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“A pacifist tradition within Islam”?

Photo by Caleb Ferguson for The New York Times.

At the New York Times City Room blog, religion reporter Paul Vitello writes about a new ad in the middle of Times Square:

Into that bazaar of mass preoccupation, half a dozen members of an organization called Muslims for Peace fanned out Friday, smiling and offering their wares. They belonged to a sect, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, that embraces a pacifist tradition within Islam.

“Peace be with you, brother,” said Rizwan Alladin, a business consultant who took the morning off from work to hand out the fliers on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and to watch with the others as the first of the group’s video ads ran on one of Times Square’s electronic billboards.

He doesn’t tell us much about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community itself, perhaps because the barest basics of it might arouse some suspicion among Times readers. The Community’s commitment to peace comes in a pretty interesting messianic context, according to their website:

Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the only Islamic organization to believe that the long-awaited Messiah has come in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as) (1835-1908) of Qadian. Ahmad(as) claimed to be the metaphorical second coming of Jesus(as) of Nazareth and the divine guide, whose advent was foretold by the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad(sa). Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes that God sent Ahmad(as), like Jesus(as), to end religious wars, condemn bloodshed and reinstitute morality, justice and peace.

As in Judaism and Christianity, messianic splinter groups are relatively common in Islam. I encountered one myself, for instance, in my work on the Turkish sect gathered around a man named Adnan Oktar. Not that this in any sense should undermine the Ahmadis’ intentions—it just seems strange that an article about a little-known group wouldn’t even allude to what is most basic and distinctive about its beliefs.

One doesn’t need to do too much digging to realize, also, that calling the group “pacifist” is something of an exaggeration. While the Ahmadis take a strong stand against religious justifications of terrorism—as have many mainstream Muslim authorities anyway—their statement on jihad reveals that their call for peace nevertheless reserves the right for violence in a defensive posture:

Of course, defensive war is permitted only on the condition that the enemies initiate hostilities and raise sword against a weak, defenceless people for having committed the only crime of declaring that God is their Lord. All offensive wars according to Islam are unholy.

Defensive war is a tragically slippery slope; the United States, recall, has used it in one way or another to justify just about every conflict in which it has officially been engaged. We should be cautious in mistaking it for pacifism.

To their credit, according to the Wikipedia article on Ahmadi persecution, which appears to be quite widespread, there’s no mention of Ahmadis aggressively fighting back. Ahmadiyya missions appear also to have been influential early on among African-American Muslims, possibly helping give rise to the American civil-rights movement. Still, considering their posture toward defensive warfare, it is a mistake to call Admadiyya a pacifist movement.

Those looking to find real pacifism in Islam, however, have other places to look. One could certainly begin with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the great nonviolent resistance leader who fought without weapons against British rule in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As we speak, there is nonviolence in Iran, nonviolence in Palestine, nonviolence in Afghanistan, and nonviolence in Iraq. Would that there were more.