When the first bullet whizzed past Sheikh Nasir Ahmad’s ear, he brushed at it, thinking it was a mosquito, out on an unseasonably cool August night in the central Pakistani town of Lalamusa.
Before he was able to react, however, two gunmen on a motorcycle pulled up alongside him and shot him four times, hitting his right leg, lower back and the right arm he used to try and shield himself from the hail of bullets.
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“You don’t feel anything at that time [when you are shot],” Ahmad told Al Jazeera. “[The bullet] is hot as it leaves the barrel, so it’s when the blood starts that you realise that something has hit you.”
Security camera footage of the attack shows Ahmad falling to the ground as the gunmen speed away. He cried out for help, he says, but no one came.
“My clothes were completely covered in blood. The blood was soaked through my trousers.”
Ahmad is a member of Pakistan’s 500,000-strong Ahmaddiya community, a religious minority that considers itself Muslim but is barred from referring to themselves as such, and from practising aspects of their faith under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.
Police say Ahmad was targeted due to his faith, one of a spate of violent attacks targeting the Ahmadis, their places of worship and even their graves in Pakistan in 2020.
The last year has seen a spike in violent attacks against Ahmadis, and a tenfold increase in blasphemy cases lodged against them.
Community members and rights groups say the spike has been fuelled by the rise of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious group, and the efforts of a single religious scholar in the eastern city of Lahore, Hassan Muawiya.
“There has been an increase in these [attacks], in [legal] cases,” says Amir Mahmood, spokesman for the Ahmadi community. “This [persecution] has increased in the last two or three years, and it is continuing to do so.”
‘He did this just to save us’
In 2020, at least five Ahmadis were killed in targeted attacks by gunmen across Pakistan, while at least seven others were wounded in unsuccessful attacks, according to community data.
Since 2017, at least 13 Ahmadis have been killed, and more than 40 wounded, according to the data.
Five months before the attack on Sheikh Nasir Ahmad in Lalamusa, the TLP held a religious gathering attended by hundreds in a park about 100 metres from his home.
The night of that gathering, Ahmad says, his family hid in their home and alerted community leaders that “anything could happen”, as TLP supporters raised slogans calling for “blasphemers” to be put to death.
After the gathering, TLP activity in his small town of roughly 100,000 people increased, he said, with a constant threat to other Ahmadi inhabitants, and many of the regular customers at his plastic furniture store refusing to do business with him.
Ahmad survived the attempt on his life, but others have not been as fortunate.
In November 2020, a young man attempted to barge his way into an Ahmadi place of worship in the town of Marh Balochan, about 90km (56 miles) west of Lahore.
He blindly fired a pistol through the door, before a 31-year-old Ahmadi man, Tahir Mahmood, confronted him and pushed him outside. Tahir was hit by a bullet in his abdomen and he attempted to run down the street, scaring the attacker away.
“As Tahir got about 30 or 40 feet away, the attacker was behind him. So I shouted saying ‘Tahir, save yourself, he is behind you!’,” says Tariq Mahmood, 55, Tahir’s father, who was also wounded in the attack.
Hearing the father shout, the attacker turned and fired a single shot at Tariq’s forehead, knocking him down. He then caught up to Tahir and shot him dead.
“He did this just to save us,” says Tariq, his body heaving as he weeps, of his son’s attempt to distract the attacker.
A month before the attack on the Mahmoods, there had been a large TLP gathering in their neighbourhood, they say.
“There is a [yearly] conference in October, it is after that that people are more energised [against us],” says Shamim Akhtar, 54, Tahir Mahmood’s mother.
“They go from house to house telling people not to go to our store or take anything from us. They extract promises from people, they make people raise their hands in the mosque to promise not to go to our store.”
‘An atmosphere of dread’
Originally founded in the mid-2010s as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), the TLP rose to national prominence in 2017 when it held a three-week protest sit-in blocking a main highway in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, over a minor change in an electoral oath that the group considered to loosen restrictions against Ahmadis.
The group, founded by hardline religious scholar Khadim Hussain Rizvi, succeeded in getting the government to backtrack on the electoral oath change, forcing the resignation of the federal law minister.
Since then, the TLP has held a series of successful countrywide anti-government protests, some of them violent, on the issue of blasphemy, and won more than 2.2 million votes in a 2018 general election.
The rise in prominence of the TLP, rights groups and researchers say, has a direct correlation with an increase in violent attacks, legal cases and hate speech against Ahmadis, who are explicitly considered “apostates” by the group.
“Religious freedom has been imperilled in Pakistan for years, but the rise of the TLP sends a clear signal to minority communities that they remain vulnerable to discrimination, harassment or even violence,” says Dinushika Dissanayake, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International.
“It creates an atmosphere of dread, encouraging self-censorship, making it impossible to follow religious rituals without incurring a significant risk.”
Rabia Mahmood, an independent human rights researcher who works on the persecution of Pakistani minorities, says the TLP uses Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws – which prescribe a mandatory death sentence for the offence of insulting Prophet Muhammad, and jail terms for Ahmadis who “pose as a Muslim” – to justify their acts of persecution.
“TLP has used the blasphemy law as a key tool of justifying its existence, and accused minorities of insult to Islam, raised hell in neighbourhoods for arrest of blasphemy accused and ensured cases were registered against suspects as a result of their witch-hunts,” she says.
Moreover, Mahmood says, attacks against Ahmadis are often preceded by increased TLP activity in the area, or with explicit hate speech campaigns.
“The violent attacks on Ahmadis, their properties and [places of worship], show a pattern of pre-attack smear campaigns against members of the community in a specific locality,” she says.
“At times, the campaign is against the community generally, and sometimes specific to an individual or a group of residents of a locality.”
In at least four cases of attacks on Ahmadis in the last year reviewed by Al Jazeera, there were increased gatherings by the TLP and its affiliates in the area in the months leading to the attack, and in one case the victim, Naeemuddin Khattak, was explicitly the target of a hate speech campaign.
In April this year, following a series of violent countrywide protests by the TLP on the issue of “blasphemy” that saw the group abduct several police officers in the eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan’s government banned it as a “terrorist” organisation.
While the ban remains in place, media reports indicate the group is continuing to operate freely in many areas.
Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a prominent Muslim scholar who refers to himself as the “former” central information secretary of the TLP since the ban was imposed, blames the violence on “individuals”, not an organised TLP policy.
“Pakistan has a constitution and laws, and the constitution and laws do not give permission for [Ahmadis] to present themselves as Muslims,” he told Al Jazeera at a small mosque in Lahore.
“[T]here is no other position on this: the denier of the finality of Prophethood is an apostate, and regarding an apostate Islamic law is clear that there is a duty to kill [them].”
The ‘blasphemy’ campaigner
Even more precipitous than the rise in violence has been an increase in blasphemy cases against members of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan in 2020.
Last year, at least 30 blasphemy cases and 71 other legal cases related to religion were lodged against members of the Ahmadi community, according to community data, representing a tenfold and sixfold increase respectively from the year before.
The increase in legal cases is fuelled, rights activists and community members say, by one man: Hassan Muawiya.
Muawiya, 34, is a religious leader in the eastern city of Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, and works closely with the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Lawyers Forum to pursue cases of alleged blasphemy, particularly against members of the Ahmadi community.
Muawiya’s elder brother, Tahir Ashrafi, is a prominent religious scholar who was appointed by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as his special representative on religious harmony in October 2020. Muawiya says his work is “not related” to that of his brother, who is also known for his strong anti-Ahmadi stance.
“Hassan Muawiya, undoubtedly, is Pakistan’s ‘leading’ anti-Ahmadi campaigner,” says Mahmood, the researcher. “He began the most coordinated well-thought-out offline campaign against this community, under the larger ambit of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat Council.
“His tactics use the existing institutional and legal discrimination against Ahmadis to target the community through cases on fabricated charges.”
Sitting on a wicker-backed chair in the dappled sunlight of the grounds of the district courts in Lahore, Muawiya insists he is only following the letter of the law, and accuses members of the Ahmadi community of flouting those laws.
“If any [Ahmadi] or member of any religion stays within their limits, we have no issue with them,” says Sajid Lashari, Muawiya’s lawyer. “But when you cut my nose, then you can expect me to cut your nose as well.”
Muawiya told Al Jazeera that he had been advised by the courts to speak through his lawyer, as he was the complainant or a witness in a number of ongoing blasphemy cases.
Since 2012, Muawiya has been the complainant in at least eight blasphemy cases and associated as a witness or adviser with at least eight others, according to records reviewed by Al Jazeera. Rights activists say the actual number of cases in which Muawiya is associated with the complainant but does not appear on paperwork is far higher.
Defence lawyers allege that Muawiya and his group of lawyers use intimidation tactics, and the sensitivity of the issue of blasphemy in Pakistan, to “pressure” judges.
“In the court, often [the complainants and their lawyers] have tried to misbehave with me,” said Ali Khan*, a lawyer representing several Ahmadis accused of blasphemy by Muawiya’s group of lawyers in Lahore.
“They speak loudly, in an attempt to scare [people] or intimidate, there have been several incidents of this. The silence of judges is basically in support of [the complainants’ behaviour].”
Al Jazeera attended hearings for four blasphemy cases at Lahore’s sessions court and high court in July. Hearings in three cases were not held despite being on the schedule.
The fourth hearing saw a tense exchange between the complainant’s lawyer and the judge, which saw the defence lawyer accuse the judge of “taking dictation” from the complainants, and the complainant’s lawyer proclaim: “If I had the power … none of these people [gesturing to the defence] would survive!”
The judge remained silent, and then granted the complainant’s request for an early next hearing, despite the defence’s objections that it had not yet been provided copies of the evidence against the accused.
Khan said such a practice was “common”, and that judges were often under pressure to deliver guilty verdicts or face violence themselves.
Since 1990, at least 79 people have been murdered in the name of the blasphemy laws, according to an Al Jazeera tally. Those killed include people accused of blasphemy, their family members, their lawyers and judges who have delivered “not guilty” verdicts.
“Overall, the atmosphere has become much worse. You have given them free rein, and sent a message that on the name of [blasphemy], you can do anything. No one will say anything to you,” says Khan.
Ahmadis have seen “blasphemy” cases registered against them for possessing copies of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, for writing Prophet Muhammad’s name on a wedding invitation, and for uttering the Muslim words of faith while in their place of worship.
Muawiya says the increased violence is a result of judges coming under “foreign pressure” to deliver acquittals in high-profile blasphemy cases.
“[The acquittals] are a question mark on the judiciary, and there is no forum after that,” his lawyer said. “Young people will stop believing in the justice system and then what will they do?”
Muawiya denied allegations that his group of lawyers or he personally intimidated judges or sought to prosecute Ahmadis without “fully researching” to establish the veracity of the case.
Calls for justice
For those who have been attacked in the name of their faith, the cry appears to be similar: for prosecution and conviction of those responsible.
Tariq Mahmood, whose son was killed in Marh Balochan, says his family may never be able to return home again.
“Until we do not get justice and equality, and if a convict gets full punishment, that’s when someone who wants to commit a murder [of an Ahmadi] will know that they will be hanged,” he says.
“But there is no such thing here. So many Ahmadis have been killed, and no one has been punished.”
Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, a shopkeeper from Lalamusa who survived the attack on him, says the government needs to take stronger action against groups like the TLP that engage in hate speech and attacks, or face an expansion of violent attacks.
“There is saying in Punjabi that when you’re grinding the wheat, the [other products] also end up in the flour sometimes.
“So one day, everyone will be in the middle of this.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those quoted, at their request, due to security concerns.