Amjad Mahmood Khan, California, USA
For nearly two decades, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), the Fifth Caliph and World Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has provided valuable guidance to world leaders and civil society on a range of issues affecting global stability and inter-religious harmony. On June 29 and July 5, 2022, His Holiness (aba) addressed two global conferences on freedom of religion or belief: the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington D.C. and the 2022 Ministerial for Freedom of Religion and Belief held in London.
From June 28-30, 2022, the second annual International Religious Summit was held in Washington D.C. The global event, dubbed the ‘Davos for International Religious Freedom,’ featured 74 organisations, 31 faith communities and over 1,000 attendees from civil society. The event, hosted by former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, Dr Katrina Lantos Swett, drew prominent speakers from many countries and regions, including current and former government officials, diplomats, policymakers, lawmakers, human rights advocates, and, significantly, survivors of religious persecution. The timing and import of the summit could not be understated, with hostilities for faith communities reaching alarming levels in many regions of the world and spanning many different faith traditions, including Uyghur Muslims in China, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Christians in Nigeria, Yazidis in Syria, and Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.
The Summit Chairs invited His Holiness (aba) as a keynote speaker at the main plenary session of the summit, and his special message was read out to all delegates. While the summit featured many messages from prominent leaders speaking about the vital need to protect religious freedom for everyone and everywhere, His Holiness’ (aba) message proved to be distinctive in its spiritual and prayerful dimensions.
First, His Holiness (aba) immediately drew a critical link between freedom of religion or belief and the presence of absolute justice and equality. He referred to justice and equality as ‘foundational principles’ for any society and how the absence of both will irreparably inhibit freedom of religion or belief. Injustice and inequality are plaguing societies the world over, but His Holiness (aba) astutely linked these maladies to religious repression insofar as a prime source of hostilities to people of a particular faith is the inability of nations to enshrine constitutional and legal protections for all their citizens. He urged all to ‘individually and collectively raise our tolerance threshold and strive to ensure that justice prevails at all levels of society.’ This, of course, is not simply the job of nations and leaders but the job of all those who belong to faith traditions – to unlock the pearls of spiritual wisdom contained in their respective faith traditions in order to elevate compassion for all of humanity.
Second, His Holiness (aba) cautioned against the harm of ignoring fundamental injustices in societies. ‘I fear frustrations will continue to foment, opposing cultures and ideologies will clash, as has been witnessed at various dark periods of human history, and lead to extreme pain and torment for many peoples, including religious minorities.’ Here, His Holiness (aba) reminded the summit delegates about how the root cause of religious repression is a fundamental absence of absolute justice, and that merely calling on societies to ensure religious freedom – as many leaders and lawmakers frequently do – will never truly extinguish extreme pain and torment unless there is a focused attention on combatting injustices.
Third, His Holiness (aba) drew attention to personal responsibility of all those who claim to be defending religious freedom. Leaders and advocates ‘must set aside all personal interests and work toward finding positive and meaningful solutions.’ Here, His Holiness (aba) imparted a point seldom brought up by lawmakers: a nation’s selfish pursuit of its own interests is a barrier to true religious freedom. Acting against one’s own self-interest is how one lays the soil to achieve absolute justice. His Holiness (aba) specifically spoke about how the ‘major powers of the world have prioritised their vested political interests above what is moral and what is right.’ This common selfishness has let the human rights of innocent people be denied.
His Holiness’ (aba) final point was a hopeful one based on the power of prayers. ‘With all my heart, I hope and pray that government and world leaders come to adopt policies that truly enshrine freedom of religion or belief as an inviolable principle so that our children and future generations are forever able to profess and practice their religious beliefs freely and without fear of oppression.’ Here, the prayers of a Muslim spiritual caliph with millions of followers served as a kind of unique elixir to combat human rights atrocities being committed around the world. His Holiness’ (aba) message reinforced the notion that only God can provide wisdom and understanding to not only leaders, but also to the oppressors.
Immediately after I had the privilege to read His Holiness’ (aba) message at the plenary session, I met several summit delegates. They uniformly commented on how His Holiness’ (aba) message struck an especially elevated and spiritually unifying tone. One of the summit organisers expressed her profound appreciation for the message and how she hoped national governments would heed the words of His Holiness (aba) about maintaining absolute justice at all levels of society.
The very next week, many of the same delegates from the summit travelled to the United Kingdom to attend the 2022 Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The United Kingdom government organised this event, which drew official government minsters and representatives from over 30 countries, and provided a world stage for increased global action on freedom of religion or belief.
Here, too, His Holiness (aba) addressed the opening plenary session through a special recorded video message. He first commended the objectives of the conference and outlined the Qur’anic teachings on freedom of religion, calling special attention towards the importance of people recognising their Creator in bringing about true lasting peace. ‘Though we are living in an increasingly secularised world, in which people are moving away from religion,’ His Holiness (aba) observed, ‘Many millions of people around the world continue to adhere to religious values, and it is essential that they are able to live their lives according to their beliefs and convictions.’
After emphasising the importance of religious values to guide the work of preserving and protecting religious freedom, His Holiness (aba) emphasised the Qur’anic teachings on freedom of religion or belief. He spoke about the unique Qur’anic pronouncement of giving permission to use force only to protect religion from those who seek to eliminate it. In fact, His Holiness (aba) observed, ‘The Holy Qur’an categorically states that if one does not respond forcefully to those who seek to destroy religion, then no church, synagogue, temple, mosque or any other place of worship, where the name of God is recited, will remain safe. Hence, the Holy Qur’an has made it the religious duty of Muslims to protect the rights of people of all faiths and made freedom of belief a cornerstone of our religion.’
Further underscoring the power of religious values in protecting freedom of religion or belief, His Holiness (aba) highlighted the fundamental importance of belief in God in bringing about true peace. His Holiness (aba) reminded all attendees, including those who may not believe in God, that ‘true freedom and lasting peace in the world is not possible until mankind comes to recognise his Creator, fulfils His rights and acts upon His commandments.’ Critically, ‘Whether religiously inclined or not, we must recognise that there is One God, who is the Creator and in Whose Hand lies all of creation, and so it is our duty to fulfil His rights and that of all humanity.’
As one of the few Muslim leaders to address the opening plenary session of the Ministerial, His Holiness (aba) showcased Islam’s inner beauties and how the Qur’anic teachings transcend any one faith tradition or belief but instead provide comfort universally for all of humanity. This presentation proved to be especially powerful and gripping given that His Holiness (aba) leads the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which faces bitter persecution around the world, and many Muslims brand Ahmadis as heretical, non-Muslim and outside the pale of Islam. Seeing His Holiness (aba) expound upon true Islamic teachings to an audience that included officials from many Muslim-majority countries – some of which openly discriminate against Ahmadi Muslims – proved to be a deeply significant moment to witness.
His Holiness (aba) also especially addressed the hostilities faced by Ahmadi Muslims in many parts of the world and outlined how Ahmadi Muslims shall never responded to hatred in kind. ‘Over a period of many decades, Ahmadi Muslims have been mercilessly targeted only because of their religious beliefs, and many have lost their lives as a result of utterly inhumane and barbaric attacks by religious extremists. We [Ahmadi Muslims] have never and will never respond to such hatred and cruelty in a like fashion. Rather, our response will always be one of love and peace.’ His Holiness (aba) comes from an immense place of credibility to speak about the importance of compassion and universal human rights even as his own Community endures unspeakable cruelties. Yet despite mentioning the context of persecution of Ahmadi Muslims, His Holiness (aba) provided a universal organising principle to adhere to: ‘Based on the teachings of Islam, we say to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that all people must always be free to profess and practise their peacefully held religious beliefs.’
In my various meetings with government ministers and delegates during the ministerial in the United Kingdom, each commented about how the message of His Holiness (aba) at the plenary session set the gold standard about how nations need to establish freedom of religion and belief for all. In particular, in meeting with delegates from Muslim countries in the Arab world, I observed how some of them appreciated how His Holiness (aba) extolled Islam’s virtues and how they did not have sufficient background on what the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community truly believed and practised until they heard directly from His Holiness (aba). This was a promising step insofar as Ahmadi Muslims face arrest and prosecution in some of these very countries. One official commented that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was leading the fight for religious freedom on behalf of Muslims everywhere in both words and in practice, especially by selflessly advocating for numerous beleaguered communities with the same zeal as they would their own community.
In only a span of a few weeks, His Holiness (aba) truly elevated human rights on a global stage. Several thousand delegates absorbed his transcendent messages. We witnessed an immediate impact of his words through the impressions shared by delegates at the summit and ministerial, who expressed gratitude to have learned the Islamic perspective on freedom of religion or belief from the vantage point of a global Muslim leader.
About the Author: Amjad Mahmood Khan, a practicing lawyer and law professor, serves as National Secretary for External Affairs of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and was a delegate of the 2022 International Religious Freedom Summit and 2022 Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief.