Notions like tolerance and multiculturalism, suggesting that a society should celebrate the variety of cultures present, has many positive elements for encouraging diversity and underrepresented communities. To function, though, multiculturalism relies on the delineation of boundaries for various cultural communities and, as implemented in places like Great Britain in the 1990’s, specific organizations represent clearly labeled communities and become the conduits for government grants and the means for communication with the government. The potential pitfalls of this approach have come to the fore in the response to the recent murder of Asad Shah, whom news reports identify as an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow.
The tragedy itself is not attributable to these concepts of tolerance or multiculturalism. The person charged with killing Shah has issued a statement in which he accused Shah of claiming to be a prophet and thus disrespecting Muhammad. Apparently, Shah’s identification as an Ahmadi, who generally identify as Muslim while professing to follow Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a more recent messenger from God, was an impetus for the murder, if the accused killer’s statement is to be believed.
After the statement was issued, some people pressured the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to clarify their own labeling of Ahmadiyya. This statement is significant because the MCB is a major representative of the experiences of Muslims in Great Britain, as well as a recipient of funding from the government. After invoking “pluralism and peaceful coexistence,” the MCB statement declares,
The Muslim Council of Britain reflects the clear theological position expressed across Islamic traditions: namely that the cornerstone of Islam is to believe in One God and in the finality of the prophethood of the Messenger Muhammad, peace be upon him. We understand that this is not a tenet subscribed to by the Ahmadi community.
The MCB statement further rejects any pressure to accept Ahmadiyya as Muslims, declaring that “Muslims should not be forced” to recognize Ahmadiyya, while also restating their acknowledgement that Ahmadiyya, and every other religious group, should not experience persecution.
So herein lies the rub for notions of multiculturalism and tolerance. Communities assert a right to define their own boundaries and beliefs that might not coincide with the broader notions of inclusion. As implemented, these notions have empowered some to represent recognized minorities, thus strengthening the influence of certain individual leaders who can wield their power as the conduit to government officials and their funding to maintain authority over their own community. Moreover, these recognized communities leave out all sorts of smaller communities who, for various reasons, may not fit the ideas of the leading representatives.
Of course, these tensions are not limited to Great Britain, multiculturalism, or rhetoric of tolerance. As I have written before on Ahmadiyya (on this blog and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), the academic study of religion often empowers particular leaders and excludes smaller communities in the representation of various “world religions.” Identifying particular ideas and actions as representing a labeled religion takes sides in ongoing contested groups, thus empowering some and marginalizing others. Whatever one thinks of the MCB position on the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslim, scholars should be cognizant of whose definition of the labels we present (or construct ourselves) and make the contested nature of those labels more transparent.
Photo credit: Fazl Mosque (headquarters of UK Ahmadiyya community) in London. Public Domain