In a recent interview, Mahershala spoke of the struggles of anti-Islamic prejudice and racism he’s faced much of his life. But before Mahershala could finish his two-minute speech thanking his teachers and his wife, I saw the ugly underside of social media erupt on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. You see, in addition to being black and Muslim, Mahershala is also a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. As word spread that he is an Ahmadi Muslim, many Sunni and Shia Muslims who posted congratulatory messages deleted them just as quickly. Some deleted tweets came from high-profile personalities, like Pakistan’s top diplomat in the United Nations. Blink and you’ll miss how problematic this is. In reality, this seemingly small act of intolerance is a litmus test for extremism and terrorism. Here’s why:
Muslims of virtually all sects believe that in the latter days a reformer will appear to revive Islam and reform Muslims. The orthodoxy awaits Jesus Christ’s physical descent from heaven to fight the anti-Christ with a sword of sorts. Ahmadi Muslims believe that true Islam rejects this concept of a violent Messiah. Instead, Ahmadi Muslims believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is that awaited Messiah—known as the Mahdi, or redeemer—who came to revive Islam, reform Muslims and establish truth peacefully with what he coined as the Jihad of the Pen. He waged a war of intellectual arguments to defeat ignorance, service to humanity to eradicate poverty, and personal moral reformation to combat vice. As a result, and under true peaceful Islamic caliphate, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has spread to 209 nations worldwide with tens of millions of members—all without ever committing a single act of religious violence.
But this proven model of Islam meant little to extremist clerics who rejected Ahmad’s claim and additionally declared him “non-Muslim,” a concept known astakfir. And not content with mere declarations of takfir, in 1974, such clerics helped pass an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution to “legally” declare Ahmadi Muslims as “non-Muslim.” A decade later Pakistan passed Ordinance XX mandating up to the death penalty for an Ahmadi “posing” as a Muslim. These laws, rooted in takfir, have since created apartheid conditions for Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan—stripping them of the right to free speech and freedom of expression, to vote, perform the Hajj pilgrimage, have equal access to education, employment, military service, or hold political office. Countless Ahmadi Muslims languish in prison while extremists have killed over 300 Ahmadi Muslim women, children, and men. This extremism metastasized and today extremist Muslims are arresting, torturing, and killing Ahmadi Muslims in over a dozen countries around the world—from Indonesia to Algeria, Pakistan to Palestine, Malaysia to Morocco.
I had hoped that American Muslims would recognize Mahershala’s identity as an Ahmadi Muslim not because he won an award, but because in doing so they would be joining him in pushing back against takfir, which is a demonstrable root cause of worldwide extremism and terrorism. Instead, some Muslims celebrated his victory while denying him his identity. Others flat out ignored him altogether. Still, others publicly lamented that a “disbeliever” was posing as a Muslim.
At a time when Muslims are under assault—socially and from unjust government policies—I had hoped that American Muslim leadership would put aside their theological differences and stand united for the sake of justice and pluralism.
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