New York is a city that boasts of its religious tolerance, but even here, Ahmadiyya Muslims feel the sting of discrimination.
Though they represent just 1 percent of Muslims worldwide, members of the minority sect have felt uneasy here for years, and in the past decade, what was once whispered has become overt, according to Nusrat Qadir Chaudhry, a daughter of Pakistani and Indian parents and national spokeswoman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
As news reports circulated in 2010 on CNN and other major television networks across the United States, detailing a near-simultaneous Pakistani Taliban massacre on Ahmadi worshipers at two separate mosques, U.S.-based members of the minority sect grieved.
In the weeks that followed, Qadir Chaudhry looked for support among her non-Ahmadi Muslim friends, but had a reckoning instead.
“People that I did know, that were not from my [Ahmadiyya] community — that were Muslims from Pakistan — no one really called to see, you know, ‘Are you and your family members OK?’ after this horrific tragedy,” she said.
Qadir Chaudhry had three relatives who escaped the gunfire and hand grenades that killed more than 80 that day. She felt a chasm open up.
“It felt painful that I wasn’t able to have the comfort from fellow Muslims that I considered friends,” Qadir Chaudhry said.
Mending a broken trust
Like other Muslim groups, Ahmadis follow the Quran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, but they see Mirza Ghulam Ahmad — who founded the movement in 1889 — as their promised messiah.
Because of the distinction, Ahmadis are viewed by some Muslims as “kafirs” or heretics, and have long faced persecution in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Algeria. In 1984, Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq issued an ordinance that restricted the community’s rights and forbade them from “posing as Muslims.”
By the turn of the 21st century, the population of Ahmadis in the U.S. had experienced steady growth, both among immigrants and African-Americans who converted; the estimated total today is 20,000. In the New York City area, there are roughly 1,900 members, according to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s local NYC leadership.
But in recent years, more asylum-seekers have arrived in the U.S. out of fear, “to seek peace and practice religion with freedom,” said Daud Haneef, an Ahmadi missionary who served in New York for 21 years.
Ahmadi asylum-seekers find relief from religious persecution, but experience discrimination in other forms, according to Qadir Chaudhry.
She says some of the personal challenges faced by those who have fled other countries often resurface after they arrive in the U.S., because they are likely to face discrimination on multiple fronts, for being both Ahmadis and Muslims.
“There becomes a level of trying to slowly trust people, and that’s [like] anything you’d see in a post-traumatic stress disorder situation,” Qadir Chaudhry said. “They won’t get negative reactions hopefully by the general population for being an Ahmadi Muslim, but they might feel some negative emotions towards them for being Muslim.”
“Online persecution” is another reality, according to Qadir Chaudhry, as it allows users, including some members of the Pakistani diaspora, “to divulge their opinions and views.”
On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the Ahmadi community runs a tech-savvy campaign aimed at breaking stereotypes of Muslims — including a rejection of terrorism and advocacy for freedom of religion and empowerment of women.
But the community campaign’s title, “True Islam,” touches a nerve with some non-Ahmadis in cities like New York, where the community runs extensive outreach programs.
“[Non-Ahmadi Muslim organizations] are going on news media and radio stations and saying, ‘Hey, they’re not even Muslim, so you’re not allowed to put “True Islam” as your campaign,’ ” said Imam Mahmood Kauser, of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s New York Metro Region.
Despite the feedback, the community’s leadership has not shied away from its outreach campaign, which includes “Meet a Muslim” events in public areas like Times Square and weekly coffee and cake meet-and-greets at local mosques. An awning above Masjid Bait Ul Tahir in Brooklyn reads, “Love for all, hatred for none,” in all caps.
“Our mosques are not just for Ahmadi Muslims,” Kauser stressed, “they’re for any Muslims, they’re for Christians, they’re for the Jewish [community].”
Beginning of acceptance
Other mosques are not always so open, in Kauser’s experience, but the Ahmadis’ open-door policy is shared by some New York-based organizations like Cordoba House, a nonprofit that promotes “a distinctly contemporary, pluralistic and spiritual American Muslim identity in the United States.” Worshippers at Cordoba include Ahmadis, Sunnis, Shiites, Sufis, nondenominationals and converts.
“We believe in separating politics from religion,” said Naz Ahmed Georgas, executive director of Cordoba House. “Our essential objective for every program is to be inspired by the love and the guidance of God and his light, and to inspire others.”
Oussama Mezoui, the CEO of Penny Appeal USA, which recently organized a “Super Muslim Comedy Tour,” says relations among Muslims have been thriving for decades across the country, but more so in recent months.
“Communities are working even closer together,” Mezoui told VOA’s Indonesian service. “I think that’s a reality that we’ve seen since the last presidential election, that there is a lot more interfaith and intercommunity work happening.”
Kauser, in the few months since transferring to New York — where he was born — has begun to notice shifting attitudes among some new immigrant groups whose countries don’t have what he called an “anti-Ahmadi culture” already established. He highlighted the open-mindedness of Bangladeshis.
“People who have moved here [are] saying, ‘OK, it’s OK,’ ” Kauser said.
” ‘We can listen at least.’ ”
VOA’s Indonesian Service contributed to this report.