In February I accepted an invitation to a “National Peace Symposium” at a mosque in Morden, to be held the following month. Nobody at the time could have suspected that this event, to promote peace, would be held in the shadow of a terrorist attack in Westminster and the funeral of Martin McGuinness.
My hosts were the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who are no strangers to the evils of violence and sectarianism. They belong to a little-known Islamic religious movement that first developed in 19th-century British India but are regarded as heretics by other Muslims.
To the non-Muslim outsider, such as myself, the beliefs and practices of the Ahmadi seem little different to those of other Muslims, except for three things. They firmly reject the idea of violent jihad (ie violence in the name of God). They believe in the separation of religion from civil government. And they uphold religious freedom, including the right of Muslims to change their religion.
These beliefs will seem innocuous – indeed, self-evident – to the average Westerner, but they are regarded as unacceptable in most parts of the Muslim world.
In Pakistan, the Ahmadi are severely restricted by blasphemy laws (also used against Christians) that make it an imprisonable offence for them to call themselves Muslims, to refer to their prayer halls as “mosques” or to use any other Islamic terminology or practices. Individuals and community centres are frequently attacked. Perhaps most painfully of all, Ahmadi are not allowed to enter Mecca on pilgrimage.
These problems have prompted many Ahmadiyya to emigrate to the West and their Caliph, or spiritual leader, is now based in England. Several Ahmadi I spoke to compared their Caliph to the Pope, with both offering spiritual guidance. Certainly the speech given by the Caliph at the symposium was unambiguous in its condemnation of the Westminster attack and violence generally.
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