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.
This rejection of violence was demonstrated following the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel in Rouen in 2016, when Ahmadis attended Catholic churches the following Sunday to show their solidarity with French Catholics. Many of those attending carried banners with the Ahmadiyya motto, “Love for All, Hatred for None”. From talking to Ahmadis, I know how incredibly grateful they are to be able to live in Britain and to practise their religion in peace. But their problems with sectarianism have not gone away. An extreme example occurred last year when a peaceful Glasgow shopkeeper, Asad Shah, was stabbed to death outside his shop solely because he was an Ahmadi. Sadly, British Muslim organisations, even when they condemned the murder, still felt the need to say that Shah should not be referred to as a Muslim.
I got involved with the Ahmadiyya because of a less violent but in some ways more worrying example of sectarianism in Birmingham. Every education authority in England has a standing advisory committee on religious education (SACRE), and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association applied to join Birmingham SACRE. After objections from other Muslim groups, the Ahmadi were told that they could only join if they dropped the name “Muslim” from their title. When they refused to do this they were told that they could only join, as Muslims, if the other Muslims agreed, which of course they would not.
As a person who knows something about Northern Ireland and the destructive effects of sectarianism there, I was extremely concerned at the danger of this new manifestation of religious sectarianism taking root in Britain. Therefore I represented the Ahmadiyya in negotiating with Birmingham City Council, which was a time-consuming and frustrating task. It was only when I threatened to sue the council for religious discrimination that we got anywhere and the council has now promised that the Ahmadi will be allowed to join SACRE. It is still, however, worrying that in 2017 this degree of religious sectarianism is allowed to exist within a major English local authority.
The National Peace Symposium is an annual event for the Ahmadis and there were numerous guests from Britain and abroad, including Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, who was given an award for her services in the cause of international disarmament. Fr David Stanley represented the Archbishop of Southwark and read a letter from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue welcoming the efforts of the Ahmadiyya in opposing religious extremism and violence.
But I mustn’t leave readers with the impression that meeting the Ahmadis was all a matter of gloom and seriousness. Quite the contrary: they are one of the friendliest groups of people I have ever met. My wife, Rita, and I were made to feel thoroughly welcome. Meeting the Ahmadiyya was a true pleasure.
Neil Addison is a barrister in Liverpool, specialising in religious freedom law
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