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July 7, 2010

Islamic History Month, an open letter

Roman Mukerjee

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To Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, Founder Islamic History Month Canada:

I would like to express how much your leadership and the Canadian Islamic Congress have meant to me, especially with reference to Islamic History Month.

Briefly, I am of East Indian and Czech origin. My 99-year-old father is from Calcutta, India, and my late mother is from the Czech Republic.

This led to my joint and underlying identity as Indo-Czech and Hindu-Christian. In addition, I am married to a Reformed Jew and we have two adopted aboriginal daughters—a Mayan from Honduras and an Inuit. Yes, we are indeed Canadian and we live in the national’s capital, Ottawa.

In my career, I spent 30 challenging and fruitful years with Multiculturalism Canada, where I had responsibility for Asian communities, and was the lead liaison for the RCMP and National Defence on visible minority issues.

I helped the then-RCMP Commissioner modify the police dress code to include the traditional turban for Sikh officers.

In another case, I worked with a parliamentary committee to change the House of Commons’ Christian prayer to one that included diverse faiths. I also assisted a parliamentary committee to prepare the Multiculturalism Act for legislation.

I am retired now, but continue to volunteer in our rich cultural, racial and religious communities.

That is history. Let me continue.

One very revealing and deeply satisfying act of volunteering has been with the Muslim community through the Canadian Islamic Congress. Three years ago, then-President Dr. Mohamed Elmasry happened to cross paths with me over a chat at the downtown Elgin hotel in Ottawa, where he was staying.

Quite spontaneously, we soon entered into a discussion about the dynamics of intercultural, inter-racial and interfaith relations in Canada. He then told me of a groundbreaking national initiative he was launching: Islamic History Month (IHM), a first in Canada and North America.

The purpose of IHM is to bring Muslim culture to the Canadian public every October through films, lectures, panels and exhibits, in cooperation with relevant embassies.

I was very impressed by Prof. Elmasry’s enthusiasm and his proposal to give Muslim communities positive exposure to counter the constant media misrepresentations on various world conflicts.

Prof. Elmasry asked me, right on the spot, if I would be interested in offering my intercultural experience and skills.

Without any hesitation, he was confident that I would fit in with the organizing committee of Muslim community leaders.

I was honoured by the offer, and agreed in principle, because this much-needed action deserved the full multicultural commitment that I could offer.

More than that, as a non-Muslim, I was fully accepted as part of this initiative. There was so much to share and to learn.

Indeed, there was full transparency between the Muslim leadership and me as we went step by step to achieve IHM’s goals.

I must say that the stereotype of Muslims being exclusive and not open to “others” did not hold true in my relations with the Canadian Islamic Congress and in particular with Dr. Elmasry.

I was made to feel so welcome and equal in the IHM initiative that I was offered to sit on a panel to share my interfaith identity. This sharing was noted by an Ottawa radio program host, Dr. Qais Ghanem, who wished me to share this experience in an interview.

I look back at the years I spent in the multiculturalism department where I never got full recognition for my underlying “mix.” I was just “interesting” or “not typical.” I was not fully accepted for just who I am.

To go a step further, the executive director of The Canadian Islamic Congress, Imam/Dr. Zijad Delic, had no trouble recommending me for the Governor General’s “Caring Canadian Award” for outstanding volunteer work with cultural, racial and religious minorities. This action in and itself is a true award that gave me confidence with the Muslim community.

Overall, there are many cases of multicultural relations with Muslim communities. Our differences need to be shared, and we need to understand where we have much in common. We are indeed very privileged to be in a country that has an official policy of multiculturalism, which gives full expression to our Canadian identity.

I must thank the Muslim community leadership for including me, and for sharing what we can do together. It has left a lasting impression on me. Ultimately we are all equal in the sight of the Divine.

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