Like so many others, I was delighted when Mahershala Ali’s nabbed the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor this year. The fact that we had mutual friends, and that he belonged to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was just a happy coincidence.
Despite my joy, I waited for the backlash I knew was coming. As I wryly watched the tweets and Facebook posts heralding Ali as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar roll in, the irony wasn’t lost on me. After all, Ali belongs to a sect of Islam that the majority of Muslim scholars dismiss as non-Muslim. In fact, in 1974, Pakistan’s religious clerics pushed for the passage of Ordinance XX to Pakistan’s Constitution, an edict which not only legally declared Ahmadi Muslims to be non-Muslim, but also mandated the death penalty for any Ahmadi ‘posing’ as a Muslim. This so-called posturing could include anything as innocuous as Ahmadi Muslims greeting each other with “Assalam o Lakum (Peace be upon you),” attending a mosque or saying prayers.
Post 1974, Ahmadi Muslims have suffered apartheid-like conditions in Pakistan. The government has denied members of this shunned community equal access to education, military service, political office and employment. The oppression quickly dilated into violence, with an alarming number of Ahmadi Muslims being injured, arrested and even killed under this decidedly undemocratic amendment to Pakistan’s constitution.
Understanding this issue is important, because it is precisely this kind of dogmatic thinking that has fueled extremism which has mutated into the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda and any number of terrorist groups that are nothing more than lurid distortions of Islam–a faith whose very name means peaceful submission to God. None of these unholy manifestations represent the religion that more than 1.6 billion Muslims follow, and yet they exist. They exist and they grow in part because division and intolerance within Islam are allowed to grow unchecked.
The same Muslims who, when confronted by Islamophobes, tout that Islam calls for empathy and tolerance, do not hesitate to say that Ali is not a ‘real’ Muslim. Even Pakistan’s top diplomat to United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, deleted her congratulatory tweet after she realized the Oscar winner is an Ahmadi Muslim.
Some naysayers agree that persecution of Ahmadi Muslims is wrong, but maintain that Ahmadi Muslims cannot be “Muslim” because they do not share believe the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the final prophet. This camp justifies its position by pointing to other religions in which mainstream adherents do not recognize the faith’s fringe sects. So the argument goes that an alternative interpretation of Islam cannot be recognized as part of the religion in order to maintain religious authenticity.
I want to address this group here, since it’s possible that they don’t comprehend the damage their rationale is doing to the Muslim world. When Asma Uddin, in her latest altMuslimah oped, writes, “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,” it sounds as though she’s trying to placate both sides while accomplishing nothing. She puts forth an esoteric argument–that Ahmadi Muslims deserve the religious freedom to call themselves Muslim without fear of persecution. However, she says, individual Muslims (not the government) also have the right to decide whether or not they recognize Ahmadis as Muslims. That is an individual’s prerogative.
Asma’s argument is an academic one that conceals deep fallacies. She offers Mormons as an example of a Christian off-shoot not recognized by mainstream Christians, yet the two coexist peacefully. It is true that these two groups live and work together but this harmonious relationship exists because denying Mormons as Christians does not translate to an automatic license to kill or persecute Mormons. In the Ahmadi Muslim case, if an influential individual, such as a religious cleric, decides that anyone who isn’t a Muslim but ‘poses’ as such, can be killed with impunity, his community tends to follow his command.
If the Pakistani government had not written in the pages of its Constitution, that Ahmadi Muslims are not Muslims and they will be imprisoned or killed if they insist on calling themselves such, then, yes, one could make the argument that Asma does–that recognizing Ahmadis as Muslims is an individual prerogative. However, when you have government sanctioned persecution in different countries across the Muslim world, denying Ahmadis their identity as Muslims is tacit approval of the very same persecution you claim to defend.
Let’s take an example from the American history books to understand this point. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court attempted to appease both whites and blacks by declaring that the latter were separate but equal to the former. The court ordered the government to consider blacks no different from whites in the eyes of the law, but left it up to individuals to decide how they wanted to treat blacks in their public spaces and day-to-day lives. Sound familiar? Well, blacks suffered through years of separate schools, drinking fountains and bathrooms. Did the segregation make them feel equal or safe from persecution? No, in fact, the opposite occurred. Lynching, mob riots, unequal access to education, jobs, welfare and political office sowed such deep-seeded animosity and injustice that its ramifications are felt to this day.
This issue transcends the Oscars. At the end of the day, we have bigger problems than whether a good actor receives congratulatory tweets on a historic win. What his win has actually done is expose the hypocrisy of the Muslim community. We cannot decry the injustice and inequality we currently face in America, while simultaneously denying one of our own his just due. How can Muslims accuse others of marginalizing us when they continue to ostracize and persecute Ahmadi Muslims and other minority sects at the same time?
Do we really think Islamaphobes are going to distinguish between Shi’as, Sunnis and Ahmadis when they target Islam? We have neither the time nor luxury to fight among ourselves while our government belittles and undermines our presence in this country. Our future depends on our ability to put aside our differences and defend one another.
Farrah Qazi is a human rights attorney specializing in women’s issues, gender equity and global literacy. Farrah writes at “Rizzarr,” “FemiNisa,” “Ayesha Magazine,” “The Muslim Sunrise,” and other publications.