By Eleanor Beevor
The UK media is unforgiving in its portrayal of British Muslims. Stories about extremism, delinquency or shocking culture clashes do a lot better than stories of Muslim charity work, or their efforts to overcome tensions with their neighbours.
But among the few “good news” stories given to Muslims in British media, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is the subject of a huge majority of them. Ahmadi Muslims now occupy a fascinating space in Britain’s complicated, and often fraught relationship with Islam.
Ahmadis face danger for their minority beliefs within Islam, and fear and loathing from the far-right because of being Muslim. But they have also garnered praise from politicians for their efforts to cut across social barriers in Britain. Their leadership has championed the compatibility of British and Muslim identities, and their spiritual leader has even claimed that Ahmadis are “immune” to radicalisation.
And, if one can make sweeping judgements about “communities” from the relatively small numbers of confirmed cases of radicalisation, it seems that Ahmadi Muslims have indeed emerged largely unscathed. There are no known cases of Ahmadi Muslims in the UK supporting terrorism.
But what is behind this success story of multiculturalism? Is it, as many British politicians might assume, that Ahmadi theology is just more “moderate”? Or is it something else? And are there any lessons here for the muddled fight against extremism, in the UK and elsewhere?
This weekend, I attended one of the largest annual gatherings of Ahmadi Muslims in Britain. This is an admittedly very short time with which to try and answer these difficult questions. But so far I would argue yes. There is a lesson Britain can learn about preventing extremism from Ahmadi Muslims, but it’s not what you think.
My unexpected invitation to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association’s annual meeting came courtesy of Twitter. Last week, I got a message from Sabahuddin Ahmedi, or Sabah for short, who wanted to talk to journalists about Islam in the media.
An energetic, smartly dressed 24-year old who – as he says himself – doesn’t look much like most people’s image of an imam, Sabah works in the Ahmadiyya community press office. His work, he tells me over coffee in London, is to help change British people’s’ perceptions of Islam, and to try and counteract the overwhelmingly negative image of Muslims in the media. There are all sorts of ways that Ahmadis work to do that. And if I want to see some of them myself, he says, I should come to Surrey and see what happens when 5,000 young Ahmadi Muslims get together.
Organising a gathering of several thousand isn’t easy at the best of times. But Ahmadis have more to worry about than most. The Ahmadiyya sect faces widespread prejudice across the world, including and especially from other Muslim communities.
Ahmadi Islam was founded in 17th Century India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmad believed himself to be a prophet, destined to revive true Islam by establishing a community of followers. His followers, both then and now, believe that Ghulam was the Messiah of the Abrahamic religions, and his life was the Second Coming of Jesus. After Ghulam Ahmad’s death, Ahmadi Muslims maintained the tradition of centralised spiritual leadership by electing a “Caliph”. The present Caliph, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is the fifth leader of the Ahmadi community, and he resides in the UK.
Beyond these differences of belief, there is little to distinguish Ahmadi Islamic practice from more mainstream Muslim traditions. But Ahmadi Islam is still seen by many Muslim groups as misguided at best, and apostasy at worst.
There is widespread denial that Ahmadis are Muslim at all. Saudi Arabia forbids them from partaking in the Hajj pilgrimage. Just a few weeks ago, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan succumbed to pressure from Islamist groups in the country and sacked a high ranking Ahmadi economic advisor, explicitly because of the advisor’s religion. And this persecution can get violent, including in the UK. Two years ago in the UK, an Ahmadi shopkeeper called Asad Shah was stabbed to death in his shop by a Sunni Muslim taxi driver in a religious hate crime.
That they can’t take too many chances becomes clear as soon as I arrive at the youth summit. The setup is a number of large marquees over a field, and going through the first tent we pass through metal detectors. There’s always been a need for caution, but apparently it’s getting worse. Hazik, a friend of Sabah’s, later tells me: “We used to just have problems from the Islamist extremists. Now we have to worry about the far right too.” The Ahmadi Caliph’s security has been upgraded – as well as armoured bodyguards, he now uses a bomb-proof car to travel between his engagements and his London flat.
Soon we’re through, and we start walking around the huge, muddy field surrounded by vast tents. There’s sports tents, an exhibition area, a “hub” where talks and discussions are going on, a vast prayer tent, and an even bigger marquee where at least some of the 5,000 are sleeping on mattresses. The program for the day is pretty loose, which leaves us the flexibility to wander and talk as we like.
People invested in discussions of Islam in Britain have a tendency to see what they want to see. Pro-multicultural liberals hope to see their own values reflected in British Muslims, while the cultural right-wing want evidence that Islamic and modern British cultures don’t mix. From this event, it’s quickly clear Ahmadi Muslims don’t fit neatly into the narratives of any side of the political aisle.
The press release of the Youth Association event heavily emphasized the patriotism, and the rejection of extremism of the Ahmadi community – one of the weekend’s events involved hoisting the British flag alongside the Ahmadi one. But that hasn’t meant the abandonment of conservative religious values.
For one thing, the 5,000 people attending this weekend actually only represent one half of the Ahmadi Youth gathering – the male half. The women’s event, I’m told, is next week. Everyone is keen to emphasise that this is what the women also wanted. They tell me that Ahmadi women had a decisive voice in keeping the events segregated, so that they could manage their event how they liked.
Nor, as I learn later, does the Ahmadi community do “dating” in the way that many young Britons do. Rather, there is an Ahmadi “marriage counsellors” service. The counsellors team makes profiles of young Ahmadi men and women of marriageable age who are looking for partners. The counsellors tell me they try and tailor their matches as much as possible to the individuals seeking partners. They ask them what kind of person they would like to be with, and their priorities in a potential partner. They also collect details of that person’s profession, their economic situation and so on. However, the work of making the initial match is left to the counsellors.
Being an Ahmadi, then, means surrendering a degree of individual freedom of choice. But whether this is a good or a bad thing depends very much on who you ask. Many western thinkers think (or at least think that they think) that individual rights should always be protected above the rights of a collective or a community. These things are never absolute for anyone – there is always social influence on the individual, and vice versa. But for the Ahmadi men that I spoke to, there is a sense of relief, and even of freedom, that comes from letting their faith and their community guide their major decisions in life.
This comes out very clearly when they discussed their relationship with the Caliph. Sitting on a huddle of sofas in one of the tents, a group of four young men told me about what the Caliph’s presence meant to them. Farhad, another young imam, tells me: “He’s a spiritual leader, but he’s like a father figure to all of us. Every day, he checks over seven hundred letters, because people write to him and ask for advice. And he always writes back.” Should someone want to seek his advice in person, I’m told, they can easily book an appointment with him. And people aren’t just looking for answers to spiritual questions.
Ahmadi Muslims want the Caliph’s guidance on their personal decisions. While his word is not a command per se, it is treated with the utmost seriousness. Sabah tells me that he began to look for a wife after the Caliph told him that this was the right time for him to get married. Now he and his wife are expecting a baby girl, and they have an appointment with the Caliph the following week, in which he will choose their daughter’s name. This is apparently common – all the men in our gathering concur that their names were chosen by either the current Caliph or the previous one.
People go to the Caliph for career advice too. Rizwan, an archaeologist, happily recounts getting the Caliph’s support to pursue his dream of studying the past. “The Caliph told me that Islam commands us to try and understand previous civilizations. He gave me the opportunity to go and do fieldwork. I now have annual meetings with the Caliph to ask for his advice. It gives me a huge sense of relief to have his guidance on my career.”
Munad, a lawyer, tells me that he went to the Caliph with a vague idea of studying law. The Caliph told him that he should become a barrister. Munad laughingly recalled: “When he told me to go and do the bar exam, I had no idea how much work that was going to be, or how competitive the bar is. I had to work very hard for it, but I got the marks I needed, and I’m glad I did it. It’s not like the Caliph is imposing his will on us. It’s more like he can see something in us, and he wants us to live up to our potential.”
There’s no disputing that the Caliph has a lot of power over his followers, of which there are many – there are 30,000 Ahmadi Muslims in the UK alone. That kind of charismatic authority doesn’t sit easily with some observers, who fear the consequences of a leader’s messaging changing. History has a few cautionary tales of leaders whose benevolent messages changed for the worse once they had built up a following.