Art helps create and sustain social and political transformation. Sometimes that transformative power is more about the artist than the art—or, in the case of Mahershala Ali’s Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight, about national recognition for that artist. Ali’s win gave the spotlight to his performance, yes, but also to his person.
News outlets were quick to amplify that spotlight. Immediately after Ali won the first award of last Sunday’s ceremony, headlines along the lines of “Mahershala Ali Becomes First Muslim Actor to Win an Oscar” became ubiquitous.
Alongside the news headlines was the celebration on the Muslim internet, with social media posts celebrating the win as one not just for Ali but for the Muslim community as a whole. In a time when the community faces unending vilification, it jumps at the chance to celebrate successes, and Ali’s win was definitely one for the team.
But before long, the relative frivolity became complex. As the partiers slowly came to learn that Ali identifies as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community—a minority Muslim sect widely regarded by mainstream Islamic scholars as outside the folds of Islam—the celebratory Facebook statuses began to disappear. (The theological disagreement is creedal; Ahmadis have variant beliefs about the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood.) And then came the theological discussions and, perhaps more fundamentally, the question of how to contend with the differences.
In that discussion is the beginning of a transformation. Without Ali’s win, biased assumptions lay unchallenged, as did wrong notions of what religious freedom requires or does not require.
Commentators emphasized unity as a principle above all others, conflating theological differences on creed with social and political differences on issues like gay and women’s rights. As one Facebook post lamented, “We hate the Muslim ban but don’t talk about how we ban/shun Ahmadis, Shias, Black Muslims, LGBTQIA Muslims, & others within our faith from our lives, schools, mosques, homes, conferences, etc.” The talk of private treatment of Ahmadis melted into discussion of Ahmadi persecution by governments, and the two were discussed as inherently the same. Both, private and public disagreement, were assumed to be matters of “religious freedom.”
It is a tragic fact that Ahmadis are heavily persecuted in numerous countries throughout the world. Pakistan is one of the worst, and most well-known, offenders. An article published Tuesday by The Atlantic used Ali’s Oscar win to delve into Pakistan’s treatment of Ahmadis, noting the vulnerability of Ahmadis to violence, including mass killings. As I have explained elsewhere, while Ahmadis at the founding of Pakistan fared fairly well, all that changed with General Zia-ul-Haq’s so-called “Islamization” project in the 1980s. That project resulted in a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, and extensive additions to the country’s Penal Code punishing with a fine and imprisonment “Any . . . ‘Ahmadis’ . . . who directly or indirectly, poses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith …” In Pakistan today, the mere use of traditional Islamic terms like “salaam” (ironically meaning “peace”) can get Ahmadis in trouble with the law – or killed by vigilante actors.
And that treatment is not limited to Pakistan. In June 2008, the Indonesian government announced a joint ministerial decree freezing the activities of the Ahmadiyya. Private Sunni Muslim groups contributed to the effort; the Indonesian Council of Ulamas (MUI) released a number of fatwas (religious decrees) in the years prior to the decree on the issue of “deviance” from mainstream Islam, including recommendations to ban the Ahmadiyya.
Even in places like Algeria, where Ahmadis constitute a tiny minority, members of the minority sect face persecution, with dozens arrested merely for sharing their faith.
This government persecution is a serious and ongoing human rights violation that everyone, Muslims and others, need to pay attention to and help combat. Muslims’ silence against the horrific treatment of Ahmadis is morally lamentable. And when theological differences are actively used to call for government persecution, as in the case of the Indonesian Joint Decree, they implicate human rights. Yet silence by itself is not a crime.
While Ali’s Oscar win is calling attention to the ill-treatment of Ahmadis and helping activate a usually silent group, it should not be used to conflate government persecution with private, non-violent disagreement. Calls for “religious freedom” to glide over theological intra-community differences mistake the nature of religious freedom—a concept that is fundamentally about the relationship between the government and private citizens, not about the relationship among private actors. Non-violent means used by religious communities to negotiate their differences privately, without implicating government action, do not offend religious freedom.
A classic American Christian example is that of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons and widely held by Protestants and Catholics as outside the folds of Christianity. While the U.S. has a shameful history of persecuting members of the Church, an evolution in American religious freedom jurisprudence led to the government pulling out of religious debates. Today, Mormons have the same freedom to exercise their beliefs, regardless of Protestant and Catholic views about Mormon theology.
Not required by human rights, theological unity across thorny differences is also not necessarily a goal toward which religious communities should strive. Even in the face of strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and elsewhere, unity among groups claiming to be Muslim does not mandate homogeneity. In other words, Sunnis and Shi’as do not need to accept Ahmadis as Muslims, or vice versa, in order for them to work together in combating anti-Muslim discrimination.
A more potent tool in today’s fight is authenticity—an acceptance that we are different, and that difference should not hinder our joint activism. It is a realization befitting a social transformation.
Asma Uddin is the founding editor-in-chief of altM.