We must speak out against hatred and those who preach it


A call to arms for moderate Muslims – Published in Toronto Star Apr. 2, 2004.
We must speak out against hatred and those who preach it, By Raheel Raza

The recent raids in Britain that resulted in the arrests of nine men of Pakistani heritage and the subsequent raid at the home of a Canadian in Ottawa, are cause for grave concern. Concern not just about the credibility of the RCMP (after their bungling over the arrest of 19 Pakistanis where no terrorism charges were proven), but concern about the future of Muslims in Canada.

As a Muslim Canadian, my work within and outside my community has suddenly become an enormous challenge.

Wednesday I was invited to address a church group in Etobicoke as part of my inter-faith outreach. The topic, naturally, was Islam. The audience was familiar with the basics of Islam. They were more interested in knowing how I, as a Canadian Muslim, experience religion in my life and how Islam relates to other faiths.

I spoke about the Islam that I love and respect — the Islam that I learned and practised in Pakistan and now in Canada; the Islam of the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad that instilled respect for all humanity; that is a moral and ethical code and, above all, values justice. I also talked about my children who are caring, believing Canadian Muslims.

Afterwards, people asked me about diversity within Islam. I said there are various paths that lead to God — the same God of the Jews and Christians whom we call Allah.

One person asked me how difficult it is to practise Islam in Canada. I told her that as a Muslim woman I can practise my faith more easily in Canada than I can in many Muslim countries where extremism and a warped ideology have taken over the norms of respect and tolerance. I pointed out that I’m a Sunni married to a Shia and noted that my kids are fondly called “Sushis.”

At the end of my presentation, a perturbed looking woman, a teacher, asked to speak to me privately. She explained that she has many Muslim students so she decided to learn about Islam by attending classes at a Toronto mosque.

“Everything they told me at the mosque is at odds with what you are saying here today … you talk about similarities between Muslims and `people of the book’; they said there is no point of reference for Muslims and non-Muslims. When I asked about the different sects — because my students are from diverse denominations — they said that Shias, Ismailis and Ahmedis are not Muslims. You talk about finding liberation and freedom as a woman within Islam, but at the mosque the women weren’t even allowed to speak.

“You’ve blown my mind. Why isn’t a narrative like yours being heard all over Canada?”

I replied that my views are those of the silent majority who unfortunately are just that — silent. But after the spiralling events of Madrid, Britain and now Ottawa, we can no longer remain silent.

So, my concern and my question to the Canadian Muslim community is, “Why is the narrative of extremism taking precedent over voices of sanity and sense? How is the culture of extremism being kept alive in Canada and what are we going to do about it?”

Let’s step back for a moment. Never in the history of the world as I know it, has there been such extensive dissection, dialogue and discussion about a faith as Islam post-Sept. 11, 2001.

Overnight, anyone who could say “Muslim” became an expert on Islam. Muslims were stripped naked by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Oriana Fallaci. Some local Muslims made a name for themselves by pointing out the trouble with Islam.

In this atmosphere rampant with distrust and fear, people became confused. As a Muslim involved in doing “damage control,” it was time to go back to the books and read, which is the first message of the Qur’an.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many Muslim scholars and intellectuals spoke out and we were exposed to books and writings by leading-edge thinkers such as Khaled Abou el Fadl, Dr. Abdul Aziz Sachedina and Canadian professor Amir Hussain.

More importantly for me, women’s voices were being heard,such as Amina Wadud.

It was prime time for interfaith outreach and the United Church of Canada took the lead in Muslim-Christian solidarity by working on a document called That We May Know Each Other. We started to build bridges of understanding and fellow Canadians realized that it’s not about Islam and the West but Muslims in the West. These Muslims are under massive pressure since 9/11 and have faced a severe backlash.

But other communities have reached out and vice-versa. Recently, when the Jewish community was victimized, Muslims stood by them and supported them in their cause. There was hope on the horizon.

That hope is dashed every time a Muslim is allowed to indulge in hate propaganda and polemics. There is a problem when my university-going son asks why Muslim student associations spout venom against non-Muslims. There is cause for concern when anti-American rhetoric becomes the flavour of the month and justifies a different kind of polemic.

All this has to stop. But how?

The Muslim Council of Britain has taken the unprecedented step of writing to every British mosque, urging people to help in the fight against terror. A Rand report published last week says that Americans must give precedent to progressive and moderate Muslim voices.

In Canada we have to do the same. But this effort must come from both sides. Officials dealing with terrorism have to ensure that they have the evidence and that due judicial processes are followed. They have to build alliances with Muslims and create credibility.

At the same time it’s imperative for Muslims to speak out against human rights violations and take urgent action to see that terrorism, extremism and anti-Western propaganda are eliminated.

In Canada, we must take back the mosques to ensure that the voices of reasonable Muslim men and women are heard over the stringent calls for a physical jihad.

Our jihad is to ensure that Canada remains a safe and peaceful environment for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Raheel Raza is a media consultant and freelance writer.