Does It Matter If Islam Is A Religion? An American Ahmadi Explains The Effects Of Religious Discrimination

Seb Gorka and Pres. Trump
Image courtesy FoxNews

In an NPR interview the morning after Mr. Trump’s latest attempt to pivot to something resembling presidential, national security advisor Seb Gorka declined to affirm that Islam is a religion, saying the administration didn’t want to get involved in “theological debates.”

Gorka, of course, has a long history of fringe right-wing views on this and other matters. Max Boot—no liberal himself—once described Gorka as an “anti-Muslim extremist.” Other foreign policy specialists have described him as an Islamophobe. Gorka was a member of the Order of Vitéz, a Nazi-linked Hungarian group, and proudly displayed medals from the group at Trump’s inauguration.

Most relevant, though, despite disavowals of animus toward Islam, Gorka has described it more in terms of a totalitarian ideology than a complex, diverse, global religion. That assessment echoes a common view among right-wing nationalists, including administration figures like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and senior political advisor Steve Bannon.

It’s worth noting that the US government already does make de facto decisions about what counts as a religion and what doesn’t. The tax code makes implicit judgments about religious legitimacy in parceling out breaks to some groups and not others. Those rules, however, are fairly broad, and they don’t target certain religions as enemies of American society.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump made repeated promises to curb Muslim immigration to the United States and institute a registry of Muslims in the country. In the opening days of his administration, now-President Trump made good on at least the first of those promises with his infamous and presently court-blocked executive order on immigration, which the administration is promising to reissue in the next few days.

This is a dangerous road to go down. It’s useful to look at the example of the Ahmadiyya Community. Ahmadis began as a branch of Islam in 1889, centered on the Punjabi teacher Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, whom they believe to be the final prophet and messiah of Islam. Recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali is a member of the community.

Ahmadis consider themselves fully Muslim, and to most American eyes they would be indistinguishable from any other Muslim denomination. But this self-understanding is highly contested within Islam. They have been described as the “Quakers of Islam” because of their commitment to pacifism, social equality, and democratic self-governance.

They have also been frequent targets of violence and persecution, particularly in their homeland Pakistan. In 2010, extremists attacked Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, killing 98. Early in Pakistan’s history, a series of riots aimed at pushing Ahmadis out of government and declaring them non-Muslims had to be quelled by a 70-day stretch of martial law.

In 1974, more riots led to the adoption of laws, under then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, defining Ahmadis out of Islam. In 1984, the military junta under Gen. Zia-ul-Haq went a step further, signing an executive order, known as Ordinance XX, prohibiting Ahmadis even from taking part in common Muslim practices such as the call to prayer, using the greeting “As-salamu alaykum,” or reciting the shahada, the Islamic creed: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Since then, Zia’s order has been ratified by every successive government. When Mahershala Ali won his Oscar the other night, a Pakistani diplomat wrote – and quickly deleted – a congratulatory tweet.

Both Bhutto and Zia attempted to curry favor with conservative Muslim clerics opposed to Ahmadiyya in order to extend their reigns, but it didn’t work out well for either of them. Bhutto was executed in 1989, and Zia died in a 1988 plane crash rumored to have been an assassination. Yet the anti-Ahmadi laws remain, according to Khurram Ahmad, because “nobody wants to now tackle this beast.” Even to suggest reining in the law can be dangerous: two legislators were murdered for trying to put safeguards around the law.


Ahmad is the unassuming leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Society in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a Pakistani immigrant who came to the U.S. for college and now runs a small software company. I met him at a local clergy gathering where he warned of the dangers of a Muslim registry.

In late 2015, I sat down with Ahmad to understand more of Ordinance XX and what it did to Pakistani society. It began, he explained, with the excuse that Saudi Arabia had asked the government to filter non-Muslims from coming to Mecca for the Hajj:

So they added a passage in every passport application, which is like eight lines, that has essentially vile statements against the prophet we believe in as the Messiah of the age. He’s a liar, he’s this, he’s that, and you have to sign that statement. In essence, an Ahmadi will not sign it. So if you don’t sign it, you’re ultimately considered to be a non-Muslim. That is how they come up with a gauge.

It starts to creep into everything. So now if I’m trying to open up a bank account, I’m doing a cell phone application, or anything, that statement is there, it has just gone into everything, every aspect of one’s life, it’s there. It’s ridiculous to have that, but nonetheless it’s real.

The problems are not just administrative: Ahmadis have a “glass ceiling” in the civil service, and discriminatory use of voter registration lists (Ahmadis are enrolled separately) keeps them from participation in elected government, even in areas where they are the overwhelming majority.

From there it spreads through society in ways both perverse and corrupt, according to Ahmad: a non-Ahmadi colonel’s career is ended because his staff driver attended an Ahmadiyya mosque. Clergy can be bribed to make accusations of blasphemy to help settle a score. Sometimes they even take their own initiative. I asked Ahmad if the situation affected Pakistani Christians.

Once it was it was in the books, it isn’t even minorities. If I have a business partner I want to get rid of, all I have to do is bribe somebody. There have been cases like a cleric goes up to a textile owner, says “Give me this much money.” “Why?” He says, “If you don’t, I’ll go and say in the cloth printing, I see Muhammad written in there.” “But it’s not written in there!” “Does it matter?”

Ahmad warns of policies going down a rabbit hole with “long-term consequences all over the place.” In the end though, he’s not so concerned for himself, but about the American community at large: “Don’t talk about me, and what’s being done to me,” he told the clergy when we first met. “These are your rights.” And he concludes our interview with a warning about Trump’s demagoguery:

Mr. Trump can make any statement, I could care less. But every time he makes one, his following goes along. That means there are people out there that have that fear, and he’s feeding off those fears. What happens is those fears will be transformed into a policy tomorrow. That can easily be turned around tomorrow against any of the population.