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Ahmadi Muslims, Let's Use Mahershala Ali's Oscar Win To Talk About The Arts

03/03/2017 02:37 EST | Updated 03/03/2017 02:37 EST
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
89th Academy Awards - Oscars Backstage - Hollywood, California, U.S. - 26/02/17 - Mahershala Ali of "Moonlight" holds up his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

As a first-generation Pakistani-Canadian-immigrant, I can tell you that some stereotypes are based on truths. The one you hear about immigrant parents wanting their kids to be doctors, engineers and accountants is (mostly) true. I mean, who can blame them? Our parents have risked a lot to come to Canada so they can have the best for us; so we can have access to all the opportunities the world has to offer. It's a beautiful thing. But, as a first-generation Pakistani-Canadian-immigrant, I can confirm that the pressure is real.

As a minority Ahmadi Muslim and a persecuted sect in Pakistan, I can also tell you that the sectarian hate and vitriol that comes from other Muslims is also a truth (and it's something that isn't contained to Pakistan).

Recently, and if you haven't already heard, Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for best supporting actor. If you haven't already also heard, he's Muslim -- Ahmadi Muslim to be exact.

The internet is in an uproar. The Pakistani Ambassador to the UN is said to have been forced to delete a tweet congratulating Ali on his win because he is an Ahmadi.

This is an important opportunity to raise awareness around the issue of Ahmadi persecution, and as I sat down to also write a piece about our plight, I took a second to reflect on Ali's win. In doing so, I realized something: there's another, different kind of opportunity in the moment as well. One that doesn't come up as often as the first and one that requires more introspection: the opportunity to have an honest conversation in our community about the value we place on the arts.

Islamic art has a deep and rich history. And not just in calligraphy which is most widely recognized, but in painting, ceramic, glassware, metalwork and of course poetry and architecture. Art has also been the bedrock of Pakistani society and culture -- whether through the Sufi qawwalis and folk songs of famous Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or the poetry and writings of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mirza Ghalib or the influence of Zubeida Agha as Pakistan's first modern artist. Ahmadis have had a strong artistic presence of their own, notably in American jazz music through the great Yusef Lateef who won a Grammy for his work or Hamid Sheikh who recently won an Emmy for his behind the scenes impact, and perhaps most famously through the poetry of Obaidullah Aleem. From Pakistan to Syria and Iran, to Spain and South America; art has been a presence in Islamic life for centuries.

And yet, as I reflected on Ali's win I couldn't help but think: how many of us today, support the profession for which he was given an award? How many of us would encourage one of our own to pursue the same?

How many of us have allowed ourselves to consider or accept that we might want to be an artist? An actor? A musician?

So yes, let's talk about how the first Muslim; an Ahmadi; and a black man won an Oscar. Let's continue to write about the plight of minorities and the injustices committed against Ahmadis around the world. Let's use the opportunity to raise awareness, to have our voices heard; to say to those who imprison and murder us in the streets of Pakistan that it's not ok for you to claim this as a win without first recognizing the systemic hate and violence that's been created against us.

But, let's also raise awareness by celebrating the importance of the arts; by encouraging the pursuit of the arts; by having an honest conversation about the value we place on professions in the arts; by recognizing our rich history in the arts; and by continuing to pursue more of what brings us together. Because ultimately, when was the last time we found ourselves in a position to use an Oscar winner, to not only justify the pursuit, but the possibility of success in the arts?

And to those Muslims denying Ali's win as the first by a Muslim because he is an Ahmadi, ask yourself: when was the last time you had the opportunity to point to someone that countered one of your own stereotypes?

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