According to Pakistani law, Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslims or practice Islam. They can’t recite the declaration of faith or the call for prayer. They can’t build mosques that look like conventional mosques—or even call them “mosques.” If they use any Islamic words (including something as basic as inscribing a Qur’anic verse on a wedding invitation) they can be prosecuted.
The legislation effectively ensured that Ahmadis were treated as heretics and pariahs in Pakistan.
In 2010, militants besieged two Ahmadi mosques in the city of Lahore, killing over 90 people. Mobs routinely attack Ahmadi neighborhoods and mosques, often stoked by falsified blasphemy allegations. Calling someone an “Ahmadi” is the easiest way to discredit a person. In recent years, rumors of “being Ahmadi”—framed as a xenophobic allegation—have circulated about everyone from an officer in the running to head the army who was rumored to have Ahmadi relatives to a federal cabinet member who was asked point-blank about his faith on a talk show. Praising an Ahmadi is virtually unheard of.
It’s safe to assume that had Ali been a Sunni Muslim, Pakistanis would have been falling over themselves to praise him. Pakistanis are quick to seize on the achievements of any Muslim and herald it as their own, or to celebrate conversions to Islam.
But Ahmadis don’t fit the bill.
And Lodhi isn’t the first prominent Pakistani to backtrack on congratulating someone after discovering they’re Ahmadi. In 2014, the politician Imran Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf party is an opposition party in Pakistan, declared that were he in power, he would pick people like the Princeton professor and economist Atif Mian for his cabinet. What Khan apparently didn’t know was that Mian is Ahmadi. A few days later, Khan declared that he had no idea about Mian’s faith and went on to repudiate Ahmadi beliefs.
The conservative actor Hamza Ali Abbasi, a Khan supporter, chimed in by “congratulating” Ali on social media while tacking on a caveat: “I highly disagree with your Ahmadi/Qadiyani religion and my countrymen think you are not Muslim.”
As news spread of Ali’s Oscar win, Ahmadis posted online accounts of his conversion, in which the Moonlight and House of Cards actor described his emotional response to prayer, his initial concerns about joining the Ahmadiyya faith, and his experiences with other Muslims. It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like for an Ahmadi kid growing up in Pakistan to see an actor from his faith recognized as a Muslim, to see a fellow Ahmadi featured in the headlines not as a victim or as a target of persecution, but as a success.
Pakistan has systematically erased Ahmadis and their achievements from the public consciousness. The most glaring example: Its first Nobel Prize winner, the noted physicist Dr. Abdus Salam—who quoted from the Qur’an in his 1979 acceptance speech and said Pakistan was thankful for the honor—is barely mentioned in Pakistan. Nor has his groundbreaking work been celebrated. Instead, the word “Muslim” was removed from his tombstone to comply with anti-Ahmadi laws. Belatedly, the government renamed a physics center after him last year. And while an envoy to the United Nations might have to delete a tweet about an Ahmadi now, it is in the UN that Pakistan’s first foreign minister, an Ahmadi, served as the country’s representative and was president of the General Assembly.