Keynote Address by Zaib Shaikh delivered at the
16th Annual Canada Day Celebrations 2014
Aslam-u-alikum everyone, Bismillah and thank you for being here tonight as we celebrate not only Canada Day but also, quite fortunately because of how our lunar calendar works, we are here tonight to celebrate the month of Ramadan.
Happy Canada Day and Ramadan Mubarak to all of us. The fact that we can celebrate both Canada and Ramadan on the same night is very blessed indeed for me because like many of you in the room, I happen to be a proud Canadian and I happen to be a proud Muslim. I am honoured to speak tonight to you all and while it is my intention to speak as a Canadian Muslim, I promise I will not quote from the Quran, I will not lecture you, I will not remind you of your Islamic duties. After all I’m not a real Imam, I just played one on TV for 6 seasons.
Tonight I am here to talk about the joy of being a Canadian and the joy of being a Muslim for me and I have a few observations, questions and thoughts about the future as a Canadian Muslim. In fact, I may bring up some issues that challenge some of you so please accept my apologies in advance.
I quite honestly feel that this country, Canada, is the best country in the world where all its citizens, no matter what their colour, their gender, their sexuality, their age or their beliefs, are all allowed to be who they are and who they want to be. In fact we are a meeting place for all round the world who are not allowed to be who they are. This past week I have been taking in the celebrations of World Pride where people from the Gay and Lesbian community around the world have come to Canada to be themselves. In their own countries they are not allowed and are in fact attacked for being who they are but in Canada they can celebrate and I am proud that Canada is a progressive country where people can be who they are whether they visit or live here.
Canada is a country where you can be who you are and practice your own faith freely. Canada is a beautiful country and I am blessed that my parents chose this country as their own in 1970 and that they chose this country to be the birthplace of their only child – me. And just as I feel that Canada is the best country the world has ever created, I honestly feel that Islam is about as beautiful and inclusive a faith as any the world has ever offered to us humans. That Muslim concept, the practice of having the freedom to be connected to God in whatever way you want to be no matter who you are was revolutionary in its time compared to the more traditional practices of Judaism and Christianity. It was, in fact, progressive. It was progressive because in a historical sense, it quite literally came after Judaism and then Christianity and those of us who are Muslims in the room know that we cannot be Muslim unless we believe in the teachings of prophet Moses and Jesus peace upon them. But Islam became the first religion of record where no person had any more of a connection to God than you. In a time when the other two, older religions had their holy men who presided over their followers as gate keepers to salvation and the concept of Heaven, Islam offered a new idea. You didn’t need a priest or holy person to be a conduit to God on behalf of you – you and God had an intrinsic, innate connection from the moment you were born or chose to be a Muslim.
Just like every Canadian no matter who they are, what they look like or what they believe has an innate and intrinsic connection to Canada and being Canadian as soon as they are officially declared Canadian whether by birth or choice. You can be of any culture, of any colour, speak any language, be rich or poor and still be Canadian. Well that is what Islam offered the world too. You could be anyone, from anywhere, rich or poor and have your own connection to God. That concept of everyone having equal access to God as a Muslim was what made Islam unique, modern and progressive. We talk of Canada being a great modern hub for global citizens. Well that’s what Islam was when it was first practised by those first Muslims, peace be upon all of them. Those first Muslims believed and spread the belief of an all inclusive and just society. Islam was a religion where slavery was abolished, where orphans were welcomed as family and where women had unprecedented rights and freedoms accorded to them.
I see and hear all the Muslims in the room nodding and agreeing with me and I am so glad to feel the positivity but I have to ask all of us, how come that’s not how the concept of Islam is seen in the world right now? In fact, if you asked Canadians who are not Muslim about Islam, I would bet you all that abolition of slavery, women’s rights and a socially just and inclusive society would not be the top 3 concepts that people around the world and even here in Canada would associate with Islam or Muslims.
The best we might get out of people on behalf of Muslims is that Muslims are a very faithful, spiritually observant and hardworking people. Wow, sounds riveting, sounds like a group of people you really want to hang out with for fun times. I mean who would you want to meet and hang out with? Faithful, spiritual hard workers or would you rather meet and hang out with slave abolitionists, gender equality activists and a generally welcoming and all inclusive bunch? I’d pick the second group every time. And if you didn’t know any better you’d believe me if I told you those slave abolitionists, gender equality activists and welcoming folks were Canadian but I’m not sure how many takers I’d get if I tried to sell them on the idea that those same people, those gender equality activists, those welcoming folks are Muslims.
That fact that most people would accept qualities of equality and inclusiveness as more intrinsic to being Canadian than Muslim is interesting because, lets be honest we all know Canada has a long way to go when it comes to true equality and inclusiveness so can you imagine what people think of Islam when all we hear and see on the news, the papers, the movies is people who call themselves Muslims shooting Muslim girls who are raped and then falsely accused of adultery or sin, kidnapping Muslim girls who are trying to get an education and sentencing people to death for following a religion that is not Islam.
Now, already I can sense the tension in the room and of course there are many of us who rightly and immediately point out that this grossly one sided lens on Islam and Muslims by the different forms of media are examples of prejudice, ignorance and fear mongering. And we quickly seek to write an op-ed or try to get on the news interview shows and give our sides of the story and remind people that not all Muslims are like that and that in fact we don’t even agree that people like that ARE real Muslims. But we also have to face the facts that those we condemn as being non Muslims every time someone kidnaps children, attacks women, hijacks a plane, blows themselves up yelling ‘Death to America’ are actually selling the idea that they are Muslim a lot better than we are because they are usually calling attention to the fact they are Muslim. Woo hoo, over here, I’m a Muslim and I’m gonna do something gross and evil, be sure to bring your camera crews or watch it on Youtube! Allah Hu Akbar and Allllallalalllalallllalal.
So, what can we Muslims who are in this room and those Muslims around the world who are like us do to help people realize that the majority of Muslims are like the majority of every other faith or belief system that counts peace, equality and goodwill as its fundamental values? My humble answer to you is that we can use the media, create our own media and be a part of the media in a far more useful and positive way than those Muslims who court and use the media for their own nefarious, violent and unIslamic ways while calling themselves true believers. It’s time for us Muslims who know better to BE better at telling the story of what being a Muslims means. And the best country we can start developing and broadcasting that message out of is this very progressive and amazing country of Canada.
Now, if you are wondering what gives someone like me the right or the expertise to make a bold statement like that! Well then let me remind you that perhaps the only reason I am in this room with you all tonight accepting this very special and humbling award is because of the television show I was on once upon a time called Little Mosque on The Prairie. It was a television show that began in Canada and went to become an international media success. It is a show that has been seen in over 90 countries globally, was awarded Human Rights Awards won previously by Muhammad Ali and Bishop Desmond Tutu, has been inducted into the Paley Centre of Radio and Television in New York City and Los Angeles, has been featured on international news reports and press like the BBC, the New York Times and on CNN, was called, by the Head of the American Muslim Association, a show that would do more good for the perception of Muslims in the States and around the world than any national or international conference on race relations could ever do. It was a show that allowed me to meet, in one of the first fan meet and greet events, a young man who said ‘my name is Amaar and I have never heard my name on television and it not refer to a terrorist’. A woman told me on the street ‘so now I know why the woman who serves at the local Tim Hortons covers her hair’.
It was a show where the book ‘Islam for dummies’ was on every non Muslim Little Mosque comedy writers’ desk. People would call out to me on the street ‘hey, guy from Mosque’ ‘Hey, asilam ooo a likum!’ Even in NYC walking to a broadway play, I’d get greeted by tourists with their own mangled, but very sweet, versions of the greeting. Whether it was the South of France in Cannes or in Johannesburg for the 2010 World Cup Final, people have seen me and come up to me to talk because they know that I was that guy from Little Mosque who just happens to be Muslim while being exactly like them. The show has had a great effect on Muslims from all over Canada as well. A Montreal imam stopped me at Toronto Fashion Week (his day job was an importer of fashions) and said ‘keep doing what you’re doing, please. People need to understand we can be their neighbours, their lawyers, doctors, plumbers, teachers. That we aren’t just a bunch of bad people trying to hurt people’.
For non Muslims and even Muslims, the show has explained the hijab. It has explained Dating for Muslims. It has addressed ‘women behind the barrier’ in the Mosque. It has shown the wide range of believers in the faith from a converted Anglican who misses Christmas, to a crazy right wing former Imam who thinks Amaar is far too liberal. Little Mosque has shown Muslims as the town doctor, the town brain, and the village idiot. It has shown viewers that despite our funny bowing at prayer and our ‘asalam u alikum’ exchanges, we aren’t that much different from them. We love, we laugh, we have families and we have the problems of any family. A girls choice as a teenager not to wear the hijab is treated as equally ‘right’ as the woman who does wear one.
The show Little Mosque has indeed built bridges across the world for Muslims and non Muslims alike. I am proud to have been a cultural ambassador if you will and for me, I think the experience has deepened my own personal faith. Being a Muslim actor and a Muslim public figure in the media is no longer an anomaly, it is now my greatest role.
But I am not enough, Little Mosque which is no longer is not enough and Zarqa Nawaz, who created the television show and has made documentaries on Islam and has now written a book on being Muslim is not enough. Other actors or writers and producers and even authors who have books or other shows that came into existence because of Little Mosque are not enough. But, of course it is all a very valuable start. So what’s next? Well, we here in Canada through our use of technology and the internet which allows us all to have free access to media such as You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and many more outlets and platforms must engage, use and create our own messages, show our own gatherings, tell our own stories in this all inclusive, all media, all the time world.
Right now, the images most seen or reports heard most are either of a small minority of loud angry Muslims doing atrocious things or a small minority of loud, angry Muslim experts arguing how bad Islam can be. Contrast that to the vast and large majority of Muslims in Canada who consider themselves everyday proud Canadians and, proud Muslims too. So where are we Canadian Muslims? There are many of us out there and there are even some of us here in this room tonight and every day and night we are fulfilling our duties and responsibilities as ordinary and, in some cases, extraordinary citizens of this great country. But what we’re not good at doing is making our everyday Muslim voice heard.
I want to see and hear from ordinary Canadian Muslims on a daily basis. I want to see them and hear from them on good days not just on bad days when some politician has made an ignorant blanket statement about Muslims or Islam, or when a violent crime happens within a Muslim family in Canada and the media is looking for answers rooted in cultural differences. We don’t want to be marginalized, generalized or lumped into one negative definition anymore.
Canadian Muslims like Canada are progressive and Canadian Muslims have their own narrative. But that narrative is not being shared with Canada or the rest of the world enough. When Islam came into existence, it revolutionized the world into a modern more contemporary way of thinking. That contemporary way of thinking and being became a light for all around the world. That light now is in danger of being extinguished by a small minority of violent and narrow minded people who call themselves Muslims. We progressive Muslims living in progressive countries like Canada have technology readily available and a very progressive media world at our fingertips, a click, a swipe, a channel change away. Let us engage with our media, with our technology and express our progressiveness publicaly. As we celebrate Ramadan and as we celebrate Canada Day, let us remember as everyday Muslim Canadians or as Canadian Muslims to share that pride with others who are or who are not Muslim. Let us proactively use our technology and use our media at hand to share and celebrate collectively, unabashedly and vigourously.
I humbly thank you for being here tonight and I humbly thank you for this award. Inshallah for Canada and for Muslims, our greatest days are ahead of us. Allah Hafiz and Shukriya