'Moonlight' star Mahershala Ali's Oscar Win Highlights Persecution Faced by Ahmadi Muslims

Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali, winner of Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' poses in the press room during the 89th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, February 26, 2017. The actor, an Ahmadi Muslim, faced hostility from other Islamic sects after his win. Frazer Harrison/Getty

I’m not a cinephile. But I was happy for my friend Mahershala as he won the Oscar for best supporting actor. In doing so, he became the first black Muslim actor to win an Academy Award.

In a recent interview, Mahershala spoke of the struggles of anti-Islamic prejudice and racism he’s faced much of his life. But before Mahershala could finish his two-minute speech thanking his teachers and his wife, I saw the ugly underside of social media erupt on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. You see, in addition to being black and Muslim, Mahershala is also a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. As word spread that he is an Ahmadi Muslim, many Sunni and Shia Muslims who posted congratulatory messages deleted them just as quickly. Some deleted tweets came from high-profile personalities, like Pakistan’s top diplomat in the United Nations.

Blink and you’ll miss how problematic this is. In reality, this seemingly small act of intolerance is a litmus test for extremism and terrorism. Here’s why:

Muslims of virtually all sects believe that in the latter days a reformer will appear to revive Islam and reform Muslims. The orthodoxy awaits Jesus Christ’s physical descent from heaven to fight the anti-Christ with a sword of sorts. Ahmadi Muslims believe that true Islam rejects this concept of a violent Messiah. Instead, Ahmadi Muslims believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) is that awaited Messiah—known as the Mahdi, or redeemer—who came to revive Islam, reform Muslims and establish truth peacefully with what he coined as the Jihad of the Pen. He waged a war of intellectual arguments to defeat ignorance, service to humanity to eradicate poverty, and personal moral reformation to combat vice. As a result, and under true peaceful Islamic caliphate, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has spread to 209 nations worldwide with tens of millions of members—all without ever committing a single act of religious violence.

Related: Mahershala Ali Becomes First Muslim Actor to Win Oscar for ‘Moonlight’ Role

But this proven model of Islam meant little to extremist clerics who rejected Ahmad’s claim and additionally declared him “non-Muslim,” a concept known as takfir. And not content with mere declarations of takfir, in 1974, such clerics helped pass an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution to “legally” declare Ahmadi Muslims as “non-Muslim.” A decade later Pakistan passed Ordinance XX mandating up to the death penalty for an Ahmadi “posing” as a Muslim. These laws, rooted in takfir, have since created apartheid conditions for Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan—stripping them of the right to free speech and freedom of expression, to vote, perform the Hajj pilgrimage, have equal access to education, employment, military service, or hold political office. Countless Ahmadi Muslims languish in prison while extremists have killed over 300 Ahmadi Muslim women, children, and men. This extremism metastasized and today extremist Muslims are arresting, torturing, and killing Ahmadi Muslims in over a dozen countries around the world—from Indonesia to Algeria, Pakistan to Palestine, Malaysia to Morocco.

I had hoped that American Muslims would recognize Mahershala’s identity as an Ahmadi Muslim not because he won an award, but because in doing so they would be joining him in pushing back against takfir, which is a demonstrable root cause of worldwide extremism and terrorism. Instead, some Muslims celebrated his victory while denying him his identity. Others flat out ignored him altogether. Still, others publicly lamented that a “disbeliever” was posing as a Muslim.

At a time when Muslims are under assault—socially and from unjust government policies—I had hoped that American Muslim leadership would put aside their theological differences and stand united for the sake of justice and pluralism.

Sadly, this has not been the case, much to the detriment of American Muslims in general. The hypocrisy of those Muslim leaders who condemn unjust government policy against Muslims while simultaneously supporting apartheid conditions against Ahmadi Muslims results in unlimited fuel for anti-Muslim hate and rhetoric.

American Muslim leadership must recognize that the Islamophobic bigots don’t really care if we’re Ahmadi, Sunni, Shia, Ismaeli, or Sufi. In fact, as the recent murder of an Indian Hindu American in Kansas and ongoing hate crimes against Sikh Americans show, Islamophobes can’t even tell the difference between a Muslim or non-Muslim.

You don’t have to agree with Ahmadi Muslims theologically to recognize them as Muslims. But make no mistake, history has already proven that those Muslims who cannot so much as utter the phrase “Ahmadi Muslims,” are a root cause of extremism and terrorism.

We cannot tolerate such division and extremism in America.

Our lives literally depend on it.

Qasim Rashid is the national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. Follow him on Twitter: @MuslimIQ.