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June 22, 2015

Guelph's Muslim community a shining example to Canada and beyond

Justine Kraemer

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As Guelph's population has grown, there has been a corresponding increase in our city's diversity. While there has at times been friction as different groups attempt to live side by side, there have been many positive illustrations of multiculturalism. One such example is Guelph's Muslim community.

Guelph's Muslim population has been growing steadily since the 1970s. The first formal place of worship for Guelph's Muslims was secured when a Muslim faculty member of the University of Guelph, Dr. D. B. Irving, obtained permission from the university to use a chapel in the university centre to hold services.

In 1995, the steadily growing community obtained a property on Marlborough Road to accommodate its increasing population. Most recently, the Muslim Society of Guelph purchased the previous site of John Calvin Christian School on Water Street in 2012.

Guelph's Muslim community has a rich cultural history as well. Throughout the 1970s, Guelph's Muslim population consisted of mostly immigrants from Pakistan. Now, over 40 countries are represented in Guelph's mosques, with many congregants being second or third generation Canadians.

The Muslim Society of Guelph attempts to get as many members of its congregation involved in religious life as possible. There are a variety of events and programs that are designed for individuals from preschool aged children to senior citizens, and every age group in between. The Muslim Society is also very proud of its flourishing relationship with the Muslim Students Association at the University of Guelph in an effort to ensure that university aged individuals are able to practice their faith as they leave home for the first time.

As Guelph's Muslim population continues to grow, the Muslim Society has placed a particular emphasis on education, especially of the youth.

In a recent interview, Muhammed Sayyed, the mosque's director of education, stressed the importance of educating the youth of the community so that they are prepared to not only be strong in their own faith, but to reach out to their non-Muslim peers as well.

Since Guelph's Muslim population is continuously growing, and now includes approximately 10,000 individuals who identify themselves as Muslims, the congregation recognizes the importance of engaging their non-Muslim neighbours in constructive dialogue.

According to Dr. Khalid Zaheer, a visiting scholar to Guelph from the Islamic school and research centre Al-Mawrid in Pakistan, the responsibility for correcting false and damaging stereotypes that Western society has about Islam lies with Muslims themselves.

When asked what message Islamic teachers should strive to teach their pupils, Dr. Zaheer stated that, "We are teaching our youngsters and everybody that it is intolerable to entertain any kind of negative feelings or thoughts about people belonging to other religions."

An act of vandalism that occurred in 2011, in which hateful slogans and symbols were sprayed on the side of the Muslim community centre, demonstrated why the Muslim community benefits from reaching out to their non-Muslim neighbours.

When asked if local Muslims felt that this incident reflected hate and prejudice felt by Guelph's non-Muslim community, Mr. Sayyed stated that on the contrary, the incident showed how much support Muslims have. Members of the mosque recognized that such acts are isolated, and that the misguided individuals who do such things are not speaking for Western society as a whole. The Muslim Society responded to the incident by holding an open house, and was pleased with the response from the community.

Mr. Sayyed was keen to emphasize that the Muslim Society has an open-door policy, and that any member of the non-Muslim community is more than welcome to visit any of the sites in Guelph where Muslims practise their faith. The Muslim Society welcomes questions and observation of any aspect of Muslim worship by their non-Muslim neighbours.

The openness and kindness with which Guelph's Muslims have engaged the wider community is an inspiration, and provides a positive example of what multiculturalism is supposed to be.

Multiculturalism isn't simply an abstract idea; it is the way of Canadian life.

Justine Kraemer is a member of the Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board.

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