Rina Wolfson didn’t know what to expect when she joined 40,000 Muslims at the annual Jalsa Salana meeting. She was impressed – but why were no other journalists there?
Imagine if 40,000 Muslims gathered together in the south of England to swear a pledge of allegiance to Isis. Every major news outlet in the world would descend on the gathering and report that story. Now imagine what would happen if 40,000 Muslims gathered to pledge allegiance to a creed of peace to all and hatred to none, while they denounced violence and raised the flag of the UK. How many journalists would report that? I can tell you the answer, and it isn’t many. I know this, because as I sat in the Press and Media tent at just such a gathering, I was completely on my own.
The assignment was rather unusual. I was sent to interview a Jewish man about a Christian relic at a Muslim convention. What I experienced was nothing short of extraordinary. The Jalsa Salana convention, now in its 51st year, is a gathering of Ahmadi Muslims. The Ahmadiyya are the largest growing Muslim denomination in the world. Founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who is revered as a Messiah by his followers, the group has expanded to more than 200 countries, and is led today by its Caliph, Mirza Masroor Ahmad.
There were people attending the convention from over 100 countries. As I walked around the site with my guide, a trainee Imam from Calgary, I was introduced to guests from Pakistan, Ghana, Canada and Brazil. Many were wearing traditional clothing; bright African fabrics, intricate Indian headdresses and stunning Asian silks. At the centre of the site, a display of over 100 national flags fluttered in the strong breeze. In the centre, on a raised platform, the flag of the Ahmadiyya flew alongside the Union Jack, both guarded by four men. “The platform is guarded,” said my guide, “to show that we are prepared to defend our beliefs and our country, wherever we live. The two go together.”
The hospitality of my hosts was extraordinary. Heavy rain had produced Glastonburyesque areas of mud which my flimsy shoes were not prepared for. No matter. Within minutes of my arrival a pair of boots had been found in exactly my size. I was constantly asked if I was hungry, thirsty, or needed to sit. Before I knew I needed anything, it was provided. This, said my host, was all part of the Ahmadi commitment to hospitality to the stranger.
The convention lasts for three days and is entirely volunteer led. Everybody pitches in, from the young men manning the carparks, to the teenagers peeling potatoes for nine hours straight, and the young children on litter duty. I spoke to Sameera who has been coming to the Jalsana all her life. She told me that the only year she didn’t volunteer was when her baby was six months old. She didn’t enjoy doing nothing and has volunteered every year since.
I arrived on the final day, in time to witness a remarkable moment. As people gathered in the huge central marquee, with thousands more outside watching events on screens, the Caliph arrived. He kneeled on the ground and put out his hands. The men around him held on to his fingers, and those behind them held on to their shoulders. Each man held on to the man in front, to form unbroken lines of human contact, stretching from the Caliph out into the crowd.
The Caliph read out the pledge of allegiance, line by line, in a variety of languages, and the gathered crowd repeated after him. My guide pointed out that the men closest to the Caliph included those who had most recently converted. He added that he had attended the convention for 23 years and had never managed to get this close to His Holiness. His words reminded me of the mixture of awe and love that Chasidic followers often feel for their Rebbe.
After the pledge, which included a commitment to spreading peace to all and hatred to none, the men bowed in prayer. Slowly, some began to cry. Then sob. The sound of grown men crying reverberated around the huge marque. It was astounding. And rather humbling.
Then, just as quickly as he had arrived, the Caliph left, and the crowds began to disperse to other areas of the huge site. Before I left, I was introduced to the leader of the Ahmadi Youth Organisation in the UK. As he described the structure and activities of his organisation, I was struck by how similar it was to Tribe, RSY or any other Jewish youth organisation. And how many core similarities our communities share. It was a remarkable, and humbling, experience.
As I returned my press pass to the still-deserted media tent, I once again felt how skewed our media can be in regard to faith community relations. And proud to have played a small part in redressing the imbalance.
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