A "diaspora Muslim"? – Not I!

Canada is my country, the country of my family, and of my extended family. We are proud to belong here.

So I cringe whenever I hear the term "diaspora Muslim" and defy anyone to label me as such.

Why do I find the idea so upsetting? Let me explain.

One Friday last summer, I gave the Friday "khotba" or sermon, in a large Toronto mosque. As part of my talk, I encouraged the congregation to work with other faith groups in convincing our governments to do more to eliminate child poverty and homelessness in Canada. Although we do not know exactly what percentage of the poor and homeless are Muslims, it does not really matter. I called this "an Islamic issue of the first order" and gave references from the Qur’an and traditions (hadith) of the Prophet to support my statement.

After the sermon, one worshiper approached me angrily, demanding, “Do you want us to support single mothers?" I was shocked at such an attitude. Unfortunately, it seems that some Canadian Muslims insist upon thinking and behaving as if they are foreign to this country, and when challenged to truly engage with Canadian issues, these self-revealed "diaspora" Muslims become very defensive.

Recently, I overheard two Canadian Muslim teenagers, chatting and joking together on their way to Friday prayers. “How many times today do you think the Imam will call Canada a bad country where drug abuse, homosexuality, illicit sex, and gambling are widespread?” asked the first. “Too many," answered the second. "But he will say it more often in a language we do not understand.”

Sadly, that teen’s comment is all too true. At many Canadian Muslim conferences, the majority of invited speakers are indeed foreigners, most of whom know little about the unique context of being a Muslim in Canada, and who are apt to treat us as dispersed from somewhere else — diaspora Muslims.

And that same diaspora mentality is also evident among our established communities, for among the most pressing issues on the minds of many Canadian Muslims are the liberation struggles of their coreligionists in distant nations such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir; or human rights issues in Europe (e.g. France); and movements for improved democracy in many other countries. These are all important concerns, but they should not displace those here at home either.

The situation is even worse in the U.S. None of America’s national Muslim NGOs ever call on their governments to address a host of important domestic social justice issues. They do not challenge, for example, the fact that there more than 30 million Americans without health care, that inner city crime continues to erode citizens’ safety, that child poverty is rampant, or that the economic chasm between rich and poor continues to grow at an alarming rate.

Canadian Muslims are admittedly a small minority amid the general population, but we are still the largest non-Christian faith group in the country, whose immigrant roots represent some 40 distinct national, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. Today, more than fifty per cent of us are Canadian-born.

A Muslim in the U.S. is usually identified as a Black Muslim; in France, most are labelled as North Africans; in Britain many are seen as either East Indian or Pakistani; and in Germany, they are identified mainly as Turks. But such is not the case here. In our unique and dynamically challenging environment, the Canadian Muslim is just that — a Canadian Muslim.

Since it is our destiny to be in Canada — some of us by choice, some by birth — we must be able to live here fully as Muslims and fully as national citizens, not by the standards or perceptions of Islamic communities in, say, India, Egypt, or Bosnia. While much in those communities is worthy of our admiration and respect, there is also much that is not relevant or authentic to life in Canada.

Muslims themselves can do a great deal more to assert and affirm their cultural, social and political membership in the larger Canadian community, so that others will ultimately recognize them as far more than marginal actors in the unfolding drama of Western civilization. This will not be accomplished by creating insular "comfort zones" or enclaves called Islam. In fact, the building of ghettos — physically, culturally or socially — is Islamically unacceptable. It not only goes against the teachings of the Qur’an, but also against the known practices of our Prophet Muhammed, and of hundreds of years of Islamic history.

Withdrawing into sheltered or closed communities that try to emulate the Islamic societies of other times and places can only offer a false sense of security, creating a culture of pseudo-diaspora Muslims. Meanwhile, other Canadians will move ahead to capture the political, moral and cultural high ground of the new millennium. That’s where I want to be — not in the twilight of exclusionist thinking.

A "diaspora Muslim"? — Not I!