Friday reflection: Who are the Muslims next door?

Friday reflection: Who are the Muslims next door?

By Muneeb Nasir

Canadian Muslims truly stand out as being among the most enthusiastic group of Canadians - 83 percent of Muslims feel very proud to be Canadian.

However, because Muslims have a religious and cultural background unfamiliar to most other Canadians they face questions about their commitment to becoming part of Canadian society.

But this is unwarranted.

According to an Environics survey, a majority of Muslims want to integrate into broader society rather than remain distinct, and this view has strengthened over time.

More important is the fact that Muslims place a strong value on diversity and connections between cultures … Muslims agree that immigrants should adopt language fluency, tolerance and respect for others and different cultures, and have an appreciation of Canadian history, and respect for the law.

Arguably the sharpest flash point for other Canadians is the perceived threat of domestic terrorism emanating from extremist ideologies.

This is as much, if not more, of a concern to Canadian Muslims who take the threat of radicalization very seriously given the impact extremist movements can have on their community.

However, discrimination and stereotyping continue to be a difficult reality for Canadian Muslims - 35 percent of Muslims report having experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly in recent years.

I must also state what should be an obvious fact but must be stressed - Muslims are not a race but a religious community.

In this confusing world it is easy to conflate Muslims with a specific race – to racialize and to otherize Muslims.

There is a certain culture talk in Western societies that presents Muslims as either pre-modern or anti-modern; as believing in a religion inferior to the West and that is archaic, barbaric and irrational; and Muslims as a people who are monolithic and unable to adapt to new realities.

This ‘culture talk’ feeds into Islamophobic acts which is the irrational fear of Islam and a hatred or extreme dislike of Muslims.

The effect of Islamophobia we tragically saw on January 29, 2017 in Quebec City where 6 Muslim worshippers were killed while praying in a mosque.

That day stands as the only time in Canadian history when a gunman walked into a house of worship to murder those at prayer.

This ‘culture talk’, which we find in certain segments of society, aims to exclude and demonize Muslims and make Muslims look like people who follow a strange belief system.

As your Muslim neighbor, let me dispel these negative perceptions you may have about my religion by giving a personal testimonial of what Islam means to me and what it expects of me.

My religion of Islam is asking me to surrender to God, to be at peace with Him and with my fellow human beings and other creations of God.

Islam stands in a long line of monotheistic religious traditions that share an uncompromising belief in God, that teaches belief in God's revelations and prophets, and that promotes ethical responsibility and accountability.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of Abraham – we are all spiritual cousins - branches of the same family.

Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God, just in different ways.

My religious life is punctuated with practices that are meant to lead me to Islam - this peace with God and others.

My essential duties as a Muslim - the Five Pillars of the religion - asks me to affirm / reaffirm that there is a God who is merciful and compassionate.

I begin and consecrate every action, by saying, in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

This phrase which we say as we begin every action is a personal commitment to engage in righteous conduct, to act in the name of the Merciful and Compassionate God – it is an etiquette of righteous beginnings.

Every day, as an observant Muslim, I have 5 scheduled appointments with God – at these prayer appointments, I turn and return to God seeking guidance, asking Him to keep me on the path of righteousness; I ask for His forgiveness, seeking His mercy.

Every year, I fast for one month to get closer to God and I give charity to help the less fortunate.

This is how my religion gives meaning to my life.

This yearning for meaning is not unique to Muslims.

As the well-known British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “The 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning. Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning.”

As a religious community, Muslims have made many positive contributions to Canadian society, embracing Canada while continuing to proudly embrace and practice their faith and traditions within Canada’s multicultural milieu.

Since that fateful day in 1854 when the first recorded Muslims - a young James Love and his wife Agnes stepped off their ship from Scotland onto Canadian soil - the Canadian Muslim community has grown, diversified, and achieved far more than they could have ever imagined.

Today, Muslims are part of the fabric of Canada…from government ministers to  hockey players.

We are living in a proudly multicultural and multireligious nation - many religions and many cultures are intertwined carving out a pluralistic society – something that is quite exceptional in today’s world.

Living together and building a multicultural society does not mean merely being satisfied with the existence of communities of faith or sub-cultures whose members ignore each other, who never meet or remain enclosed within their own sub-cultures.

Pluralism thrives when we allow for a mutual exchange.

Pluralism is now being questioned and threatened in some western societies and Canadians have a great responsibility.

In a piece in the Walrus magazine by Stephen Marche entitled, “Canada in the Age of Donald Trump”, he writes of the unique position that Canada now finds itself in and issues a call to action.

“We are the last country on Earth to believe in multiculturalism. And we do believe in it. In polls, Canadians routinely identify multiculturalism as one of the top defining features of the country…..

“We must make multiculturalism work. We must make it work better, and we must make it work for everyone. We must make it work while bringing ourselves, or at least attempting to bring ourselves, into a state of reconciliation with the First Peoples of this country. It is our duty to the world. We need to show, through example, that hatred is not the only possibility in a world filled with others.”  

To survive these uncertain times, we need to engage in conversations and build relationships with each other to replace the ego-centric way that is defined by separation and fear with an all-centered way of being grounded in love, compassion and kindness.

This all-centered way is what all religious, spiritual and ethical traditions call us to seek out – the unconstrained mercy in our encounters with others.

The starting point of building meaningful relationships is by connecting hearts and minds.

Our faith traditions and spiritual paths speak to us about living a compassionate life.

Today, we are engaging in dialogue – you have graciously invited me to dialogue with you about the Muslim Next Door.

Dialogue was described by Plato as a communal meditation ... and in such dialogue each participant should make a place for the other.

Let me leave you with this offering from Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Islamic scholar who is known as Rumi and ‘the most popular poet’ in the West.

These are principles for connecting hearts and minds:  “Listen with ears of tolerance! See through the eyes of compassion! Speak with the language of love.”

(Excerpt of a speech delivered by Muneeb Nasir at The Current Events Club of Toronto on January 9, 2018. The Current Events Club of Toronto is a venerable women’s club formed in 1931 and has been meeting 7 times a year to listen to prominent speakers in Canadian society from every aspect of life and to be educated in their specialty).