New Canadian Media

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 07 May 2017 12:58

The Unintended Consequences of Hate

Commentary by Hasan Zillur Rahim in San Jose

The pickup truck was following her. Dr. Sarah felt nervous but tried to convince herself it was just her imagination. He couldn’t possible know she was a Muslim, particularly since she was not wearing the optional hijab, the traditional Islamic head-cover to indicate modesty.

She pulled into the parking lot and got out of her car. The pickup slowed. As she crossed the street to get to her office, the driver, a middle-aged white man, rolled down the window and screamed at her: “Go back home!”

The heat of the man’s hate felt as if it were burning a hole in the back of her head. She ran to the safety of her hospital.

Dr. Sarah was born in Chicago to Muslim parents. After receiving a doctorate in psychology, she began working at a hospital in Silicon Valley in the pain management department as a psychologist, a job in which she has flourished for over a decade. When she reported the incident to her concerned supervisor, she advised her not to drive alone for a few weeks.

Trump has indeed loosened the shackles of bigotry among his supporters, emboldening them to threaten those who don’t look like them.

A week earlier, an engineer of Asian background, an American citizen, was confronted in the parking lot of a grocery store in San Jose by a driver who screamed: “Go back to where you came from.”

For many residents, the sprouting of bigotry in what is the heart of Silicon Valley, with a diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity rare in the world, is shocking.

“Before, I used to call my friends and relatives in India to ask if they were okay,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra during a rally organized in response to the growing climate of fear following the election. “Now they call me to inquire if I am safe in Trump’s America!”

Trump has indeed loosened the shackles of bigotry among his supporters, emboldening them to threaten those who don’t look like them, and to hurl insults like, “Go back to where you came from!”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported harassment and threats targeting Muslim women and children in Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and California in just the past two weeks alone.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 hate incidents in the ten days after Trump’s win in November. The advocacy group South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) put out a report in January that documented 207 hate incidents targeting South Asians, Muslims and Middle Easterners in 2016. The report noted the climate resembled the months following the 9/11 attacks, and attributed the spike in hate to campaign rhetoric during the 2016 race. 

Here in San Jose, police documeted four cases of crimes targeting Muslims in 2016. There were no cases prior in the years going back to 2011. Experts say the numbers are misleading, and that because victms are often reluctant to come forward, due to cultural or linguistic barriers, or because they are scared, the figures could be higher. 

One of those cases involved the Evergreen Islamic Center, where a letter was received just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday that read, in part: “There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump. He is going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he’s going to start with you Muslims.” The letter went on to make reference to Nazi Germany, saying Trump would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”

Still, despite the rising tide of Islamophobia, something remarkable began to happen among members of the local Muslim community in the days and weeks following Trump’s win. Having learned in the aftermath of 9/11 that a culture of shame and silence only promoted the politics of fear, area Muslims instead started forging bonds with community residents at a grass-roots level. 

Several members of Evergreen (myself included) joined “Indivisible East San Jose,” one of nearly 6,000 ‘Indivisible’ groups that sprang up across the nation as a response and resistance to Trump’s presidency.

Meeting once every month, members knock on doors in San Jose’s depressed areas, informing undocumented workers, for example, of their rights if ICE shows up and the availability of free legal help. A few families in dire straits have been escorted to sanctuaries in synagogues and churches.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Evergreen teamed up with local Christians and Jews as members of “Abrahamic Alliance” at a church to prepare meals for the homeless. For most, this was their first experience with a soup kitchen. Many were shocked to find that in one of the most prosperous areas in the world, there were people for whom a decent meal and a bed to sleep on are luxuries often beyond reach.

As remarkable is the growing outreach and solidarity extended to area Muslims from other immigrant communities. There have been several marches staged to commemorate the Japanese internment and to draw connections between that dark period in U.S. history and its echo against Muslims in Trump’s time. Meetings were held with Internment survivors who spoke of the importance of resistance.

Then there are the acts of individual kindness. 

“Just think about it,” said Peggy, who drove an hour from the city of Santa Cruz with several friends in a show of solidarity with Evergreen following the recent threats. “Would we have even met if it were not for Trump? No! This is the silver lining in the dark cloud that hangs over our nation now.”

For local Muslims, the bridges now being formed in the era of Trump are a case of serendipity, the unintended but cathartic consequences of hate.

Hasan Zillur Rahim wrote this story with support from New America Media’s Tracking Hate Fellowship program. Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College and the Outreach Director of the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose. 

Republished in partnership with New America Media.

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life.  One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however.  That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.

Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.

Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart.  As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners.  Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?

The 'true' interpretation of Islam

One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views.  Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences.  Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.

When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam.  Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'.  As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.

At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic.  That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia.  Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands.  There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.

Making a change

Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century.  This move should be welcomed and supported.

NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash.  Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. 

There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top.  The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.

I wish the Indonesian efforts every success.  The world certainly needs less hate.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/ 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski 

There have been many times in history where statements made publicly have turned out to be somewhat less than true. Remember the famous "Dewey defeats Truman" headline in the 1948 US Presidential election?  What about then CIA Director George Tenet's claim that intelligence pointing to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk"?

Then we have German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's 19th century boast 'God is dead', meaning that He no longer represented a source of morality or inspiration for humans. Time magazine repeated the statement in question form on its cover in 1966. In light of the wave of terrorism motivated in part by religion (largely, but not exclusively, Islam) over the past 40 years I think we can safely conclude  that this belief is about as accurate as that made by the Chairman of IBM in 1943 when he confidently said that "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers".

God, in whatever form people conceive him, continues to give billions of people hope, guidance and joy. Yes, religion has led some to incredible heights of creativity and art (listen to a Bach mass and tell me you're not moved) but it as also driven us to the lowest depths of horror and slaughter. There are far too many examples to list here. In any event, it appears highly likely that God and religion are here to stay.

Insulting a faith

An interesting question is raised, however, over what we as societies and governments should do to protect the right of all to worship in whatever way they so choose. A lot of Western states have this right enshrined in their constitutions and a few go on to say that the State shall neither choose an 'official' religion nor favour one over another. This is all well and good but to what extent should the government go with respect to perceived (or blatant) insults to one particular faith?

I am referring here to blasphemy laws. Most, if not all societies, had active blasphemy legislation or practice for centuries, although it is rare for any Western country to lay charges in this area these days. In other parts of the world, the practice  is still in place and large segments of the population take blasphemy seriously. Very seriously. 

The Indonesian governor of the state of Jakarta has been charged with insulting Islam (he is ethnic Chinese) and large crowds have called for his ouster – and worse. 

And in Pakistan, a Punjab governor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards (who was subsequently treated as a hero) for his criticism of the country's blasphemy laws. Don't forget the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of UK author Salman Rushdie over his alleged religious faux pas in his book The Satanic Verses back in 1989.

The other day the Danish government  laid blasphemy charges against a 42-year-old man who filmed himself burning a copy of the Quran in his backyard.  The move recalls a very different decision not to take similar action against the Danish newspaper that published infamous 'Muhammad cartoons' back in 2006, an act that led to several terrorist attacks.

Does it make any sense to charge a citizen with blasphemy today? In a word, no.

Antidote for ignorance

I have often criticized those that willfully and ignorantly make fun of religion – like the American woman who placed pieces of bacon between the pages of the Quran – not because I think they should be punished but because their actions strike me as childish and little more than attention seeking. I have seen little to suggest that the majority of those who pull these stunts are making any serious point about freedom of anything beyond the freedom to be stupid. 

If they want to put themselves out there and incur both the wrath of true believers, as well as the attention of terrorist groups, they should be free to do so.  But I'd like us to stop using the power of the State to regulate this form of expression and I'd like religious groups to ignore the morons and not react so predictably to each attempt at insult and infuriate, let alone serious scholarship that challenges deeply-held convictions.

Charging someone with blasphemy achieves little. It only provides more media and more publicity for the attention seekers and is almost always counter-productive. I recall the Catholic protests over Monty Python's Life of Brian which only made the film more popular.  There is no room in the West in 2017 for this kind of legislation.  We have hate laws, which are controversial enough and hard to prove as I noted in a recent blog, and we should use that tool where warranted (which I think is rare). I would also suggest that no country needs these laws, but am neither in a position to advise nor influence what happens in Pakistan or Indonesia.

As in most things, as I have stated before, the best antidote to ignorance is knowledge. Those who get their kicks poking fun at or viciously attacking religious beliefs should be argued with, not censured.  And for those that end up getting killed by terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of their deity, while I cannot ever condone that action, neither can I feel sorry for the victims.  Sometimes stupidity masking itself poorly as social commentary has its terrible consequences.

We cannot make being an ass illegal. If we were to do so, we'd have to build a lot more prisons. We need to address the lack of knowledge with knowledge, not State sanction.


Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Saturday, 28 January 2017 14:02

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto

I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year.  It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.

Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.

The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.

This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.

In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

Parental dilemma

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?

I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.

I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.

Being Muslim

The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?

I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.

And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Cultural appropriation

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).

Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.

I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Published in Books

by Mohamad Jebara in Ottawa, Ontario

I’m a Canadian Muslim — proud of my faith. I feel privileged to be counted among those who share a belief system that has brought spiritual fulfillment, purpose and meaning to billions over the past 1,400 years. I feel that my Canadian identity is also an integral part of who I am.

As with any major faith, Islam has a myriad number of interpretations, sects, denominations and schools of thought. We have our ‘saints’ … our ‘satans’ as well.

The issue of identity lies at the core of every individual’s journey of self-discovery and self-realization. While many want to ‘fit in’ and be accepted into the society in which we’ve been raised, we also feel a yearning to connect with our roots, our heritage and the culture of our ancestors. For many Muslims in the West, the balance between the freedom to express one’s personal identity and the need to be accepted by parents who come from another time and culture can be precarious.

Many cultural factors influence how we behave — and religion is interpreted as reflection of the culture in which it is observed, not the other way around. 

When I heard of the massacre in Orlando and learned something about the background of the gunman, I knew — before hearing any details — what the story was about. The young man evidently was struggling with a conflicted sense of identity. He was, apparently, gay himself. He felt ashamed of who he was and struggled to reconcile the conflicting — yet undiscussed — duplicity inherent in the ultraconservative religious culture of his family’s native Afghanistan.

His religious or political views may have had nothing to do with the tragedy; the professed vehement homophobia of his family’s culture most certainly did. When the father claimed that he was shocked by his son’s appalling act of violence, it was apparent to me that he — like too many other parents — had ignored how his son’s self-hatred had been the catalyst for his so-called “radicalization”.

It’s important to separate Islam, the faith, from the tribal systems that tend to be intertwined with it — tribal systems which consider their particular culture and habits to be indistinguishable from Islam itself. (It’s really not much different from the case of Americans affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan who consider their world-view and ideology as vital parts of their ‘Christian’ identity.)

I have witnessed several cases of young men coming from the same background as Mateen who had homosexual inclinations — young men who came from families that publically supported extremist groups, spewed anti-Western rhetoric online, in public and in the community, and supported extremist interpretations of Islam that embrace the execution of homosexuals, rampant misogyny and other self-destructive and violent forms of behaviour.

Rather than supporting generalizations against all Muslims, we should treat the various manifestations of violent extremism as we would any other mental health problem or crime

These families espoused these views because of the tensions created by the clash between their native cultures and their adopted one. Luckily for those young men, they learned to reconcile their religious identity with a candid assessment of their cultural identity, helping them divert themselves from the sort of mental and psychological breakdown that might have led them to violence.

Many cultural factors influence how we behave — and religion is interpreted as reflection of the culture in which it is observed, not the other way around. Most known extremists and terrorists are anything but spiritual and devout individuals. They tend to be broken people — empty shells with weak personalities and low self-esteem, carrying emotional baggage from childhood, from growing up in unbalanced families.

So what’s the solution? Rather than supporting generalizations against all Muslims, we should treat the various manifestations of violent extremism as we would any other mental health problem or crime. Steps should be taken to train and equip parents to recognize signs of mental illness, as well as the subtleties of unstable behaviour patterns, and to take the proper measures to have their child’s condition diagnosed and treated.

Fearmongering and victimization are counterproductive — they amount to sticking our heads in the sand regarding the effect of cultural pressures and alienation. Recognizing the influences of the various cultures from which we come can circumvent the development of more fringe psychotics and prevent future acts of heinous violence.

On that note, I would like to add that the “scholar from Iran” who spoke at a mosque outside Orlando about three months ago — who described the “killing of homosexuals” an act of “compassion” — is someone whose views are deeply disturbing to me, especially considering the cool, calm way he talks about mass murder. I would say his demeanor reminds me more of the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s’ Psycho than of any learned Islamic scholar.


 

Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca

Published in Commentary

by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga

Canadian authors of faith-based fiction say seeking answers in religion to the injustices of their pasts enhances their creativity and inspires their literary work.

A group of authors explained how their spiritual backgrounds influence the creation and shape of their stories during a discussion titled “Faith and Fiction” at the recent Festival of Literary Diversity held in Brampton, Ont.

Confronting injustice

Growing up, panellist Zarqa Nawaz says she questioned the divider that separates women from men at the mosque.

“It seemed to me, as a child, very fundamentally unfair,” says Nawaz, creator of the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie.

She says that while faith is an important part of her life, gender inequality caused a disruption for her until she created the documentary Me in the Mosque.

“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex.”

During her research, she discovered that in Islamic history, there was a section of the mosque for men, a section for women, and a third section for people that define as a third sex.

“We had such progressive views centuries ago when it came to not just women, but the third sex,” she says.

Nawaz grew up reading memoirs and watching documentaries on feminist struggles of different faiths and cultures. She says her understanding of prejudice against women is not limited to any faith, but is in fact a “universal theme.”

“Getting away from faith doesn’t mean that you get away from prejudice,” she says.

She describes an incident in which a Hijab-wearing Muslim girl was barred from going to school in France, where prominent religious symbols are banned in grade schools. 

“How is it different from the Taliban?” Nawaz asks.

She says such injustices provoke her to fight back by raising awareness through her work.

For Ayelet Tsabari, fiction is a place to question the existence of God.

Tsabari grew up in Israel and says believing in God in the Jewish religion was something that she never questioned until her father, who she describes as a pious man, passed away when she was nine years old.

She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.

She developed a belief that when a person dies, so does God and that is why he was not there to save her father.

“That was something that sort of made sense to me as a child,” says Tsabari.

She describes this loss as a crisis of faith, which has inspired her writing. Tsabari’s book The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

“My characters are facing either crises of faith or there is a clash within family over the issues of faith,” she says about the book.

Finding role models

Vivek Shraya says while she does not follow Hinduism anymore, Hindu mythology from a feminist lens has inspired her work. She returned to Hinduism in search of role models for her writing, which she lacked in her own life as a child.

As a queer artist and writer, she says she aims to counter genderphobia, or fear of gender-nonconforming individuals, in her work. She puts particular emphasis on the God Krishna and says she believes that she has an intimate connection with this role model.

Shraya adds that male Gods who have long hair, wear jewellery, and are friends with girls help her relate to the genderphobia she experienced in school.

“It seems to be a common theme throughout my work, because its one of the first places where I felt that I [could] see myself,” explains Shraya.

Shraya’s debut novel, She of the Mountains, has two narratives – one is a contemporary bi-sexual love story, and the other is about re-imagining Hindu mythology and its illustrations.

“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community . . .”

Reclaiming history

Panellist Cherie Dimaline is a member of the Georgian Bay Métis community in Ontario. Her books Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy and A Gentle Habit reflect on indigenous people’s connections with the land. 

“That’s what we base our understanding of spirituality on,” she says.

Dimaline says she learned to practise a version of the Roman Catholic faith infused with First Nations beliefs – what she describes as a “mixing and melting of understandings.”   

“It was a very mixed, but also very structured upbringing,” she says.

Along with the influence of the church, Dimaline says she was also privileged to grow up with her grandmother who was the story keeper of the community.

When young Dimaline was selected to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, the responsibility of preserving her community’s memories – seven generations back and seven generations to the future – fell on her shoulders.

“The story keepers reach back and reach forward and weave together those words that provided a blanket for our community of safety and understanding of our spirituality,” she explains. “The base of the understandings and world views that we have come from that faith.”


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

When Sheema Khan told audience members at the Aga Khan Museum that the men sitting at one of her last lectures refused to face her, the entire room cringed.

Khan, a Globe & Mail columnist, author and women’s activist, says that she became a activist and feminist because of the Muslim community and this kind of behaviour.

For Aga Khan’s lecture series “Islam in the 21st Century,” Khan spoke on the challenges and opportunities of being a woman, muslim and Canadian. 

Known for her fiery columns and controversial discussions on the perception of women in the Islamic community, Khan centred her talk around her latest book “Of Hockey and Hijab: New Reflections.”

Dr. Ruba Kana’an, head of Education and Scholarly Programs at Aga Khan, organized the event that had 250 audience members in attendance.

The topic was chosen amongst many that the Aga Khan visiting survey uncovered, but Kana’an said such a controversial topic was sure to pique the interest of many people within and outside of the Muslim community.

“The issues of women, gender [equality] and the perception of women [are] questions we always ask,” says Kana’an. “It’s important to address these issues especially with how much misconception and misunderstanding there is between patriarchy and religion. It’s a topic to bring to the public.”

Muslim women’s unhappiness in Canada

The highlights of Khan’s lecture related to the statistics that started off her talk, which she used to discuss how unhappy and targeted Muslim-Canadian women felt.

In the Environics Survey 2016, 42 per cent of Muslim women said they felt discriminated against. Of that percentage, 60 per cent wore a head covering and 40 per cent did not. Compare this to Muslim men, of whom only 27 per cent said they experienced discrimination.

Khan says this treatment leads Muslim women in Canada to be unhappy and concerned. 

“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims. They are far more pessimistic than men are,” she says. “They worry about how Muslims are portrayed in the media, stereotyping their neighbours and wondering if the the next generation will face more difficulties than they do. ”

“More Muslim women than men worry about how Canadians view Muslims."

One of the members of the audience, Judy Csillag, who has been doing interfaith and intercultural work for over 35 years, says that these worries could stem from the fact that mothers and women see how prejudice affects their children more than the men.

“Khan spoke a lot about how women don’t go to the mosque as much as men do. They are usually at home with the kids and involved in their children’s life,” Csillag says.  

To the contrary, Khan says part of the reason why Muslim men are happier is because they aren’t seen as inferior in Islamic society.

Experiences drive desire for change

Khan recalled a few experiences in her lifetime where she felt that men refused to acknowledge her as a scholar and speaker.

One circumstance, Khan recalls, happened in 1996 in Quebec. She was preparing to  speak at a Unity Dinner — a function put together by the Islamic community to address inequality in their community — when she heard that the more Conservative mosque had rejected the idea of having her speak. 

They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.

“One of my muslim colleagues said, ‘Sheema don’t take it personally, it’s not you they’re against, it’s just women in general,’” Khan repeats, laughing with the audience.

She says that the views that conservative Muslim men have of women stems from their ignorance of the roles of women during the prophetic era. 

They didn’t think a women should speak in public, she explains.

“There was one scholar, the late Abduhalim Abu Shaqqa: he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He [performed] very valuable research on Islamic women, which unfortunately is ignored in the Muslim world,” Khan explains.

“It took him ten years, but he looked at every single verse and narration that had to deal with women and, in conclusion, he found that the way women participated in society during the best era and generation is very different from what we see today in the Muslim world.”

The importance of women in the conversation

Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants looking to locate their experiences within a Canadian context. 

“One of the things that we are noticing [. . .] is that there is a happiness in the awareness of students, that they gain a sense that they matter, their history matters and that there is a worthwhile contribution they’ve made to the world at large,” she explains.

Csillag agrees, saying that as a refugee from Hungary, it was hard for her to settle in Canada.

Kana’an says that hearing these stories is important for young immigrants.

“[How] pleased my heart is that women are starting to take the stage, and Aga Khan has been a godsend for women speaking as equals,” she comments. “What was fantastic is that so much of the audience is not Muslim, so people are reaching out and wanting to learn.”

For Csillag and Khan both, educating the younger generation is of utmost importance in order to fight radicalization and misconceptions.

 

“Being treated as an inferior human being is something no one should go through” says Khan. “I decided that I had to fight back. And by pushing back that’s how I gained my self respect. I’ve created a lot of controversy in my community, and I don’t mind because I’m thinking of the next generation.”

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

Commentary by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto

Followers of Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda may never admit it, but the election victory of Sadiq Khan as mayor of a city as great  and in their eyes Islamophobic  as London was a slap in the face.

Like the time Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would welcome one million Syrian refugees, and when the Pope called on Europe’s Catholics to open their homes to refugees, Islamists are at risk of losing all credibility.

The success of these extremists, after all, thrives on disproportionate military reprisals, sectarian discord, and deeply engrained Islamophobia in Western societies. So the mere thought of a Muslim winning (Khan was born to parents who immigrated to London from Pakistan) over the most hearts and minds of a non-Muslim population, or of Christian ‘infidels’ opening up their homes to Muslims, challenges their narrative.

It’s worth recalling that a big part of ISIS’s recruitment strategy is posting lectures and videos online with  ideologues dictating that killing the enemies of Islam— meaning the United States and its allies — is a religious duty for every Muslim. Often, they cite U.S. military action in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel as evidence of America’s strategic ‘war’ with Islam. They also play on the insecurities of young recruits by telling them that Muslims in the West would never be accepted into mainstream society.

And given the rise of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – and increase of far-right parties coming to power across Europe — it’s not impossible to see how vulnerable, disaffected youth could fall into that sort of warped mindset.

2005 London bombings

But while Trump anti-Muslim rhetoric has never been louder, so too have the voices of ordinary Muslims, though not necessarily in the way one might expect.

Many Canadians will remember the anger, confusion and backlash that Muslims, South Asians — literally anyone who even remotely resembled a Muslim or Arab -- faced from their own friends, neighbours or colleagues after the September 11, 2001 attacks in America. A deep climate of mistrust against the community ensued, which for some only gets worse with every new terror attack on Western soil.

I recall that it was amid this climate that Sadiq Khan first entered the political scene in Britain as an elected MP for Tooting in east London. 

As a graduate student in London in 2005, the year four British-born Muslims bombed the London Underground, I heard pundits all wanting to know the same thing: Where are all the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims? Why aren’t all the so-called peace-loving Muslims living in London condemning these barbaric attacks?

I also heard voices like Sadiq Khan and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (then the Vice Chair of the Conservative Party) fiercely condemn the attacks and disassociate them with the actual tenets of the faith, to no avail.  As much as people demanded answers from the Muslim community— and Muslims responded in the same unequivocal voice of condemnation every time – it made no difference. The terrorists still seemed to be louder. 

11 years on

What’s changed, 11 years on? Some would argue nothing.

Terrorists continue to slaughter innocents and billionaire conservative politicians continue to incriminate an entire global community for the abhorrent actions of a few. What has changed in the most profound sense is that Muslims are no longer seen (or at least solely) as a fifth column.

The voice of the ordinary, ‘moderate’ Muslim is heard more than ever — not as spokespeople who can denounce the ways terrorists justify their acts through the Quran — but as engaged citizens and leaders paving the way forward in a world that we all want to become more inclusive and tolerant. 

Last year, we saw Canadian Muslims unite strategically for the first time in a non-partisan, grassroots organization to achieve a single goal: Increasing the participation of Canadian Muslims within the democratic process.

This, along with the opposition’s crude anti-Muslim strategy not unlike Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan’s competitor from the UK Conservative Party, played a key role in bringing Justin Trudeau’s pro-immigration party to power.

Drop ‘Muslim’ descriptor

We’ve also seen Maryam Monsef, who came to Canada an as Afghan refugee, sworn in as Minister of Democratic Institutions in Trudeau’s cabinet, and Ginella Massa, a hijab-clad journalist, become an on-camera reporter for Toronto news network CityTV. 

Britons, too, have seen a rise in British Muslims taking centre stage, from national baking contests to professional sports.  

None of these people ever condemned the abhorrent actions of the so-called Islamic State during their moments in the spotlight, simply because it wasn’t their place. They are all skilled professionals or athletes in their own right, recognized as Muslims, but celebrated for their extraordinary skills that contribute to all of society. 

That’s the way it should be.

Muslims are no different from anyone else, and for that reason, their successes should be commended no more, nor less than anyone else’s. Perhaps, the next step in fostering genuine equity in society is for news outlets to drop the ‘Muslim’ reference altogether.


Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Humber College. She holds an MA Middle Eastern Studies and has previously worked at BBC News in London, Al Jazeera English and CBC News. 

Published in Commentary

by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver, British Columbia

Identity determines how we value ourselves and how others perceive us. Its significance has increased with globalization, migration and technological advancements. Many people today consider themselves to have multiple identities, while others are happy with a single identifier.

In The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self, a book edited by Nurjehan Aziz, 12 authors grapple with the idea of Islamic identity in Canada.

Panel discussions on the book have been held throughout Canada, including in Vancouver.

The book documents the everyday lives of several Canadian Muslims. Some authors write about their own experiences, others about the Muslim community in Canada. Some essays are written in an academic style, while others are personal narratives.

Islam in post-Harper Canada

Almost every chapter criticizes the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “targeting” or “scapegoating” Muslims for political gain. 

Haroon Siddiqui’s chapter, “Anti-Muslim Bigotry Goes Official — Canada’s Newest Dark Chapter,” deals with the experiences of Muslims under the Harper government.

He presents a list of what he calls “Islamophobic” actions, speeches, policies or legislation undertaken by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, immigration ministers Chris Alexander and Jason Kenney, and other Conservative members of Parliament and senators.

Ihsaan Gardee and Amira Elghawaby call on Canadian Muslims to reclaim their identities and reframe harmful narratives that were on the verge of becoming mainstream under the Conservative government.

This requires active civic engagement from Canadian Muslims, something that has increased thanks in part to groups such as Canadian-Muslim Vote and the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Authors debate Muslim identity

“My sense of Muslim identity may not be another’s definition of what a Muslim ought to be and it also may not be in line with scripture and sacred text.”

In some instances, one author in the book responds to the concerns or questions raised by another. Safia Fazlul says she “lives on the fringe of being ‘somewhat liberal Canadian’ and ‘somewhat conservative Muslim South Asian.’”

Her inability and unwillingness to live strictly in one category led her to be discriminated against and excluded by “both liberal and secular Canadians and traditional Muslim Canadians.” People do not accept her even though she is comfortable with her multiple identities.

Ameen Merchant, on the other hand, raises a valid point about subjectivity and somewhat ignores the opinions of others about his relationship with Islam.

“My sense of Muslim identity may not be another’s definition of what a Muslim ought to be and it also may not be in line with scripture and sacred text,” he writes. "Then again, my subjectivity is also not anyone else’s. It is multifarious absorbent, and always subject to change. And it is my own.”

Mohamed Abualy Alibhai’s suggestion that Muslims in North America “abandon the belief in the verbal revelation of the Qur'an,” mirrors arguments raised by activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, mainly that the literal understanding of the Qur'an must be “reformed or discarded.”

Alibhai and Hirsi Ali are in agreement on their understanding of controversial topics such as jihad, sharia and the importance of the afterlife in Islam.

…we need Muslim reformist thinkers to use Islam to fight against radical interpretations of the religion.

Furthermore, Alibhai advocates for a conscience-based Islamic denomination, as if it does not exist. However, a look at Karim H. Karim’s chapter illustrates how Aga Khan, the Imam or spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, has been doing what Alibhai argues is needed.

“The Islamic leader presents the concepts of ethics, democracy, development, meritocracy, pluralism and quality of life as some of the ‘brides that unite’ ways of understanding that are religious and secular,” writes Karim about Aga Khan.

The Ismaili leader’s ideas of the Qur'an underlie his discourse, but he rarely makes overt religious references in his speeches.

At the same time, Alibhai is dismissive of Muslim reformist thinkers who reinterpret the Islamic texts to accommodate the realities of modern life. Monia Mazigh’s chapter, for example, illustrates how Islamic discourses can be invoked to disprove the notion of men’s perceived superiority over women.

Interpreting modern Islam

There are different ways to convince different people of the same issue. You can argue that robbery is socially unacceptable, morally reprehensible, illegal, or against your religion. Each one of those arguments is valid depending on the audience. The argument based on religion is more appealing to a religious person.

In the same vein, we need Muslim reformist thinkers to use Islam to fight against radical interpretations of the religion.

Some of the authors identify as “inconsistent Muslim” or “cultural Muslim,” however, we do not see a representation from an “observant Muslim” – those who may imprecisely be called conservative or traditional Muslims.

These are the proud Canadian Muslims who follow all Islamic laws and traditions and believe that they can also be civically engaged Canadians.

Furthermore, three of the authors are of Arab origin and the rest are South Asian. The Muslim community in Canada is much more diverse and the overwhelming majority of them are not represented in this book.

Overall, Aziz’s book is a success as it represents a segment of an underrepresented group of Canadian citizens: Muslims who are spoken, about but rarely given the chance to speak for themselves.

Alireza Ahmadian is a Vancouver-based writer and researcher. He has a Masters of Arts in International Affairs and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian to discuss world affairs and is published on online forums such as New Canadian Media, BBC, and foreign policy blogs.


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books
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