On May 11 at the Montage in Beverly Hills, approximately 300 people gathered to listen to a speech about standing up to extremism and intolerance in Islam. The topic was certainly not new, just another clarification of the old story: Islam doesn’t condone terrorism. The real reason why an array of California political and civic heavyweights – politicians, academics and community leaders including the California Lieutenant Governor, Los Angeles City Councilman and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, and several members of U.S. Congress – attended the event was to listen to the keynote speaker, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, spiritual and administrative head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
For those not familiar with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the U.S. the star-studded guest list may have come as a surprise. What’s so interesting about yet another Muslim leader talking about a tolerant and peaceful Islam, when imams and laymen alike come out of the woodwork after every terrorist attack to condemn heinous acts and assure the public that Islam or the Prophet Muhammad never allowed such crimes against humanity? Perhaps the fact that this event in particular and this leader in general were publicized by mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal and the LA Times, is an indication of the quiet influence of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in American politics.
Mirza Masroor Ahmad, referred to as His Holiness by his followers, is the equivalent of the Muslim pope and the spiritual guide of tens of millions of Muslims worldwide. Although the number of Ahmadi Muslims is relatively small compared to other Muslim groups, their centralized leadership has resulted in organized media and political activities in the United States, leading to what the WSJ called “a surprising amount of attention and political clout in the U.S.” At this weekend’s event, he was handed the keys to the city of Los Angeles by the LA City Council, and U.S. Congresswoman Julia Brownley praised him as “one of the greatest ecumenical leaders of our time.” For someone who isn’t even considered Muslim by many “real” Muslims, that’s a serious compliment. This isn’t the first time His Holiness has attracted the attention of political leaders in the country. During his visit to the U.S. in 2012, he addressed members of Congress including Nancy Pelosi at a Capitol Hill reception, talking about peace and justice. And under his leadership several high profile projects such as the annual Muslims for Life blood drive campaign honoring the victims of 9/11 have been successfully raising awareness of moderate Muslims in the country.
What does the rise of this political clout mean for Americans? While the voices of moderate Islam are many, they are not a cohesive or collective voice because Muslims apart from the Ahmadiyya Community are not unified under a single leadership. They disagree among themselves regarding religion, tradition and practices, and those disagreements become obvious to others. Without unity in the Muslim “Ummah” or community, radicalization and extremism is common because youth fall through the cracks. Each Imam guides his own flock without any idea of what’s going on in the mosque next door. Perhaps that’s the way of most religious groups. The Ahmadiyya Community on the other hand, has the organizational skills and unified approach to get things done on a local and national level, thereby gaining the attention of policy makers and media alike. They have a single message and a common goal: to bring about the rise of moderate, peaceful Islam. Recognizing this, LA County Sheriff Lee Baca remarked upon the arrival of His Holiness in California:
Our city is the best place in America for Muslims to live. Your Holiness, your Community is strong. I wish to see thousands more Ahmadi Muslims living in Los Angeles.
In the words of Rob Eshman of the Jewish Journal, “No wonder Ahmadis are the West’s chosen Muslims.”