Islam and Canada

Muslims are growing in numbers and political clout.
But is the country too soft on the radicals of Islam?

By By Steven Frank

On a gray Sunday morning outside Toronto’s North York
City Center, librarygoers meander to and from the
otherwise quiet underground shopping mall. But inside
a hall in the concrete complex, a frightening vision
of Canada is being conjured up. Some 300 fired-up
members of Toronto’s Muslim community have gathered to
debate a proposal to establish a Shari‘a court.

In Canada? When she first heard about it last year,
women’s rights activist Azar Majedi thought the idea
of a tribunal in Canada based on Islamic jurisprudence
was a joke. “I was overwhelmed, shocked,” Iran-born
Majedi told the audience. “To see the seeds of an
Islamic republic being sown here in Canada is

Her fears were repeated by a succession of speakers
during the conference. Many expressed concern that
women would be pressured to appear before the Shari‘a
court. Azam Kamguian, founder of the London-based
Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East,
worried that Canada’s tendency toward tolerance would
make people turn a blind eye to a system that would
allow “Islamists to impose their agenda” on Canadian
Muslims. “We cannot let multiculturalism become the
last refuge of oppression,” she said. Another speaker
said Shari‘a law is racist and misogynist. “The
Shari‘a court is an extension of that movement that
stones women and hangs apostates from cranes in the
streets of Iran,” human rights activist Maryam Namazie
said, eliciting wild applause. “Enough is enough.”

Proponents of the court disagree. They say
adjudicators would mediate only civil and family
disputes, would not hand out penal punishments, and
their decisions would be subject to appeal to a
Canadian court. But if the system of Islamic justice,
which could be instituted this year, would not be
vastly different from Canadian legal norms, why create
it? Because, Mubin Shaikh, a Shari‘a proponent, said
during a break in the debate, it is a tenet of Muslim
belief that Islamic law is superior to “man-made law.”
Canada’s Muslims want to live in a secular,
parliamentary democracy, he told Time. But, Shaikh
claimed, they also want to be judged by fellow
Muslims, not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. “How can
these people relate to any of [Islam’s] cultural
nuances?” he asked.

The past few years have seen unprecedented growth and
prosperity in the Canadian Muslim community, and also
the rumblings of a political awakening. But it has
been a time of tension. The debate over a Shari‘a
court is only the latest flashpoint for a community
strained by disputes over how to integrate into
Canadian society while maintaining its Muslim
identity. There is a small but vocal group that would
like to see Islamic principles play a larger part in
all aspects of their lives. There is also an extremist
group, probably tiny, with views that would not be out
of place in the ultraconservative circles of Iran or
Saudi Arabia. All this has created unease among the
more moderate majority, who want a clear separation
between mosque and state and have concerns about some
of the cultural baggage being dragged into Canadian
society, especially regarding attitudes toward women.
The debate has raised alarms for non-Muslims, who fear
that Canada’s liberal tolerance is being stretched to
the breaking point in the name of multiculturalism.

Complicating the debate has been the single most
traumatic event in the Canadian Muslim experience: the
terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington in
2001. Leaders of the Muslim community condemned the
attacks at the time and have since repeated their
condemnation. But many Muslims have been adversely
affected by the fallout of Sept. 11, 2001. Some have
suffered from the immediate rise in hate crimes
directed against Muslims; others have had difficulties
traveling to or through the U.S. Still others have
been under increased surveillance by Canadian
officials—or, at the very least, have lived with a
perception of increased government scrutiny. While the
number of hate crimes has subsided, the surveillance
has not. Officials insist that the threat of
terrorists using Canada as a safe haven remains real.
The arrest in late March of a Canada-born Ottawa man,
Mohammad Momin Khawaja, on terrorism charges served to
further vex both those worried about terrorists
finding refuge in their streets and mosques and those
who say authorities are unfairly targeting Muslims.

The effect of these countervailing forces on Canadian
Muslims has been both infuriating and instructive.
Many in the silent majority have become politically
engaged for the first time; others have asserted their
rights and reached out to the rest of Canadian
society. Hadeel al-Shalchi, 23, a spokeswoman for the
Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada
(Cair-Can), sums up the mood: Terrorists, she says,
“pushed a lot of us to say, I am a Muslim Canadian and
this is how I live, and I won’t allow my faith to be
hijacked by extremists.”

The new activism has awakened the rest of Canada to
the growing Muslim presence. The first Muslims arrived
in Canada in the late 19th century; most were traders
from Syria and Lebanon. Turbulence in Lebanon, Iran,
Somalia, the Balkans and Iraq led to a new wave of
immigration in the late 1980s and ’90s. Because
Canadian Muslims have a higher-than-average birthrate
and because an estimated 3,000 Canadians convert to
Islam annually, in the ’90s Islam surpassed Judaism to
become Canada’s second largest religion. Between the
last two censuses, in 1991 and 2001, the number of
Canadian residents who identify themselves as Muslim
more than doubled, to 580,000—a number that is
expected to double again by 2011.

Canadian Muslims come from more than 50 ethnic groups
around the globe. “There is a huge risk of trying to
pigeon-hole Muslims as some sort of homogeneous group
that acts and thinks alike,” says Tarek Fatah,
co-founder of the grass-roots Muslim Canadian
Congress. Taken as a whole, though, Muslims are among
the most highly educated of all Canadians. Among young
men, for instance, Muslims are second only to Jews in
the percentage with a high school or university

If you live in a big city today, it’s difficult to
miss Muslims’ impact on Canadian society. Everything
from religious schools to Islamic clothing shops has
sprouted across the country. The Toronto area has more
than 50 mosques, with perhaps 50 more elsewhere in
Ontario. Retailers such as Ikea and the Bay have begun
targeting advertising to coincide with Islamic
holidays. In January, the first minaret rose into the
skyline in Ville Saint-Laurent to cater to the growing
Muslim population in that Montreal suburb. As in
scores of other schools, a private girls-only sports
club started up in October in Beaconsfield, west of
Montreal. In a quintessential Canadian moment, several
young women spread a sheet on a corner of a gymnasium
before a recent floor hockey game, removed their shoes
and bowed their foreheads to the ground. “First we
pray, then we play,” says Aaliya Ahmad, 18, a
social-sciences student.

The quiet and steady integration of Muslims into
Canadian life suffered after the attacks on New York
City and Washington. In the fallout, Royal Canadian
Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) commissioner Giuliano
Zaccardelli saw “a backlash of violence and of
vandalism” directed against Muslims. In Toronto, where
almost half the Canadian Muslim population lives,
police say the number of reported hate crimes against
Muslims spiked from one case in the year 2000 to 57 in

And Riad Saloojee, executive director of cair-can,
says 90% of hate incidents go unreported. In the wake
of the increased surveillance, the introduction of
tough new antiterrorism legislation in December 2001
and a number of highly publicized cases in which
officials appear to have targeted people
unjustifiably, says Saloojee, many Muslims don’t want
to get involved with the police. “The fear is that
many people can be linked somehow, some way,” to
terrorists, he says. Charitable donations to Islamic
groups are way down because Muslims are afraid their
association with a particular organization may come
back to haunt them, says Faisal Kutty, a lawyer who
works with the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties
Association. Mobina Jaffer, Canada’s first Muslim
Senator, has held cross-country hearings on racial
profiling. “I think that [Canadian] Muslims felt very
welcome and very integrated before Sept. 11,” Jaffer
says. But since then, she contends, continual police
scrutiny has made all Canadian Muslims feel as if they
are being viewed as terrorists. “These people are just
feeling very much under siege,” she says.

It can feel that way at the Muslim Non-Profit Housing
Corp. of Ottawa-Carleton, an all-Muslim housing co-op
a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. Before 2001, the
building’s garage was watched by three security
cameras to prevent car theft. Now there are 16
cameras, reflecting tenants’ fears that their building
presents a tempting target for anti-Islamic goons. “We
always worry about backlash,” says the co-op’s
executive director, Kemal Ally. The r.c.m.p. and the
Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) are
also watching the building, residents say.

Trouble is, there is reason to think that some
terrorists have taken advantage of Canada’s liberal
traditions. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al
Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, says terrorist groups
base themselves in Canada so that they can develop
“support networks” to generate propaganda, raise
funds, recruit new members and procure materials for
struggles elsewhere. A 2002 CSIS report echoes other
Western intelligence assessments: “With the possible
exception of the United States, there are more
international terrorist organizations active in Canada
than anywhere in the world.”

Some Canadian Muslims are skeptical. Aly Hindy, who is
the self-described “fundamentalist” imam of the
Salaheddin mosque in eastern Toronto, has decried the
constant surveillance of members of his mosque by CSIS
agents. He believes that Canadian officials have
passed on misleading information to foreign
governments and that as a consequence some Salaheddin
congregants have been falsely arrested and tortured
abroad. Even Hindy was surprised, however, when
members of the Khadr family, Canadian citizens who
attended the mosque in the 1990s, admitted to the CBC
in a March documentary that they were “an al-Qaeda
family.” Two of the Khadrs have since returned to
Canada from Pakistan, leading to a public outcry that
they be stripped of their citizenship. “Every society
has people with extreme views,” Hindy says. “We can’t
take their nationality because of that.”

There’s no doubt that some Muslims have expressed
extreme views in Canada. In the aftermath of the 2001
attacks, according to the Toronto Star, an imam
speaking at the Islamic Society of Toronto accused the
Western media of spreading “false propaganda” by
blaming Muslims for the attacks on New York City and
Washington. At the time, the mosque’s president, Abdul
Ingar, said he doubted that such words were spoken.
But more than two years later, he told Time that he is
still not sure who was behind the attacks. “I don’t
know. I’m not part of the intelligence of any
country,” he says. Just over a year ago, a mosque in
the western Toronto suburb of Etobicoke warned on its
Internet message service that wishing someone a Merry
Christmas is like congratulating a murderer. Mosque
leaders quickly apologized and blamed the message on a
junior employee who had acted without the
administration’s permission.

The power held by ultraconservative mosques in Canada
worries moderate Muslims. Immigration consultant Ali
Naqvi thinks some hard-line leaders wield too much
influence over congregants. “It’s fine to go to the
mullahs for advice about religion, but people go to
them for advice about education, their careers,” Naqvi
says. “If there is an incident of domestic violence,
people say, Let’s go to the mullah. But what kind of
marriage counseling is he going to give if the woman
is not even allowed to speak?” The Muslim Canadian
Congress’s Fatah says he is uneasy about
fundamentalist leaders who denounce certain lifestyles
as non-Muslim and who insist that “if it is not
acceptable in Saudi Arabia, it is not acceptable

How deeply have the more extreme forms of Islam
penetrated Canada? Carl Sharif El-Tobgui, a Ph.D.
student at McGill University’s Institute for Islamic
Studies, estimates that as many as 10% to 20% of
Canada’s Muslims adhere to the principles of
Wahhabism, practiced by the strict orthodox Sunni
Muslim sect founded in Arabia more than 200 years ago.
Those figures are disputed by others, including Salam
Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of
Montreal, who dismisses them as “nonsense.” But
certainly, the bookstore at the Assuna Annabawiyah
mosque, Montreal’s busiest, offers a range of
Wahhabist teachings. Yet though the Saudis have funded
Canadian mosques for decades, Elmenyawi says their
influence is on the wane. “Since September 11, the
Saudi government has completely shut down” funding, he

While condemning extremism, the silent majority has
taken a live-and-let-live stance toward the radical
groups. Some find that approach dangerous, however.
Irshad Manji, author of the best-selling The Trouble
with Islam, says “30 years of official
multiculturalism have fostered a noninterference pact
between groups in Canada.” Manji says young Muslims
who would otherwise publicly criticize the status quo
have been silenced by threats of persecution. “I’ve
engaged enough of these supporters to know that they
mean physical retaliation against themselves and their
families if they go public,” she says.

Some non-muslim observers are uneasy about
developments. John Stackhouse, professor of religion
at the University of British Columbia, expects a
cultural clash for which he thinks that the country is
ill-prepared. “We have used multiculturalism as a
slogan to congratulate ourselves on our
broadmindedness since 1972,” he says. “But it didn’t
cost us much because the majority of us were then, and
now, Christians or ex-Christians.” It’s only when
there’s a vocal minority that wants “to diverge from
assumed norms,” he says, “that it gets politically

Are interesting times ahead? The fact that women are
partitioned off in the back of some mosques has not
made many waves; ultra-Orthodox synagogues have been
doing the same thing for decades. Efforts to segregate
Muslim boys and girls have been more controversial.
The issue hit home for Iran-born Homa Arjomand, a
Toronto social worker, when her daughter, now 16, was
shunned by other children in her elementary school
because she had male friends. Arjomand says a more
orthodox form of Islam has been taking hold in Canada
since the early 1990s. “Multiculturalism feeds [this
orthodox group], and they are using it and misusing
it,” she says.

One likely source of conflict will come over headwear.
Last September a girl was expelled from a private
Catholic high school in Montreal for wearing a hijab.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission is now considering
whether private schools should have the right, denied
to public schools, to ban the head scarf. Michèle
Asselin, president of the Federation of Women in
Quebec, says the issue is complicated. Her group
argues that hijabs should not be banned from any
schools—as they have been in France—because doing so
might jeopardize girls’ educational opportunities.
But, Asselin insists, multicultural tolerance has
limits. In this case, hers would be when women or
girls are forced to wear a veil or hijab. “It must be
their personal decision,” Asselin says. Other
feminists have drawn a line in front of the proposed
Shari‘a court in Ontario. “I think the idea that
religious courts can have the power of law is very
bad,” says women’s-rights activist Judy Rebick. “In
general, religious institutions are very patriarchal
institutions. We have a separation between church and
state for a reason.”

There’s no reason to doubt that most Canadian Muslims
understand and support the justifications for that
separation. They love Canada’s liberal traditions as
much as anyone else, and since 2001 have become much
more politically engaged. In last fall’s provincial
elections in Ontario, 11 Muslims were on the ballot
and two won seats (compared with five who ran, all
unsuccessfully, in 1999). Other Muslims are planning
to run in the next federal election, among them Monia
Mazigh, who gained national prominence by fighting to
help her husband Maher Arar clear his name after he
was secretly accused of being an al-Qaeda operative in
2002. “There is this feeling that people want their
voice to reach politicians and they want someone who
represents them,” says Mazigh, who will run as a
candidate for the New Democratic Party in an Ottawa

Others are finding different ways to step up to the
national microphone. In 1998, three Iraq-born
university students from Montreal formed the hip-hop
band Euphrates. “Hip-hop came out of a need of young
blacks and Hispanics to talk about their situations
and stories,” says band member Nawaf Al-Rufaie. “We’re
in the same position as they were 20 or 30 years ago.”
He says Euphrates’ goal is to convince other Canadians
that not all Muslims are U.S.-hating extremists.
“We’re trying to deconstruct the stereotype,”
Al-Rufaie says.

That’s a worthy goal. All Canadians need to know more
about the growing number of Muslims within their
nation—their beliefs, their traditions, their
aspirations. And, for that matter, Canadians need to
know about the struggles within the Muslim community.
Will the moderate majority gel into a cohesive force
and help shape an agenda not just for Canadian Muslims
but for Canada as a whole? In the next 10 years, there
will be few more important questions facing the
country. —With reporting by Joan Bryden/Ottawa,
Melanie Collison/Edmonton, Moira Daly, Christopher
Shulgan and Leigh Anne Williams/Toronto, Deborah
Jones/Vancouver and Eileen Travers/Montreal

Foreign Policy: Engaging the Islamic World

The subject couldn’t have been touchier. When the
House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee opened
hearings last spring into Canada’s relations with
Muslim countries, some M.P.s suggested it was a waste
of time. “Do we actually have a problem with the
Muslim world?” wondered Deepak Obkhrai, an Alliance
M.P. from Calgary. Ten months, 11 hearings and more
than 30 witnesses later, the answer seems to be not
yet. But if the government accepts the committee’s
226-page report, tabled March 31, Canada may soon have
a higher—and possibly more tendentious—profile
overseas. The committee wants Ottawa to take an
activist role in “signalling support for democratic
changes,” including human rights and gender equality,
in Muslim countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. That
could be risky, concedes committee chairman Bernard
Patry, but he adds that Canada’s reputation as an
honest broker should counter the inevitable dismissive
reactions from some Muslim leaders. “We don’t have to
be shy,” says Patry, whose committee visited 14
countries in Asia and the Middle East. “Most of the
people we met abroad said they wanted us to do more.”

That should also be good politics at home. Although
the inquiry’s focus was abroad, its most significant
achievement may have been to acknowledge the emerging
political influence of Muslim Canadians, who showed up
in force at committee hearings. “Six years ago, no one
would take our calls,” says Raja Khouri, director of
the 20,000-member Canadian Arab Federation. Last May,
Khouri led a coalition of Muslim-Canadian groups in a
first-ever lobbying trip to Parliament Hill. In just
one day they managed to chat up 60 M.P.s and a
smattering of Cabinet ministers. A few months later
Khouri testified before the committee. Following a
path well worn by other immigrant groups, he linked
his community’s domestic concerns to foreign policy
issues. Ottawa’s relations with Muslim Canadians, he
said, would benefit from “opening the door to a new
dialogue” with the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

Such a dialogue is overdue. Canada’s reputation in the
Muslim world has faded from the days when Lester
Pearson brokered peace in the Suez. Mention Canada
today in the Middle East, and adjectives like friendly
and helpful trip off Arab tongues. But Ottawa does
most of its playing from the sidelines. “We’ve been
overly timid,” says Michael Bell, a former ambassador
to Egypt and Israel. The first target of Canada’s
Muslim diplomacy was Pakistan, where a high commission
opened in 1949 in recognition of that country’s
“strategic importance in the event of war with the
Soviet Union,” according to a secret Cabinet memo of
the day. Muslim hostility toward the West in the wake
of Sept. 11 presents no less a challenge to Canadian

Yet Canada’s engagement with Muslim countries
continues to shrink. Budget and equipment shortages
will bring most of the 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan
home by August. Canada’s 193-member peacekeeping force
in the Golan Heights could soon follow. An Ottawa
official tells TIME that the future of that historic
U.N. mission—established with great fanfare in 1974—is
“up in the air” while defense analysts review Canada’s
worldwide peacekeeping commitments. The punch has also
gone out of economic relations with Muslim countries.
Canada’s trade with Indonesia and Malaysia has
stagnated, says Canada’s Asia Pacific Foundation in a
2003 report. Meanwhile, relations with key Middle East
players like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have been
strained by reported abuses against Canadian citizens

Still, there may never be a better moment for Canada
to regain its footing. “I hope you appreciate the
cache of goodwill you built up by your decision not to
send troops to Iraq,” A.J. Akbar, an Indian former
M.P., told the Commons committee. “It provides you
with an enormous opportunity to become the bridge
between the West and the Muslim world.” Canada has
since contributed $233 million toward Iraq’s
reconstruction, but many regional experts say Ottawa
consistently fails to exploit its skills as an honest
broker in troubled areas, from Kashmir to Kazakhstan.
Notes Uner Turgay, director of the Institute of
Islamic Studies at McGill University, Canada is “the
only English-speaking country right now that has
respect in Southeast Asia among the Muslim countries.”

No review of Canadian policy toward Muslims abroad can
sidestep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A chorus of
witnesses at the committee hearings charged that
Canada tilts toward Israel as a result of U.S.
pressure and domestic lobbying. That riles Canadian
Jewish groups, who say their impact on Ottawa policy
is often exaggerated. “It’s a real challenge to make
the case that Canada is demonstrably partisan toward
Israelis or Palestinians,” says Shimon Fogel of the
Canada-Israel Committee. But Fogel also welcomes more
active Canadian diplomacy with Muslims and Arabs.
“There’s a lot that Canadian influence can do to
promote open societies,” he says.

On that, nearly everyone agrees. “We need a foreign
policy based on principles,” says Bell. “If we care
about promoting our values, closer engagement with the
Middle East and the Muslim world is unavoidable.” —By
Stephen Handelman

Outreach, Edmonton: An Old Mosque Renewed

The Al Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, Canada’s oldest, is
more likely to attract groups of tourists than
practitioners of Islam. Saved from demolition in 1990,
the mosque sits in the outdoor museum of Fort Edmonton
Park near a general store, a blacksmith’s and an
old-fashioned telephone exchange. In its heyday the Al
Rashid was much more than a house of worship for the
Lebanese Sunnis who began immigrating to the area in
the late 1800s. “The whole community contributed to
the fund raising,” says Khalid Tarabain, president of
the Canadian Islamic Center (North) in Edmonton. “The
basement was a social gathering place for all kinds of

When the mosque was built in 1938, there were fewer
than 1,000 Muslims in Canada. Today the city of
Edmonton alone has nearly 30 times that number, with a
dozen mosques and hundreds of Muslim-owned businesses.
The congregation simply outgrew the old mosque.

As elsewhere in Canada, Edmonton’s Muslims mark 9/11
as something of a turning point in intercommunity
relations. Constable Steve Camp of the
hate-and-bias-crimes section of the Edmonton police
force opened six files for incidents against Muslims
and Arabs in 2003. Two were for threats of violence,
one was for a mosque being vandalized, and in another
a girl had received a hate letter in her high school
locker. “There is more going on than is being
reported,” says Camp, although community leaders and
police agree that incidents of racial profiling and
harassment are not widespread. But the fear of such
attacks—often spread by word of mouth—has been
damaging. Some women are afraid to wear hijabs, and
there is a wariness about travelling to the U.S.
“Since 9/11, Muslims won’t check off Stats-Can-type
survey boxes about religion because they don’t want
scrutiny or harassment. There were even rumors of
internment camps,” says Nora Abou-Absi, executive
director of the Canadian Arab Friendship Association
of Edmonton.

Abou-Absi and others are working with the police to
get accurate information into the Muslim community.
The message may be getting through. At the recent ‘Id
al-Adha celebrations in the Canadian Islamic Center
Mosque, the successor to the Al Rashid, 3,500 people
gathered to hear the final words of the service:
“Change starts at the grass roots. It is up to us.
Visit your neighbor, and tell him today is a day of
peace.” —By Rebecca Myers. With reporting by Melanie


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