08 Nov 2014

Op-Ed by SRI Executive Director published

08 Nov 2014

An Op-Ed by the Silk Road Institute’s Executive Director, titled It’s up to Muslims to become part of the mainstream Canadian cultural experience, was published in today’s Montreal Gazette.



It’s up to Muslims to become part of the mainstream Canadian cultural experience

By Mohamed Shaheen, Special to the Montreal Gazette


Last month, tragedy struck our nation. Canadians were shaken by the murder of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa.
For the Canadian Muslim community, a familiar scenario played out. It started with a feeling of dread and the desperate hope that the perpetrators were not Muslims. What followed was a sincere and swift condemnation by Muslim organizations, as well as by individuals via social media.

Some within and outside the Muslim community argue that Muslims should not feel compelled to publicly condemn every act of violence, because they are not responsible for the actions of a minority who profess to abide by their faith.

The argument is certainly not without merit, and I don’t doubt that many Muslims — while sincere with their denunciations — would rather do so solely out of compassion, instead of feeling the need to dispel any notion that they support violence.

The fact is, with so much misinformation and misunderstanding, Muslim leaders must make clear to their fellow Canadians the true and peaceful nature of Islam.

The causes of how we came to be here are several. Certainly, Islamophobia, and those who maliciously use such tragedies to incite hatred toward Muslims, is a factor. Additionally, decades of skewed representations of Muslims in mainstream media have left some with prejudices that are hard to dispel. But there’s more at play. It’s also up to the Muslim community to take responsibility for altering how they are perceived.

On the day of the Ottawa attack, while my wife was finally emerging from one of the last federal buildings to have the lockdown lifted, I was in Montreal about to start moderating a pre-scheduled discussion with Muslim author and activist Monia Mazigh about the launch of her latest book, a novel about the lives of several Muslim Canadian women.

The audience was diverse, a testament to the multicultural fabric of this nation. Surprisingly (or not), as I was observing the audience from the stage, I realized how very few people from within the Muslim community had come to support an author who was doing her best to showcase and humanize the Muslim Canadian experience.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Many Muslim Canadians embraced CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie during its six-season run, lauding the show for its power to dispel stereotypes. But Zarqa Nawaz, the show’s creator, has hardly been celebrated or even acknowledged within the community.

It is through cultural, intellectual and artistic expression that every community in Canada has captured the Canadian imagination, and become part of it.

The truth — the sad truth — is that Canadian Muslims have yet to succeed in becoming part of the mainstream Canadian cultural experience, and on this issue, much of the blame lies with them. We have neglected to cultivate artistic and cultural expressions within our community, have provided little support to our artists and thinkers and have not prioritized the establishment of institutions dedicated to promoting such issues. By failing to showcase the Muslim Canadian experience, Muslims have left a gaping void, where others, from minority fundamentalists to Islamophobes, can speak on their behalf.

There is no excuse for bigotry, and while Canadian Muslims join their fellow citizens in sadness during this national tragedy, they will have to contend with a backlash resulting from misplaced anger. But unless they take control of their own voice and become a more integral part of the cultural landscape, they will always find themselves on the defensive when acts of abhorrent violence are committed by a minority within their community.

Mohamed Shaheen is a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University and executive director of the Silk Road Institute, a Montreal-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting cross-cultural exchange.

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