it be me instead of my father. We decided to check the Garhi Shahu mosque. Perhaps our fathers had decided to offer their prayers there.”
The situation appeared bleak.
“I walked out of the Garhi Shahu mosque,” recalled Ali. “Afzal was in a trance. He hugged me and started sobbing. We both cried like that for several minutes.”
The Ahmadiyya movement was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who was born on February 13, 1835, at Qadian, a village in Gurdaspur district. It is for this reason that his supporters are also called Qadiani. Trained in Islamic literature, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad emerged as a prominent religious scholar towards the end of the 19th century. This was also the period when Punjabi society was undergoing several changes following the arrival of the British.
For the first time, Christian missionaries were free to proselytise. In response, the Hindu revivalist movement of the Arya Samaj was also gaining momentum. It was in this environment that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad took it upon himself to defend Islam. He ruffled the feathers of Islamic orthodoxy by claiming that he was the promised Messiah, the Imaam Mehdi or the second coming of Jesus Christ, as is claimed in Christian and Islamic theology.
Islamic scholars argued that he was claiming to be a Prophet, whereas belief in the finality of the prophethood after Muhammad (PBUH) is one of the central tenets of Islam. In the census of 1901, the Ahmadiyya community registered itself as a separate sect for the first time.
Members of the community played a pivotal role in the Pakistan Movement. Chaudary Zafarullah was a prominent leader of the Muslim League and responsible for drafting the Lahore Resolution, which was later called Pakistan Resolution. He subsequently served as the first foreign minister of the country between 1947 and 1954. He also became the face of anti-Ahmadiyya riots that rocked the young state in 1953, leading the country to its first state of martial law.
He was called anti-Pakistan, ironically by the leaders of Majlis-i-Ahrar and Jamaat-i-Islami, two Islamic political organisations that had earlier vehemently opposed the creation of the country. After Independence, these organisations redefined themselves as ultra-nationalist, accusing Chaudary Zafarullah Khan and the Ahmadiyya community of being anti-Pakistani.
Hatred goes mainstream
Sporadic attacks against members of the community continued over the years, but things took a turn for the worse in 1974 when a riot broke out between the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami and young Ahmadiyyas at Rabwah, the new spiritual headquarters of the community after Partition.
The fire spread throughout the country and later that year, Parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim. Further amendments followed in 1984 during the reign of the Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq, making it “illegal” for Ahmadis to “pose” as Muslims, barring them from calling their place of worship a mosque or even offering the Muslim greeting.
This hatred towards the Ahmadiyya community began with the religious right, but over the years as institutional changes were brought about, this anti-Ahmadi sentiment became part of mainstream society. It is common to find anti-Ahmadi graffiti on the streets of Lahore. Ahmadis are regularly accused of being Indian or Israeli agents. They are also blamed for acts of terrorism in Pakistan. For example, a few days after the massacre at Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, a member of the religious clergy said on national television that Ahmadis were responsible for the attacks.
Recently, this anti-Ahmadi sentiment surfaced once again when a vendor at Lahore’s Hafeez Centre, one of the largest electronics plazas in the country, put up a poster outside his shop cursing Ahmadis and barring them from entering. He was picked up the police for spreading hate but had to be released soon after following protests from other traders at Hafeez Centre. Now, there are similar stickers and banners all over the plaza.
Right after the attacks on Model Town and Garhi Shahu, every important politician condemned the incident. Shahbaz Sharif (the current Punjab chief minister) and Nawaz Sharif (the current prime minister), who have historically represented the right-wing, said that this was an attack on their Ahmadi brothers. Their statements were widely condemned. The Ahmadis are working against Islam and Pakistan, so how could they call them their brothers?
The Sharifs had to retract their statement. There was only one politician who reached out to the community and met with their leaders: Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Punjab. Many accused him of being an agent of the Ahmadis. He was assassinated in 2011 over his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
Pakistan has witnessed countless terror attacks in recent years. However, the events of May 28, 2010, acquire particular significance because the Ahmadiyyas were singled out. There is a tolerance for attacks on this community, with the 2010 massacre being a culmination of the hatred spewed by the likes of Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis-i-Ahrar since the creation of the country.
While still at Garhi Shahu, Ali received a call from his father. He was in one of the first few rows when the suicide bomber entered the place of worship in Model Town. It is located within a house with several rooms in accordance with the laws of the country, as the structure of this building cannot resemble a mosque. A volunteer ran into the enclave when the attacker entered, and hid them in a room. Ali’s father escaped unharmed.
“My father is not a man of many words,” said Ali. “He didn’t talk much about the attack, but he was visibly shaken. For months after, he suffered from post-traumatic stress. He would get startled with any loud noise.”
As for Afzal, his father was at Garhi Shahu but was also lucky enough to escape the attack. His grandfather, however, was not as fortunate. He used to offer prayers sitting on a chair and his seat used to be placed next to the entrance for his convenience. He was in Model Town that day. He was one of the first people to be shot.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.