For me, religious freedom means the realization of ones God-given right to self-identity. It means being able to exercise that right to practice or not to practice any religion in the manner I determine is best for me.
It means being free to call myself a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Sikh, an Atheist, etc. without fear. Religious freedom is the right to choose one’s own destiny without fear of retaliation, discrimination, or usurpation of rights as a result of my preferred religious beliefs.
In America this concept seems simple to understand and implement. Sadly, the reality of this freedom which all U.S. citizens enjoy is the exception in the world, not the norm. As a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps, and as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Muslims who believe in the Messiah, Mirza Guhlam Ahmad of Qadian, I do not take this freedom for granted.
In fact, I cherish this freedom more than my very own life. I know what it means to be deprived of this right because I experienced this reality in my childhood as a citizen of Pakistan.
My memories of growing up in Pakistan as a young Ahmadi Muslim child are full of fond, peaceful, and happy recollections of extended family gatherings, birthday celebrations, weddings, and the joys of welcoming new born babies into the broader extended family.
However, I also recall a sense of anxiety and fear of some family members when they would travel to and from the mosque for Friday prayers, during Eid celebrations, or while purchasing religious relics or books, such as the Holy Qur’an at the bazaar. I remember terms like the “Mullah” and “protest” were always used in the context of the evil powers ready to attack the innocent Ahmadi Muslims living in Pakistan.
As a child I never quite understood the root cause of such behavior, but it often fueled my imagination as I pretended to be a super hero ready to protect all Ahmadi Muslims against the evil “Mullah” and his army of “protestors”. It wasn’t until after I moved to the United States that I began to understand the root cause of my family’s sense of fear and anxiety of being Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan.
I was shocked to learn that the Pakistani Constitution, which was initially founded on the principles of Justice and Equality for all Pakistanis at the time of Pakistan’s creation, had been corrupted by the extremist clergy; the “Mullahs”. I was saddened to learn that Ahmadis had been declared as non-Muslims as a matter of Law based on a single minor dogmatic difference.
I learned that Ahmadis could be fined and jailed for saying “Assalamo Alaikum”; the standard Muslim greeting meaning “Peace be upon you”. I was horrified to read Ordinance XX, specifically Section 298-C of the penal code, which states: “298C. Person of Quadiani (the term Quadiani is a pejorative for Ahmadi Muslim) group etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith.
Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name), who, directly or indirectly, poses himself as Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, or invites others to accept his faith, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.”
Thus, through this amendment the Pakistani government decided that it had the right to determine as a matter of legal precedent which of its citizens could exercise and benefit from their God-given right to call themselves Muslim.
Furthermore, the government provided a legal mechanism by which any Pakistani citizen could report violations of this law and bring about legal consequences for anyone accused (which could result in dire consequences up to and including capital punishment), but without fear of any consequences for the accuser.
What a remarkably unjust law established on bigotry, hate, and fear! Forty years later, Pakistan finds itself in a web of extremist violence, intolerance, and hate that spares no citizen, minority, or otherwise.
While the persecuted minorities have made tremendous sacrifices, including denial of their rights, confiscation of property and even martyrdom, all Pakistanis live in daily fear of terrorist attacks from numerous extremist organizations whose sole mission is to enforce their own religious verdict against anyone who they determine to be in violation of their religious insensitivities.
By denying Ahmadi Muslims the right to self-identity, Pakistan in essence has denied peace and security to all Pakistani citizens. The Pakistani society has now become a hodgepodge of cannibalistic chaos.
Anyone regardless of religion, background, or class who is even so much as accused of having differing points of view is brought to some twisted sense of justice by the local brainwashed mobs, as exemlified recently with the lynching of a Sunni Pakistani university student, Mashal Khan.
As an American citizen, I refuse to let my beautiful adopted nation slip into to the same fate as Pakistan, the nation of my birth. I refuse to remain silent in face of bigotry in all forms. I refuse to remain apathetic to the plight of minorities when their rights are ignored and voices silenced.
I refuse to stand by and watch as so called “Christian” white supremacist terrorists gain popularity and foothold in American politics, as they seek to limit civil liberties and religious freedoms of anyone they perceive to be non-Christian. Because the truth is, either we all stand together united to ensure and protect the right of every American citizen’s freedom of religion, or we deny this right to everyone.
There is no middle ground. If we deny the right to freedom of religion to even one American today, we condemn our nation to the same slippery slope that will ultimately lead to the same violence, hate, and tragic fate that is unfolding in Pakistan.
So, what does freedom of religion mean to me? Simple! It means everything. It means that freedom of religion is extremely rare, valuable and worth preserving, even at the cost of my own life.