On July 8, 2016, prominent American Muslim cleric Imam Omar Suleiman gave a brilliant speech at the Dallas Police memorial:
My faith requires me to speak out against hatred and injustice of all sorts... (O God!) We stand before you, ready to stand up ... against any oppression, in any name, for any cause, from any position, and against any of your creation... We ask that the voices of racism and xenophobia that seek to divide us are drowned out by the chorus of voices that say: You will not pit us against one another.
In recent times, Muslims in America have been at the receiving end of much hate and bigotry. As such, it is significant that the Muslim community is represented at such events of national importance.
The average American might perceive the Muslim American community as a homogeneous group, but American Muslims are a diverse ― and fast growing ― community comprising of individuals from various sects, ethnicities, races and nationalities. We share immense similarities and face common challenges, including the recent rise in Islamophobia. However, just as in Christianity, most followers of Islam identify with specific denominations that all have some distinctive interpretations of Scripture.
I, for instance, belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community ― the world’s single largest Muslim Community united under one leader and one of America’s oldest Muslim organizations. I am a Pakistani American who immigrated to the United States in search of security.
Ahmadi Muslims face brutal persecution at the hands of the State and clergy in Pakistan. Many Sunni Muslim clerics regularly call for the banishment, boycott, continued oppression and even killing of Ahmadis. Anti-Ahmadi hate conferences are commonplace and are considered an important part of the Sunni tradition in Pakistan. These conferences are led by prominent Sunni clerics from across the country, with the Shia clergy also abetting the hatred time and again.
Instead of protecting the Ahmadi Muslims, the State endorses this bigotry.
In an attempt to appease the far right, the Pakistani State declared the Ahmadi Muslims a “non-Muslim minority” through the Second Amendment to its Constitution in 1974. Ten years later in 1984, a presidential ordinance criminalized their profession of Islam. Hundreds of Ahmadi Muslims have since been jailed for saying the Kalima (Islamic creed professing the unity of God, and truth of Prophet Muhammad), reading the Quran, saying the Salam, Adhan (call to prayer), referring to their place of worship as a Mosque and themselves as Muslim. And now clerics are demanding Ahmadi Muslims be thrown in jail for reciting the Durood (a prayer for the Prophet) as well.
Consider this: I can be jailed for three years under Pakistani law for writing this article that refers to the Ahmadis as Muslims.
Imagine that Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry materializes, and the state honors this Islamophobia by making it part of the country’s law and Constitution. Imagine Christianity being represented by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Terry Jones. This is the cruelty Ahmadi Muslims are subjected to in Pakistan at the hands of clergy. Most other Sunni-majority countries also restrict the religious freedom of Ahmadi Muslims. This systemic hatred has been transported around the globe as well, with anti-Ahmadi hate conferences commonplace in some Sunni communities in the West.
Understandably, I moved out of Pakistan. Here in America, I hoped to meet open-minded Muslims who would condemn this ongoing persecution carried out, primarily, in the name of Sunni Islam. And I did. I have made friends with numerous Sunni and Shia Muslims who boldly and publicly sympathize with the plight of the Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan. Activists like Professor Khaled Beydoun, Mehdi Hasan, Rabia Chaudhry, Beena Sarwar, Raza Rumi, Professor Ali Asani, Robert Salaam, Sheila Musajji, Amina Wadud and Dean Obeidallah are few of numerous such vocal supporters of universal freedom of conscience. They oppose Pakistan's anti-Ahmadi laws in no ambiguous terms. I also met a handful of scholars like Imam Abdullah Antepli and Professor Khaled Beydoun who embrace the Ahmadis as fellow Muslims and publicly condemn Pakistan's apartheid of them.
However, I can count on one hand the number of Sunni and Shia imams who have come forward to call out the injustices against Ahmadi Muslims. Some even openly justify Pakistan's anti-Ahmadi laws. Most prefer silence to a principled stance on this issue. Forget the question of whether these imams identify Ahmadis as Muslim, they have even failed to stand up for the basic human rights, justice and religious freedom of Ahmadi Muslims. This anti-Ahmadi prejudice that permeates the Sunni Muslim leadership is heartbreaking.
The Quran (4:135) commands believers to stand firmly for justice, with complete impartiality and without exception. To preach this emphasis in sermons and yet not speak up against the callous injustices meted out to Ahmadi Muslims across the Sunni world is baffling, if not hypocritical. This apathy is sadly not a sporadic phenomenon. It represents a widespread epidemic affecting the larger Muslim community.
When I question otherwise reasonable imams on their stance on Ahmadi apartheid, most look the other way. The few who respond choose to blurt generic condemnations rather than answer the specific question at hand. Here are a few examples:
"I believe no one should be persecuted." - Shaikh Hamza Yusuf
These generic responses are very reminiscent of the #AllLivesMatter obfuscation of the #BlackLivesMatter statement.
The majority of Sunni imams refuse to call out the anti-Ahmadi laws that make life hell for 5 million Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan and many millions more worldwide, and they refuse to concede that Ahmadi Muslims should have the right to self-identify as they choose.
Why such exclusion? Why such prejudice? Why this taboo? How are these clerics and leaders different from those who are apathetic to the Palestinian cause, or from those who respond to the oppression with ritual lip service?
Dear American Sunni leaders, you do not have to agree with Ahmadi Muslims on theology to stand up for their freedoms. Remember well that their rights and freedoms are violated in your name. It is therefore your moral responsibility to stand up against the injustices they face across the Muslim world ― particularly in Pakistan.
While you continue to support ― actively or by choosing to remain silent ― the oppression of a whole Muslim community, Prophet Muhammad did the exact opposite. He stood up for the oppressed and delivered justice to all. He was sent as a mercy not only for those he agreed with but for the whole of mankind. He was a champion of universal religious liberty.
Therefore, I invite you to the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. I call on you to raise your voice, be counted and share your public support for the rights of Ahmadi Muslims in Sunni-majority countries. I call on you to finally absolve yourselves of complicity in one of the world’s cruelest apartheids.
As friend and well-known activist Linda Sarsour says:
When you see an injustice happening around you and you are silent and walk on with your life like it has nothing to do with you, then you are complicit.
Imagine when the injustice is being done in your very name? I hope that imams will heed my invitation and tell the Mullahs who oppress Ahmadi Muslims across the Muslim world:
“My faith requires me to speak out against hatred and injustice. We ask that the voices... that seek to divide us are drowned out by the chorus of voices that say: You will not pit us against one another.”
This oped originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of The Islamic Monthly.