Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Old Questions about Identity and Belonging

June 8, 2012

It is Friday and as I make my way into main hall of the downtown mosque for the third Jumu'ah, I breathe a sigh of relief. Br. Muneeb Nasir was giving the khutbah. As a khateeb myself, I don't always have the opportunity to listen to well-articulated and relevant khutbahs given by the few khateebs like Muneeb. He is always well-prepared, his soft voice sometimes slowly rising when he wishes to emphasise an important point.

Today he was speaking about living the Islamic principles of responsibility: to God, to oneself and to one's community.

Using the recent shooting at the Toronto Eaton Centre as a backdrop, he urged members of the congregation to take responsibility and become pro-active with their youth, before it is too late. He identified one such pro-active effort with the Somali community at Dixon Rd., Big Brothers and Sisters and Olive Tree Foundation as a model of engaging community members and service providers, youth and religious leaders to make a difference. By engaging a high school student with an elementary school student in a mentor relationship, the objective is to mitigate any negative influences young students may have.

Br. Muneeb ended his khutbah on a positive note and a tearful story: that of Wafa Dabbagh, the first Muslim woman to wear the Hijab in the Canadian military. She passed away this week after a battle with cancer; the remarkable thing about her, Br. Muneeb reminded the congregation, is that she gave a perspective about trials and tribulations that was totally aligned to the Islamic principles: i,e, to look at whatever has befallen you as a "gift" from God, because He tests those whom He loves.

It was what happened after the prayer that caught many by surprise. A man from the front lines of the congregation got up and started lambasting the khateeb for 'praising a Muslim woman who is in the Canadian Military", obviously with reference to his extremist views about the incompatibility of being a Muslim and serving the Canadian military. "If she was here," he said ominously, referring to the deceased sister, "I would have slaughtered her!" His words were certainly appalling, but it was his audacity to articulate them in such a manner, in a Canadian Mosque, that was so repugnant.

He was immediately shouted down by the congregation, and had no choice but to take his tirade outside where he found a few sympathetic ears. The Imam of the mosque, Dr. Tantawy Attia immediately denounced the disturbance and reminded the congregation that such behaviour cannot be condoned.

The incident raises some of the old questions about citizenship, belonging, and the difficulty that some Muslims have reconciling being Muslim with participating in the institutions of their country such as the military which are seen as being complicit in the death and destruction of thousands of Muslims in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

A young man from Afghanistan engaged in conversation with me afterward. His dilemma was the same - he voiced his disgust at the prospect of a Muslim involved in the military, responsible for killing women and children in Afghanistan. I asked him if he was a Canadian. He said he was a Muslim first. I asked him why he immigrated to Canada. He said that he is using it as a stepping stone for other opportunities.

In his answers lie one of the most fundamental issues that Muslims in Canada must face: that of identity and belonging, and finding the right compromise between one's loyalty to faith and to one's country.

As I reminded the young man from Afghanistan, he has options if he views Canada as an imperial power alongside the US in destroying Muslim lands and people. He can engage in meaningful discussion and action about Canada's role in war and peacemaking, while respecting his place as a Canadian citizen with all its rights and obligations, or he can choose to leave Canada and find loyalty to another country of his choice. But he can't eat his cake and have it too.


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