Dr. Haroon Siddiqui ‘s Keynote Address at the 11th annual Parliament Hill Eid-ul- Fitr Dinner
November 17, 2005
I’ve chosen the only topic that matters these days – the world after 9/11. And since this is a meeting organized by a Muslim group, we should note that Muslims are at the cross-roads of almost all the most profound public policy issues of the day:
terrorism, of course;
plus security, obviously, and all its implications — from immigration to the surveillance of Muslims by CSIS, the RCMP and local police forces, without violating the Charter rights of Muslims;
plus Canada-U.S. relations, in all their implications, from protecting our exemplary bilateral trade to satisfying American security concerns, which, again, affect Muslims, especially as they travel across the border;
plus following or resisting American foreign policy to the Muslim world, from Israel , Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan to Chechnya , and the debates pertaining to those issues at the United Nations — all of which are of immense interest to Canadian Muslims.
plus such hot and divisive topics as the one in Ontario on the ostensible introduction of the sharia, and the echo of that debate across Canada and, more particularly, in the Quebec National Assembly.
I will draw on the big picture but, all politics being local, I will try and sketch it out in a way that is relevant to Canada . I hope you will receive it in the democratic – and non-partisan — spirit of constructive criticism in which I have framed it. I will present four themes:
1. As improbable as it may sound, Muslims have become the biggest victims of 9/11 and 7/7 and other terrorist acts.
As President Bush has said, and as have Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, the war on terrorism is not a war on Muslims. Yet this distinction has often been lost!
In the past, we have had to battle anti-Catholicism and then anti-Semitism, which we still must, the challenge of this age is to battle Islamophobia. It has grown by leaps and bounds. It has seeped into our public discourse. It threatens to pollute our public policies.
A sub-point is that Canada ’s 650,000 (thousand) Muslims feel stigmatized and alienated. It also so happens that their concerns are broadly shared in Canada, as we saw in the national outpouring of opposition to the war on Iraq, and as we keep seeing in poll after poll on related issues.
The Muslim Reformation that everyone was calling for is already underway, even if our media have not noticed it.
Being Muslim can be a hazard these days.
They say 9/11 changed the world. It did more so for Muslims.
On that tragic day, 2,900 Americans were murdered. Since then, at least 30,000 Iraqis have been killed, according to the NGO called Iraq Body Count; or perhaps as many as 100,000 have been killed, according to an estimate done by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
In Afghanistan, we don’t know how many Muslims have been killed.
In terrorist incidents around the world, from Indonesia to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, more Muslims have been killed and maimed than non-Muslims — for the simple reason that more of them live in those areas and terrorists do not care whom they hit in their senseless violence.
Iraq has had an election and Iraqis have a new constitution but they don’t have regular drinking water and electricity, and they can’t venture out of their homes for fear of being shot dead or blown to bits.
The abused and the tortured in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo Bay and in other prisons in Afghanistan and around the globe, were Muslims.
In my travels through the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East, I have been struck by how acutely aware Muslims everywhere are about the details of those prison abuses, especially reports of the desecration of the Qur’an, and other reported transgressions of Muslim religious and cultural norms.
Even more harmful to Muslims has been how, waving the anti-terrorism banner, various governments around the world have cracked down on Muslims, both democratic dissidents as well as those resisting either oppressive occupation or repressive rule.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of Muslims have been falsely accused of, and sometimes charged with, alleged terrorism-related crimes, only to have all such charges either thrown out in court or, more likely, withdrawn for lack of evidence. This is precisely what happened in the case of 23 Pakistani and Indian Muslim youth in Toronto charged with being a sleeper cell of Al-Qaeda, only to have all such wild charges withdrawn – but only after their reputations were besmirched and their lives ruined.
The more than 20 million Muslims living in Western nations, from North America to Europe , have been frequent victims of racial profiling and identity mix-ups at airports and land border crossings, where they may be harassed and sometimes detained.
Muslims in the West must live down the image of the assumed ‘enemy within.’ Monitored and watched by both the secret services and the media, they must be careful about what they say in e-mails, in phone conversations and in public. They must think twice about keeping a beard and wearing overtly Muslim clothing, especially the hijab. They should be mindful of their behavior, lest they be caught in the net of false religious and cultural assumptions, of which there are too many.
Muslims must think hard about their charitable donations, for fear of being unwittingly implicated, even falsely, in the crackdown on Muslim charities.
They must keep proving, in school and at work, every day, that neither they nor their faith fit the caricature of a Muslim and Islam drilled into the public consciousness.
In business or employment, they must put up with overt and subtle discrimination, far more so since 9/11 than they had traditionally been subjected to, especially in France, Germany and Britain.
In short, Muslims feel under siege.
In the hotspots of the world, they fear for their lives, and in the West, they live through what the Canadian Arab Federation has called “psychological internment,” referring to the internment of American and Canadian Japanese during the Second World War. It is a potent reminder at a time when we are still apologizing for some of those historic mistakes. We ought to ensure now that history would not judge us harshly about what we are doing today.
It did not have to come to this.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack engendered as much sympathy for America and Americans in the Muslim world as elsewhere. There was a candlelight vigil even in Tehran. The justified war on Afghanistan, being the base of Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, enjoyed broad support in Muslim states as well as among ordinary Muslims. It has been down hill since.
Lying collective guilt on all Muslims.
Just as most of the reasons given for the war on Iraq have proven wrong, most of the explanations tying terrorism to Islam have collapsed as well.
When 15 of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 turned out to have been Saudi citizens, several experts blamed Wahhabism, the essentialist interpretation of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. The problem with the formulation was that the Saudi ruling family, the official guardians of Wahhabism, was and remains the staunchest ally of America and the essential pipeline to the energy needs of the world.
It was also said that terrorists were being hatched in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in madrassahs, religious schools teaching the Wahhabi doctrine and the conservative Deobandi school of Islam. But we know now that those responsible for the Al-Qaeda-like bombings in Bali, Jakarta, Istanbul, Amman, etc. were not graduates of those specific schools. Nor were those responsible for the 2004 Madrid bombing and the 2005 London subway bombings. They were mostly Muslims born or raised in Europe. So was the murderer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. So are some of the European Muslims turning up in Iraq to join the insurgency. The third theory was that suicide bombers were inspired by Islam’s promise of paradise for “martyrs” who would have access to dozens of virgins. While that may have been a motivation for some, the explanation was clearly off base for women suicide bombers, such as the ‘black widows’ of Chechnya, who had no sexual favours to look forward to in Heaven. The explanation also did not apply to those male bombers who were not Islamic at all, displaying a decidedly un-Islamic fondness for alcohol and nightclubs.
So, we are forced to return to the reality that there are earthly reasons for the terrorism involving Muslims. The conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, Kashmir and Chechnya are not theological. Equally, the domestic woes of Muslims living in the Muslim world, from economic and democratic depravations, have little to do with religion.
It is, therefore, outrageous to pretend that Muslim terrorism is the outcome of the Islamic DNA or of Muslim inferiority complex.
Laying collective guilt on all Muslims is unjust – and unhelpful.
As Anne Frank — the Jewish girl who hid with her family in the attic of a house in German-occupied Amsterdam, wrote: “When a Christian does something wrong, it’s his fault. When a Jew does, it is the fault of all Jews.”
Law-abiding Muslims are no more responsible for terrorism than Japanese Canadians or Japanese Americans were for Pearl Harbour, or German Americans, German Canadians were for Nazism.
Like any other faith, Islam can be and is used by both fundamentalists and liberals, and by the violent and the peaceful, to rationalize their agendas. To blame our calamities on this or that holy book is to be intellectually lazy and politically dishonest.
Besides, Muslims are no more going to rewrite the Qur’an than Jews are the Torah, the Christians the Bible or the Hindus the Mahabharata.
The vilification and criminalization of Islam, therefore, must end.
Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, called Islam “an evil and wicked religion.” Evangelist Pat Robertson called it a violent faith. Rev. Jerry Vines of the Southern Baptist Convention accused the Prophet Muhammad of being “a demon-possessed pedophile.” Of course, they have the freedom to say what they want. But, they may or may not know that they are using the same language as that of the Christian Crusades against Muslims in the 12th and 13th centuries. At that time, too, Islam was depicted as a “religion of the sword,” Muslims as the blasphemous occupiers of the Holy Lands, and Muhammad as an imposter and a false prophet who had made up the Qur’an. Pope Innocent III called Muhammad the Anti-Christ. Voltaire, Dante, Gibbon, Francis Bacon and others demonized him, variously, as Mahound, the prince of darkness, or as the Beast of the Apocalypse.
Since 9/11, we seem to have gone back eight centuries.
Blaming Islam for terrorism is like holding Catholicism responsible for the IRA, the Serbian Orthodox Church for Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic-cleansing, Protestantism for Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Judaism for Baruch Goldstein gunning down 29 Palestinians in 1994 as they prayed in a mosque in Hebron, and Hinduism for the suicide bombing missions of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.
We must also learn not to confuse religiosity with extremism.
Equally, we cannot tell Muslims which Islam to practice. Non-violent conservative interpretations of Islam are as legitimate as the ultra-conservative interpretations of Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism. We also must stop thinking that the only good Muslim is one who is secular, even a minimalist believer, or not a believer at all.
We must also be wary of those who are too willing to confirm popular anti-Muslim prejudices. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the self-proclaimed ex-Muslim Dutch MP is fully entitled to her views, as is Irshad Manji. But if you hold them up as models of what Muslims should be, you risk being laughed at.
Similarly, Mme. Houda-Pepin, Member of the Quebec National Assembly, is fully entitled to her views on the issue of religious arbitration for Muslims, but using her, the sole Muslim member of the Assembly, to attack those Muslim Canadians who do want such religious arbitration is like using a dissident Catholic to attack practicing Catholics – something no government or a political party dare do.
We need to rethink our terminology, too. What do we mean, for example, by “political Islam,” “extremist Islam,” “radical Islam,” “Islamism” or “Islamist extremism?” Do these terms cover cultural Muslims, who do not follow many or any of the rituals of the religion but may still have an Islamic consciousness and, most certainly, a strong sense of solidarity with suffering Muslims everywhere. We need better ways to distinguish between those who want change peacefully and those who advocate violence.
The point here is that uninformed or ill-informed religious and cultural assumptions about Muslims and Islam impede the war against terrorism.
Let me give you some examples.
When questioning Muslim suspects, police may be prone to ask: “How often do you pray?”
Covering the post-9/11 world, the media make it sound as though going to a mosque is suspicious activity.
Looking at a Muslim’s passport, airport immigration officials perk up if they see Saudi Arabian stamps of arrival and departure.
Examining a Muslim’s bank records, security police look suspiciously at any foreign transaction.
Listening to a Muslim express solidarity with fellow-Muslims everywhere, xenophobes think the worst.
Seen this way, most Muslims can be deemed dangerous.
After all, hundreds of millions do pray every day and do go to mosques.
As many as 4.5 million Muslims go to Saudi Arabia every year, either for the pilgrimage of Hajj or to visit the holy sites; thousands of those pilgrims are Canadians, Americans, Europeans and Australians.
Millions of Muslims routinely send money to family and friends, across continents, to be given to charities or distributed directly to the poor.
Most Muslims do care deeply and regularly pray for fellow-Muslims caught in wars, invasions and occupations.
Muslims are also given to invoking God at all times, beyond just saying Salam-u-alaikum and Walaikum-assalam.
A Muslim gets on a plane and before it takes off, he says: Bismilla – I begin in the same of Allah. You tell a Muslim that President Bush has held an Iftar party at the White House for ending the fast in Ramadhan, and the Muslim says: Alhamdulillah – Praise be to Allah. You say that Defence Minister Bill Graham is going to announce a new grant for this or that, and he says:Mashallah – as Allah wills. You say Stephen Harper may start wooing Muslim voters, and the Muslim says: Inshallah – If Allah wills. You ask him who do you think will win the next Canadian election, and he says: Wallah-o-alam – Only Allah knows.
I am not one of those who see racism under every rock. But confusing religiosity or simple Islamic manners with extremism can harm and alienate the innocent, whose goodwill and cooperation we do need in going after the bad guys.
The Aga Khan was here earlier this year to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In a later interview with me, he said:
“We do not have a clash of civilizations but a clash of ignorance. You can be an educated person in the Judeo-Christian world and know nothing — I mean, nothing – about the Islamic world and about Muslims.”
Granted, that in times of trouble, security trumps civil rights. Still, if governments go overboard – by maligning the innocent, or suspending the presumption of innocence, or holding people without charge for a prolonged period, or setting aside the laws against prisoner abuse and torture – we weaken the war on terrorism. We also dilute our own democracies. And we weaken our advocacy of democracy in the Muslim world.
III. Islamophobia or anti-Islamism
Muslim baiting bears all the classic symptoms of racism.
It holds up the most marginal and fanatical Muslims, totaling at the most a few thousand, as representatives of all 1.3 billion Muslims.
Tarring all Muslims with the actions of the few, it expects every Muslim to explain or apologize for the latest atrocity. “What do you have to say about that?” they say, anytime some horrible crime has been committed somewhere by some terrorists who happen to be Muslim. My standard answer is that I have nothing to say, especially on demand.
All Muslims should not have to apologize for their extremists any more than any other people.
Muslims, especially those living in the West, are told to condemn terrorism, which, of course, almost all do, repeatedly and publicly, individually and in groups. But that is considered insufficient. In fact, it can never be sufficient if the aim of the exercise is to brand all Muslims as the co-accused.
The tendency to see all Muslims as one also shows up in the insistence, by the media and many governments that Muslims speak with one voice. Hence the query: Who speaks for Muslims? The answer lies in another question: Who speaks for Christians? Or Jews? Or Hindus? Or Buddhists? Many groups and organizations, obviously, depending on the religious, social or political groupings. The range of Muslim views is, arguably, wider: they come from different regions, races, nations, ethnicities and cultures, speak different languages, follow different interpretations of Islam, strict or liberal, or, as I said earlier, don’t follow any at all, preferring to be just cultural Muslims. How can Muslims speak with one voice? And why should they, any more than any other people?
Another often-asked question is: Where are the moderate Muslims? These are defined as those who not only condemn terrorism, which almost all Muslims do, but who must also (a) agree with all the policies of Bush, Blair and Ariel Sharon, which almost all Muslims don’t, and (b) confirm the prevailing prejudices against other Muslims, which only a handful will. Yet it is the latter who are the most quoted and courted and felicitated. The surest way for a Muslim to get media coverage these days is to attack fellow-Muslims, or better still, Islam. He or she – preferably a she, ideally estranged from Islam because of some personal experience held up as the norm for all Muslims — will be portrayed as a “reformer,” courageous enough to speak out. Some may be. But for many, it may be a good career move. Being anti-Muslim is a ticket to prominence these days.
Again, this is not to question anyone’s right to their opinions. But society is ill-served if it is allowed to hear only the voices of the Osama bin Ladens of the East, on the one hand, and, on the other, Islam-bashers of the West. That leaves out nearly 99 per cent of Muslims.
Anti-Islamism also breeds double standards.
What is said and tolerated about Muslims would at once be denounced as racist if said about other people. I suggest you try and replace the words Muslim and Islam in public pronouncements and commentaries with the words Jews and Judaism, or Christian and Christianity, and see how it reads.
Muslim fundamentalism is considered dangerous but Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalisms, which have seen a parallel rise, are just irritants.
Muslim obscurantism is medievalism but the challenge to Darwin’s theory of evolution is merely amusing.
Barring Muslim women from becoming prayer leaders shows Muslim backwardness but having Christian and Jewish women in the pews and not the pulpit, does not.
Militant Islam is to be feared but not militant Biblicalism or militant Zionism or militant Hinduism.
The free distribution of the Qur’an in Central Asia and elsewhere by the oil-rich Arabs is a cause for worry but not the gifting of the Bible in Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan by Christian missionaries.
Every imprudent word by an imam, Islamic cleric, however illiterate or insignificant, is blown out of proportion, while the fanaticism of the priests of other faiths is often ignored.
Every isolated case of a woman condemned to some stupid form of sharia punishment in Nigeria or Iran or Pakistan is widely publicized but the ongoing inhumane treatment of hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world are not worthy of political or editorial outrage.
Muslims prone to mixing religion and state are medieval but right-wing Christian evangelicals calling for the same are not.
The desire to merge religion and state is not confined to America. Pope Benedict and several European leaders, including former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, see Europeas a Christian, not just a Christian majority, continent. Which is precisely why they oppose the entry of Muslim Turkey into the European Union. President Bush and Prime Ministers Martin and Blair deserve full credit for lobbying on behalf of Turkey.
If the West makes Islam a dirty word, it can be certain that Muslims will resist. It has and they are. Muslims, by and large, have tuned out the West and are ignoring it as they move forward with some profound and positive changes. Muslim reformation is well underway and the West is missing the boat.
Democracy is taking root, and not just in Afghanistan and Iraq under the American aegis. More than half the Muslims in the world live in freedom under varying degrees of developing democracies. Muslims in Turkey, Iran, India, Bangladesh Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of Africa have rejected politicians and parties promising sharia or offering empty Islamic slogans. In the case of Iran, it is the unelected powerbrokers who have been thwarting the popular will of the people. Overall, Muslims voters just about everywhere have opted for leaders and parties who can help them make sense of Islam in the contemporary world.
This is an affirmation of what President Bush said in a speech nearly two years ago. He shot down the notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy. The president said:
“It should be clear to all that Islam is consistent with democratic rule… Muslims living under democratic rule succeed, not in spite of their faith, but because of it.”
Whereas Germany has just elected its first woman chancellor and the African continent its first woman president, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey – the largest, second largest, the third largest and the fourth largest Muslims nations — have had women leaders.
Besides the progress on the democratic front, there is also a social and religious revolution underway in the Muslim world.
Terrorism has been condemned by all the leading religious scholars in the Muslim world and by Muslims in the West. Osama bin Laden’s war for Muslim minds has clearly failed to sway the Muslim masses.
Just a day before the July 7, 2005 subway bombings in London, there was a conference in Jordan of 200 leading Muslim scholars, including representatives of Grand Mufti Ali Jumaa ofEgypt and Ayatollah Syed Ali Sistani, the revered senior-most cleric in Iraq. They condemned not only terrorism but also the tendency to brand other Muslims as infidels, the tactics used by extremists to justify their dastardly deeds.
Reformist grassroots voices are rising, from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, through Malaysia, parts of the Middle East and in the Muslim communities of Europe and North America .
The most credible voices belong to those calling for changes on Islamic terms, rather than importing Western models holus bolus. The pious are making the most headway against militancy and terrorism. Women, not surprisingly, are leading not just on gender issues but also on pluralism and other related matters. Islamic feminists are challenging the patriarchal interpretations of the holy texts and traditions.
One often hears that Muslims must come to terms with modernization. They already have, in several areas. Unlike, say, the Hutterites, Muslims have no theological resistance to radio, TV, cameras, cell phones, cars, planes and other technological gadgets. In fact, they have proven to be voracious consumers. Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims do not oppose blood transfusions. Unlike some evangelical Christians, most Muslims do not object to stem cell research..
Public discourse, too, is moderating. Despite the populist red-hot rhetoric, or anti-Semitic statements – which are disproportionately publicized in the West — the tone of debate and discussion is changing significantly, even in places like Saudi Arabia, where the old Wahhabi intolerance of other Muslims is waning. Neighbouring United Arab Emirates has approved ajamat-khana, gathering place, for the Aga Khan Ismaili Muslim minority. These developments augur well for the much-needed opening of religious space for Christians, Jews, Hindus and others in those Muslim societies that still remain closed to pluralism.
More than ever in my travels, I am hearing Muslims talking of the humanism of Islam, quoting the Qur’an:
There is no compulsion in religion. 2:256
Whoever wills may believe, and whosoever wills may disbelieve. 18:29 Had He willed, He would have guided you all. 6:148
Had your Lord willed, everyone on Earth would have believed?
Do you then force everyone till they believed? (10: 99)
Extremists are being reminded that the wrath of God constitutes a minuscule part of the Qur’an. Of the 99 names of Allah, about 90 have to do with kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness. The believers are enjoined to make religion easy, not difficult for themselves, and to pursue the moderate, middle path.
Extremists are also being reminded – and this is close to my heart as the former president of PEN Canada — that the first thing God commanded to the Prophet Muhammad was not go to war but to simply read:
Read in the name of the Lord who created you from a clot.
Read in the name of the Lord who bestowed upon you the power of the pen.
Reading , writing, and spreading knowledge – that was the first commandment from God.
In fact, the most used word in the Qu’ran after Allah is Ilm, knowledge. Acquiring it is portrayed as the highest human endeavour.
All these development are very encouraging.
While the noisy mayhem goes on, there is much quiet progress. Noah Feldman, the Arabic-speaking expert on Islam at New York University Law School , sums it up well:
“The violent jihad is still with us and will be so long as there are people who can benefit by invoking a religious justification for the strategy of violence. But the greater jihad, the jihad of personal struggle to do good, and for a valuable collective solution to bringing the values of Islam into the structure of the state, is on the rise.”
There is, obviously, still a long way to go but the journey of reform has clearly begun.
Muslim reformation/renaissance is well underway. We need to get on with ours, by learning to get along with a third of humanity. That, in turn, means battling the anti-Islamism that I have spoken about.
I will quote the Aga Khan, again, not because he is my leader but he makes eminent sense. He said:
“Democracies presume that the electorate is well informed and capable of commenting on major issues of national or international importance. Therefore, it follows that unless there is a better understanding of the Islamic world, democracies are not going to be able to express themselves on Islamic issues.”
The gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims is not going to be bridged by the narrow focus of the interfaith dialectic, but by broad education, debate and discussion between citizens, civil society groups and governments, and with politicians and prominent Canadians speaking out against prejudice and narrow-mindedness. That, I truly believe, is our Canadian calling.
For in Canada, we are blessed.
There was the tragedy of Maher Arar but there is also a federal commission of inquiry, the only one of its kind in the world after 9/11. There was a cloud of suspicion cast over Bhupinder Liddar but there was a Canadian appeal process that cleared it away.
There is the need to maintain the great economic relationship with the U.S. and yet there was the independence to beg off the war on Iraq, as well as missile defence.
The philosophy of ‘live and let live,’ dating right back to the BNA Act of 1867, has given us a model of pluralism that is the very best in the world – something we were reminded of, yet again, watching the youth riots in France.
It speaks to the great inner strength of Canada that in these troubled times since 9/11, Canada has become more Canadian – utterly confident of itself, absolutely sure of its values and totally committed to maintaining its pioneering role as a beacon of hope to the world.