US Muslim sect spreads message of peace

New York, USA - "Americans are always asking 'where are the moderate Muslims?' Well, we're actively going out and showing them that we are here," said Ahmad Chaudhry, a spokesman for the Muslims for Peace campaign.

Since Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen born in Pakistan, tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square last May, the campaign has not only bought advertisements on buses but also sent volunteers to knock on doors in cities across the United States to promote its message of peace.

Starting last month at Times Square itself, an electronic billboard has flashed the words "Muslims for Peace" with a telephone hotline number. The spot will run until later this month.

The campaign was organised by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, which has long faced discrimination from other Muslims long before the attacks of September 11 made many Americans fearful of all Muslims.

There are about 15,000 Ahmadis in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. They believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded their group more than a century ago, to be the Messiah but in almost every other respect, they follow the same rituals as mainstream Muslims.

Vehemently rejecting violence and promoting peace, the community claims to have tens of millions of adherents and more than 15,000 mosques around the world. "We want to dispel darkness from the world," said Daoud Hanif, the vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the United States and nine other countries, mostly in the Caribbean.

Mr Chaudhry, 35, the general secretary of the Bait-uz-Zafar mosque in New York City, is a typical young Ahmadi. An oral surgeon with degrees in medicine and dentistry from US universities, his family moved to the United States from Pakistan, where Ahmadis are not legally considered Muslims and his father knew his army career would be stalled.

"There's a vicious circle because Ahmadis are barred from many government and army positions in Pakistan so they go into business and other professions and become successful and wealthy, which creates more discrimination and resentment," Mr Chaudhry said.

When not performing oral surgery, he devotes his time to volunteer work for the mosque that includes, among other things, handing out Muslims for Peace leaflets on Friday afternoons below the billboard in Times Square.

"We've had an incredibly good response, with people saying they appreciate that we're out there. We're getting dozens of calls each day to our information hotline," he said. "We know it will take a long time to get our message to everyone and this is a good start."

But outreach to other American Muslim groups had yet to yield a response, he said. "We've asked all Muslims in America to join us in promoting peace but we've not had a great response."

He said the Ahmadiyya group was the oldest Muslim community in United States. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq, an Ahmadi missionary, arrived in Philadelphia in 1920. He was arrested by the US authorities who feared he would promote polygamy but was soon released. The following year, he founded The Muslim Sunrise, a magazine that exists to this day.

The Bait-uz-Zafar mosque moved to its present location in 2008, a building that was formerly used as a synagogue and school. Initially, the rabbis were reluctant to sell to Muslims but they were invited to see the old Ahmadi mosque and were soon won over, said Mr Chaudhry.

"May we see the blessing of peace in our lifetime," said a framed letter from the New York Board of Rabbis dated March 23, 2007 that now hangs in the mosque's office.

Mr Hanif said Ahmadis stressed the benefits of living in the United States and countered discrimination with a positive message.

"After 9/11, [law enforcement] came to observe us and they would sit in their cars outside the mosque all night, but there is no one here at night. So I went to them and said, 'you will need to use the bathroom, come in and see that we have nothing to hide'," he said. "Freedom of religion is very important and this country provides it much more than many other Muslim countries."

Last week, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community launched its latest campaign called Muslims For Loyalty, Some 100,000 leaflets were distributed in Washington and volunteers will fan out across the country to do the same. "We consider this to be a religious duty of every American Muslim," said a press release. "This is why we invite all American Muslims to join us in this endeavour."

"Muslim extremists on the internet are preying on impressionable kids," said Mr Hanif. "We're saying that's not what Islam does and why we're saying Muslims for Loyalty."