28 Apr, 2021
Ahmadiyya Muslims Azeem Zafarullah, left, and Imam Shafiq ur Rehman at the Baitul Muqeet Mosque in South Auckland. Photo / Dean PurcellBy: Lincoln Tan
Azeem Zafarullah claims to be a “proud Kiwi Muslim”, but when he makes an Islamic greeting, other Muslims would shun him rather than return the greeting.
The problem for Azeem, 32, is that he is an Ahmadi, a minority sect of Islam that most mainstream Muslims don’t regard to be Muslims.
AUT University Professor Edwina Pio is currently undertaking a study to better understand the obstacles and challenges faced here by members of the community here in New Zealand.
In 2006 when Azeem was just a teenager, his Ahmadiyya Imam (religious leader), was intercepted, brutally bashed and beheaded on his way to morning prayer.
“We got the news and rushed to the scene, police were already there but what I saw was really horrifying and gruesome,” he said.
“It was quite raw for me and it’s something I probably won’t be able to get out of my head for the rest of my life.”
What followed were threats to the family because Azeem’s father as the national president of the Ahmadiyya community there at the time.
“Our lives were at risk and Dad felt we just had to pack up and leave,” he said.
“Dad was lucky to be granted refugee status and that allowed us to come here with him.
Ahmadiyya Muslims have been subject to various forms of religious persecution and discrimination since the movement was founded in 1889.
They believe in all the five pillars and articles of faith required by Muslims, but are considered by many to be non-Muslims because they regard their founder Mirza Gulam Ahmad to be the promised Messiah.
Azeem, a construction project manager, said life here is a “world apart” from Sri Lanka and people were generally more accepting.
But he still experience prejudices, animosity and discrimination from both other Muslim groups and mainstream New Zealanders.
Azeem recalls Muslim protesters stopping people from attending a Quran exhibition the community had organised in Papakura some years back.
The same group also protested outside the Ahmadi mosque in South Auckland when they held an open day.
“It was quite an eye opener for me because I never thought you would see such things in a country like New Zealand. It was a bit disheartening,” Azeem said.
He and his wife, also an Ahmadi originally from Pakistan, have a 5-year-old daughter.
Professor Pio said her interviews with members of the sect has shown that the experiences of religious discrimination by Ahmadis are “not only host-country specific, but also specific to how they are treated by mainstream Muslims”.
There are about 700 in New Zealand who identify with the faith, and Pio had spoken to 17 for her research.
“Many employers and members of the majority community do not realise that the Ahmadis are considered non-Muslims by the majority of mainstream Muslims,” she said.
“And they are unaware that this community has suffered at the hands of certain extremist groups.”
Groups within deobandi and salafi, or wahabi, Islamic communities may use violence to eradicate those ideologies who in their opinion deviate from their “true” or “pure” view of Islam, Pio said.
But despite the challenges, Pio said Ahmadis generally do not feel marginalised in their work or careers because of their faith or ethnicity.
All the participants involved in her study said they were “100 per cent happier than in their source country”.
Imam Shafiq ur Rehman of Majid Baitul Mosque said a key message for the Ahmadi movement was “love for all, hatred for none”.
“It is sad when we see our own brothers spreading baseless allegations and hatred against our community,” he said.
“Our doors are always open, not only to other Muslim groups but also to other religious faiths … I would say the Ahmadiyya community is most welcoming.”
Originally from Pakistan, Shafiq has witnessed relentless persecution of Ahmadi in his home country.
About 100 people were massacred by the Taliban in Lahore in 2010, and the population of Ahmadi there has dropped to 400,000 to several million.
“Many of us feel it’s a blessing to be living in New Zealand not just because we feel safe, but also of the better opportunities and that we’re not being monitored or watched,” Shafiq said.
Among the community’s recent initiatives here is the “meet a Muslim” outreach aimed at getting people to know a Muslim before making a judgement.
But Shafiq said members who have gone out to the streets have been faced with verbal abuse, especially in cities like Gisborne.
“In these current challenging times … my hope and prayer is that we can all work towards greater harmony,” he added.