"For me, being British is just as important as being a Muslim. They're synonymous, not contradictory," says 25-year old imam and volunteer with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caliphate, Abdul Khusus. "That's what really attracted me—the fact that I could be both."
As we talk, he leads me through the vast corridors of South Morden's Baitul Futuh Mosque. Built in 2003, it's the largest in Britain and the headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caliphate, which is hosting its annual dinner and peace summit this evening.
As we approach the complex's main mosque, which is the size of an aircraft hangar, Khusus tells me how he became an Ahmadiyya imam: "I went to imam school after my GCSEs, when I was 16. We studied sciences, comparative religions. We learned translations of the Koran and the commentary, and really had an in-depth look into what Islam teaches, to come to our own conclusion as to whether it's a religion that is based upon jihad or not. And it's not… Islam literally means peace."
Led by Khalifa Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya Caliphate has a presence in over 206 countries, and its 10 million followers make it one of the most widely followed Muslim organizations in the world. It's also the foremost organization to arrange itself around a spiritual leader, known as the khalifa. Viewed as progressive by many in the West, and heretical in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, Ahmadiyya is the only Muslim organization to endorse the complete separation of church and state.
Based on the belief that Ahmadiyya's founding father, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the second coming, as foretold by the Prophet Muhammad, the group follows Ahmad's belief that individuals should "protect the sanctity of both religion and government by becoming righteous souls as well as loyal citizens."
With headlines so focused on the radicalization of Muslims and the rise of groups like the Islamic State and al Shabaab, the central message that Ahmadiyya Muslims are keen to highlight—both at tonight's summit and through their teachings—is one of social inclusion and community, condemning acts of terrorism as un-Islamic.
"We're fortunate that, in our community, we have zero experiences of radicalization or any kind of extremism," explains Jamal Akbhat, head volunteer for the Ahmadiyya Youth Association. "They start at the age of seven, and we involve the children in all sorts of activities, from seed planting and selling poppies to feeding the homeless. It's by giving our youth an association and by integrating them into communities that we avoid any radicalization."
Walking toward a small press conference the Khalifa is holding, the sheer density of both the complex itself and the community built around it is starkly evident. Ahmadis were some of the first Muslim immigrants to settle in Britain, and the mosque itself—which cost about $21 million—was financed entirely by donations from UK community members.
Far from being a Spartan, stripped-back place of worship, the complex includes a sports hall, libraries, and a gym. At full capacity, it can hold 10,000 worshippers and is also the broadcasting headquarters for the organization's 24-hour satellite TV station, Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International.
As we cram ourselves around the press-packed table, the khalifa is led into the room. Questions fire off on tangents as far-ranging as his stance on Donald Trump to divestment from fossil fuels and the anti-immigrant rantings of Dutch politician Geert Wilders. But the khalifa appears most interested in bringing each answer back to Ahmadiyya's desire for world peace and an understanding of Islam. He's also keen to address the actions of radical groups carrying out waves of violence under the banner of Islam.
"These cruelties and brutalities they're teaching are all against the teachings of Islam," he says when asked about the actions of ISIS, Boko Haram, and al Shabaab. "I don't think a true Muslim can ever behave like this… and if they are big groups, then this is for their own economic and geopolitical gains."
Ahmadiyya Muslims agree with both Sunnis and Shias on the Five Pillars of Islam providing the framework for worship and practice. But followers of the organization itself remain heavily persecuted worldwide, especially in countries like India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Pakistan, where the organization was declared illegal in 1974.
Ahmadiyya is officially banned in Saudi Arabia, with Ahmadis forbidden from undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj. In Pakistan, its members are routinely attacked and beaten, with 11 members of the faith killed there in 2014; it's for this reason that the community in South Morden is home to a huge Pakistani diaspora.
As the khalifa rises to leave, we make our way toward the main arena for the beginning of the peace summit. The sprawling gymnasium and its lacquered floor are filled with dinner tables and an eclectic crowd of young and old, caucasian and Middle Eastern, Muslim and non-Muslim—though it's immediately evident that there are no Muslim women among the diners.
During the speeches, several MPs and community members take to the stage, including MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonough; MP for Putney, Justine Greening; as well as 2016 London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, who centers his speech around his wish to "make sure [the Ahmadiyya community] has a voice at the highest levels of government," should he be elected this May.
As the evening progresses, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad takes the stage. After a long speech on the worsening situation in Syria, he addresses the uncertainty many feel toward Islam amid the refugee crisis and the attacks by ISIS militants in Paris, remarking that the "overriding objective should be to establish peace."
The khalifa also says that Muslims can and should be permitted to leave Islam, should they desire—a view that is held in contempt by many followers of the faith. Though we're told that the women's branch of the organization is extremely active, with Ahmadis championing the importance of women's education and social inclusion, the lack of emphasis on this issue does stand out against Ahmad's other rousing remarks.
As the speeches wind down and dinner is served, I consider the message of the Ahmadiyya Caliphate. It's not a particularly groundbreaking one, but in some ways that almost makes it more powerful: love for all, and hatred for none.
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