February 26, 2013 | National Post

Ahmadi Muslims, Killed in Pakistan but Welcomed Here, Perfectly Symbolize Our Canadian Values

Last week, when Canadians learned that the federal government was set to announce the creation of a new “Office of Religious Freedom,” CBC reported the news with this headline: “Harper to unveil religious freedom office in Toronto mosque.”

If you want to appreciate how blessed we are to live in a tolerant nation such as Canada, just consider this fact: Had the CBC headline quoted above been used in a news story in Pakistan, the company’s editors, as well as the copy editor who came up with the headline and the reporter who wrote the story, could all be thrown in jail on blasphemy charges.

Why? Because of their use of the word “mosque.”

The Vaughan, Ont, venue where Mr. Harper made his announcement this week isn’t just any mosque. It’s a mosque used by Ahmadiyya reformists. Here in the West, Ahmadis are treated as just another type of Muslim — in the same way that most ordinary Canadians make little distinction between, say, Conservative and Reform Jews. But elsewhere, Ahmadis are the targets of vicious prejudice and sometimes murder. In Pakistan, in particular, it is actually against the law to refer to Ahmadiyya prayer halls as “mosques.”

The Ahmadiyya movement was founded in late 19th-century British India by a charismatic prophet named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed that God had mandated him to guide Islam into its final, triumphal stage. Like mainstream Sunni Muslims, Ahmadis identify Mohammed as Islam’s defining prophet, and read the Koran. But their belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s identity as a savior, in defiance of Mohammed’s status as the “seal of the prophets,” has cast them outside Islamic orthodoxy.

In terms of the Christian world, Ahmadis might be loosely compared to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses — groups that also followed 19th-century prophet figures on paths that led them away from a mainstream Abrahamic faith. In Jewish terms, they might be compared to the Lubavitchers who created a Messiah cult around Hasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

In the Muslim context, Ahmadis are somewhat comparable to followers of the Bahai faith, another Muslim offshoot founded by a 19th century prophet (the Iranian Shiite Bahá’u’lláh) who regarded himself as Mohammed’s successor. But with one crucial difference: Bahais explicitly identify themselves as followers of a separate (and very peaceful) faith that is distinct from Islam. Ahmadis, on the other hand, consider themselves to be Muslims, full stop. And this fact drives many orthodox Pakistani Sunnis absolutely nuts — despite the fact that Pakistan originally was conceived as a home to all branches of Islam.

Indeed, the state’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shiite, not a (majority) Sunni. Were he alive today, Jinnah no doubt would be horrified to witness the murderous attacks against Shiites, Ahmadis and other minorities in the country he created.

In the 1950s, within several years of Jinnah’s death, Punjabi Muslim hardliners already were waging pogroms against Ahmadis. In 1974, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto went so far as to amend the nation’s constitution to exclude Ahmadis (and anyone else who rejected the “unqualified finality” of Mohammed’s status as prophet) from the ranks of Islam. In the 1980s, the country’s blasphemy laws were amended in such a way as to criminalize any Ahmadi who seeks to spread his faith, calls himself a “Muslim,” or even (as noted above) refers to his house of worship as a “mosque.”

As Sadakat Kadri reports in his excellent new book, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law, the campaign against Ahmadis has reached almost comical levels of absurdity. “When I visited the Ahmadi town of Rabwah, community leaders showed me a warrant of December 15, 1989, that accused ‘the entire population’ of unlawfully appropriating the greeting salaam alaikum (peace be upon you),” he reports. “All Pakistanis who apply for a passport or register to vote are now required to affirm in writing that they do not accept the prophethood of the sect’s founder.”

In recent years, as the Taliban have gained influence, the campaign against Ahmadis has become bloodier. Five years ago, a famous television personality went on air and declared that Ahmadiyya adherents are “worthy of death.” In the next few days, three Ahmadis were killed. Two years later, Taliban jihadis massacred 86 Ahmadis in Lahore during their Friday prayers.

Of course, Pakistan is a mess in a thousands different ways. But the treatment of the Ahmadis deserves special attention because of the way the campaign against this tiny persecuted Islamic sect seems to embody all of the hateful pathologies that have taken root in the region.

We are always told how al-Qaeda- and Taliban-styled jihadis have “hijacked” the Musim faith as justification for mass murder. And there is great truth to that. But in Pakistan, these “hijackers” are feeding off a state-promulgated and state-enforced campaign of hateful bigotry against Ahmadis that has been part of Pakistani law since 1974.

All of this should help us put the problem of Western intolerance in context. Islamophobia is a real problem in some parts of the West. But at least the only barbs that are hurled at North American Muslims generally come in the form of ignorant words. In terms of physical safety and the liberty to practice one’s faith, on the other hand, Muslims in the West are actually more safe and more free than they are in Muslim nations themselves.

An Ahmadiyya Muslim community centre and mosque therefore represented an absolutely perfect place for a Canadian leader to announce the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom. In Pakistan, a Muslim nation, the doors of such buildings are locked to prevent visits from gunmen and suicide bombers. Here in Canada, on the other hand, our Christian prime minister came calling with a promise to vindicate their sect’s freedom of conscience. It is a microcosm of the profound difference between our Canadian values, and those of the world’s religious fanatics — including the ones hunting Ahmadis in Pakistan.

It is a pity that Ahmadis have to come halfway around the world to find a spot where they can worship in peace. But what a source of pride it is, for us, that we can deliver it to them.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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