He who follows a path in quest of knowledge, Allah will make the path of Paradise easy to him. The angels lower their wings over the seeker of knowledge, being pleased with what he does. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth and even the fish in the depth of the oceans seek forgiveness for him. The superiority of the learned man over the devout worshiper is like that of the full moon to the rest of the stars (i.e., in brightness).
As an adolescent, I often found myself embroiled in argument with the vilest antagonists. I was passionate and bright, but immature and combative. Going through my teenage years during the thick of the global “War on Terrorism,” my political and social views often took on an angrily defiant tone. I think it’s typical of boys like me, though, to be that way. Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and war mongering was (and remains) easily found on Internet message boards across the web. At one point in time, those discussions were confined to the unsavoury crevices of fascist and right wing hubs – but now they’ve become markedly more mainstream. Every day, I cycle through comments on CBC, BBC, and Economist articles – respected publications – and find novels-worth of that sort of repugnant dialogue. In an odd paradox, as I’ve matured and come to terms with the nuance of the world – much of society has responded by becoming increasingly polarized, extreme, and ignorant. I don’t leave many comments on these articles anymore, but I do see many of my fellow Muslims still engaging – but rather than stooping to the level of their foes, I’m happy to see them taking the high road. Even in popular media, our people stand heads and shoulders above the paltry level of discourse – whether it be Reza Aslan, Khalid Latif, or Yasir Qadhi. It stokes the great amount of pride I have in our community and the way we handle the vitriol we face on a daily basis. Despite our challenges, we remain an exemplary group of people who continue to reach for the mantle of civilization.
Observing the election campaigns in the United States, Canada, and the ongoing refugee crisis in the Near East, it’s disheartening to see the anti-Muslim rhetoric only continue to grow. The debate around the niqab in Canada, for example, is a textbook case of pandering to the lowest common denominator. It’s even more dispiriting to know that this is what the lowest common denominator of “old stock” Canadians is – foul ignorance. In this environment, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to remain civil, patient, and vigilant. It’s hard not to be angry and feel that we, as a community, are under attack. The passing of thinly-veiled anti-Muslim legislation in Canada of late including C-51 – permitting the unrestricted surveillance of citizens and C-24 – the establishment of two tiers of citizenship rights have legitimized this sentiment to a significant degree. Yet, Western Muslims have not reacted with equal senselessness nor have they conformed to the prejudiced stereotype of violent, hair-trigger Islamic reactionism. Instead, we have carried on as we always have – with unparalleled dignity.
The image of Muslims that these ignorant individuals seemed to have built in their mind is so far from the truth that it is damning in its own right. Muslims are not refugees off some leaky boat, greedily consuming government aid, and living in squalor. Our community is not a community of leaches and blood-suckers, as the great Malcolm X would have said. Muslims in North America have far higher average incomes, levels of education, youth, growth rates, and health levels than the rest of the population. Inmates in prisons and correctional facilities across the continent who convert to Islam or participate in Islamic faith services exhibit the lowest levels of recidivism and become model inmates. While the army of propagandists seek to construct the image of Islam as a marauding, violent, repressive, foreign entity – Muslims in the West embody the true, noble, and indisputable face of Islam day-in and day-out. One of the great leaders of the Muslim community here – Sheikh Hamza Yusuf – has repeatedly spoken about how the Western world provides Muslims with an opportunity that is often unavailable in Muslim-majority countries. Imperial powers have spent centuries destabilizing and pillaging Muslim countries, degrading and debilitating their populations. Meanwhile, the privileged ignorant audaciously point fingers and accuse Muslims of being uncivilized savages who can’t manage their own affairs. However, here in the West, Muslims have the opportunity to display the quality of Islam without the spectre of oppression and violation. While we have our weaknesses as a community here, in most regards we are fulfilling the dreams and prophecies of our leaders.
America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white, but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all together, irrespective of their color.
It is because of the value and quality of our community that defending it needs to be seen as a responsibility of each and every individual member of it. I understand the desire to live a simple, quiet life of family and faith – as most Muslims have. There can never be peace, though, if we continue to allow the discourse of hatred and acts of oppression to continue. As a community with the potential to elevate as highly as we do, we also have the responsibility to safeguard democratic institutions and society lest we acquiesce to mob rule. Rising ignorance will erode the protections we have in our greater society, as respect for our rights and freedoms will be trampled on by those in the power establishment. Despite the Muslim community’s relative affluence and dignity, we are still underrepresented in politics, the judiciary, legal system, and media. We have little say or control in our governments and societies – which leads to the propagation of uncontested anti-Muslim propaganda. We have reached a point where participation and an active effort to protect our interests is a bare necessity. We are not powerless – together we have unlimited potential to affect our outcomes.
Earlier this year when three young Muslim students were murdered by an Islamophobic terrorist in Chapel Hill, NC, the tragedy of the incident was only deepened by further revelations about the nature of those three beautiful souls. Deah was a dentistry student and actively worked to provide aid to Syrian refugees and the homeless in his local community. His wife Yusor also planned to study dentistry and worked closely with her newlywed husband. The youngest, Razan was majoring in architecture and environmental design while being actively involved in charity work. They were exceptional Muslims, exceptional Americans, and exceptional human beings who exemplified what our community is all about. They were a part of the foundation that would carry their country and the world into a better future. Three brilliant stars extinguished. This can’t happen again. We can’t afford it. For all of our embattled brothers and sisters all over the world, we cannot allow our greatest hopes to be silenced, incarcerated, or killed. We cannot stand idly by while other communities – Muslim or non-Muslim – continue to suffer. We must stand with those losing their lives in Ferguson, we must come to know and understand the words “Idle No More,” and we must firmly declare that there is no such thing as an illegal human being. We are enemies of injustice, wherever and to whomever it is distributed.
Each one of us must engage with our world and our society. Building bonds with our neighbours, communities, and exercising our civil rights is more important than ever. We can never stop educating ourselves, our sisters, brothers, and children. When the Puritan Christians left Britain for the New World, they envisioned their new country – America – to be a “city upon a hill,” borrowing from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. The “city upon a hill” parable has become a staple in American politics, symbolizing American exceptionalism and the desire to create a society that would serve as an example of unity and righteousness for the world. Where the Puritans have failed, Muslims can succeed. We believe we were meant to be the city upon a hill – an example for the rest of humanity. That is true in Ottawa, in Washington, in London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Damascus, Ramallah, Baghdad, Islamabad, Jakarta or Abuja. God says in the Qur’an (3:110), “You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.” There remains no time for bystanding – the time to embody nationhood in all its glory and responsibility is now.
My community will come forth bright and radiant.