Canada is Different, Even In Its Muslims
by Stephen Schwartz
TORONTO and MONTREAL — A common, cynical definition of Canadian identity is that it is "not American." That is, while Canada, in its English-speaking majority, has little to distinguish itself in literature, art, science, and other facets of culture, its residents console themselves with the distinction between their political attitudes, which run toward socialism and reluctance about global intervention, and those of their southern neighbor, perceived as ultra-capitalist and expansionist.
It is said that Canadians are more modest and polite, slower to be offended and less aggressive in their assertion of pride than Americans. Nevertheless, Canada contributes to the anti-terrorist struggle in Afghanistan. Canadian Forces recruiting publicity on television, which I viewed during a visit to Muslim intellectuals north of the U.S. border, expresses a commitment to combat absent from similar messages directed to American recruits. The U.S. military, in its appeals to enlist, emphasizes educational, training and other opportunities, while the Canadians stress a single word: "Fight." Canada is also different, as I shall examine, in its inclusion of a large non-English population, in French-speaking Québec and other Francophone areas.
Canadian Islam is equally different, in a promising and heartening way.
American Islam and Islam in England are completely dominated by extremists. There is no room for doubt about this. In the U.S., the leadership and representation of Sunni Islam is monopolized by the "Wahhabi lobby," made up of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and their various satellites. American Shia Muslims, most of whom still express great gratitude to President George W. Bush for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, are marginalized and disorganized.
In the worst aspect of this situation, the mainstream media (MSM) and significant elements of the U.S. government turn to the Wahhabi lobby and their academic apologists to speak for the American Muslims, as if there were no other Islam than that which its most radical exponents offer. The MSM and government do not seem to know who the moderate Muslims are, and demonstrate no understanding of how to communicate with them or support them in opposing the extremists.
Sunni Islam in England is even more subjugated, by members of the Deobandi sect that produced the Taliban, and jihadists from Pakistan and Bangladesh. England is the epicenter of radical Islam in Western Europe. Furthermore, England is diffident about the Saudi-Wahhabi threat. British ruling circles are tightly bonded to Saudi reactionaries by a similar monarchical heritage, energy policy, and a really bizarre passivity in the face of terrorist attacks. Many among the English seem to believe that since they survived the Irish Republican Army's urban terror campaigns, they will also get through the ordeal of bombings and related bloodshed on the London subway system and elsewhere. The shock experienced by Americans after September 11, 2001, when it was revealed that 15 out of 19 of the suicide pilots on that terrible day were Saudis – i.e. "America's best friends in the Arab world" – has yet to be felt in England.
In one of the most absurd instances of English blindness to the reality of radical Islam, Charles, the Prince of Wales, went to the Saudi kingdom last year and delivered a lecture at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, the capital – an institution known to moderate Saudis as "the terror factory." Charles attended a dinner party hosted by Saudi prince Sultan Bin Salman, at which "architectural heritage" was allegedly discussed, even though Saudi vandalism of the Islamic legacy in Arabia is a widely-resented scandal among Muslims.
Yet another example of extraordinary obtuseness came when the British authorities subsidized a so-called "Radical Middle Way" tour of the island that claimed to counteract extremism with "traditional" (sic) Islamic fundamentalism. Insisting on "engagement" with the radicals, the UK government legitimized Islamist agitation in the name of dialogue. The consequence has been to more firmly reinforce the hold of jihadist ideology in the Muslim communities of England. Even with successive media and law enforcement investigations of terror recruitment and conspiracies, Deobandi and Wahhabi elements have gained further power as the recognized spokespeople for the English Muslim communities.
It is therefore unsurprising that in both American and English Islam, authentic moderates and opponents of radicalism are seldom heard. Notwithstanding the blandishments of the MSM, there is no real debate about the future of Islam among the American and English Muslims. Insistence on religious conformity, hatred of the West and Israel, and the vocabulary of alleged victimization remain standard in Muslim discourse.
But to repeat, Canada is different. In the English-speaking provinces, groups like CAIR-Canada and ISNA are present but do not control all discussion as they do in America. Indeed, Toronto is a center of Muslim dissent. The Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), which I founded two years ago, enjoys the support of academic and journalist Salim Mansur, a Canadian member of the Center's board, and of Professor Mansur's former student, Imaad Malik, of Canadian origin. Brother Imaad is the first CIP Fellow, and writes for Family Security Matters.
Canadian Islam is more diverse and pluralistic than American or English Islam in some part, it seems, because of immigration by heterodox Shia Muslims from east Africa, including groups known as Khojas and Bohras, who despise extremism and adjust easily to Canadian life. Yet another factor is Canada's energy independence; the country exports hydrocarbon products to the U.S. and has no incentive to truckle to Saudi Arabia. Whatever the explanation, Canadian Muslims are engaged in a debate about their future, which offers an immense contrast with the environments of American and English Islam.
French-speaking Québec has seen a different development, which offers lessons for many countries. Canadian Muslims, as a minority, must additionally contend with the reality of the Québécois independence movement. The Québécois feel their culture is threatened by their historic rulers, the Anglo-Canadians. For the Québécois, "accommodation" to other minorities – the term the Québécois prefer to "multiculturalism" – has an ambiguous legitimacy; they insistently define their society as Catholic and French-speaking, first and foremost.
The vulnerability of small nations in the face of multicultural demands is little appreciated. While the U.S. and Anglo-Canada offer open space as well as vast economic opportunities and a global reach, Québec, like Holland and Denmark, is culturally unique and often misunderstood. Québécois journalists and authors are mainly read only in Québec, just as Dutch and Danish intellectuals are known almost exclusively among their own people. Choosing to affirm Québécois culture, like a decision to write in Dutch or Danish, cuts the creative elite off from much of the world, but members of these elites still do so out of love for their people.
Holland and Denmark accepted multiculturalism when they needed immigrants to fill jobs and when the program seemed attractive as an embodiment of established traditions of socialist internationalism in both lands. But Muslims who immigrate to such countries must understand that they have to accept the law and language of the local society, to enjoy the economic and social benefits – including democratic freedoms – they seek. Islamist separatism is more disruptive in small and isolated cultures than in large, "melting-pot" societies. This conundrum has been dramatized by recent developments in Québec that have gone unreported on the American side of the border.
Last month, the Québécois village of Hérouxville north of Montréal, with a population of 1,338, adopted a code of conduct that many observers defined as biased against Muslims: residents affirmed that in their town, people drink alcohol, women do not wear face coverings except at Halloween, and stonings are not permitted. Similar resolutions appeared elsewhere in Québec.
The Hérouxville code did not order the compulsory consumption of alcohol, which would have offended plenty of people who are not Muslim, aside from making settlement there impossible for a Muslim believer. But in Québec "reasonable accommodation" had already become the subject of a serious dispute. Prior to the Hérouxville incident, most of the episodes in this controversy involved the Jewish community. Protests followed a decision by a Montréal branch of the YMCA to frost the windows of its gym so that young members of a neighboring Orthodox synagogue would not be exposed to women exercising. Women police officers in the same city were called on to refrain from speaking directly to Orthodox Jewish men, and an ambulance driver was ordered from the premises of a Jewish hospital for eating non-kosher food in its cafeteria. Almost as a footnote, another man was told to leave a public swimming pool at the apparent demand of some Muslim women. But Anglo-Canadian media often seem to emphasize cultural squabbles involving Jews in Québec, in an effort to reinforce a perception that the French-speaking province, which has assimilated a considerable population of Tunisian Jews, is bigoted in its Catholicism.
Anglo-Canadians and Québécois, Catholics and Jews, Canadian Muslims and non-Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, are now compelled to argue the meaning of reasonable accommodation of minorities. But at least the condition of Islam is being argued, and silence cannot be imposed as in the U.S. and England. This is a necessary step toward the triumph of Islamic pluralism, and one which no moderate Muslim should fear. Canada is indeed different, and may offer hope for other non-Muslim societies contending with the challenge of immigrant and radical Islam. CIP in Canada will do everything possible to preserve and develop Canada's difference.