Qasim Rashid is an attorney, author, and national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He is also the Executive Director of the American Muslim Institute for Advancement of Peace and Security.
My family migrated here 30 years ago in 1987. My father is an imam and Islamic scholar in the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community are Muslims who believe in the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Our Community faces brutal faith-based persecution on a state level in Pakistan, so part of the reason why he came here was to escape persecution. My father continued his work and has been all over the world; we stayed here and continued our education in the United States. Persecution of Ahmadi Muslims is ongoing around the world. In many Muslim majority countries Ahmadi Muslims experience some sort of state level persecution, and it is increasing in countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria.
I fortunately haven’t experienced any direct physical harassment here in the United States on account of being an Ahmadi Muslim, but I certainly get the death threats and nasty comments. But more importantly, I certainly have to be cognizant of the reality of what my family, my fellow Ahmadi Muslims of faith, and my community [who are] living in the many Muslim majority countries experience. I need to be informed about what’s happening and be ready to provide a response to what’s happening both in terms of media advocacy and legal advocacy with asylum and refugee cases.
I think one lesson is that the intolerance of some Sunni majority countries, such as Pakistan, must be addressed. Pakistan was founded as a secular democracy and devolved into a quasi-theocracy because you had religious fundamentalists and clerics influencing those in power, who then started passing laws discriminating against minorities. Sometimes it is difficult to see it happen because it happens so slowly but before you know it, it’s a much different world after 20, 30, 40 years. In Pakistan, in 1974 they passed a constitutional amendment declaring Ahmadi Muslims as not Muslim. And within a decade, 12 years, a criminal code was enforced that says that if an Ahmadi Muslim insists on “posing as a Muslim,” they will face prison, a fine, and, depending on the severity of the claim, up to the death penalty. So, you have now a whole generation and a half of young Pakistanis raised in this environment, [being taught] that they can force their beliefs on others. That’s a very dangerous way to live. It’s inhumane. It’s not sustainable. It’s definitely not Islamic.
Here in the United States, I think a lesson that Americans can learn is that excuses being made to discriminate against refugees, or Muslims, or Jews, or against any minority is dangerous. You’re literally playing with fire and you are risking radicalizing youths to become intolerant and extremist in the future.
My work here as an American, as a citizen, as a Muslim, as an Ahmadi Muslim, is to use my experience and my Community’s experience to prevent my adopted country from going towards the path that my birth country has chosen to go down. We need to re-establish the basics of justice. Today there is severe injustice [in the U.S.] based off of race, based off of gender, based off of economic status. For example, in America police brutality continues to go unaddressed. In America, gender-based violence is the leading cause of injury to women. That’s an issue of us teaching our young men and young boys respect for women. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence is at a record high, and it goes back to a foundational failure in teaching religious harmony and interfaith harmony.
All of this comes down to a lack of justice in the way we treat one-another and in the way we teach our youth. We need to create an environment where people have space to re-establish their relationships with God, and we can do that by establishing universal religious freedom. We need to remove laws that oppress freedom of conscience, and we need to allow people the right to believe or not believe as they wish–that is a sacred human right that can not be violated. Regardless of your faith, your race, your nationality, you should be able to respect the right to freedom of conscience for all people; and if you don’t, then I would argue that you are part of the problem.
There’s a strong need for us to first empower ourselves before going out in the world. I’ve seen many young people who appear dedicated, but they haven’t done their homework on the issues the profess to address. They will read a few websites, read one book, and suddenly think that they’re scholars or that they’re activists. My advice to them is that you are far more beneficial to humanity if you arm yourself with education and experience. Spend time with people who are already successful in the field of activism (or whatever it is you’re passionate about) and learn from them. Learn the pitfalls, learn the mistakes, and then become better. You become a leader through leading by example, not by simply seeking a leadership position. “Social media scholars,” they’re a dime a dozen; the world needs specialization and dedicated scholars.
Interview and Compilation: Andrew McDonald, MALA Fellow, Fall 2017