Who is the Canadian Muslim?

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In the aftermath of the horrific September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, Muslim communities from coast to coast put aside their fear and opened masjids (mosques) to the Canadian public, helping to teach in a real and human way that Islam in Canada has a face — and it is often the familiar face of our next-door neighbors.

Islam is a Canadian religion. While Canadian Muslims are a small minority of about 650,000, they are still the largest non-Christian minority in the country, comprising a wide variety of immigrants from some 40 different national, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, more then fifty per cent are Canadian-born. Not surprising then, Muslim identity in Canada has been influenced both by this country — a nation with a comparatively young history, occupying a huge and ruggedly diverse land-mass — and by the self-perceptions of its Muslim immigrants.

And if questions about identity and self-definition still occupy a prominent place in the minds of Canadians, those same issues pose an even greater challenge to Canada’s Muslims.

A Muslim in the U.S. is usually identified as a Black Muslim, while in France he or she will likely be a North African, in Britain an East Indian or Pakistani, and in Germany, a Turk. But such is not the case in Canada. Here, in a unique and dynamically challenging environment, the Canadian Muslim is just that — a Canadian Muslim.

Canadian society presents both challenges and opportunities to its Muslim members. Since it is our destiny to be in Canada — some of us by choice and some by birth — we must be able to live here acccording to our faith; but not by the standards or perceptions of Islamic communities in, say, India, Egypt, or Bosnia.

Whether they form a minority or majority segment of society, Muslims historically have been able to create an Islamic culture suitable for their region. This has resulted over time in distinct Islamic societies developing among Arabs, Africans, Persians, East Indians, Malays, Chinese, Russians and Turks. But in Canada, Islam has not yet developed a truly national form of social and religious culture.

On the Indian subcontinent, for example, Muslims form a minority of some 300 million. That’s a very large population, but still a minority. Despite that minority status, however, they developed into one of the world’s greatest cultures, creating such architectural monuments as the world-famous Taj Mahal.

The challenge today in Canada is that we live in a society that is largely indifferent to religion per se. This is a challenge shared by those of all faiths who wish to fully practice their spirituality and pass it on to their children.

Canadian Muslims also suffer from a historical experience not shared by other religious minorities. The Holocaust, for example, created a favourable Western environment for Jews, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism are considered non-threatening to Christianity. But the case of Islam is different. It is often wrongly perceived as promoting a world view and ideology that are incompatible with Western values.

Yet the Islamic influence on Western European civilization has been at least as significant as that of Greece, Rome, or the Judeo-Christian tradition. Consider the following as points of illustration:

Where do Christians, to this day, still pray in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus Christ? In the ancient churches of Syria, a Muslim country.

Who saved millions of Jews from the Spanish Inquisition and Russian pogroms? European and African Muslims.

Which world religion makes it a core duty upon adherents to accept and respect people of other faiths? Islam.

Who was instrumental in building up the first Western “superpower” society which did not pose a threat to world peace and justice? Spanish Muslims.

Who contributed to the development of scientific advances from medicine to music, from philosophy to mathematics, from sociology to chemistry — all around the year 1000 C.E.? Muslims from every corner of the known world.

Which non-Romance language has contributed most to English vocabulary? Arabic, the tongue most widely spoken by the world’s Muslims in their prayers.

But until Canadians accept the idea that Islam is a Canadian religion and that their Muslim neighbours are virtually mirror opposites to images portrayed by the mass media, the entertainment industry, hate-mongering groups, Muslims with extreme views or by extreme right-wing politicians and evangelist preachers, distorted images of Islam and Muslims will continue to prevail in Canada.

Canadian Muslims themselves can do much to assert and affirm their cultural, social, political and spiritual 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.

Better than anyone, Canadian Muslims know that full membership in our multicultural society will not be accomplished by creating “comfort zones” 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 practices of our Prophet Muhammed and of hundreds of years of Islamic history.

Withdrawing into sheltered enclaves can give us only a false sense of security, while other Canadians move ahead to capture the political, moral, spiritual and cultural high ground.

We, Canada’s Muslims, are being watched. First and foremost, we are being watched by our Creator. Can we be faithful to His wishes to practice love and understanding? We are being watched also by our children. As parents, can we be both better Canadians and better Muslims? We are being watched by our fellow Canadians. Can we contribute culturally, socially and spiritually to the well-being of this great country? And, finally, we are being watched by our fellow Muslims and non Muslims worldwide. Can we contribute to global peace and justice?

The answer to all these questions should be an emphatic “YES” — we can, and the time is now.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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