Mahershala Ali and his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, attend the Virtuosos Award ceremony at the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 4 in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Like thousands around the world, Pakistani academic Adil Najam tweeted with apparent pride about Mahershala Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. Ali won the best supporting actor award for his role as the mentor of a gay black boy in Miami in the film “Moonlight.” “Also loved him in #HouseofCards,” Najam wrote.

Pakistan's envoy to the United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, added her two cents to Najam's tweet. Her words were seemingly innocuous, even redundant: “That's a first.”

But in Pakistan, Lodhi's tweet breached the official line. Members of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, to which Ali converted in his 20s, are forbidden by Pakistani law from calling themselves Muslims. If adherents, known as Ahmadis, so much as quote the Koran or even utter the Islamic greeting “salaam alaikum,” they can be charged under the country's onerous blasphemy laws.

Lodhi's tweet was promptly deleted (although quick-thinking observers took screenshots). Neither she nor her office at the United Nations responded to requests for comment.

Although it is unclear whether Lodhi came under pressure through official channels, a quick look at Twitter shows that many (unsurprisingly, anonymous) posters took to the medium to disparage Ali's professed faith. Some referred to him using a pejorative term for Ahmadis — “Qadiani.”

Many others, however, used the moment to call attention to the persecution of Ahmadis and to remind other Pakistanis that claiming Ali's prize as a win for Muslims would be laden with hypocrisy.

 

In Pakistan, Ahmadis must refer to themselves as “non-Muslims” and cannot call their places of worship mosques. Ahmadis are followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed that he was the foretold Mahdi, or Messiah, and lived in the late 19th century in what was then British India. Many Muslims believe that Islam is predicated on the belief that Muhammad is the last prophet.

In the past few years, hundreds of Ahmadis have been killed in targeted attacks in Pakistan. Islamist groups have held rallies in Pakistani cities calling for anyone accused of blasphemy to be given the death penalty. And in April, an Ahmadi man in Scotland was killed by another Muslim, who accused him of “disrespecting” Islam.

Most Ahmadis live outside Pakistan, although they face persecution in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia — they are forbidden from entering Mecca — and other Muslim-majority countries. The sect's headquarters is in London.

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