By Kashif Chaudhry
March 01, 2017
History was made at the Oscars last night.
Mahershala Ali - who identifies as a proud African American Muslim - was
crowned "the first Muslim actor" to win an Oscar award. At a time
when Muslim Americans are facing a hostile regime and increasing Islamophobia
across the country, Mahershala's win has brought smiles to many in the Muslim community.
Mahershala Ali, first ever Muslim actor to win an Oscar award
Mahershala, a Christian by birth, spoke
about his journey to Islam in his SAG award speech a few weeks back, when he
“My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a
Muslim... We love each other, the love has grown. And that stuff (different
faiths) is minutia — it’s not that important.”
Despite his extraordinary feat at the
Oscars, many prominent Muslim activists refrained from celebrating Mahershala,
with some even issuing outright condemnations because of his beliefs.
Mahershala also identifies as an Ahmadi, a sect that faces severe persecution
at the hands of Sunni supremacists across the Muslim world.
As I witnessed the spectrum of reactions on
social media, I wondered what would happen if the celebrated artist decided to
pay Pakistan a visit tomorrow?
1) In Pakistan, if Mahershala Ali
identified himself as a Muslim, he'd be jailed for three years under the
Pakistan's anti-Ahmadi laws (Ordinance XX) introduced by General Zia ul Haq in
1984. Hundreds of Ahmadis have been jailed for their self-identity.
2) If Mahershala read the Holy Quran in
public, he would face the possibility of being arrested for "hurting the
sentiment of Muslims" under the same anti-Ahmadi laws. Many Ahmadis have
spent years of their lives in jail for this "crime," including this
British doctor who returned to Pakistan to help its poor a few years ago.
3) If Mahershala said "Salam" to
the Prime Minister of Pakistan in a public meeting, a mischievous Mullah could
have him arrested for hurting the Muslims of the country and 'Ummah.' Ahmadis
are banned from using Islamic epithets in Pakistan. My distant uncle Mr. Tahir
Mehdi is currently in a high-security prison, charged with using Quranic verses
in an Ahmadiyya publication. 82 year old Shakoor Bhai also remains in jail.
4) Meeting with the Prime Minister? I don't
think so. If Mahershala visits Pakistan, the country's public officials will
likely ignore him, like they ignored Dr. Abdus Salam for his faith and denied
him a state funeral. The same officials who received Angelina Jolie with state
honours would pretend not to know Mahershala at all. Being associated with an
Ahmadi is a huge taboo in Pakistani society. This is why Pakistan's ambassador
to the United Nations, Ms. Maleeha Lodhi had to delete a tweet congratulating
Mahershala Ali after his win.
5) If Mahershala went to pray, and referred
to his place of worship as a mosque, he'd potentially risk facing a 3 year
sentence and heavy fine again.
6) If Mahershala made the speech he made at
the SAD awards, he'd be accused of blasphemy for referring to himself as a
follower of Islam.
7) If Mahershala decided to say the Adhan
(call to prayer) in Lahore one day, he'd again risk a three year jail term
under the country's anti-Ahmadi laws. Many Ahmadis have been jailed for saying
the call to prayer.
8) If Mahershala recited the Islamic
Kalima, proclaiming the oneness of God and truth of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh),
the law could potentially spring into action again. He'd be accused of hurting
Muslim sentiment and be jailed and fined. Three of my uncles went to jail for
this "crime" in the 1980s. Numerous Ahmadi 'places of worship' have
had the Kalima effaced by state authorities since then.
9) If Mahershala said his prayer (Salaat)
in public, he'd risk facing a similar prison sentence.
10) If Mahershala visited Pakistan, the
chance that he would return without being declared “worthy of being killed” or
“Wajib-Ul-Qatal” in a sermon or religious conference by extremist Sunni
clerics is close to zero.
With all these potential consequences of a
potential visit to Pakistan, Mahershaala would probably never want to visit
Pakistan. And this is painful. Imagine what it says about our international
image when the man dubbed by world media as the "first Muslim actor"
to win on Oscar is unable to visit Pakistan because of threats by state laws
and constitutional amendments, and rampant religious bigotry.
It is time we look into ourselves and
change track, taking the path where the self-identity, human rights and
religious freedom of all peoples is equally honored. In trying to hurt a
minority faith community, we have only made a mockery of ourselves on the
Hopefully one day Mahershala Ali will find
these obstacles a chapter of history, and will be able to visit the beautiful
Pakistan that is our mother. Let us all work for that day. Let us work for a
pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive Pakistan. Amen.
Kashif Chaudhry is a physician, writer and human rights activist. He is
currently completing his cardiology fellowship in Boston, USA. Kashif is a
strong proponent of a tolerant and pluralistic Pakistan, and regularly writes
on issues related to Islam, human rights and freedom of conscience.