Britain’s Ahmadis under fire in battle for the soul of Islam

Originally published by The Times.

Followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad preach peace and tolerance, but many mainstream Muslims regard them as heretics

Eight hundred people recently assembled in Britain’s largest mosque for a day-long peace conference. Yet the group that organised it is finding that its message of tolerance and respect is provoking increasing opposition — not from the far right, but from their fellow British Muslims.

The National Peace Symposium at the Baitul Futuh mosque in Morden was the 15th such event organised by the Ahmadi Muslim community, a sect of about ten million people worldwide that is based in south London.

Ahmadi Muslims spend much of their time promoting peace. “The word Islam itself means ‘peace’ and the whole of Islamic teaching is to have peace in the community and cohesion,” says Rafiq Hayat, president of the UK Ahmadi community.

The roots of Islam as established by the Prophet Muhammad lie in peaceful coexistence with others, he says. “He spoke about unity among people as opposed to differentiating people on the basis of faith.”

Ahmadis emerged in the late 19th century after Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a religious leader in northern India, declared himself to be the messiah called by Allah to restore Islam to its true form. His movement grew into the Ahmadiyya, devoted to renewing Islam and returning it to its peaceful roots. However, its message was not welcomed by most Muslims, who rejected Ahmad’s claims to be the messiah. Persecution culminated in the movement leaving its heartland of Pakistan in the 1980s and moving to Britain.

The Ahmadis began afresh at the Baitul Futuh mosque. And as Britain has been rocked by terror attacks, the sect has become prominent. After last year’s atrocities in Westminster, Manchester and at London Bridge, Ahmadi Muslims were at the forefront of vigils and marches, waving banners proclaiming “Love for all, hatred for none”.

Two years earlier, after the Paris attacks, the Ahmadis launched an anti-extremism campaign and decried the terrorists as un-Islamic. The Khalifa, or leader of the faith, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, said at the time: “Those who seek to justify their hateful acts in the name of Islam are serving only to defame it in the worse possible way.”

Ahmadis also work hard at smaller acts of kindness to undo negative stereotypes: picking up litter, feeding the homeless, offering the elderly free taxi rides on Christmas Day. An annual walk for peace raised £700,000 for the Royal British Legion last year, Hayat says. The sect’s charity work and its opposition to Islamic extremism has endeared the community to the establishment: David Cameron praised the group, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has met the Khalifa, and Boris Johnson has spoken at peace symposiums.

Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Ahmadi Muslims, says the community’s efforts had laid down the gauntlet to other Muslims and faith groups.

“They make a great contribution — certainly to my community, to the voluntary sector,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary cultural clash with what we imagine, when you have young Muslim men collecting for the Poppy Appeal.”

However, their rise has sparked a sometimes violent debate. Most Muslims consider the sect to be heretics. Some Ahmadis report that Muslim neighbours refuse to offer the As-salamu ’alaykum (peace be with you) greeting, while many Islamic organisations will not work with Ahmadis, even for activities such as interfaith initiatives.

Far worse was the murder of Asad Shah, an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow, by a Muslim from Bradford in 2016. The killer said he had disrespected Islam in a series of videos.

McDonagh says she is concerned that the hatred of Ahmadis in countries such as Pakistan, inculcated by extremist clerics, is spilling over into Britain. Hate preachers and politicians from Pakistan were still given visas to visit Britain after the Glasgow murder.

“I think there is a feeling among all political parties that they don’t want to get involved in this,” she says. “I think it’s outrageous. If Britain is about anything, it’s about the right of people to express their opinion and practise their faith in safety and security.”

However, the issue is not straightforward, other Muslim groups argue. A 2016 statement from the Muslim Council of Britain said it fully supported Ahmadis’ right to practise their faith without persecution, but insisted that mainstream Muslims should not be compelled to class Ahmadis as fellow Muslims, given that they do not subscribe to “cornerstone” beliefs.

Some Muslim groups have demanded that Ahmadis be prevented from promoting their faith as “true Islam”. In February the Ahmadi community paid for billboards that declared “The messiah has come”, alongside an image of Ahmad. An email was circulated urging British Muslims to complain to the advertising watchdog, the Charity Commission and the police, claiming that the billboards were inciting hatred.

The backlash against Ahmadis has become toxic: none of the four main Muslim umbrella groups in Britain responded to a request for comment.

In the end, Hayat says, Ahmadis will earn respect by their deeds. “Judge us by our conduct. If our behaviour is better than other people’s, we must be doing something right to improve the society that we live in.”

Yet he was unable to resist a final swipe at his Muslim critics, pointing out that no British Ahmadi has joined Islamic State. “Those people who have a very narrow view of Islam . . . it’s children from their communities who hold prejudice and they are the ones who go and fight in Syria.”