The Media, the Mosque and the Mole

ottawa-masjidBy Shelina Merani

(September 1, 2009) – A while back, I was participating in a seminar on the topic of Citizenship, Identity and Belonging with Tariq Ramadan as the guest speaker.

Noticing a man furiously writing, I soon realized he was the new Imam of the main mosque, Imam Khaled Abdul-Hamid Syed.

Not bad, I thought.

It was a Friday right before his Khutba and he had taken time to come.

It was obvious that this Imam was very pro-active, engaged with the community and youth and women friendly – a rare and valuable commodity in this community.

His Friday sermons were soulful and almost entirely in English.

It came as a surprise, soon after the seminar, to see a large full-blown picture of the Imam on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen.

Apparently, the newspaper had received an email sent by a young person complaining about the Imam.

It quickly became apparent with subsequent stories that the Citizen tried to squeeze every drop out of the story and that this was not just about a need to have a “homegrown” imam.

The real scoop here was more about the mosque establishment, internal political dynamics, semi-transparent decision making and personality politics.

Unfortunately, the new Imam was caught in the crossfire and unprepared to deal with the internal politics and the meanness that sometimes finds its way into religious institutions.

In a nutshell, this whole incident was unbecoming of a religious Centre.

The Media

It would be tempting to lay the entire blame on the Ottawa Citizen for this polemic.

They do, however, have a fundamental responsibility to properly check out their sources.

Many sources have confirmed that the “Sarah Ahmed” who sent the original email to the Ottawa Citizen was not a “young Muslim”, but actually an individual from the mosque administration who hid her identity.

The Ottawa Citizen was aware of this fact but never came clean.

If they had, it would have provided more context to the story and would have been fairer.

They would have upheld their journalistic integrity.

Unfortunately, this willful omission will only continue to reinforce the perception that the Citizen is biased towards Muslims and that they love to magnify a controversial story about Muslims because it probably sells more papers, especially in an economic downturn in which Canwest News is having financial difficulties.

The Establishment

The Imam had a steep learning curve upon arriving in Ottawa.

He had to familiarize himself with an entirely new culture, work on improving his English, and get up to speed on the various factions within the Mosque Board and the community.

Normally, the Board’s responsibility should have been to mentor and counsel the new Imam.

Instead, the Imam found himself in a completely foreign environment with the media hounding him down – a classic example of a smear campaign where the Imam was collateral damage of war among various factions within the mosque.

Imam Khalid is one of the few individuals who came out of this situation untarnished.

Using his Creator and his faith to guide him through this difficult test, he was a role model of patience, courage and forgiveness – a living example to his community of how to behave under duress.

In the thick of it, he carried on doing what he was sent here to do – serving the Ottawa Muslim community and, through it, confirmed that he was meant to be our Imam.

Now that the dust has finally settled, it is time for us to reflect as a community on what happened.

We all share in the responsibility of contributing to a peaceful, harmonious and just community.

Instead of quoting anonymous sources in the media, let’s start dialoguing with each other not only with those of similar cultural, ethnic or language ties, but through brotherhood, love and compassion.

It is the least we can do for our precious Masjid, our Imam, our community and ourselves.

Shelina Merani is the spokesperson for the network, Muslim Presence: –