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March 11, 2015

Tough conversations build better neighbours

The Canadian Charger

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Most neighbours, even good ones, aren't usually willing to take on raw-nerve issues that could potentially generate misunderstanding, bewilderment or fear. Just try mentioning "terrorism," "radicalization," or "jihadist" as topics for a friendly discussion.

But for Sheikh Abdul-Mannan Syed Nadwi, Imam at the Waterloo Masjid since 1999, recent national and international terror events are a shared concern among Canada’s 1,000,000 Muslims. “Neighbors should talk about this,” he said.

And it turns out that the mosque’s closest neighbor – Mount Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church – is right around the corner. In fact, it’s so close that for years the congregation there has welcomed local Muslims to use its parking lot for Friday Jumma prayers, as well as during the month of Ramadan.

Recently, Mount Zion’s new pastor, Rev. Philip Mathai, Imam Syed and the writer found ourselves gathered in one of the mosque’s basement classrooms, surrounded by miniature lecterns where youngsters had been studying the Qur’an only a few hours before. And thanks to a generous member of the mosque, we shared our thoughts on some serious topics over that most Canadian of social rituals – coffee and doughnuts.

It didn’t take long, however, to move from sugary sweetness and caffeine to the elephant in that small room: we were there to begin probing questions on how international terrorism and domestic radicalization are affecting interfaith relationships like ours.

For months now, Canadians have been deluged by headlines detailing atrocities committed by “lone wolf” extremists and militant Islamist organizations with strange new names – like Boko Haram (the West is Evil), Al-Shabab (the Youth), and Islamic State of Iraq, Syria and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) – who use the powerful global reach of electronic social media to portray brutal hostage killings, mock Western culture, and entice alienated youth to embrace their ideologies of violence and hate.

“People ask us, ‘why aren’t you condemning these acts?’“ Imam Syed said. “We do; we condemn them all the time in talking to our congregations. But often, we are as shocked as you when someone pops up from nowhere, claiming to be Muslim and attacks innocent people.”

He’s not alone in believing that social and mental illness, combined with poor or non-existent education in the true teachings of Islam, have been significant factors in the emergence of so-called homegrown “jihadists.” Others, apparently invisible to Canadian (as well as British, American and European) authorities, have taken their dissatisfaction and anger overseas as volunteer fighters with groups like ISIS.

Ironically, at a time when governments have cut back on mental health resources, spiritual leaders and clergy like Imam Syed and Pastor Mathai (both of whom discovered they share roots in adjoining provinces of India) are increasingly the first contact people for those in their congregations suffering mental distress, or for concerned parents who see signs of disturbing behavioral changes in their teen and young adult children.

“I am always concerned when I hear about Imams who have dismissed ‘crazy’ people from their congregations and don’t do anything else about it,” the Imam lamented.  “Fortunately, that is not the norm … For example, I work as much as I can with disturbed people who come to me, but there is a point when their talk becomes too irrational and I must refer them to professionals, such as a psychiatrist.”

Because of negative media and social stereotyping about Islam – including such un-Qur’anic misconceptions as killing all “infidels” or spreading the faith through violent conquest – it has been relatively easy for unscrupulous recruiters to exploit those who feel powerless.

Especially vulnerable are those who seek escape and identity by self-converting to Islam, without having properly studied its teachings. In other parts of the world, exaggerated rewards are promised to impoverished and/or illiterate youth born into Islam, but without the benefits of the broad and detailed Qur’an-based education received by Muslim students in places like Waterloo, Ontario.

Today, some historians are comparing the abuse of power and exploitation of vulnerable masses by the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS to the Christian crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries that drew numerous volunteers to “save” Jerusalem by military conquest. The vast majority knew only what their leaders selectively told them about the Bible.

Unlike the Bible, with its many segments, its specific locations of moral commandments, and acknowledged inconsistencies, the Qur’an allows Muslims fewer excuses for ignorance about relating to other faiths and cultures, Imam Syed explained.  Revealed to Prophet Muhammad more than 1400 years ago during a period of 23 years, Islam’s holiest scripture contains guidelines for conduct throughout its pages; there is no “short list.”

Among the teachings frequently reiterated and emphasized are that one’s faith is not to be imposed on others by coercion; believers can only resort to violence in self-defense; the faith and deities of others are not to be mocked; and those who mock your own faith are to be forgiven. But you won’t find these core precepts cited in any 21st-century “jihadist” propaganda video.

In fact, proof-texting (taking statements out of context for personal gain or a secular political agenda) is considered abhorrent in Islam. This is why an Imam’s training includes memorizing the entire Qur’an.  “You can’t pick and choose,” Imam Syed affirmed. “. . . You try to live your life with all of the Qur’an in mind.”

“I tell my congregation not to be crybabies, not to complain that everything bad that happens to them is because they are Muslims; it is simply not true,” he  emphasized.

“I do not even believe in marginalization. If someone says ‘I am marginalized’, they are marginalizing themselves … Instead, we should be talking about solving real social problems. Here in Canada, we can do that; this is the very best place in which to practice Islam.”

(Pauline Finch is a former daily newspaper journalist and freelance writer based in Kitchener, Ont. who has worked editorially with Muslim clients and organizations for more than 15 years. She is also a member of Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Waterloo, Ont.)

Adapted and reprinted with permission, The Mountaineer (Feb. 2015), Mount Zion Lutheran Church.

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