From Around The World To Canada’s Capital : Special Report

From around the world to Canada's capital
Special report (On Muslims)

By Jennifer Green
The Ottawa Citizen
August 21, 2009

OTTAWA—-Somali, Iraqi, Pakistani, Lebanese, Guyanese, Afghan, French, Bosnian, Turkish, Egyptian, Saudi, and, of course, Canadian.

Veiled up to here, bared down to there; Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi, Ismaili, Ahmadiyya, or living a life without labels.

In less than three decades, the number of Muslims in Ottawa has leapt to about 65,000 from 4,320. The median age among Muslims is a young and fertile 28, compared to the national median of 38.8, the oldest Canadians have ever been. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Canada, jumping 128 per cent since 1991.

Some Canadians are nervous about the implications. A recent Angus Reid poll found 45 per cent of Canadians believe Islam incites violence. Just 28 per cent have a generally positive view of the faith. Yet only 32 per cent claim to have a thorough knowledge of it. In other words, 68 per cent admit they dont really know what theyre talking about.

Conversely, many Muslims are just as nervous about living among their suspicious Ottawa neighbours. Will they have to abandon Islam to be accepted? And what exactly does it mean to be Muslim here today?

In more than 30 interviews, the Citizen found a community both bound and fractured by unprecedented stresses: faith torn between modernism and tradition; immigrants caught between their old culture and this one; women deciding for themselves what it means to be Muslim, with or without a hijab. Some parents fear their Canadian-born children will abandon Islam, others that their children, especially boys, might get alarmingly zealous.

Since Canadas earliest days, immigrants have struggled for acceptance. Irish, Polish, and Vietnamese were all scorned in their day, and now each makes up a bright piece of the multicultural mosaic.

However, the terrorist attacks on New York Citys World Trade Center halted that process for Muslims. Like a cue ball breaking apart a rack, Sept. 11 sent their communities spinning in every direction. Eight years later, the war on terror and its attendant security measures mean Muslims are constantly scrutinized, stopped at borders, and passed over for jobs.

In all our interviews, a frustrated refrain emerged: When will we belong? Underlying that was a tougher question: How will we get there?


On a humid night in June, Azhar Ali Khan looked down with pleasure on the 30 or so men and women assembled in the sweltering basement of the main mosque on Ottawas Northwestern Avenue. He had been friendly but relentless in working the phones, and it had paid off. More than two dozen Muslim groups had come together to talk over something that had never come easily: co-operation.

Ali Khan is a tall, stooped, avuncular man of 77, so well known for his community work that most refer to him as Uncle Azhar. His goal this evening sounded deceptively easy bring together people who were already involved in the 30 or more Muslim groups in the city. Who could object?

But this project was different, drawing on Muslims who dont usually work together. This has turned out to be a unique initiative, he said. It is the first time in Ottawa that Shia, Sunni, womens, professional and the main community organizations of the national capital region have decided to work together and have formed a co-ordinating council. It is quite historic.

Each group had always stuck to its own priorities. The South Nepean Muslim Community was fundraising for a mosque in Barrhaven, while another group was busy with the Professional Muslim Network. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women was focused on issues like Sharia law. Nobody at the Sunni mosque saw much of the Shiites who had their own mosque in Vanier. And the Somali community had its own problems.

Ali Khan was not able to get everyone on board, and many of the absences were glaring. The new Gatineau mosque; the Assalam mosque on St. Laurent Boulevard, where more than 1,500 pray every Friday; the Guyanese-Caribbean Muslim Association and the Dar Assunah mosque all declined.

Worse, the citys oldest and most influential mosque had not joined, even though Ali Khans new group was meeting in the mosques hall. The Ottawa Muslim Association, which Ali Khan had once led, had just been through vicious infighting over the imam, the spiritual leader of the congregation. One faction of the mosques board called for a North American who could speak clear English. Another defended the imam sent from Egypt, a young man educated at one of Islams most respected universities. The association sent its polite regrets: it would attend to its own affairs this year.

For more than four decades in Ottawa, Ali Khan had received virtually every award for his commitment to community and interfaith understanding, culminating in last years induction into the Order of Canada.

But he believed this project could be the most important yet. Youth in trouble with the law, refugees flooding into the city, domestic violence that nobody wanted to speak openly about. Some youth could turn to extremism, ruining their own lives and that of their parents, and the whole community, Ali Khan said.

After 9/11, we needed to do something because Muslims were going in different directions. There was a lot of confusion in the community.

Without a united voice, the Muslim community could not help its own members. The government might provide funding, but how could it listen to more than two dozen groups? Similarly, if the Muslim community was unable to address the larger city, negative stereotypes would go unchallenged, and outside opinions would harden against Islam. So the June meeting really mattered.

The attendees bent their heads as Imam Zijad Delic, executive director of the Canadian Islamic Congress, led them in prayer. Delic was born in Bosnia and emigrated to Canada after the war there. He knew about ethnic strife, and had devoted his academic career to finding a way for Muslims to go forward into western, modern life. He had even devoted his PhD thesis to the topic at British Columbias Simon Fraser University.

After the prayer ended, he was blunt in his address: We dont have a plan, we dont have a strategy or well-defined goals. Much of the tension in the community would ease just if we are working together.

His message was clear: Quit complaining, especially about how things were better in your home country. Happiness is a decision. I think we can make the right decision in Canada. You are living in the worlds best country. Millions would like to be here.

Later, in his small office near Orlans, he was even more direct. People talk about how things were back home. I tell them, there is no back home. This is home.

Leaders might have enjoyed autocratic rule in their homelands, but here they must learn to operate democratically. When an organization collapses into the kind of chaos that overtook the main mosque, Canadian-born Muslim youth look on and they are not impressed, said Delic.

Mosques or musallahs (prayer halls) should resist the temptation to splinter along cultural lines. If we have national mosques, then Islam is seen as an ethnicity, not a faith.

For some, his advice on assimilation is as easy as it sounds. For others, coming to Canada has meant a new chapter of grief and anxiety. Between 1988 and 1996, 55,000 Somalis emigrated to Canada, the largest black immigrant group to come to the country at one time.

Most were refugees fleeing the civil wars that killed close to a million in their homeland. Single mothers especially found Canada was not the haven they were hoping for.

Howa Mohamed, a Somali mother of five, puts it like this: We thought we were safe here (in Canada): thank God, no bullets. But we didnt know there would be another war here, we didnt expect it. It was so tragic, we didnt know what was going on.

In May, Mohamed lost her 26-year-old nephew, Mohamed Jama Ali, when he was fatally shot in the stomach in what appeared to be gang violence.

She has had nightmares ever since. I participated in bringing him here (from Somalia). I saw a bright future. Instead, we buried him.

There are no firm numbers for each Muslim ethnicity, but Mohamed estimates there are about 10,000 Somalis in Ottawa, the largest single group of Muslims in the city. Other Muslims dont like that and thats a fact, she said as she sat in her immaculate townhouse in Ottawas South Keys area.

Between the dark skin and the Muslim name, its like we arent just at the bottom were the subfloor.

About two years ago, Mohamed began the Canadian Somali Mothers Association to help Somali boys in trouble navigate the justice system. The community is pulling together in other ways, too. Pamphlets on domestic abuse are written in Somali and homework clubs are springing up. And on Ali Khans co-ordinating council, the secretary is a Somali woman.

Farhat Rehman, head of the Canadian Council of Muslim Womens Ottawa chapter, was also at the meeting of the co-ordinating council. She didnt say much, except to give fair warning that she would speak up when necessary and she expected to be heard.

Its very problematic the way that women dont have a public voice and a public role, she said. It is a departure from the time of the Prophet, when they were all outspoken.

Rehman does not often go to the main mosque.

I found youre always on the periphery. Being a woman, you are assigned a certain place and you are expected to stay there, like the balcony for example (where the women worship.)

Shortly before the meeting of the co-ordinating council, two women joined Rehman at her east Ottawa townhouse to talk to the Citizen about what it means to be Muslim and female.

Fauzya Talib, 39, a Guyanese immigrant, wears no head covering. Every breath I take is as a Muslim woman, said Talib. I am perceived as not being spiritual because of the way I dress, and talk.

People have expectations of what we should look like.

She thinks most Ottawa Muslims are like her. The fact is, 50,000 Ottawa Muslims arent really visible. Theyre taking the kids to soccer, going to work, taking care of the house.

Shehnaz Karim, a 30-year-old Vancouver-born woman, wears long sleeves, an ankle-length skirt and a hijab done up tightly under her chin. Karim began covering herself in high school, on her own initiative. She saw too many friends wondering if they were cute enough or slim enough. I just didnt want to get into that game. My body is my own business.

She says women of her age dont even think in terms of feminism any more. For instance, some Muslim immigrants expect their husbands to pitch in with the housework. Theyll say, Were not in our country any more. Why are you still like that?

Yet Canadian men are really just as lazy, said Karim. Lots of wives do all the housework.

Its totally culturally relative. We compare the ideal of ourselves to the reality of others.

When honour killings and other domestic violence are attributed to Muslims, people assume the faith itself is violent. But North Americans wouldnt read the all-too-frequent newspaper stories about child abductions and say: Theres that terrible Christian culture for you.

A lot of (immigrants) were very free and easygoing in their country, but as soon they come here, because they feel they are losing control, or they dont have a sense of place anymore, they become really extreme and they grab onto those things that are easy to grab on to like rules. The kids get caught in the middle.

Sana Syed, a Canadian-born daughter of Pakistani parents, also feels a constant denigration of her heritage. Were looked down upon, she said. Theres this negativity about Pakistan, its always Terrorism Central.

The 19-year-old University of Ottawa student recently formed the Canadian Association of Pakistani Students, which already has about 100 Facebook members.

She is studying political science and communications, practises competitive taekwondo, and recently raised about $60,000 by organizing a charity dinner for Pakistans Swat Valley refugees, displaced as government troops pushed back Taliban insurgents.

Syed wears sleeves to her wrists and pants or a skirt to her ankles, even if she is working out, but she usually does not wear a hijab except for worship, visits to the mosque, or special occasions.

Her father, Ahmed Ali Syed, grinned with pride as he surveyed the 500 or so attending the dinner at the Centurion Place on Colonnade Road.

As he talked about the Taliban, he threw up his hands in despair. The idea that they are religious Syed said their practice of Islam is shaky at best, and their knowledge of the Koran scanty.

Tom Quiggan is not on the co-ordinating council, nor even Muslim, but, as an expert on terrorism, he confirms what Muslims have always said: its not about Islam. Insurgents wrap their statements in religious justification, but their goals are always political.

Terrorisms only effective weapon is not bullets, bombs or guns. Its fear.

The dynamics are always the same: a weak power magnifies its actions with some event that causes widespread panic. Worldwide media coverage leverages the bedlam so that the targetted society is fractured and vulnerable perhaps scared enough to give into the terrorists demands.

The sense of paranoia spreads within the Muslim community as well. If someones opinions get a little too strident, whispers begin: Could he have terrorist sympathies?

Quiggan says some Muslims are so fearful of being tagged extremist that they dont want to deal with the issues at all. Its exactly the wrong approach, he says. If imams, or spiritual leaders, spoke plainly in the mosque about suicide, they could instruct their flock on what he says are the true teachings of Islam: bombers will not be rewarded with 72 virgins; they will be punished by dying forever, their head, arms and legs ripping off for eternity.

Parents should know what to look for in their childrens behaviour. I ask them, if you went home tonight and you saw your kids reading Join the Caravan, how would you react? Then I tell them the full title of the book is, Join the Caravan of Martyrs.

Quiggan says todays malaise among Muslims dates back more than 100 years. Very broadly speaking, there are two movements going on now, reformist and revivalist.

Around 1880, Muslims saw that Europes industrial advances and political organization allowed it to rule the world. They, too, wanted to modernize, accept technology and new ideas, take what is best from Islam, and marry it up with some new ideas, and … get going running our own show again, Quiggan said.

But when the Turkish empire collapsed in 1922, the last remaining Muslim-ruled territory disappeared. Some Muslims then took the opposite point of view, blaming modernity. They felt Islam needed to return to its golden days three or four generations after the Prophet.


For Ali Khan, the important thing is not going backward or forward. Its reaching out so all faiths can live together. He has seen first-hand what sectarian violence can do.

Ali Khan was born in 1932, in Bhopal, India. He was Muslim, but he went to a Christian school where he was taught by a Hindu teacher.

As India was gaining its independence, Hindus and Muslims fought bitterly, rioting across the country. Finally, the new Islamic country of Pakistan was born amid much bloodshed in 1947.

Trains pulled into Bhopal full of refugees fleeing the violence. They were the lucky ones. The trains were also burdened with the bodies of those killed in the mlee.

In 1950, Ali Khan moved to Karachi, Pakistan, believing it would be safer. He became a journalist there but, when the government took over his newspaper and began tampering with how the news was reported, he emigrated to Canada. It was 1965, just as the country was moving away from immigration quotas, which had limited certain undesirable races. Instead, applicants would be rated according to a point system. Canada would become the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as its official immigration policy.

Khan worked as a journalist in Ottawa, at the Citizen, as well as hearing refugee cases on the Immigration and Refugee Board. He formed an Interfaith Working Group at the department of Canadian Heritage, and served on the board of the Ottawa Muslim Association.

But now he believes it is time for the younger people to take over. He is looking to young people like Sana Syed, who was at the co-ordinating council meeting in June.

There is still division, but there are good signs, too. Shiites and Sunnis are getting along well on the council. The Bangladeshis and the Kanata Muslim Association have joined the council, although Kanatas recent breakaway group, the Islamic Society of Kanata, has not.

Better yet, by mid-August, the Ottawa Muslim Association said it would send a representative to the councils meetings.

On Saturday, Ramadan begins, a 30-day period when Muslims try to live as purely as possible, fasting and abstaining from sex from dawn until dusk. After the evening prayers, friends and family gather each night with friends and family for elaborate meals, sort of a month of Christmas dinners a perfect time to set aside fears, and rivalries, and just get on with enjoying life.