For years, Abdul Qayyum ran a small shop selling eyeglasses and books in the sleepy town of Rabwah in eastern Pakistan. For Qayyum, the business, while not booming, was enough to make ends meet, and the 82-year-old had a natural affection for his patrons. "He had this habit of offering tea to all his customers and ensured that no child left his shop without sweets," his son Farid tells me. "For him, his customers weren't customers, but guests." On December 2, 2015, however, the visitors who arrived were decidedly uninvited: Armed men from the government's counter-terrorism department barged into the store, recalls Marij Fahad, Abdul's nephew, who was in the shop at the time. "They told me and everyone else to get out of the shop immediately," he says. "By the time they let us back in, they had taken Abdul with them."
One month later, Qayyum was charged with terrorism and sentenced to five years in prison. His crime: selling religious books relating to the Ahmadiyya sect, a group that considers itself Muslim although Pakistani law does not. Qayyum is an Ahmadi, and mainstream Sunni Muslims accuse Ahmadis of regarding their religious leader, the late 19th-century Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a prophet or messiah--a claim that runs contrary to the tenet that Muhammed was the final prophet and on which Ahmadis themselves have differing views. Qayyum also received an additional three-year sentence for a plaque found inside his shop inscribed with the words "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet," the Muslim declaration of faith. His display of the plaque was viewed as an attempt to pose as a Muslim--an act that is illegal in Pakistan.
These laws are one of the factors that make day-to-day life for the approximately two million Ahmadis living in Pakistan, a Muslim state with a Sunni Muslim majority, rife with risk. They can be prosecuted for everything from calling their houses of worship mosques to saying the religious greeting asalaam alaikum. The widespread belief that Ahmadis are blasphemers has also led to increasing outbreaks of violence: Attacks on Ahmadi mosques and Ahmadi-owned property by suicide bombers and angry crowds have killed or injured hundreds. In 2015, a factory owned by a member of the Ahmadi community was burned down by a mob incited by announcements made from local mosques. A year later, a throng of more than 1,000 people attacked an Ahmadi mosque and set it on fire; government security forces had to intervene to prevent the incident from turning into a massacre. But the country's police and security forces are not always on their side, says Saad Gibran, a senior official of the Ahmadi community. "What is worrying is that the state not only doesn't do anything to protect us but actively encourages this." Pakistan has a complex and troubled relationship between religion and state, and all of the country's minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims, face some level of discrimination and persecution. Non-Muslims, for example, cannot serve in high-level government positions such as president or prime minister. However, Ahmadis are singled out because they consider themselves Muslims. "This fusion of religion and politics has had a grave impact on Pakistan's minorities, and Ahmadis have suffered the most, at the hands of both state and non-state actors," says Zohra Yusuf, a former chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Almost every Ahmadi I speak with has a story of persecution or violence. "They start punishing us for being Ahmadis from the moment we are born, and it only ends when we die," says Amir Mahmood, an Ahmadi community spokesperson whom I meet in the city of Rabwah, which despite raids such as the one on Qayyum's shop is considered one of the safest places for Ahmadis to live in Pakistan. "In fact, in most situations it continues even after we die." This isn't an exaggeration. Graves of Ahmadis are often dug up from Muslim cemeteries and their corpses desecrated.
The story of the Ahmadis begins more than a century ago in the town of Qadian, located in modern-day northern India. Born in 1835 to an affluent Muslim family, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was drawn to religion from a very young age and spent most of his youth inside local mosques or buried in books. He liked to debate Christian missionaries, a habit he picked up while working as a cleric. Ahmadi texts say that he first talked to God in 1869, and by 1875 he claimed to be talking with previous prophets of Islam in his dreams. Ahmad began to seclude himself, spending up to 40 days at a time alone meditating and praying. A persuasive orator, he drew followers from the educated and upper classes of India with his use of logic and science to explain religion.
Soon Ahmad was arguing that while the Prophet Muhammad was the last and greatest of the law-bearing prophets, non-legislative...