Just weeks after the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon, the global leader of the world’s 10-million-plus Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has brought his religion’s message of peace, public service and uplift to the faithful of Southern California.
While those principles are embraced by most of the Muslim world, the Ahmadis’ outlook is distinctive. The visiting khalifa, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is critical of mixing religion and governance and points to the restive Middle East countries in the “Arab Spring” aftermath as examples of discord born of religious rule. He speaks laudingly of Western democracy and praises Israeli President Shimon Peres for his ideas on restoring stability to the conflict-plagued region.
The first West Coast visit of the khalifa was scheduled long before the April 15 attacks in Boston that have newly shaken the American public’s sense of security and serenity. But in the nervous aftermath of that latest terror strike, which may or may not have had any connection to radical Islam, the need to tackle misconceptions and prejudices about Muslims is all the more obvious and challenging, in the view of the religious leader.
Ahmadis, like other adherents to moderate Islam, denounce violence and abhor the scorn that the acts of a few inflict on the many. Yet the community has internal and doctrinal conflicts of its own. Founded in 1889 in the Indian village of Qadian, the movement split in 1914 into the khalifa’s community and a smaller rival movement. With the 1947 partition of India, the community dispersed, when many of its followers fled to the new state of Pakistan. There, Ahmadis have been shunned and prohibited by law from calling themselves Muslims. The 62-year-old khalifa’s followers have been the target of anti-Ahmadiyya terrorists, including a May 2010 attack on Friday prayers in Lahore in which 86 Ahmadis died.
[Updated 8:41 a.m. PDT May 9: Ahmad will be speaking to politicians, academics and community leaders in Beverly Hills this weekend, including both Los Angeles mayoral candidates.]
Now based in London and active in worldwide outreach, the khalifa spoke with The Times on Wednesday about his mission and the troubled state of the world.
Q: How do you spread the message of Islam as a religion of peace in the circumstances you find in the United States where, because of terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, some people harbor misconceptions about the nature of Islam?
A: Muslims have been persecuted and attacked by their opponents throughout history, and have found themselves at war, compelled to retaliate for the mistreatment. But there is now no such religious war. Whenever any jihadist organization stands up in the name of Islam and misconstrues its true teachings, we have to stand up to this and speak out. Not only in the United States but everywhere in the world you see the name of Islam being defamed by opponents, those who don’t have a true understanding of Islam. These are militant groups, not followers of the true religion, and we always stand against them.
Here in the United States, we have a program of good works. For the past two years we have been conducting the “Muslims for Life” campaign. We organize the donation of blood. The first time this drive was conducted we collected 10,000 blood donations and distributed them to hospitals.
Q: Your community is committed to separation of church and state, which is a distinction from some Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East where political leaders are trying to establish Islamic governments in the place of the authoritarian regimes ousted in the Arab Spring revolutions. Would the region be more stable, in your opinion, if new secular governments were created instead?
A: In Egypt, what we have seen after having removed Hosni Mubarak is that nothing has changed. We have a government that still doesn’t discharge its duties to the public and isn’t respecting the rights of the people. In Libya, every tribe has its own government. The defense minister warned recently that some are attempting to overthrow the elected government and that unless some steps are taken there will be another disaster. In Tunisia, everyone says they are changing the country for the best and in the name of religion, but there is no peace. If there is going to be true democracy in the region it has to be practiced as in the West [without religious domination].
Q: How does the international community go about restoring peace in the region now racked by war and violent opposition?
A: A few months back, President Shimon Peres of Israel said the United Nations should send forces into these disrupted countries, but only forces comprised of Arab soldiers, not Western troops. It is the proper role of neighbors to get together and try to stop the conflicts in their region. It’s the duty of neighboring countries to stop the atrocities in Syria.
Q: How do you imagine the fighting in Syria could be brought to an end?
A: The government of Syria is predominantly Alawite, while the majority of Syrians are Sunnis. The government mistreated Sunnis and created inequality. Now there are others with vested interests coming into the country, including extremists, to help the rebels. So there is now conflict among the rebels as well as with the government. The atrocities and persecution were started by the government, but now both parties are guilty. They won’t resolve it themselves, so there should be some initiative to find a way out and bring an end to the fighting.
Q: You say it is the responsibility of neighboring countries to help find a path to peace. Do you see the efforts recently announced by Russia and the United States to bring the Syrian parties together in negotiations as a desirable response by neighbors, or are these powers too far removed from the region?
A: The world is now a global village, so the idea of neighborhood is broader. But there are still two blocs in the world, with Russia supporting the Syrian government and Western governments supporting the rebels. It will be a test of the goodwill of the United States and Russia to stop the violence there. It must be stopped, because if it continues it will draw in the whole world.
Q: The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community leadership has been driven from Pakistan into exile. What is at the root of your differences with other Muslims, and how does the rift affect the cohesion and unity of Islam’s message?
A: We believe that the Messiah has come as a subordinate, non-law-bearing prophet in the person of the founder of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community [in 1889]. Other Muslims disagree and believe after the holy prophet of Islam comes, there can be no other prophet, either one bearing a new law or not.
In Pakistan, the regime has passed a law against Ahmadis, saying we are not Muslims for the purposes of law and the constitution. The Ahmadis number in the millions, not only in Pakistan. But there you can see it was the fear of Pakistani mullahs that if they did not stop the Ahmadis from freely practicing their religion, the Ahmadis might attract every Pakistani Muslim into their fold.
Q: Where is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community strongest in the world, and where is it growing fastest?
A: We have millions of followers in Asia, but the following is increasing fastest in West Africa. Pakistan used to be the biggest Ahmadi community, but now certain African countries have greater numbers. We are increasing day by day, every year by 100,000s.
Some people are afraid of Islam. Some people have become indifferent to all religions. They don’t believe in any god. But after a certain period they will come back and find religion. When they reach this state, we believe and we hope that we will help people fill this spiritual gap with the true teachings of our religion.
[For the Record, 8:41 a.m. PDT May 9: An earlier version of this story said the Ahmadiyya community was split by the partitioning of India in 1947; it was dispersed but remained united.]