Evening talks on academic issues constitute an important part of the LUMS experience. Students are provided the opportunity to go beyond textbook knowledge and become acquainted with an academic’s research and fieldwork. Such a talk was hosted by the Hum-Aahang society on the pressing issue of Ahmadis in Pakistan, following the dismissal of Dr. Atif Mian from the PTI-government’s Economic Advisory Council. Though his initial appointment was celebrated as a bold step in the right direction, his dismissal was also met with equal criticism and disappointment, expressed over how the new government surrendered to pressure from fundamentalist sentiments.
On the evening of Tuesday, 11th September, A-11 of the Academic Block was packed with students and members of the faculty, quite unlike the case for any other talk of such grave nature. Such a turnout is usually more expected of society orientations this early in the semester.
This particular talk became something more than just an academic experience.
The two panelists for the talk were Dr. Ali Usman Qasmi of the History department at LUMS and journalist Usman Ahmad. While Dr. Qasmi laid out the constitutional history of how the Ahmadi community came to be declared as non-Muslims, Mr. Ahmad described accounts of members of the community — and did so in emotionally compelling detail. Those who attended the talk witnessed the incredible moment when Mr. Ahmad told a stunned audience about the number of funerals of the community he had attended in the past year. The audience also came to know that the youngest members of the community are not spared either: Mr. Ahmad recounted stories of young children being bullied by their peers – but still refusing to accept the “persecuted” label. In response to a question inquiring about the way forward for this issue, Mr. Ahmad pointed out that this burden of responsibility should naturally fall on the religious majority, rather than minorities. The audience went on an illuminating journey with him as he talked about the day-to-day incidents of intolerance and violence faced by the Ahmadi community.
The political-legal historical roots of the issue explained by Dr. Qasmi were extremely informative and deepened students’ understanding of the current situation, and Usman Ahmad’s frank speech had a great emotional impact on the members of the audience, moving some to tears. Together, a wholesome discussion was produced.
LDS reached out to Usman Ahmad regarding his thoughts on the highly favorable response he got and here is what he had to say: “….in terms of the turnout, I felt it was reflective of the need people have felt to talk on this subject ever since the Atif Mian controversy. Also, when you make a subject taboo, like the Ahmadi issue has been done for so many years, it just raises curiosity to a fever pitch.”
Not everyone in the auditorium was receptive to the plight of the Ahmadi community. The derogatory slur ‘Qadiani’ was thrown around during the Q&A session and one man went on to call the entire community ‘blasphemous.’ A lot of students also reported to have received messages on Facebook, warning them against going to the talk.
On the positive side, it was observed that the Ahmadi members of the LUMS community felt more liberated after this talk; they were present at the event, they were openly thanking their friends for attending it, and they were also thanking the organizers for taking the initiative to hold it. Moreover, those who had previously concealed their identity as an Ahmadi were revealing it to their friends. Between classes and at Khokha tables, discourse was stirring! People belonging to this community were opening up to their friends about difficulties they faced when offering prayers in public spaces, about what the city of Rabwah was like, about how they navigate the limited space they have to educate people, and most importantly, they kept reiterating that they weren’t victims and that Pakistan needed them, not the other way around. This heartwarming response is proof of the potent need for such discussions. And it would not be an overstatement to say that Usman Ahmad’s personal anecdotes played a major role in this positive impact. Only days after the talk, an LDF post went up inquiring about whether the LUMS Religious Society accommodates Ahmadis, in light of its recent appeal towards engaging other non-Muslim religious communities.
This paper reached out to Adnan Khan, current Dean of the OSA, regarding the vital role his office had in allowing this talk to happen and what he thinks of such activities taking place on campus. This is what he had to say: “Of course, the OSA is here to help student societies with events and that includes events such as this one. At LUMS, we strive to promote an atmosphere of tolerance and create an intellectual space for our students to explore different ideas. This is of vital importance for our development as a society as well.” It was quite heartening to hear this statement from Adnan Khan. It is also evident that students are dealing with a friendly administration, one that wants to encourage positive discussion and fully support student activities directed towards social change.
It is important to acknowledge here the necessity of consistently having talks of this nature on thought-provoking subjects. More significant even, is that an institution like LUMS is willing to back it up. Unfortunately, healthy discourse is still a rarity today. Whether in person or via social media, bubbles of like-minded individuals and subsequent echo chambers tend to thwart productive discussions. Logical fallacies and prejudices often go unchecked if one’s interactions are limited to a particular social circle. This is why talks that attract individuals with diverse thoughts to participate and engage are a good, though small, step in the right direction.
Pakistan may still be a long way from becoming a safe space for the Ahmadi community, but this paper commends the efforts on part of the student organizers behind the event, the deliberations of OSA in making it happen and the faculty members that ensured its success, and we hope that LUMS continues to keep its progressive core to its identity in the academic years to come.
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