A Muslim Quest For Religious Freedom

June 06, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

In Pakistan, where he was born 64 years ago, Muhammad Bashir Shad says, he could not greet another Muslim with the traditional Islamic greeting: "Salaam aleikum" or "peace be unto you." If he had, he says, he would have been imprisoned -- or even killed.

"I can't talk about my religion," said the Ellicott City man, a member of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, a Pakistani sect whose members were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan's Parliament in 1974. "I'd be afraid someone will attack me and nobody will stop them."

Mr. Shad is among the more than 1,300 Ahmadis who have settled in the Baltimore-Washington area, the largest concentration in the nation of members of the Muslim sect.

Many of them came to this area after fleeing what they say is religious persecution in Pakistan, allegations largely denied by Pakistani officials.

The main source of the friction is the Ahmadi belief that their sect's founder was a prophet who came after Mohammed, Islam's founder and the figure more traditional Muslims consider God's ultimate prophet.

Drawn by Washington's international aura and by family members who had come to the area over the years, they have as their spiritual home and national headquarters a $4.25 million mosque in Silver Spring called Masjid Baitur Rahman, or "House of God of Grace."

And every Friday since the 1970s, about 130 Ahmadis have gathered at a smaller mission house on Garrison Boulevard in Northwest Baltimore operated by Mubasher Ahmad, a regional missionary for the Ahmadiyya Movement.

The two buildings offer an important anchor for the growing local Ahmadi community.

"In America I have the freedom and liberty to express my religion," said Mr. Shad, a retired Ahmadi missionary who worships at the Silver Spring mosque.

The Pakistani government takes a far different view of the Ahmadis' situation.

Dr. Rifaat Hussain, minister of information at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said the 4 million Ahmadis in Pakistan have the freedom to practice their religion there and are not systematically discriminated against.

He acknowledged that Pakistani authorities do not consider Ahmadis to be Muslims and that a 1984 ordinance passed during the rule of the late dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul Haq makes it illegal or blasphemous for non-Muslims to call themselves Muslims. He also agreed that Ahmadis have been harassed in the past, especially during the Zia era.

'Fanatic groups'

Conditions have improved dramatically under Pakistan's democratic government led by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Dr. Hussain said. Now, there are only isolated anti-Ahmadi incidents in the nation of 130 million, he said.

"The fact remains that there are some fanatic groups," he said. "It is not the government that's doing it."

Local Ahmadis don't buy that.

"He's telling a complete lie," Mr. Ahmad said of claims that Ahmadis in Pakistan can freely practice their religion without fear of persecution. "We're talking about facts, not what's written on paper."

The religion -- which has 8,000 to 10,000 adherents in the United States and 10 million worldwide -- was founded in 1889 in a small village in northern India by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who declared himself a prophet of Allah and the Messiah for all religions. Ahmadis advocate peace and tolerance and sponsor dialogues with Jews, Christians and other Muslims.

Considered 'heretics'

Ahmadis consider themselves genuine Muslims. They follow the same religious practices as other Muslims, praying five times a day, worshiping on Fridays and reading the Koran.

But mainstream Muslims believe that the sect's founder, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a false prophet.

"They are considered heretics," said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The issue was the finality of the prophecy" of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Hazrat Ahmad "was coming out with new ideas," she said. "This is why they are persecuted."

For local Ahmadis, that remains a constant source of pain.

"We are persecuted because of religious differences, not because of criminal practice," Mr. Ahmad said.

Last month, he said, a man was stoned to death in Pakistan when he tried to bail an Ahmadi friend out of jail. Mr. Ahmad said his uncle suffered fractures in that incident. Ahmadi mosques also are attacked, he said.

Because of such incidents, the current head of the Ahmadiyya Movement, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, lives in London.

"A religious life has been turned into a criminal life," said Mr. Shad, who came to the United States with his wife in 1987 to live with their daughter.

Roots in Chicago

In the United States, the movement has taken firm root since the days when a few Ahmadi missionaries settled in Chicago in the 1920s.

"It's growing day by day because of the way religion is changing in America," said Haleema Aina, a 38-year-old store clerk who lives in Baltimore. "Everybody's coming to the conclusion that religion has to change because the world is changing."

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