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What if Mahershala Ali visited Pakistan?

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 said:

“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 international stage.

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.