Some people aren’t celebrating Mahershala Ali as the first Muslim to win an Oscar: let’s talk about anti-Ahmadi discrimination

by Ayesha Mehta

After years of disappointment with the Oscars disregarding diverse talent, and the growing frustration that Hollywood only tells black stories in the context of historical trauma and racist brutality, Mahershala Ali’s win for his role in a film about the contemporary experience of a young, gay, African-American was a moment brimming with significance. It was made richer still as Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award at the same time as the Trump administration sought to uphold its Islamaphobic travel ban. Yet, amongst some Muslims, this achievement was not celebrated because Ali is an Ahmadi Muslim.  His win shines a light on anti-Ahmadi discrimination as it exists around the world.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad

The Ahmadiyya Jama’at was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in nineteenth century Punjab, British India. Members of the community are known as Ahmadis, or pejoratively as Qadianis. They identify as Muslim, believe in the five pillars of Islam, and they are all but indistinguishable from other Muslims in how they practice. The Ahmadiyya have been at the forefront of Muslim proselytising efforts across the world, establishing sizeable communities in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the US. However, they are commonly regarded as heretics by other Muslims because of Ghulam Ahmad’s claim to be both the Mahdi and Promised Messiah. This position is controversial as it is seen to violate the principle that Muhammad was the final Prophet and that there could be no new Prophets after him. While Ghulam Ahmad himself stressed that he was a ‘shadow’ Prophet and so did not have the power to create new laws, this distinction is not appreciated by opponents of the Ahmadiyya.

Their persecution is most visible in Pakistan, where the largest number of Ahmadis live. Pakistan’s Ahmadis were declared non-Muslim via a constitutional amendment in 1974. A decade later, in the context of the passing of laws designed to carry more severe punishments for blasphemy, their right to call themselves Muslim and to publicly practice their religion was criminalised. While there have been no executions for blasphemy, Ahmadis and other religious minorities in Pakistan are routinely harassed, attacked, and killed at the hands of vigilantes, often with the tacit support of the police.

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Representative to the United Nations, commented ‘that’s a first’ in a retweet recognising Mahershala Ali’s historic achievement. The deletion of that tweet has been seen as emblematic of the prejudice that Ahmadis in Pakistan face on a daily basis. Whatever Lodhi’s personal motivations, it should be remembered that it is not only Ahmadis in Pakistan that face danger. Those that are seen to speak out in support of victimised minority groups have also paid with their lives. In 2011, Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his bodyguards who claimed that he acted in response to Taseer’s criticism of the blasphemy laws. Less than two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, another high-profile critic of the country’s blasphemy laws and the Minister for Minority Affairs, was also assassinated.

The headquarters of the Ahmadiyya moved from Pakistan to the UK in the 1980s after anti-Ahmadi legislation rendered the Khalifa unable to provide leadership to the community. However, whilst the community are free from state-sanctioned violence here in the UK, that is not to say that they have been able to escape the animosity of other Muslims entirely. The most extreme example of this was the murder of Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016. His killer, Tanveer Ahmed, admitted to being motivated by sectarianism, and sources close to him claimed that he had been inspired by Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salman Taseer. Aamer Anwar, a prominent human rights lawyer, received death threats after calling for Scotland’s Muslim community to unite in condemning the murder.

Asad Shah’s murder has brought attention to the growing bigotry towards the Ahmadiyya in the UK more generally. In South London, where the head of the community resides and where their largest mosque is, the community has been subject to overt social ostracism. This has ranged from a boycott of Ahmadi-owned business and employment discrimination to opposing Ahmadis seeking political office.

It is difficult to put this hostility towards the Ahmadiyya down to the work of a few individuals, divorced from the wider context in which Ahmadis are disparaged as a matter of course. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has condemned the killing of Asad Shah and any calls for violence against the Ahmadiyya. However, Ahmadis are still explicitly excluded from the MCB, an organisation that claims to speak on behalf of the nation’s Muslims. The UK affiliate of the movement at the forefront of anti-Ahmadi agitation in Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (Movement for the Finality of Prophethood), has had its affiliation temporarily suspended by the MCB after allegations that they were behind leaflets calling for the death of Ahmadis displayed at Stockwell Green mosque shortly after Asad Shah’s murder. Yet this does not excuse the fact that before this, the MCB had long been associated with an organisation that had opposition to the Ahmadiyya as its defining characteristic.  

As we try to confront the challenges wrought by the rise of the populist right, it’s easy for communities to continue to sideline the issue of discrimination within their ranks. But as the case of the Ahmadiyya makes clear, when intolerance is ignored, it does not simply disappear. Its roots grow stronger, paving the way for more virulent and widespread expressions of prejudice.

To end, in Mahershala Ali’s own words:

I think what I’ve learned from working on “Moonlight” is we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community and taking that opportunity to uplift him and to tell him he mattered, that he was OK, and accept him. I hope that we do a better job of that.

We kind of get caught up in the minutia and the details that make us all different, I think there’s two ways of seeing that. There’s an opportunity to see the texture of that person, the characteristics that make them unique, and then there’s the opportunity to go to war about it, and to say that that person is different than me and I don’t like you, so let’s battle.

My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago. But I tell you now ― you put things to the side, and I’m able to see her and she’s able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. And that stuff is minutia. It’s not that important.

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Ayesha Mehta is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on the intersection of Muslim identity, sectarianism, and nationalism in postcolonial India. You can find her on Twitter @ayesha_mehta

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