ROME – Muslim clergy and leaders are often at pains to insist that terrorism and radicalism represent a tiny fraction of the overall Muslim population, and few figures drive that point home better than Tariq Ahmad, a British businessman and member of the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam who today serves as the UK’s leading government official for religious freedom.
Saying he’s “proud of my country but also my faith, Islam,” Ahmad acknowledged that in certain parts of the world today, Islam is being “hijacked” by radicalized and extremist voices, and even though he believes all religious leaders should speak out and condemn this, Muslims have a greater responsibility to do so.
“It is not Christianity that is being used at this time,” he said. “It is not Judaism, it is not Hinduism.”
Ahmad, whose formal title is “Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Counter-Terrorism and Violent Extremism, Freedom of Religion and Belief,” emphasized that as bad as ISIS is, it’s not the whole story — millions around the world face “appalling persecution every day” because of their beliefs, he said, even in Europe, where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise.
“These acts by terrorist organizations are appalling – but it is not just non-state actors who are to blame,” said Ahmad.
Speaking at a conference at Rome’s Gregorian University, he said that for far too long too many states have “failed to prevent religious discrimination or even to ensure the rights of citizens of all faiths – and none – are protected by the law.”
In countries such as Egypt, he said, Coptic Christians still don’t enjoy equal citizenship rights, facing social pressure that restricts their freedom to worship, build churches or play a full role in national life.
In other cases, he said, states are actively “trampling on their citizens’ rights.”
Among many examples, he noted the situation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; Christians in China, where churches must be approved by the state or risk demolition; and Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslim religions are banned and the death penalty is imposed for apostasy.
Ahmad focused some of his talk on the rise of Christian persecution, quoting the latest report by Aid to the Church in Need which found that the plight of Christians had worsened in nearly all the countries it reviews, including North Korea and Nigeria.
“These findings are supported by Open Doors, whose 2018 Watch List indicates that 1 in 12 Christians have experienced persecution,” he said. “Last year around the world, more than 3,000 Christians were killed, and 15,000 Christian buildings were attacked.”
Calling the statistics “appalling,” Ahmad said that behind each one of them is a “human tragedy.”
“I welcome the work of the Catholic Church and civil society groups in trying to protect Christians around the world,” he said.
While in Rome, Ahmad met with several Vatican officials, to talk about where the Holy See and the United Kingdom can collaborate further to promote religious freedom and to raise the issue of discrimination of minority communities.
He spoke with Crux on Wednesday, a day after his lecture, to expand on some of the things he had addressed.
“We’ve seen his Holiness express himself and become one of the most powerful advocates about the importance [of freedom of religion and belief], not only for Christian and Catholic communities, but for all minority faith communities around the world,” Ahmad said.
Speaking about Francis’s leading role in the defense of religious freedom, Ahmad highlighted the pope’s recent trip to Myanmar, where he raised his voice in defense of persecuted minorities, even if he avoided using the word “Rohingya,” a sore spot for many in the country formerly known as Burma.
CRUX: This year we’re marking the 70th anniversary of the Human Rights Charter, and religious freedom is considered one of those human rights. Yet we see that it’s lacking in many countries. How much should the international community focus on promoting this right today we hear so very little about?
Ahmad: Well, first of all, no one should fear another faith. If you look at the essence of any religion at its core, it is defining two things: your relationships with a superior being, God, and your relationship with your fellow beings. And in essence, every religion, if you look at its core, that is exactly what it teaches, that is what it preaches. And that is the starting point.
Another reason why I’m here is the conviction that if we don’t address the issue of persecution, if we do not address the issue of ensuring we stand up for the rights and interests of minority faith communities, we then see the rising tide of violent extremism.
Too often it’s said that religion is to blame for [extremism]. On the contrary, religion has the solution for this. The question is how like-minded religious people who subscribe very much to the same human values that we all share, irrespective of what our faith might be, how can we bring those together to bear to address some of the major challenges.
And you’re quite right. When you have the freedoms and liberties that we all enjoy, you do take them for granted. It’s like when parents tell children ‘you don’t know what you’ve got, you have food on the table,’ etc. But when you cast your eye around the world, you actually see how easy these freedoms can be lost, how easy there’s a slippery slope. That first sign of intolerance, if it’s not taken out at that time, that intolerance can become a form of discrimination. That discrimination can then become a form of persecution, and that persecution can lead itself to acts of violence and religious extremism.
But if we nip it in the bud, if we act collaboratively in this manner, we will actually be building a much safer and prosperous world, where people irrespective of their beliefs or no beliefs, they have an equal right to be who they are, because it’s the common human value that defines us, and that is what we have to extol.
You just mentioned the fact that you are Muslim and that you’re proud of your faith. But I’ve been in Iraq, I’ve been in Egypt, I’ve been in Nigeria. I’ve spoken with a lot of Christians who’ve been persecuted by people who claimed to be Muslims, who defended their actions in the name of Islam. How do you react, how do you feel when you see this persecution?
I think it’s a tragedy when any religion is used, is weaponized.
And they all are, the pope has said it many times.
Yes, and you can look at it through history. Unfortunately, we find extremists and those who hijack noble faiths in all religions.
But the challenge today, of the modern world, I fully accept as a Muslim, is that it is Islam which is being hijacked. It is Islam which is being taken over in certain parts of the world by radicalized voices and extremist voices, which I believe very strongly do not reflect the essence of Islam. If you go to the Holy Quran, there’s a very small verse in there that says ‘There is no cohersion in religion, there is no compulsion in religion.’ If that is the essence of our being, and there’s no compulsion, these forced conversions to Islam, cannot be reflective of that Quranic verse.
The issue of God, every verse of the Quran with the exception of one begins with ‘God is a God of mercy, God is worthy of grace, God is one of humanity.’ How can it be that those who subscribe to the Holy Quran, that talks about the merciful and gracious God, can then actually propagate such evil.
It has nothing to do with Islam, it has nothing to do with religion, but I accept the fact that they use religion.
Therefore, I think two things need to happen. All co-religionists need to step forward and say, all religions condemn this. But I also believe quite strongly that there’s a greater need from Muslims around the world. Because it is not Christianity that is being used at this time. It is not Judaism, it is not Hinduism.
I’ll put it in very simple words. If someone goes around and commits certain despicable acts, that we all deplore, in the name of my family, of course, those who know me will say ‘this is not Tariq’s family, we know they’re not like that.’ But is there not a greater responsibility within myself to speak out with more vigor, with more passion, defend what I know is the honor of my family?
The same applies to faith, because it is Islam that is being tarnished. Therefore it becomes even more a greater responsibility of Muslims around the world. Irrespective of which of the 73 different interpretations of Islam they might belong to, to actually speak out clearly.
And your experiences in Nigeria, in Iraq, the conversations you had in Egypt, I think are a tragic consequence of how Islam has been misinterpreted, is misused and abused for the means which have nothing to do with the core teachings of the faith itself.
What’s the importance of religious leaders themselves taking leadership in calling not only for religious freedom but also religious dialogue, so that we get to know the other and what they believe in, not on what we perceive because their faith has been hijacked?
I think the answer to your question is in your question itself. Religion is a way people lead their lives, it’s a code of conduct. And those who are leaders within those religions have the greater responsibility to ensure that they reflect those virtues of religion and speak out very strongly.
Islam, by definition, means submission to the will of God and peace. When we say Assalamu alaikum, we extend the greeting of peace. When a Jewish person says shalom, they extend a greeting of peace. It is incumbent of our leaders to speak up, and therefore I pay tribute to the likes of His Holiness Pope Francis who are speaking out.
And there are the various Muslim leaders, and different faith leaders of different faiths who are speaking up very clearly, vocally and unequivocally to say that religion is a force for good, and those who do not propagate peace through religion are not only doing a disservice to religion, but they’re actually not touting or propagating any religion at all.