By Patrick Goodenough
March 2, 2017
American actor Mahershala Ali was hailed in world headlines this week as the first Muslim to win an Academy Award for acting, but in Pakistan, his achievement generated controversy, reinforcing that country’s reputation as a leading violator of religious freedom.
Ali, who won the best supporting actor award for his role in “Moonlight,” converted to Islam in 1999 – but then joined a moderate Islamic sect considered deviant by many mainstream Muslims and as an abomination by Sunni hardliners.
Pakistan has gone further than most in shunning Ahmadis (aka Ahmadiyya Muslims): Its constitution does not recognize Ahmadis as Muslims and its penal code criminalizes Ahmadi worship.
Incidents of harassment and even persecution, official and non-official, are commonplace. A 2010 terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore killed more than 85 worshippers.
Some Pakistani media outlets appeared torn between wanting to celebrate Ali’s achievement as ground-breaking – and a refusal to recognize him as a Muslim.
(In 1979, Ahmadi physicist Abdus Salam became the first Pakistani and Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in physics, but after his death in 1996 the word “Muslim” was removed from his headstone)
The Karachi daily Dawn solved the Ali dilemma by changing the headline and editing the copy of an AFP wire service story.
The word “Muslim” was replaced by “Ahmadi” in the original headline, which read “Mahershala Ali becomes first Muslim to win Oscar for best supporting actor.”
Media outlets using wire service copy frequently change suggested headlines, for instance to match their in-house style.
But Dawn also made further changes in the copy to remove suggestions that Ali is a Muslim. In one case it replaced the word “Muslim” with “Ahmadi,” and elsewhere removed a reference to Ali belonging to the Ahmadiyya community.
It also edited two quotes, using ellipses to remove Ali’s comments referring to himself as a Muslim.
Dawn is Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily newspaper. Ironically, it was founded by the founder of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who is revered for laying out a vision for a nation with “no discrimination between one caste or creed and another.”
Its editors did not respond to invitations to comment.
The News, Pakistan’s biggest English-language newspaper, also used the AFP story, changing its headline to “Mahershala Ali wins Oscar for ‘best supporting actor’” and removing references in the text to Ali being a Muslim. It did not, however, emulate Dawn in editing the two quotes.
In contrast, Pakistan’s Daily Times published the AFP story with its original headline, while Islamabad’s Daily Mail and The Nation of Lahore both reported on him being “the first Muslim” to win an acting Oscar.
The Nation also explored the controversy. A short item said that Muslims everywhere were “questioning his identity as a Muslim and debating whether or not Mahershala Ali should be qualified as ‘Muslim’ actor to win an Oscar, knowing he’s an Ahmadi.”
Further, The Nation ran an op-ed by a U.S.-based Pakistani physician and human rights activist, Kashif Chaudhry, observing that if Ali identified himself as a Muslim in Pakistan he would risk a three-year prison term, and possibly being accused of blasphemy. Pakistan has arguably the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws.
Chaudhry wrote that, if he visited Pakistan, Ali would also likely be labeled “worthy of death” by extremist Sunni clerics.
On social media, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, highlighted Ali’s win and tweeted encouragingly, “That’s a first” – but later deleted the tweet. In response to queries, the mission’s official press spokesman said Wednesday it had “no comments to offer in this regard.”
In a Facebook posting, Pakistani actor Hamza Ali Abbasi congratulated Ali for winning the award, but then added, “I highly disagree with your Ahmadi/Qadiyani religion and my countrymen think you are not Muslim. However, you believe with all your heart and soul that you are a Muslim and putting all scholarly debates about Aqeeda [creed] aside, that’s enough for me to feel the bond of brotherhood with you and congratulate you on your win.”
Ahmadis recognize a 19th century Indian religious leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmadi as a Muslim messenger or messiah, a claim that contradicts the Muslim doctrine that Mohammed was the “last” prophet sent by Allah.
Claiming millions of adherents in some 200 countries, mostly in South Asia and Africa, the movement says it rejects all forms of violence.
In 1974 it came under fire from the Muslim World League (MWL), an influential Mecca-based organization with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, which published a fatwa calling the sect “a subversive movement against Islam and the Muslim world” and that sought to destroy Islam.
The resolution declared that Muslim organizations everywhere should declare Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and “oust” them from the fold of Islam.
They should be boycotted socially, economically and culturally, not be allowed to marry Muslims, not be entrusted with positions of responsibility in any Muslim country, or be buried in Muslim cemeteries, the MWL ruled.
In September of that same year, Pakistan amended its constitution to declare that an Ahmadi “is not a Muslim for the purposes of the constitution or law.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, statutory body that advises the U.S. government on religious freedom around the world, has called every year since 2002 for the State Department to designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.
The State Department each time overruled the recommendation.