When in Rome
by Stephen Schwartz
In general, the Canadian Muslim population is different from its American counterpart. Most Canadian Muslims emigrated to Canada from East Africa, India, Pakistan and other Commonwealth countries; and they did so earlier than the main influx of foreign-born Muslims to the United States. Most came to Canada prior to the onset of significant radicalization of South Asian Muslims in their countries of origin. Newcomers to Canada include many Ismaili and other Shia Muslims, whose intellectual diversity is well-known.
By contrast, numerous Arab, South Asian and Somali Muslims who arrived in the United States over the past two-and-a-half decades have brought with them a culture of grievance, especially against Israel and India but also against the United States itself, even though it has welcomed and assisted them. (These pathologies are, I am pleased to report, largely absent from the communities of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims that arrived in the United States during the recent Balkan wars.)
Dominance over American Islam by Saudi-and Pakistani-backed radical networks has rendered American Muslims confused and passive in the face of radicalism and mediocre in their religious development. This is generally not the case with Canadian Muslims.
Earlier this month, I travelled to Toronto to lecture on the threat posed by Wahhabism -the fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam ensconced as Saudi Arabia's official creed, and exported from that country to Muslim communities around the world. My visit was sponsored by a Canadian educational group, the Forum For Learning.
Toronto is rightly called North America's "capital of anti-Islamist Islam." While there, I observed another distinct aspect of Canadian Islam: In Canada, South Asian Muslims generally have good relations with Hindus from the subcontinent -something that is sadly lacking in the United States and Britain.
My lecture in Toronto outlined the "counter-jihad" against Wahhabis and other radicals who claim the mantle of Sunni Islam, as well as against the tyrants of Tehran, who murder people at home and abroad. I concentrated on the menace represented by takfiri groups -i.e., movements that define Muslims who dissent from fundamentalism as apostates. I described my own journey to Islam, my encounter with Wahhabism in the Balkans and my early warnings about the Saudi Wahhabis -who inspired al-Qaeda. I also described my 2002 book The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud from Tradition to Terror, and my 2004 founding of the Washington-based Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP).
We at the CIP are traditionalists -Sufis, and secular Muslims, Sunni and Shia -who direct our message and our attention mainly to other Muslims. We do not pander to the biases of non-Muslims or attempt to present ourselves as religious reformers. We want social reform in the Muslim lands, and for the religion to be left to develop as it will. But to attain these goals we must defeat the takfiris and Tehranis alike. Once the radical fundamentalists are beaten, and seen to be beaten, a libertarian Islam, in Muslim democracies, may flourish.
In the past, Ontario has been the scene of convoluted debates over proposals to introduce shariah law, in the guise of "Islamic mediation" or, worse, "Islamic arbitration." At the CIP, we hold to the traditional Islamic guidance, dating to the Prophet Muhammad himself, commanding us as Muslims to accept the laws and customs of non-Muslim countries in which we may live.
We also affirm the similarly well-established Islamic principle that shariah cannot be imported into non-Muslim territories.
We have produced an extensive study of shariah ideology in Western Europe, and have concluded that the Muslims of Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain do not want shariah. In our view, the rejection of shariah extends to so-called Islamic mediation and arbitration -such as that once proposed for Ontario Muslims -since we cannot be assured that such procedures will be governed by sensible and moderate clerics.
This perception is reinforced by a remarkable incident in Florida, where a local magistrate, Judge Richard Neilsen, ordered at the beginning of March that shariah-based arbitration should be recommended by the state authorities in a civil dispute between a Shia mosque, the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, and four members removed from its board of trustees.
An Islamic scholar in Texas decided that the quartet had been dropped from the board unjustly. In a ridiculous display of patronizing rhetoric presumably intended to flatter the Muslims and assure them of his goodwill, Judge Neilsen commented: "Islamic brothers should attempt to resolve a dispute among themselves. If Islamic brothers are unable to do so, they can agree to present the dispute to the greater community of Islamic brothers within the mosque or the Muslim community for resolution."
The Shia mosque, however, rejected the adoption by the American court of shariah guidelines in their dispute, arguing through their attorney, Paul Thanasides, as follows: "The mosque believes wholeheartedly in the Koran and its teachings . They certainly follow Islamic law in connection with their spiritual endeavors. But with respect to secular endeavors, they believe Florida law should apply in Florida courts."
For Muslims living in a non-Muslim country, this is an exemplary position to take.