Shunned for saying they’re Muslims: life for Ahmadis after Asad Shah’s murder

ome of Samia Sultan’s neighbours don’t greet her any more, and sometimes it’s hard for her to understand why. Sultan, a dentist, lives in Glasgow, in an area of the city that is – like most Muslim populations in the UK – majority Sunni. But Sultan isn’t Sunni: she is Ahmadi. And that is the source of the problem.

“My neighbours were fine, but when they came to know I was Ahmadi, their attitude changed,” Sultan explains. It is a bright morning in Glasgow, but the boredom of the school holidays is beginning to bite, and her daughters are impatient to borrow her smartphone so that they can use its stopwatch to time their game. Sultan passes her palm gently over her older daughter’s hair as she sends her back out to play. “They would no longer reply to my greeting As-salāmu ‘alaykum [peace be upon you]” with Wa’alaykumu s-salām [and upon you peace].”

At first hearing, it seems almost negligible; a petty withholding. But this doorstep refusal to return the universal Muslim greeting is blunt in its intended humiliation: a denial of the basic vocabulary of belonging. Sultan shrugs lightly. “We can’t stop it by ourselves and we are taught to bear hardship with patience, so we try to be friendly.” She pauses. “But it is hard. Sometimes you think: what is wrong with me?”

The answer to that question is a complicated one, with roots in theology and Pakistani history. But whatever its origins, it has recently come to seem more urgent than ever. When Asad Shah, a popular shopkeeper living in the multicultural Shawlands area of Glasgow, was fatally stabbed outside his newsagents on the night before Good Friday, the initial local presumption was that this had been a white-on-black hate crime. A candlelit vigil, organised by two local women – one Muslim and one Christian – the day after the killing, was publicised on social media under the hashtag #thisisnotwhoweare.

Asad Shah.
Asad Shah. Photograph: Facebook

But it soon emerged that Police Scotland were treating the crime as “religiously prejudiced”, an unusually specific form of words, and that Shah was an Ahmadi, a member of a minority sect of Islam that faces persecution and bloody violence in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia, and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims in the UK because it differs from their belief that Muhammad is the final prophet sent to guide humankind, as orthodox Muslims believe is laid out in the Qur’an.

The man now charged with Shah’s murder is also a Muslim. On Thursday, Tanveer Ahmed, from Bradford, released a statement through his lawyer, justifying the killing because Shah had “disrespected” Islam.

Insisting that the killing had “nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs”, he went on to warn: “If I had not done this, others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world.”

Glasgow’s Ahmadi have called on all Muslim leaders and imams in Britain to publicly condemn this statement. Describing Ahmed’s words as “deeply disturbing”, community leader Ahmed Owusu-Konadu said: “It justifies the killing of anyone – Muslim or non-Muslim – whom an extremist considers to have shown disrespect to Islam.”

Speaking from his office in Islamabad, Ali Dayan Hasan, the former Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, is succinct about general attitudes to Ahmadis: “It is shocking how much hate there is in the UK.” He refers in particular to literature distributed by Khatme Nubuwatt, an organisation that in Pakistan calls for the ‘elimination’ of the Ahmadi, but also has branches in the UK, where it is a registered charity and an affiliate of the Muslim Council of Britain. A posting on the Facebook page Anti Qadianiat (Tahafuz Khatme Nubuwwat), included the Guardian’s report of Shah’s death, with the message “Congratulations to all Muslims”.

Hasan has dealt with the relentless persecution of Ahmadi in Pakistan throughout his working life, including the massacre of approximately 100 people by the Taliban in Lahore in 2010. Since 1974, the Ahmadi population in Pakistan has fallen from several million to 400,000. “Even five years ago I remember saying [to authorities in Britain], ‘You have to do something about this.’

“The schism is so arcane. On the face of it, Ahmadi look like Muslims, and non-Muslims wouldn’t believe the amount of hatred this schism inspires across the Muslim world. Because Muslims are targeting Muslims, it gets lost.”

The founder of the Ahmadi movement – Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – was born in Punjab in 1835. Considering himself the reviver of the original teachings of Islam, he was regarded by his followers as the messiah and the follower prophet of Muhammad. And while Ahmadis insist that he was not a “law-giving” prophet like Muhammad, few among the Muslim mainstream accept this argument. Ahmadis believe they practise true Islam, as practised by Muhammad.

With its origins in British-controlled northern India in the late 19th century, this theological schism was soon overlaid by the toxic politics of partition. The Ahmadi, historically better educated and wealthier than their peers, were instrumental in the return of Mohammad Jinnah (leader of the All-India Muslim League until Pakistan’s creation in 1947, and then the country’s first governor-general) to India in the late 30s, and their influence in the emerging state was treated with increasing suspicion by other religious leaders.

As Hasan explains, this mistrust was then codified into something even more toxic. In 1974, under severe pressure from clerics, Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, introduced a constitutional amendment that declared Ahmadi to be non-Muslims. This remains one of the only instances in the world where a religious community is explicitly discriminated against by law. A decade later, the notorious Ordinance 20 was introduced – “a cross between legislating a thought crime and something reminiscent of apartheid”, says Hassan. “Really, it says that these people are not Muslims and if they pose to be Muslims then it is a crime punishable with three years’ imprisonment.” The Ahmadis’ profession of faith became a criminal act, and the community moved its headquarters to the UK, where there is now an estimated 30,000, compared with 2.7 million British Muslims in total. The prejudice followed them.

Umar Nasser is a final year medic at Imperial College, London, and national president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students’ Association. The softly spoken student describes how “some things have just become routine” on campuses across the country: “Posters advertising events are torn down, other Muslim societies either in an overt or covert way try to undermine our activities.”

At his own college, he organised a discussion event entitled Women in Islam. “I got an official email from another Muslim student society saying that I should change the title to Women in Ahmadi because we weren’t Muslims. I just found it bizarre.” He laughs, but sounds hurt as well as baffled. “I can’t believe he said that straight to my face.”

Doesn’t it upset him that there are some younger Muslims who subscribe to this? He reels off the conspiracy theories: that the faith was invented and covertly funded by the British and the Jews to undermine Islam, that its founder claimed to be greater than the prophet Muhammed, that it pays people to join it. “I feel a bit sorry for them that they have been brought up to have these prejudices. They’ve inherited some very extreme beliefs about Ahmadi, and until they actually sit down with you, they don’t realise these things aren’t true.”

In other London institutions, which Nasser declines to name for fear of students there facing reprisals, he described an Ahmadi information stall being physically attacked by other Muslim students; a Muslim student coming to an Ahmadi-speaker event and giving out leaflets calling for the death of Ahmadis; another email sent to members of a university Islamic society instructing members not to attend Ahmadi events.

Nasser’s association alerted university authorities about the death threats, and considered taking the complaint further, but decided against it when the student in question apologised. This is, after all, a movement that emphasises non-violence and tolerance of other faiths. But there is also an anxiety that reporting hate crimes will only exacerbate tensions.

Tell Mama UK, the Islamophobia phone helpline, confirms that it has experienced a spike in reporting of anti-Ahmadi harassment since the killing in Glasgow, although the figures are far smaller than those encountered anecdotally, rising from around five to 10 since the start of the year. Director Fiyaz Mughal believes this is the tip of the iceberg. “There genuinely is a very strong feeling of discrimination. The Ahmadi face those really hard, brittle views about them being unbelievers, not Muslims, which creates a mood music of dehumanisation.”

Recent cases involve Ahmadi receiving threats in relation to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjabi politician Salmaan Taseer after Taseer spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, as well as Ahmadi persecution. “The Pakistani narrative is sewn through it,” says Mughal. “We have had to stand up and say that hatred towards Ahmadi or indeed Shia is anti-Muslim hate, but this is a significant fracture at the heart of the community.”

One of the many fabrications about the Ahmadi, especially online, is that the community invents or provokes attacks in order to gain sympathy in the west. Ironically, though, the nature and context of the attitudes they encounter means that they must operate with a high degree of nuance.

As Taalay Ahmed, a young Ahmadi from Yorkshire, puts it, “We’re talking about very subtle undertones. If somebody doesn’t like you because you’re an Ahmadi, you can’t report that to the police. Cases of violence are relatively rare in this country. I’ve had some encounters with other Muslims, but more from the far-right. This is not about all non-Ahmadi Muslims. It’s not Sunni against Ahmadi, but extremists against Ahmadi.”

Another imam jumbles his words during our interview, before says in frustration: “I don’t want to say ‘them’ and ‘us’ when there is so much Islamophobia that all of us have to deal with.”

The creamy dome and towering minaret of Baitul Futuh, the community’s largest place of worship in western Europe, is in south London. The UK’s biggest concentration of Ahmadi reside nearby, but even here, says lawyer Farooq Aftab: “It is a growing phenomenon: shops boycotted, women assaulted, even my friends who are educated won’t eat with me now. The simple answer: it’s because you’re not a Muslim. We’ve gone through university together, we ate together, prayed together …” He echoes the words that Nasser uses: “It’s a bizarre situation.”

Imam Abdul Quddus Arif describes “a sort of apartheid” in nearby Tooting, where Ahmadi are refused employment by other Muslim businesses and not served food in restaurants. Hate preaching in non-Ahmadi mosques across the UK is “rampant”, he adds.

This week, local MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community Siobhain McDonagh wrote to home secretary Theresa May asking for an urgent meeting to discuss the rise of extremism in relation to Britain’s Ahmadis. McDonagh is particularly concerned about the activities of Khatme Nubuwwat and “an overspill of extremism from Pakistan to the UK”.

Unlike in most other parts of the country, the Muslim community in her constituency is majority Ahmadi. “I think people do feel anxious [following the Shah killing]. They feel squeezed: there’s the backlash from the mainstream community because of atrocities in Paris and Brussels; then on the other side, they feel pressurised by an increasing radicalisation and hatred towards them within their own community.”

But this is not a community under siege, she says: these are “outward-facing” people, giving money to mainstream local charities, selling poppies throughout the autumn, draping their mosque railings in union flags on Armed Forces Day in the summer.

While mainstream British Muslim groups have condemned the killing in Glasgow, many of their statements have shown remarkable obfuscation. The Muslim Council of Britain, which has no Ahmadi members, stated that – although it is “unacceptable” to target Ahmadi on the basis of their beliefs, “Muslims should not be forced to class Ahmadis as Muslims if they do not wish to do so, at the same time, we call on Muslims to be sensitive.” Responding to questions from the Guardian about why Khatme Nubuwwat remains an affiliate, a spokesperson said: “We understand they have issued a statement condemning the murder and all forms of hatred. We are currently asking the organisation for clarification and will investigate accusations levelled at it seriously.”

In London, imams generously describe police and other authorities as being “at a very early stage of understanding”. In Glasgow, the community, and indeed Shah’s own family, have praised Police Scotland for their handling of the investigation. At the Ahmadi’s Glasgow mosque, Iman Qureshi recalls a swift and sensitive police response last year when a shop on the south side – near where Shah was killed – was reported as displaying an anti-Ahmadi poster.

But Police Scotland are investigating alleged links between a prominent Glasgow Muslim leader and a banned sectarian group in Pakistan. A recent BBC investigation revealed that Sabir Ali, the head of religious events at Glasgow Central mosque, was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a militant political party that has accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyya minorities in Pakistan, and was banned by the Home Office in 2001.

Aamer Anwar, one of Scotland’s most outspoken Muslim reformers, last week helped to broker a unique event where representatives of Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya and Pakistani Christian communities shared a platform for the first time, and vowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against extremism.

At the time, Anwar warned: “A very small minority of the community may think it’s OK to meddle in the cesspit of violent extremist politics in Pakistan, but we are united in saying that we do not want to import sectarian violence that has caused so much division and so much bloodshed to our community or to our streets.” He has since received death threats himself, which are now under investigation by the police.

For Anne-Marie Ionescu, who has just completed a medical degree and is working in Leamington Spa, what marks out the Ahmadi faith is a willingness to debate. A Muslim convert from Catholicism who joined the Ahmadi community a few years later, Ionesco inhabits a unique position from which to observe such distinctions.

“One of the reasons I was attracted to the Ahmadi faith was that it practised all the rights that Islam gives to women. The problem with some people is that they mix up Islamic practice with a cultural practice that takes away a lot of the rights that Islam gives to women. Women play a much more prominent role [in the Ahmadi community] and we have a leadership that really encourages that.”

In terms of day-to-day practise of faith, she says, there’s no difference. “We still pray five times a day, fast, give away money. But the things that are highlighted more are engaging with and giving back to the local community, and opening up dialogue, even on controversial subjects.”

And this seems to describe nobody more accurately than Asad Shah himself, whose customers recall how he printed Christmas cards with individual messages of peace; whose final Facebook update, posted a few hours before his death, offered Easter greetings “to my beloved Christian nation” and who embodied, according to his grieving family, the Ahmadi motto: love for all, hatred for none.

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