Muslims come to Paterson with message of peace

Muslims come to Paterson with message of peace

Englewood physician among the activists handing out brochures

Muslims for Peace volunteers at Sunday’s event. Photos by Daniel Santacruz

With the sound of salsa in the background, some 15 activists from the northern New Jersey chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA brought a campaign to downtown Paterson on Sunday called Muslims for Peace. Aimed at showing a kinder face of Islam, the campaign’s slogan is “Love for All, Hatred for None.”

Englewood physician Kashif Chaudry was among them.

At the intersection of Market and Main streets, the activists – some dressed in blue shirts with the logo of the campaign, a white dove on the front and the crossed-out word “terrorism” on the back – handed out about 2,000 glossy, four-page brochures in an hour and a half. The brochures show a phrase from the Koran, “Whosoever killed a person … it shall be as if he had killed all mankind,” as well as a toll-free number, a website and a picture of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya community in India in 1889.

About half of the brochures were in English; the others were in Spanish.

The campaign started with ads on buses in New York City in July, two months after a bomb scare in Times Square in which Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Connecticut, tried to set off a car bomb. It has also included ads in the Washington, D.C., subway system, billboards in several cities, and hand-distribution of 500,000 brochures in public places all over the country.

According to Chaudry, a doctor at Englewood Hospital and one of the volunteers at the intersection, after the Times Square incident, “we decided to go out to the streets and debunk the myth that Muslims don’t stand for peace. We wanted to show that in true Islam there is no place for hatred,” he said.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA was established in Philadelphia in 1920 and calls itself the first American-Muslim organization. Headquartered in Silver Springs, Md., it claims to have about 15,000 members and 71 chapters nationwide.

Born in Pakistan and a New Milford resident, Chaudry said there are about 1,000 Ahmadis in New Jersey, with some “400 to 500″ in the northern part of the state. The community has mosques in Willingboro Township, Old Bridge, and Clifton.

The Ahmadiyya community bills itself as a “dynamic, reformist, and fast-growing revival movement within Islam.” Ahmadis consider the community’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, “the long-awaited messiah.” It also engages in missionary activities and claims to have some 165 million members in 198 countries, including Israel, where it built a mosque in Haifa in 1931.

Chaudry, also president of the Youth Association of the northern New Jersey chapter, said the Ahmadiyya community is the “only Muslim group speaking up against violent jihad and the first to have condemned any acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam anywhere in the world. Members of the other two mainstream branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, are afraid of radical clerics or aren’t very vocal.”

“Silence is not an option,” he added.

Shahzad, also known as the Times Square bomber, and Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-born teen – and U.S. citizen – arrested in November for allegedly plotting to carry out a car bomb attack at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., are good examples of the racist teachings that have misled some young American Muslims, said Chaudry.

Many Muslims consider Ahmadis to be non-Muslim because of several of their beliefs, especially about Jesus, and about jihad.

“Sunnis and Shiites believe in violent jihad against others, such as Christians, Jews, and Ahmadis,” Chaudry said. “But we believe that jihad is an inner struggle, and in love for all, hatred for none.”

Another Pakistan-born activist, Ammar Khokar, secretary of community outreach of the northern New Jersey chapter and a volunteer on Sunday, said that American Ahmadis get along well with the other branches of Islam in the United States and reach out to them.

The chapter will host a large interfaith event in November, Khokar said. It also plans to continue the Muslims for Peace campaign in Englewood and Passaic at the end of March.

Chaudry said the campaign, both locally and nationally, is funded by members’ donations, but didn’t offer an exact amount.

Chaudry said that Ahmadis don’t have political aspirations and believe in the separation of mosque and state. But, he added, “we are glad to see that Muslims are standing up now against dictatorial regimes in the Middle East.”

The Ahmadiyya community has faced persecution and marginalization for decades in several countries. According to a 2003 analysis of the community in Pakistan in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, “Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims, and yet their persecution is wholly legal, even encouraged, by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and its leadership. As a result, thousands of Ahmadis have fled the country to seek asylum abroad. Recognizing the pervasiveness of the problem and the pressing need for action, the United States House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution in February 2002 urging Pakistan to repeal both the anti-blasphemy provisions in its Penal Code and the second amendment in its constitution, which declares Ahmadis to be non-Muslims.”

In May 28, 2010, Taliban militants attacked two mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore, a city in central Pakistan, killing 94 worshippers.

A 2009 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that “Americans by 48 to 41 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of Islam – its highest unfavorable rating in ABC News/Washington Post polls since 2001.”

Twenty-nine percent expressed the belief that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, down slightly from its peak but double what it was early in 2002.

According to the poll, “unfamiliarity is a central factor in these views. Fifty-five percent of Americans concede that they lack a good basic understanding of Islam; about as many, 53 percent, don’t know personally know a Muslim. People who profess an understanding of Islam, or know a Muslim, have much more positive views of the religion.”

The U.S. Muslim population has been estimated at 1.8 million.

A large number of the passersby at the intersection Sunday were Spanish-speakers. When this reporter asked six of them, in Spanish, their opinions about Muslims, they all said they didn’t know anything about them.

Nancy Falcon, a Paterson resident who picked up a brochure, said, “Everyone has the right to his religion. They [Muslims] are the last on the totem pole because they have come here last.”

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