Persecuted Muslim sect finds home in Norcross

Atlanta, USA - As members of a little-known Muslim sect trickled out of a Norcross mosque last month, an ominous-looking silver Mercedes circled in the parking lot.

Scrawled across the windshield in Urdu and English was a string of insults, including the word "kafir," or infidel.

"He was parading around the mosque, four or five times," said Ghayyur Khan, president of the Bait-ul-Baqi mosque. "Thanks to God he hasn't returned again."

It was an all-too-familiar scene for the Pakistan-born Khan and others in the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, a persecuted sect whose members are known as "Ahmadis." Orthodox Muslims consider Ahmadis heretics for believing Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) was a prophet foretold by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Most of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims believe Muhammad was the last prophet.

Ahmadis can be thrown in jail for claiming to be Muslim in Pakistan and have faced violence in other countries with large Muslim populations. A mob armed with batons and stones pummeled the Ahmadiyya headquarters in Indonesia last month, forcing 700 Ahmadis to flee under police protection.

Attacks on Ahmadis are relatively rare in the United States, however. And aside from the Mercedes incident, the Norcross mosque has had a peaceful existence since it opened three years ago.

Bait-ul-Baqi, which means "House of the Everlasting God," is the only Ahmadi mosque in Georgia and one of 39 Ahmadi institutions in the United States listed on the movement's Web site.

Nearly 50 families worship there, including some who live as far away as Valdosta and Albany. Most of the worshippers are Pakistani-Americans, though the congregation also has African-American, Canadian-American and Indian-American members.

Their religious customs largely mirror those of mainstream Muslims. They observe the same holidays, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, refrain from drinking alcohol and pray five times a day.

And as was evident last Saturday, men and women are separated during prayer at the mosque. The men, most donning traditional Muslim kufis on their heads, sat in the front section of the aqua-carpeted suite off Oakbrook Parkway that used to house a Japanese travel agency. The walls held large banners with messages such as, "The best of you are those who treat their wives best" and the sect's credo: "Love for All, Hatred for None." News updates flashed across a television tuned to the Ahmadi-owned 24-hour satellite station.

The proceedings were piped into a back room where women gathered. They covered their heads with silky hijabs. A curtain in the hallway separated the men from the women, allowing only young children to scamper back and forth.

The congregation would pray, hold elections, listen to a poem in Urdu and hear a plea for support from a fellow Ahmadi who heads up the Humanity First international relief organization. But the first order or business was an update on the still-unfolding situation in Indonesia, where 10,000 members of a Muslim solidarity group attacked an Ahmadi compound.

The president and vice president of Indonesia issued strong statements condemning the attack, said Quamar Ahmad, the mosque's general secretary. Several newspapers had editorialized against the violence as well, he told the congregation. But concerns remain about the increasingly hostile atmosphere in Indonesia, Ahmad said.

"We are writing to the Indonesian president," he said.

Assaults and arrests involving Ahmadis are so regular that the sect keeps running tallies at Although they haven't faced persecution in Atlanta, Ahmadis are still very much outsiders in the metro area's Muslim community.

Hafiz A. Ghaffar Khan, director of the Georgia Islamic Institute of Religious & Social Sciences in Lawrenceville, said that's because Ahmadis simply aren't Muslims. Khan argues Mirza Ghulam Ahmad wasn't a prophet, but rather a British plant designed to cause a rift among Muslims. People who believe Ahmad's messianic claim are free to call themselves what they want, but it shouldn't be Muslim, Khan said.

"If we put up a Church of God sign, the Christian community would say, 'What are you doing?' " Khan said. "It's the same thing here."

Ahmadis counter that Ahmad created their movement under divine guidance to rejuvenate Islamic teachings. They claim a membership of more than 200 million Ahmadis globally, though mainstream Muslims say that figure is inflated.

Ahmad founded the Ahmadiyya movement in a remote part of Punjab, India, in 1889. He claimed to be the Messiah promised in the scriptures of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Jews. Ahmadis say he was the first to interpret the concept of jihad as a personal struggle for spiritual discipline. Ahmad dismissed extremism and taught followers to fight with the pen rather than the sword, they say. Since Ahmad died, the sect has been headed by successors called khalifas. The current khalifa, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, was elected in 2003 and lives in London.

Bait-ul-Baqi president Khan said it hurts not be be accepted by other Muslims, but at least in America they can agree to disagree.

That's not the case in his native Pakistan, where officials amended the constitution in 1974 to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. The laws that followed forbid the sect from sounding the call for prayer or displaying the Kalima, a declaration of faith among Muslims.

"If we call our mosque a mosque [in Pakistan], we can be taken to jail," Khan said. "They think that by quote-unquote 'pretending' to be Muslim, we are hurting the Muslim majority."

Though traditionally more tolerant, Bangladesh is growing more hostile to the Ahmadiyya movement as well. The country outlawed books published by the sect last year. And orthodox Muslims have held rallies this year in support of a law declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim.

Shuaib Mahmud, a software engineer from Snellville who worships at Bait-ul-Baqi, said such laws miss a fundamental teaching of Islam. "To you, your religion. To me, my religion," he said. "There is no compulsion in religion."

Mahmud, 38, said his was one of three Ahmadi families in the Atlanta area when he moved here 17 years ago. With no mosque, they would pray in each other's living rooms.

Now, the Ahmadis have plenty of space as they gather for the congregational prayer each Friday. That's where Khan, the mosque's president, delivered a sermon last month. The Powder Springs resident focused on the peaceful nature of Islam and how it has been lost to much of the world in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Khan, who owns a dry cleaners in Austell, read from "Murder in the Name of Allah," a book by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, a former spiritual leader of the Ahmadis.

"Islam is as closely related to terrorism as light is to darkness or life is to death or peace is to war," he said. ". . . I am fully convinced that almost every form of communal violence in the world today, whatever that is and whatever cloak it wears, is essentially political in nature.

"Religion is not the exploiter; it is itself exploited by internal or external political interests."

It's a lesson Khan learned growing up in the northern Pakistani city of Mardan. His uncle's pharmacy was burned to the ground. And townspeople tore down his family's mosque, brick by brick, he said. Later, when Khan was praying at another Ahmadi mosque, authorities covered up the Kalima with a wooden bracket.

So it was with great satisfaction that Khan and the other Pakistani natives opened Bait-ul-Baqi three years ago.

In front, across the tinted glass, they painted the Kalima: "There is none worthy of worship except Allah. Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah."

They are 14 words all Muslims live by.