Muslims in Action
Citizens, Not Victims North American Muslims utilize the available opportunities and assert themselves as equal and valued citizens. by Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed
uslim Canadians often seem to be grappling with the question of their identity in a multicultural land. It has been so widely and so often discussed that many wonder why we still talk about it. However, it comes up every now and then, sneaking out from veils in Quebec or arising when trying to understand why honor killings take place. Such examples illustrate why establishing a Canadian Muslim identity can seem to be such a difficult, thorny issue. Ingrid Mattson, chair of the Islamic Studies Program at Huron University College, London Ont., Canada, and a former ISNA president, challenges Muslims to shrug off questions about identity and re-imagine themselves as citizens first, discarding the “troubled victim” narrative. Addressing the launch of Emmanuel College’s new prayer room at the University of Toronto on Jan. 22, Mattson said that identity is a relatively recent topic in Muslim discourse. It is only over the last few decades that the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis has gained popularity, and that a number of factors have reduced Muslim identity to politics. Muslims are often perceived to have political stances that clash with those in the West, yet those conflicts are primarily due to injustice, not identity. For example, many Pakistanis dislike Western foreign policy mostly because it has supported most of the dictators in the country’s short history, not
due to some irrational hatred. Many people conflate anti-Americanism with mainstream Muslim opinion, but antipathy of Western hegemony is hardly limited to Muslims. Islam is particularly good at rallying people against injustice, but do some Muslims seem to focus only on the injustice that is done upon them, and not that which they are guilty of? After all, she said, “justice is not just about identity, but also ethics.” Muslims have to escape a siege mentality and resist those who seek, both from outside and within the community, to make them feel like victims. The marginalizing effects of attacks on Islam in the mainstream media may actually be amplified by the complaints made about Islamophobia. This is not to deny that discrimination and bias exist, but the stories we tell ourselves, and especially to our children, are critical. Muslim youth are indeed under pressure as it is; by repeatedly warning them of the dangers they face, imams, teachers and parents may discourage them from feeling secure enough to achieve their potential. They are already faced with temptations and distractions, and only Muslims can choose to free them from an additional burden and help them feel empowered to take action and fulfill the Sunnah of the Prophet. The immediate opportunity for Muslims, and youth in particular, to engage as full citizens is in the communities where they reside. The Ummah is more than just the global community of Muslims. It can also be seen as the intersection of politics, religion
Compartmentalizing the everyday injustice faced by Canadians and focusing only on that which affects primarily Muslims does a disservice to the message of Islam, playing into a false “Us vs. Them” dichotomy. 48
and place. Thus Muslims should not forget the value of place-based community and citizenship that is tolerant of multiple religions. One approach to tackle the question of “Muslim Canadian identity” is to rally to Canadian causes as “Muslim” issues. Religious leaders can support the rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, or tackle the complex issue of environmental change. Mattson’s message would have resonated with all who have witnessed the frustration and divisive results of framing Muslims on the basis of received identity. To be part of Canadian society, Muslims have to become part of it and internalize “Canadian” issues as their own issues, too. There are examples in other faith communities as well. One example is Sikhs who support the Seva Food Bank that serves low-income residents in Peel, Ont., with the Sikh values of seva (service) and sarbat da bhalla (well being of all) at heart. The good news is that by and large, Muslims are engaged and pluralistic. Initiatives such as Civic Muslims (www.civicmuslims. ca), which identifies itself as “a Canadian grassroots initiative promoting volunteerism and civic engagement,” are indications of a promising future. The Tessellate Institute seeks to contribute to civic engagement in Canada through its research and programs. Compartmentalizing the everyday injustice faced by Canadians and focusing only on that which affects primarily Muslims does a disservice to the message of Islam, playing into a false “Us vs. Them” dichotomy. Solidarity, Mattson said, does not need to arise in opposition to a mutual enemy; it can flower in a community of mutual respect. The discourse of victimhood can be dangerously disempowering. Perhaps the best way of dealing with it is to highlight and assert the strong civic role that Muslims play in communities across Canada.
Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed is vice president of the Toronto, Ont.-based Tessellate Institute.
Islamic Horizons May/June 2013