Irshad Manji says: "Canada's Muslims must drop old prejudices"
- Canada's Muslims must drop old prejudices
By Irshad Manji
When it comes to Muslim leadership in Canada, I have good news and
First, the bad news. Many Muslims in this country are still missing
the chance to recapture Islam's tolerant tradition. That became
apparent to me following the National Post's recent exposé on
Crescent International, an Ontario-based publication that seeks an
Islamic revolution, à la Iran, in countries with Muslim majorities.
Sheepish sympathy is what I've heard from more than a few Canadian
Muslims. After all, they tell me, the Iranian revolution was meant to
replace a corrupt, American ass-kissing monarch with a government
driven by Islamic notions of social justice. But justice hardly
happened, I remind them. Iranian "revolutionaries" revealed their
colours by inflicting gross human rights violations from the get-go,
a wild departure from the democracy and pluralism pioneered by early
My conversations tended to conclude like this: "Irshad, publicly
denouncing the Crescent International amounts to blaming the victims -
- Muslims -- and handing moral ammunition to the colonizers --
America and Israel." Bravo! What a flawlessly delivered bit of script
from us-v.-them theatre.
However, we're now in Canada. We don't have to choose between the
mullahs and the Mossad. In this land, we enjoy the right and freedom
to bust out of rigid dichotomies dictated by received wisdom.
Canadian Muslims who ossify options forfeit the power that
accompanies our coveted citizenship: the power to be seen as multi-
To appreciate that gift of citizenship, we need to spring ourselves
from the enfeebling habits of victimhood. It won't be easy.
Let me illustrate through another group of privileged "victims":
middle-class African-Americans. Last summer, my friend and I visited
Atlanta, home to some of the U.S.'s most celebrated integrationists.
We started a Saturday by visiting the Jimmy Carter Presidential
Center, named for a leader who made civil rights the cornerstone of
his domestic agenda.
Except for me and a couple of workers, everyone there was white. Not
one black visitor showed during our three-hour stay.
Our next stop was the gravesite of Martin Luther King Jr., a landmark
that teemed with African-Americans and a handful of whites. I
whispered to my friend, "I wonder how many of the people here are
going to the Carter Center, too." When she took off for the bathroom,
I asked around.
Nobody expressed an interest in knowing about the Carter Center.
Instead, one couple blurted, "Why would we waste our time at the
shrine of a white man?" Uh, because he did more for the cause of
racial equality than any president since Lincoln? Because by paying
tribute to Reverend King, you're supposedly saluting the virtue of de-
segregation? And because it's not the colour of a man's skin but the
content of his character that was valued by the icon of justice at
whose tomb you now snap your photos and sport your swag?
To be sure, African-American cynicism about the very prospect of
justice is well-founded. Indignities continue to mount against the
poor. But most of those at the Martin Luther King memorial that day
weren't materially malnourished. They flaunted their Nike Air
Hyperflights, their state-of-the-art digicams, their SUVs. Even so,
the folks I spoke with seemed wilfully blind to their achievement of
middle-class citizenship -- and to the president who helped them get
They, like a large number of Canadian Muslims, choose to be stuck in
patterns of self-pity. Small wonder that Dr. King's message is
reduced in Atlanta to a billboard promoting "Free-At-Last Bail
Bonds." A shame the promoters of this product didn't happen upon
another statue at King's grave -- that of Mahatma Gandhi, who
reminded the oppressed that "we must be the change we wish to see."
His words echo the widely cited Koranic verse, "God changes not what
is in a people until they change what is in themselves."
Who among Canada's Muslim leaders wish to see change? I doubt it's
the Canadian Islamic Congress, a supposedly mainstream lobby that
feted the founder of the Crescent International magazine with a media
excellence award last year.
Which brings me to my promised good news: the birth of the reform-
minded Muslim Canadian Congress. Here's a group that interprets Islam
as a "progressive, liberal, pluralistic and democratic religion"; so
much so that it openly opposes "gender apartheid," encouraging men
and women to "work together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in its efforts to
rejuvenate the Muslim community."
Their test will be to translate those stated intentions into results.
The reformers can start by actively engaging Muslim Canadian youth,
whose fluid identities let them transcend the stale, stark choices to
which their parents often succumb. If the teens and twentysomethings
disclosing their religious struggles to me are at all representative,
these kids could enter Canada's mosques as honest, curious and
intellectually innovative imams. A good way to describe them as
It bodes well for citizenship that the Muslim Canadian Congress
pledges to uphold the Charter of Rights of Freedoms alongside the
Koran. What a gloriously modern combination. To hammer home the
point, the group's mission statement embraces "modernity" and -- get
this -- "joy." Apparently, it's allowed.
This young Muslim is smiling already.
Irshad Manji is host of TVOntario's Big Ideas series.