The tragic events of September 11 have resulted in a number of disturbing “post-9-11” syndromes. The scale of this horrific event hit Muslims hard everywhere, but especially those minorities living in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.
Before September 11, the Canadian Muslim community was a community “under construction.” It was seeking its own identity, seeking to be truly Canadian and truly Muslim at the same time. This surprisingly diverse community is also relatively young, even against Canada’s comparatively recent cultural emergence.
More 650,000 Muslims, about half of them born here, call Canada home. But beyond that leading statistic, few non-Muslims know a great deal else about us. Far from being a monolithic, homogenous, one-size-fits- all faith, there are more than 50 ways to describe and differentiate us — by gender, ethnic origin, mother tongue, country of origin, level of Islamic practice, education, vocation, dress code, economic status, to name only a few.
The post-9-11 era shows that while our community is struggling to reduce its present and future susceptibility to victimization, under such draconian legislations as Bill C-36, and to combat negative stereotyping in the print and electronic media, Canadian Muslims must also deal with problems of “friendly fire” from within. Consider the following examples:
1. I’M MODERATE, “THEY” ARE NOT
With the widespread use of inflammatory terms such as “Muslim extremist” and the media’s challenge, “where are all the moderates?” some Muslims have responded by asserting loudly and frequently that they are Moderates and then (perhaps to attract maximum media exposure) they’ve gone a step further to designate everyone else outside their views as “extremist.”
2. I’M OK, DON’T BOTHER ME
Some Canadian Muslims don’t want to hear bad news about what is happening to other Muslims in this country. Instead of becoming proactive in the cause of just treatment of their fellow Canadian Muslims, they back off and take refuge in self-protection, saying “I’m okay, my family is okay, so don’t bother me… If other Muslims are being victimized in this country, they must deserve it.” Some would even help refugees in Afghanistan but not fellow Canadian Muslims. Need I say more about how discouraging such an attitude is?
3. ANYTHING YOU CAN DO, WE CAN DO BETTER
When an issue of national and international urgency arises, a few “lone rangers” emerge from every community and interest group and rush into action, regardless of whether or not it duplicates ongoing work already in place. Canadian Muslims are no different. Such hasty reaction, in place of considered and collective effort, can only undermine what has already been achieved through established national Muslim organizations. Our public voice and profile will not be enhanced by those afflicted with the “we can do it too, even better” syndrome.
4. HE/SHE IS A SCHOLAR, AND YOU ARE NOT
The term “scholar” is well-defined as pertaining to individuals who spend their lives studying a specific topic and, over time, become world experts on it. A leading scholar is one credited with many publications — perhaps hundreds of books and research papers — and whose public profile has been built upon thousands of guest speeches, academic courses, professional seminars, etc. Above all, a scholar is someone identified as such by his or her peers, the toughest criterion of all. A good public speaker or an admired social activist is not necessarily a scholar. Not surprisingly, if you apply such standards of scholarly achievement to Muslims in North America specializing in the study of Islam, you will end up with a mere handfull. But the post-9-11 era seems suddenly to have produced “scholars” by the hundreds. It’s regrettable that Muslims are using the term so loosely — and it’s ironic that early Islam was instrumental in actually defining the essence of “scholarship” for the rest of the world. But perhaps the most insidious and dangerous “friendly fire” trend is here, in my last example —
5. BECAUSE HE/SHE IS A WHITE AMERICAN CONVERT, HE/SHE IS A “SCHOLAR”
Muslims are naturally gratified if people seeking a sound faith decide to convert to Islam. Some even use the term “revert” instead, because Muslims believe that every human being is born in a state of innocent submission to God — that is, in a state of “Islam” which is how Islam got its formal name. Muslims are also pleased if a new convert comes from a group which has traditionally not attracted many new believers. Most converts to Islam in North America come from black and Christian communities. Therefore, converts who are white or of Jewish background often receive extra attention, praise, and encouragement. They are frequently offered leadership positions and are often called “scholars,” which can be dangerously misleading.
One such “prominent scholar” of Islam is a white American male who was invited to major events by hundreds of Islamic organizations. But he never authored a book on Islam. He is a good speaker, but he is not a scholar. In the post-9-11 era, however, he began capitalizing on a title incorrectly attributed and started presenting “scholarly” views about issues arising from last September’s tragedy. He was even consulted by the American government. And now our newly minted “scholar” has rallied followers in Canada, and is preaching what amounts to an Islamic cult. What’s in a “name” these days? Everything!
Another popular “scholar” is an American woman who converted to Islam from Judaism. The New York native has rejected everything American, left the U.S. to live in a Muslim country where she covers herself head-to-toe, and has proceeded to write books for Muslim readers telling them how bad America is.
I feel very strongly that Canadian Muslims (and North American ones as a whole, for that matter) don’t need either “scholar,” thank you very much. The first offers a distorted view of Islam, while the second offers a distorted view of the U.S. And neither is valid, despite the number of vulnerable and gullible people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — who are being influenced by their post-9-11 pronouncements.
The Qur’an gives due credit — no more, no less — to every human being on earth, regardless of religious affiliation. This is because the concept of justice is very central to the proper practice of Islam. Every Friday all over the world, Imams (prayer leaders), remind their congregations: “ina-alaha yamor-bel-adl,” or, “God Almighty enjoins upon you to practice justice.”
I hope I have been able to do just that in this commentary. I hope, moreover, that every Muslim will try to do likewise, and so avoid the unnecessary wounds caused in our community by “friendly fire.” Amen.
A better post- 9-11 world? Not a chance.
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.