Why Canadian Muslims are different
by Stephen Schwartz
Most Canadians and many Americans are familiar with the jibe alleging that Canadian identity is defined negatively, as "not American." Some Americans apparently have felt so embarrassed by their citizenship that when visiting Europe they pretend to be Canadian. Before the star of President Barack Obama faded, the seldom-funny American satirical writer Garrison Keillor wrote on Salon.com that U.S. citizens travelling abroad could now, with Obama in the White House, celebrate ourselves: "No need anymore to try to look Canadian."
I have been visiting Canada for almost 35 years and have no idea how one would try to "look Canadian," except perhaps by putting on a maple leaf backpack patch. I like Canada and find its approach to multi-ethnicity fascinating. In one immediately relevant way, Canada is different from the U.S. today: in its Islamic communities. Canadian Islam is more moderate, more diverse and more open to debate than American or even British Islam.
American Sunni Islam functions under the domination of a "Wahhabi lobby" of organizations financed by radicals in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while American Shias cleave to the line set out by the Iranian clerical regime. British Islam, as I have learned by direct observation, is deeply divided between radicals, who account for about 30% of the Muslims attending mosques in the U.K., and a large moderate majority. How did it come about that Islam in the U.S. became the playground of Wahhabis, representing the most reactionary, exclusivist, fundamentalist and violent phenomenon in the recent history of Sunnism? The "Wahhabi lobby" includes the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which was established and is sustained with Saudi support; the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), ISNA's predecessor; and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which also benefits from Saudi largesse. ISNA and MSA established the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), which holds title to mosques around the U.S. As stated on its website, NAIT "facilitates the realization of American Muslims' desire for a virtuous and happy life in a shariah-compliant way."
The "Wahhabi lobby" took direction of American Islam for demographic as well as geopolitical reasons. Real Islam, both Sunni and Shia, in contrast with the "Islamic" cultural fantasies of the so-called "Black Muslims," began to expand in the United States after immigration reforms that were adopted as the 20th century came to a close. With the opening of immigration, numerous South Asian and Arab Muslims came to the United States, and the number of recognized mosques reached some 1,200. Many of these newcomers sought to get away from radical Islam in their countries of origin. I believe most of them were astonished to discover that American Islam was Wahhabized. They quite logically supposed the U.S. would not encourage Islamist extremism on its territory.
But migrants from South Asia and the Arab lands underestimated the influence of Saudi Arabia on American policy, because of energy issues, as well as the consequences of American blindness to the role of Pakistani radicals in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan — and I supported and still support the U.S. assistance to the Afghans against the Russians.
When Islam in America began to expand, the Saudis recognized a gap — the absence of community structures. They stepped in to fill that void, and the Saudis created the "Wahhabi lobby." The Shias generally dislike Wahhabis, but in the U.S. the dominant Shia communities, which are Iraqi and Pakistani, have surrendered to Wahhabi dictation.
American Islam is, at the same time and paradoxically, very American, in being "corporate" Islam — it stands for financial, political and other institutional interests outside the country, rather than the spiritual challenges facing American Muslim believers. American Muslims are in the country, but not of it. American Islam is intellectually impoverished. There is more debate in the mosques of Saudi Arabia, which often serve as refuges for private conversation, than in any American Sunni Muslim community, aside from the Balkan Muslims, who are fully European. Among Shias, we see Iran in upheaval as its people wrestle with the moral and political decadence of the clerical regime. But the public silence of American Islam has also prevented Iraqi, Pakistani and Indian Shias in the U.S. from favouring the Iranian freedom movement.
American Islam has produced no serious exponents of the faith; it leaves articulation of its destiny to Arabocentric academics who dominate Middle East Studies in the colleges and universities. Aside from them, American Islam produces demagogic preachers. It is mentally and psychologically inert. To compare the nullity of American Islamic imagination and publications with the literary heritage of American Catholics, Jews and Buddhists — to cite others who began as minorities — is, for a Muslim, to despair.
No religious community has ever been distinguished by anything but the inspired discourse of its acolytes. Erecting overbearing mosques in the Saudi style, and manipulating South Asian believers to produce income and other benefits for Pakistani jihadist movements has accomplished nothing positive for American Muslims. Rather, these blandishments have aggravated the suspicion felt toward American Muslims by many of their non-Muslim neighbours.
America has always been a home to different faiths, and a seat at the big table of American religions would never have been denied Islam. But the "Wahhabi lobby," in addition to being radical, is separatist. They do not want a seat at the American table. They want a table of their own. And the American media and political leaders have effectively granted the "Wahhabi lobby" special status, by including its representatives in the high councils of U.S. government. Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA, who wears a headscarf more elaborate than those typically seen in many Muslim countries, was welcomed to participate in Obama's inauguration. Dalia Mogahed, another woman in an exhibitionistic head covering, gave a U.K. television interview by telephone, praising public shariah as a protection for women's dignity — after her appointment to the American President's "Office of Religious Partnerships."
ISNA president Mattson was born in Canada, but it is probably no accident that she has risen to prominence south of the border, because Canadian Islam is different. While CAIR-Canada is active in the media scene, ISNA and MSA have a lower media profile in Canada than in the United States. Their place has been assumed by the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), which has distinguished itself by its campaign to exploit Canadian laws against hate speech, by attacking such mainstream media as the National Post and Maclean's. This is the dark side of the Canadian difference. Unlike Canada, the U.K., and many European countries, the U.S. adds extra punishments for "hate crimes" — violence and other violations of law in which a prejudicial motivation can be proven — but does not criminalize any form of speech except incitement to immediate, physical harm. America only punishes acts of personal aggression, including murderous assaults as well as terrorist conspiracies.
Still, the CIC has not succeeded in intimidating Canadian media. Although I disagree strenuously with both the non-Muslim Mark Steyn and the Muslim "dissident" Irshad Manji, both are more widely read, proportionately to their audiences, than any non-Muslim critic or Muslim dissenter in the U.S. Full disclosure here: In 2003, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a four-way debate including myself, Manji, Sheema Khan of CAIR-Canada and Dr. Jamal Badawi, the latter being one of the most extreme Sunni fundamentalists in the English-speaking world. Such an encounter on national television is almost inconceivable in the U.S. In addition, Salim Mansur, columnist for the Sun Media newspaper chain, is a prominent member of the organization I founded, the Centre for Islamic Pluralism. Mansur provides a lively and informed Muslim perspective absent from the American dailies, which are typically satisfied to offer Muslims space only for "politically correct" presentations of an Islam without problems. A Canadian Muslim and former student of Mansur at the University of Western Ontario, Imaad Malik, works on prison issues for CIP.
Every honest Muslim knows the worldwide Islamic community faces serious challenges, as represented by Saudi and South Asian fundamentalism, whether known as Wahhabism or Deobandism, as well as the peculiar mix of Arab nationalism and Wahhabi-style fundamentalism embodied in the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Iranian radicalism. The umbrella term "Islamism" is not very helpful to Muslims in dealing with these ideologies — it is vague, and in conflicts such as that affecting the future of global Islam, wisdom consists of making distinctions rather than confusing them. Nor, in my view, is the condemnation of "political Islam" particularly useful. Before moderate Islam in the West can defeat the radicals and emerge as a normal faith community, moderates must become "political." Indeed, Muslim anti-radicalism is as "political" as Muslim jihadism, by its very nature. The Saudi hardliners, terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iranian tyrants and competitors in fanaticism like the Egyptian MB and the Turkish Justice and Development party will not be defeated by a withdrawal of Western Muslims, much less those in their own countries, from public life. Spiritual Sufis may continue to emphasize their individual cultivation of religiosity. But Sufis have been notable public combatants for moderate Islam in the Balkans, Morocco, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and now Iran.
Still, what makes Canadian Islam different? I think the answer lies in encouragement of two streams of Muslim immigration that differ from the influx to the U.K. or the U.S. Numerous Canadian Muslims came with Commonwealth passports to English Canada from countries in Africa and elsewhere, their forebears having been harried and even killed by nationalist dictators. Their Islam had always been heterodox, and they included Ismaili Shias, many of them known as Khojas. Some obey the guidance of the Aga Khan, the world Ismaili leader, who has endowed a foundation to support Muslim social progress. Others are Bohras, a different Ismaili variety. Khojas and Bohras alike have blended their Shia Islam with Hindu traditions. Yet another group in Canada, like the majority of moderate Muslims in the U.K., follow the Qadiri and similar Sufi traditions.
In addition, Quebec has drawn French-speaking Muslim immigrants from countries like Tunisia, which is secularist, and Algeria, which underwent a brutal terrorist assault in the last decade of the 20th century. Unfortunately, few such moderate, much less heterodox, Muslims have a significant voice in the U.S. For Americans, including many who oppose radical Islam, the "Wahhabi lobby" continues to be seen as the only authoritative Islamic voice. We should be glad that Canada is different, and offers a place where Muslim sanity is prized, rather than dismissed. Finally, a real transformation of the lands of Islam may benefit most from social reforms in Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with a rescue of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey from religious nihilism. Yet Canada may still offer a more positive example of Islamic community life in the West than either the U.S. — where Muslims are well-off, atomized and conformist in the face of radical manipulation — or Britain, where Muslims are marginalized by their class and religious status, and government has chosen to appease rather than to oppose radical Islam.