By: Manaal Farooqi in Toronto, ON
One in every five Canadian women is born outside of the country. However, despite diverse ethnic backgrounds, many communities face discriminatory hurdles others may never witness in their lifetimes. This notion is only amplified in the case of Muslim immigrant women, who can experience challenges springing from multiple biases.
"Gendered Islamophobia" affects them in ways that are often left out of the wider conversation about the immigrant experience.
Whereas Islamophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam, gendered Islamophobia dissects the issue a step further by diving into more pointed signs of inequity. Muslim women may be victims of both sexism and Islamophobia, disadvantaging them as they navigate through schooling, employment and other public spaces.
But, ultimately, it could play a huge role in their overall sense of safety.
Muslim women, specifically those identifiable through religious headgear or prayer routines practiced in public, can be more prone to being victims due to their "visible" status. This has led to cases of assault as well as blatant displays of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Aima, a Pakistani Canadian Muslim woman who dons the niqab, has dealt with discrimination in both public spaces and at university as well. She would find herself consistently ignored in classrooms when she attempted to answer or ask a question during lectures; and when she was able to speak in class she found her answers were met with greater scrutiny, even when they were correct.
Other comments directed towards her included unwelcome discussions on forced marriage along with the fact that she’s been repeatedly told that she “[enjoys] so much freedom” for someone wearing a niqab. She adds that “my body will be policed and my choices scrutinized” for the expression of her faith and identity within today’s socio-political climate.
And she’s not alone, Shazlin, a Malaysian immigrant who once wore religious headgear, states she has had similar experiences, in addition to street harassment.
“Even talking about it now, it makes me angry that I was vulnerable and that I was made a victim in that moment when I know I have a lot more agency,” she says. She recalls one particular incident when on a walk with other visibly Muslim women in Toronto, a man verbally assaulted them and attempted to flick cigarette butts at them.
Regardless of what Islamophobes think, the comments and questions Muslim women face on an everyday basis eventually begin to take their toll. T.G*, who is an Ethiopian Muslim immigrant, has found that people often assume she lacks intellect, agency and knowledge of pop culture because of her hijab.
“I’m a walking encyclopedia on all the ethnicities, cultural expressions, and nuanced faith practices of the Muslim world,” T.G adds sarcastically. “We are expected to be the compassionate caretaker, teacher, and empathetic listener to all manners of ignorance about our faith. The brunt of the burden of flag-bearing for Islam falls on us – especially hijab-wearing Muslim women.”
Seeking a lower profile
But Muslim women who are more visibly ambiguous are not immune to similar experiences. As in the case of Safia*, an Arab-Canadian Muslim who does not wear any religious headgear such as the niqab or hijab. Yet, she constantly faces questions related to terrorist groups such as ISIS at her workplace.
One of her former coworkers even emailed her after the Orlando shooting with footage he had found of an Imam who seemed to have made homophobic comments. He wrote to her demanding, “We want answers. What is your community doing about this?"
No action was taken and the comments continued, despite the fact that Safia had made complaints to her immediate supervisor multiple times. In the absence of authoritative intervention, she weathers the harassment through therapy.
Sara*, a young professional of North African descent who doesn’t wear a hijab, has attempted to keep her religious affiliation from co-workers, out of fear that repercussions could affect future opportunities and her overall comfort at work.
Sara explains that her former employer would bring her news articles about honour killings in an attempt to make a correlation with her faith that would justify its relevance. The controversial articles forced her into a defensive position on a complex subject that she did not even agree with. Now she avoids questions about religion or her ethnicity to discourage unwelcome conversations.
These experiences only begin to highlight some of the situations Muslim women are faced with on a daily basis. The full impact it may have on their everyday interactions, ability to navigate public spaces or even in their careers remains immeasurable.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of these women
Manaal Farooqi is a writer and community organizer working on issues of violence against women and race. This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Commentary by: Mohamed Hammoud in London, ON
A little bit of racism is okay seems to be the message coming out of the runaway success that is Black Panther.
Let's all admit this is a great movie, a testament to a first in Hollywood where we can finally celebrate a black superhero. Movies need to bring in the crowds and cash at the box office, and with $192 million in the first week alone, Black Panther is doing just fine.
While great, it falls short, however briefly, by propagating Islamophobia.
Yes, the movie does a formidable job at breaking with some common stereotypes by celebrating African Blacks as noble warriors in the fictional technologically-advanced nation of Wakanda. The characters are robust and emotionally intelligent and visually captivating with their traditional wardrobe. There is even testament to #FemalePower with heroes like Shuri, who exudes witty brainpower as T'Challa, the main character’s little sister, and with the characters of Nakia and Okeye as strong, independent women warriors who can think for themselves and are even willing to sacrifice their personal affections for a greater cause and the common good of their people.
In the wake of #MeToo, director Ryan Coogler scores again with a reminder to the need for powerful women role models.
Yes, I'm sure we have all waited long for a movie to do this, especially since the lack of diversity at the 2016 Oscars where Coogler's Creed, starring a black man, was nominated, although the nominee at the time was a white man. Black Panther can be seen as redemption for Coogler in 2018, but while the box office hit attempts to break stereotypes, in the same Hollywood fashion we have seen before, it doesn't quite succeed at breaking them all, and, it could be argued that it perpetuates some while dispelling others.
American vs African Blacks
Marvel wowed us with woman power with Wonder Woman, and now it is trying to appease us with a black superhero. Undoubtedly, this should be seen as a win for all of us, not just the black community. And it is. But as much as we want to celebrate the victory of T'Challa, does the plot do enough for the cause of #BlackLives as a whole? With the conflict between the two panthers, T'Challa and his outcast cousin, Killmonger, there is a message that when it comes to blackness, the noble African community fares much better than its American counterpart, struggling to reclaim their rights and glory.
While all good stories need a riveting plot, this tale compromises the struggle of the underdog, Killmonger, at the expense of his more noble African cousin, T'Challa. Spoiler alert: if the ending tries to redeem this split between the two communities, it doesn't do enough to counter the stereotype of the American black man as a thug and gangster.
Pandering to Islamophobia
The debate around black characters is not the movie's only downfall: the net’s ablaze with debates about the movie's alleged Islamophobic undertones. The much-discussed segment comes near the beginning of the story where T'Challa saves Nakia. Here, we witness the only reference to Arabic speech and to Muslims in the movie, and not surprisingly, they remind us that the only Muslim in the storyline is a terrorist who kidnaps women captives in full hijab.
Further to this, the female captives are emancipated not once, but twice, when they are rescued by T'Challa and Nakia, and then again, when they remove their ever-oppressive headscarves. If, as many are quick to point out in these online discussions, in defence of the movie and to exonerate this passage from pandering to #Islamophobia, that this was a reference to Boko Haram, I'm not sure that the majority of the viewing audience would pick up on it.
Or that they would be able to detach the significance here of the movie adopting another Islamic expression into Hollywood’s terrorist vernacular – the mention of "Wallahi", a very sacred vow meaning "By God I will" and much stronger than the more common "Wallah". These examples are enough to assert that even a little bit of racism in an otherwise praiseworthy artistic endeavour is still a bit too much.
In sum, while Black Panther portrays a new black reality, it falls short of fighting negative stereotypes of the typical black American outcast criminal and the Muslim terrorist. While surely a step in the right direction for #BlackLivesMatter, we must be aware that this more about celebrating box office revenues than anything else. Let's not get carried away.
Mohamed Hammoud has been involved in various public speaking engagements focusing on interfaith as well as training on leadership, diversity and inclusion. He is also an active contributor to New Canadian Media and a member of the NCM Collective.
Commentary by: Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton, ON
It's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Quebec's National Assembly passed a bill that will require civil servants and members of the public seeking government services to have their faces uncovered. Known as Bill 62, this legislation will affect Muslim women who wear religious face coverings such as a Niqab or Burqa.
To be sure, this issue of Muslim women covering their faces is one that elicits very strong reactions, both from a rights and freedoms perspective as well as from the perspective of those in our society who view this religious practice with great suspicion and mistrust.
The reality in Canada today is if a woman chooses to cover her face to observe her religious traditions, our constitution protects her right to do so. Frankly, it's absurd to pass any law that is so obviously a violation of that constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, leaving me to openly question the motives of Quebec's lawmakers.
I was talking with an older, Roman Catholic friend of mine who, during a conversation on this very topic, recalled how, as a child, whenever his family attended mass, his mother had to either wear a hat that covered the majority of her head or wear a lace veil called a mantilla to cover her head. This Christian, Roman Catholic practice has not been altogether abandoned, with female dignitaries visiting the pope often pictured wearing black clothes and a mantilla to this day. One still sees the odd older woman wearing one to mas, but no one rushes to admonish her for observing a practice that has faded from popular use as the conventions of worship in that faith have evolved over time.
I also have strong feelings about this issue that come from my own personal experience as a member of a visible minority who, from time to time, has been subjected to "strong reactions" from people over my turban, or on those occasions when I wear traditional clothes or carry a kirpan — a ceremonial dagger. I well remember the doomsday predictions of blood and carnage that were made when observant Sikhs were permitted to wear their Kirpan in schools, places of employment and even courts of law. These are ceremonial, symbolic items, and none of the hysterical predictions of knife-wielding Sikhs running amok ever came to pass. Nor will they.
Bill 62, which the Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée describes as a first in North America, is the culmination of a long conflict in Quebec around the province's religious minorities that I personally view as an extension of the province's vigorous protection of its French language and culture that makes them suspicious of those whose behavior or beliefs they perceive as a threat to their "Frenchness."
Meanwhile, those who are critical of Bill 62 are left with few details of how the law would be applied in a variety of circumstances, as the regulations have yet to be written, and municipalities such as Montreal that are blatantly opposed to this bill are demanding to be exempted from it. The law poses serious challenges, such as potentially pitting nurses and doctors — and their professional standards of practice that require they provide medical service to all patients who present themselves for care — against the law, which essentially forbids them to provide that care to a woman whose face is covered.
To many people who view these "foreign customs" through the lens of Western sensibilities, women choosing to cover their face or their body is at best a curious practice, or at worst a practice of dangerous and suspect motives hiding behind orthodox religious convention. Even within Islam, the practice of wearing the niqab can be controversial, with some Muslim scholars expressing the opinion that it is not required, while others assert their opinion that it is.
Mandatory, not mandatory — to those women who do wear the niqab or burqa it is clearly a requirement to them as they choose to interpret their religion and, ultimately, our constitution guarantees them that choice. If we can successfully deprive these women of that choice, then I believe we can deprive our citizens of just about any choice. This is not freedom, it is oppression. And it is not worthy of Canada.
Brampton-based Surjit Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer who has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, Toronto Sun and other publications. He is a member of the New Canadian Media Collective.
Commentary by: Fred Maroun in Ottawa
Quebec recently passed a law banning face coverings for people delivering or receiving public services, which has re-ignited the debate across Canada on banning the burqa and niqab.
Some people, such as Idil Issa, have accused Quebec’s politicians of going after Muslims because they are a minority and an easy target. Knowledge of Quebec history and culture, however, contradicts that accusation.
Quebec’s strong liberal values
Quebec is by far the most progressive province in Canada. Its two main parties are centrist (the Liberal Party of Quebec) and centre left (the Bloc Quebecois) whereas all other provinces have strong conservative parties. Quebec’s support for same-sex marriage is at 78%, possibly a world record. Quebec is a striving multicultural and diverse society.
Quebec was the only Canadian province to undergo a revolution (albeit a non-violent one, aptly named the Quiet Revolution) against religious and political conservatism.
There is a problem when women live in a society as liberal as Quebec and yet feel the need to comply with some of the most conservative and patriarchal religious rules ever invented. The fact that many Quebecers recognize this as a problem is not a symptom of intolerance.
When Quebec’s new law is discussed, the discussion invariably drifts towards the face covering of some Muslim women due to a version of Islam that is highly sexist and regressive, commonly referred to as Islamism. The concern of citizens is clearly not face coverings in the abstract but the religious radicalism that it implies.
I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Muslims were already the majority, and yet I never saw a woman with her face covered in public, even in Muslim neighborhoods. Several members of my family grew up in Egypt and make the same observation. With the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the niqab and the burqa are now often seen in the streets of Cairo.
Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, wrote, “[I] never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. […] But in the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent that is passed off to naïve and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians as an essential Islamic practice”.
Islamism is the opposite of social liberalism. Whereas liberalism aims to achieve for women equal rights and opportunities, Islamism considers women inferior and expects them to be subservient. The infiltration of Islamist values into Canadian society can only send chills into the backs of liberals.
A political hot potato
There are however no easy answers to fighting Islamism in Canada since we also value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and personal choice. A ban on face coverings can be seen as a patriarchal imposition on women who may in theory choose to cover their faces. And if a husband prevents his wife from leaving the house with her face uncovered, a ban may transform her house into a jail.
Politicians try to avoid complex issues, and the growth of Islamism in liberal societies is undoubtedly a complex issue. Quebec politicians deserve credit for at least trying. Federal politicians refuse to even talk about it.
During the Conservative leadership campaign, Kellie Leitch attempted to bring forward a proposal to defend Canadian values by asking some tough questions of potential immigrants, but she faced strong opposition even within her party. After Andrew Scheer won the leadership, he left Leitch out of his shadow cabinet and gave another former candidate, Lisa Raitt, the position of deputy leader even though Leitch received almost twice as many votes as Raitt on the first ballot.
The federal Liberal Party and the NDP stay even farther away than their conservative counterparts from fighting Islamism. Almost all Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs), all NDP MPs, and a small number of Conservative MPs passed a vague motion condemning “Islamophobia” without defining its meaning, which could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism of Islamism.
Demagogues could fill the void
While I never saw burqas and niqabs in Lebanon, I see them now in Ottawa, far too often. Such occurrences are frequent reminders to Canadians that the issue of Islamism is not a faraway problem but a local one.
Canada has no leading politician resembling Donald Trump at the moment, but neither did the U.S. until two years ago. Then Trump barged into the political scene and raised issues that Americans were concerned about, such as Islamic terrorism, issues that other politicians were afraid to discuss.
There are likely more significant reasons why Trump was elected, but his willingness to be politically incorrect was undoubtedly one of the attributes that attracted voters to him. We see such a phenomenon occurring in parts of Europe as well, such as Germany where the extreme right has significantly weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominance.
Politicians must find the courage to ask the politically incorrect questions, even when they do not have all the answers, so that intelligent solutions can emerge. If competent politicians ignore the challenge, demagogues may take advantage of the vacuum and propose ill-conceived populist ideas, which is the last thing we need.
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for The Times of Israel.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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/
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/
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit