It was a Sunday evening in August, just a few weeks into Ramadan, the month of fasting when Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to sunset. On a tranquil block in Amityville, dozens of worshipers gathered at a mosque to break their fast with the eating of a date before praying and then sitting together for a meal, known as Iftar, that marks the end of the fast.
It is a scene repeated at mosques across Long Island during Ramadan, but this group, called Ahmadiyya Muslims, or Ahmadis, would not be welcome in most. The group is often considered to be "non-Muslims" by the mainstream. Ahmadis do not believe in the final prophethood of Muhammad, and that is why they are denounced, according to Habeeb Ahmed, board chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.
But Zeshan Hamid, 33, of Nesconset, who attends the Amityville mosque on Union Avenue, said Ahmadis do recognize Muhammad as the last law-bearing prophet. While mainstream Muslims are still waiting for the Messiah, he said, Ahmadis believe the Messiah has already come to them.
So Ahmadis face two uphill battles: convincing Americans that Muslims are peaceful and convincing other Muslims that they are part of their religion.
"We want to defend the religion of Islam and the message of Islam, because we feel it has been hijacked by the terrorists," Hamid said. "We are also saying, 'We are Muslims,' " added Rizwan Alladin, 36, of North Babylon.
There are more than 70 Ahmadi chapters in the United States, but the mosque in Amityville, home to 300 worshipers, is the only one on Long Island. The group is active locally, with a youth auxiliary that places an emphasis on community service such as working in soup kitchens and organizing blood drives. Charity is an important tenet of their religion, Hamid said.
Officials estimate there are millions of Ahmadis worldwide, with at least 2 million in Pakistan, the largest concentration in one country. But in 1974 Pakistan declared them "non-Muslims" and in 1984 forbade Ahmadis from proselytizing or identifying themselves as Muslims through word or action. An Ahmadi who makes the call to prayer or offers the Muslim greeting of "Assalamu Alaikum" ("peace be upon you") could face three years in prison.
Ahmadis in Amityville said that Pakistani officials permit posters that encourage the killing of their sect. Many of their relatives have been injured or killed in attacks or have houses and businesses that have been burned to the ground, they said, and little is done to catch the perpetrators. Instead, hundreds remain jailed for professing their faith.
"The problem in Pakistan is that it is government-sanctioned discrimination," Hamid said. "We cannot go to the courts and fight because instead we will be persecuted."
Human Rights Watch released a report afterward stating that the persecution is "wholly legalized, even encouraged, by the Pakistani government." Practicing a strictly pacifist religion, Ahmadis cannot take to the streets in protest, Hamid said, but they can take action. They are planning a letter-writing campaign calling on U.S. officials to pressure Pakistan to change its policy, and they have launched a "Muslims for Peace" campaign to fight the negative image plaguing Islam.
"We will be fighting not with our swords but with our pens," Alladin said.
Salaam Bhatti, 24, of Bay Shore said it wasn't until he was in law school that he felt the sting of discrimination from a fellow Muslim. He said he had developed a friendship with a teaching assistant who was Muslim, but when Bhatti explained he was Ahmadi, "his eyes bugged out, and he took a step backward." From then on, Bhatti said, when he greeted the man with "Assalamu Alaikum," he would get only a terse "hello" in response.
Faraz Ahmad, 29, regularly attended the mosques that were targeted in Lahore. On the day of the attacks he had decided to attend a different mosque. Seven of his relatives were killed and five more injured in the attacks. Still, he said, those who denounce his sect will receive only goodwill and prayers.
"We have to take the right path," he said. "Love for all, hatred for none and be in peace with everybody."