By Aysha Khan
ALTON, United Kingdom (RNS) — Johnnie Moore, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers, stood before the Ahmadi caliph and tens of thousands of his Muslim followers on Saturday (Aug. 4) and celebrated the phrase “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is the greatest.”
“I grieve at the defilements of God’s name to promote (acts of terrorism and murder),” Moore said in a short speech at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s annual Jalsa Salana convention in Alton. “God truly is great, and he is a God of peace, and you are a symbol of it.”
The Jalsa, billed as the U.K.’s largest Muslim convention, was presided over by Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the caliph and leader of the world’s minority Ahmadi Muslims. The denomination’s members, estimated to number 10 million to 20 million, face often-deadly persecution from hardline clerics who consider them apostates.
Moore, whom Trump recently appointed as a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, has drawn criticism from many in liberal and Muslim activist circles for his alignment with Trump. But for Ahmadis, an alliance with a political conservative like Moore is nothing unusual. Their strong advocacy of religious freedom and vocal condemnation of religious extremism have gained them several unlikely allies in the West.
“Sometimes the religious freedom space isn’t packaged neatly,” Amjad Mahmood Khan, AMC’s U.S. public affairs director, told Religion News Service. “We believe in religious freedom for all, and not as a partisan or political issue.”
Muslim advocacy groups have long noted that it’s difficult to move in Western religious freedom circles. Muslim activists and researchers told Deseret News in 2016 that, particularly because of perceived ties to extremism, their contributions in the space were not valued. On top of that, many Muslim civil rights advocacy groups have shunned conservative politicians and organizations because of their ties to anti-Muslim policies. And Muslims themselves feel disconnected from the idea of religious freedom because of how they say it has been politicized by the Christian right.
But Ahmadi officials say they are happy to work with any nongovernmental organizations or politicians who share their goals. Ahmad told reporters during a news conference after the Jalsa that his community will join a secular organization working toward good. “When the purpose is not religious, we can work together for humanitarian work,” he said.
In 2014, Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., became co-chairs of the 32-member Congressional Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus for religious freedom. Before that, King made headlines for chairing a controversial 2011 hearing about radicalization among U.S. Muslims — a hearing many Muslims criticized as an Islamophobic witch hunt. But one prominent U.S. Ahmadi wrote a letter to the editor in The New York Times at the time: “There should be no reason to blindly accuse the Muslim-American community of noncooperation. But if the government thinks that Congressional hearings will improve homeland security and help expose those exploiting Islam, I assure full cooperation.”
At the AMC’s annual Jalsa in Canada, too, speakers have included conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was branded an Islamophobe by many Muslims and liberals after, among other comments, his attempt to call for limitations on wearing the face-covering niqab shortly before the elections. (Many Ahmadi women worldwide wear the niqab.)
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