Muslims in the mosaic

Updated Jul 17 2016


Syrian refugees hold Canadian flags as they take part in a welcome service in Toronto, December 11, 2015. — Reuters
Syrian refugees hold Canadian flags as they take part in a welcome service in Toronto, December 11, 2015. — Reuters

Over the past year Canadians, like the rest of the world, have watched with trepidation the ascent of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. More recently they have witnessed media images of the xenophobic frenzy unleashed across Britain in the aftermath of Brexit. Canadian Muslims in particular look at these developments in the US and UK with a sense of relief: thank goodness we are not living there, thank God for Canada, that sort of thing would never happen here.

Yet the truth is that at exactly this time one year ago — in the summer of 2015 — when things were heating up in the run-up to the Canadian federal elections, alarming moves were made by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers. Most notably, the Conservatives established a tip line for citizens to report “Barbaric Cultural Practises”, brazenly attempted to appeal to “old-stock Canadians” and challenged the Federal Court of Canada’s decision in favour of a niqab-wearing woman to take her oath of citizenship. Through these studied efforts the niqab became the pivotal issue of the elections and an accompanying rise in Islamophobia was palpable.

By the time the book under review, The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self was released, Harper and his cronies had been swept out of office thanks to the decisive victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party. The relief felt by Canada’s over one million Muslims (2011 census) as well as their friends and allies was immense. But for the sake of future generations, that close encounter with hate deserves careful analysis through the essays contained in this volume which was conceived and compiled during a critical time for Muslims in Canada.

What does it mean to be a Muslim in Canada? Is it a public or a private identity, and as an identity is it compatible with a secular democracy such as Canada? What relation does it bear to historical, cultural, and ethnic identities? Is a total agnostic or an atheist a Muslim? Is a person who disavows being a Muslim still a Muslim? These are some of the questions posed to the contributing writers who have responded with illuminating answers from diverse perspectives. It is interesting to note that while all the contributors are Canadian, not all of them claim to be Muslim which makes, in this reviewer’s opinion, their observations and commentaries even more valuable.

The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada aims to assess the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, and questions whether having a Muslim identity blankets all others

Dhaka-born novelist Safia Fazlul became a Canadian at age 13 after taking the oath of citizenship. A few years before that, she explains, she had become a Muslim after supporting a Pakistani Muslim classmate who was being ridiculed for her beliefs. “Until that day, I had only called myself a Muslim because my parents told me to.” In her moving and very personal essay titled ‘An Incompetent Muslim’, Fazlul describes herself as one standing between the borders of “somewhat liberal Canadian” and “somewhat conservative Muslim South Asian” but both “unable and unwilling to pick one of the two”. She describes a lifetime of hearing other Canadians say “I know you’re from Canada, but where are you actually from,” and also having to explain terrorism to them. On the whole, she says, Canadians manage to live in harmony but “there is a strong but subtle discrimination against Muslim Canadians” and she provides examples of this from her own experience.

In ‘Identity fragments’ writer Ameen Merchant also recalls being singled out for his Muslim identity. First by schoolmates in India every time India and Pakistan met on the cricket field, and then years later every time he travelled from Vancouver to New York and back. In the post-9/11 world ‘Travelling While Muslim’ will almost guarantee “random” security checks at airports and the sense of “otherness” never quite goes away. Merchant says he is “far removed from all traditional interpretations” of Islam yet his cultural connection to it remains. He emphatically concludes: “I am a Muslim. But I am also not just a Muslim.”

The creation of ‘Muslim space’ is the focus of media artist and curator Narendra Pachkhede’s essay “Mosques and the Making of Muslim Identity.” He highlights the recent case of a contested mosque project in Mississauga whose opponents warned of loss of Canadian values, incidents of rape, and traffic chaos. The city’s elected council was not deterred and voted 11 to 1 in favour of the project.

Narendra briefly examines the history of Canada’s first mosque built in Edmonton in 1938 by Syrians and Lebanese immigrants, and Toronto’s first mosque which was established in 1970 by members of the Albanian community. The arrival of South Asians during the 1970s changed the character of the community, the writer says. The influence of the Tablighi Jamaat brought what he describes “a pronounced effort to bring Muslim religious life into the public realm beyond the idea of the mosque.”

Monia Mazigh became a household name in 2002 when she successfully lobbied the Canadian government for the release of her Canadian husband Mehar Arar who was deported to Syria by US officials on suspicion of terrorist links. In ‘Re-examining relations between men and women,’ Monia asserts that “the role of the man as provider and manager of the household finances, called qiwamah [in Arabic] can no longer be sustained in a world where Muslim women increasingly work in factories and in the public service. It would be far more pertinent to speak of partnership, musharaka.”

Her proposition is bold and she substantiates it with strong arguments, not least of which is that “Canadian Muslim women are increasingly more educated and active in the labour market.” Thus “introducing the concept of partnership to Canadian Muslim youths will help them establish a coherent view of their identity as both Canadians and Muslims.”

Both Canada and Islam are close to the heart of Haroon Siddiqui, Editorial Page Editor Emeritus of Canada’s largest newspaper, Toronto Star. He has long argued that “Canadian ideals are, at their core, Islamic ideals” and “the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, echoes the Quran which urges no compulsion in religion.”

In his essay ‘Anti-Muslim bigotry goes official’ Siddiqui posits that it is not Islam that is incompatible with the secular West, but rather “it’s the West that is becoming incompatible with its own secular, democratic values.” He offers numerous examples of official announcements and policies that have maligned Canadian Muslims and fanned anti-Muslim prejudices since 9/11, especially in the last 10 years under the Harper government. But the final word went to Canadian voters on Oct 19, 2015 who “refused to reward the pedlars of bigotry” and turfed out Stephen Harper and his cronies.

In ‘Speaking to post-secular society: The Aga Khan’s public discourse’ Karim H. Karim, director of Carleton University’s Centre for Study of Islam, uses examples of the Aga Khan’s public utterances to argue that it is possible to deal with secular issues while speaking in a language of ethics legitimised by Islamic tradition. Deen and dunya are inseparable in Islam, and so the Ismaili imam is both a religious leader and the head of a conglomeration of transnational institutions.

In ‘Who I am really: Communicating Islam across generations’ scholar Asma Sayed discusses the intersectionality of multiple identities and raising children in Canada. “We are living in times when Muslims are saddled with the responsibility to educate people about Islam and, often, to apologise for the deeds of a few. But on that last count, I refuse.” Islam is not a monolith, she explains, rather a rich community of multiple cultural and linguistic groups with a variety of opinions — just like Canada. So “if Islam can thrive anywhere, perhaps it is in a secular multicultural democracy such as Canada”.

Journalist Mayank Bhatt’s entertaining ‘Married to a believer’ describes his devout Hindu grandmother, Harvilas, his devout Muslim mother-in-law, Shakera, and his wife, Mahrukh whom he simply cannot convince to give up fasting in Ramazan: “If I persist she glares at me with a finality that implies that if I know what’s good for me, I’d better shut up.” He laments that immigrants in Toronto tend to focus on what differentiates them — race and religion — instead of what unites them — visible minority status and lower-income status.

Artist Zainub Verjee in ‘The performing identities of Muslims’ recalls the morning of Sept 11, 2001, when she found out about the collapse of the Twin Towers just as she was about to leave her hotel room to attend the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a seminal moment, she says, for “suddenly my Muslim identity became foregrounded” and since then “in everyday experience, a Muslim feels compelled to explain what it means to be Muslim. It is the everyday Muslim who takes this call to publicly state his or her identity as if it were a civic duty.”

In ‘The framing of Canadian Muslims’ Ihsaan Gardee and Amira El-Ghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims provide valuable analysis of the public discourse around Muslim women and terrorism. “Canadian Muslim women often bear the brunt of discrimination and attacks” and “using terms like honour killings implies that this particular violence against women is unique and the sole purview of those of ‘other’ cultures.” Similarly, words such as jihadism and Islamofascism “succeed only in conflating terrorism with mainstream Islam, thereby casting all Muslims as terrorists or potential terrorists, acknowledges the 2010 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report titled Words Make Worlds.”

In ‘The future of Islam in North America’, scholar Mohamed Abualy Alibhai explains that unlike France and Italy, Canada is not a nation state or proprietor state controlled by one ethnic group that claims to own the state.

Here political identity and cultural identity co-exist without any challenge to composite identities such as Pakistani Canadian or Muslim Canadian. The same is not true for Arab French or Turkish German; in fact such terms are unheard of. Although the spectre of “creeping Shariah” is largely exaggerated, Alibhai offers this: “Muslims who wish for a conscience-rooted faith that supports personal ethical decision-making will need to acknowledge that it is futile to attempt to transform legalist Shariah Islam into a subjectivist personal faith.” And his conclusion is that “the future of Islam rests with the ordinary believer.”

The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self
Edited by Nurjehan Aziz
Mawenzi House, Toronto
ISBN: 978-1-927494-65-3

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 17th, 2016