The Imaginary Divide

Peaceful coexistence between Muslim and non-Muslim Albertans in long-standing.

By David Liepert

Personally, there’s little I’d like better to write than a story about how well our growing Muslim population is integrating into Canada. Since I’ve earned the nickname “The Optimistic Muslim” in North American journalism circles, if anyone could do it, you’d think it would be me. 

However, optimism has been a little hard to come by lately. The strength of Canada’s multicultural fabric is being tested, and Muslims’ religious and cultural beliefs are at the centre of the debate. The Toronto “terror trials” revealed the presence of fanatical, potentially violent Islamist Canadians. Some conflate this small group with the majority of peaceful Canadian Muslims. Other court cases, such as the Ontario Supreme Court’s allowing of niqabs in the witness box, are challenging Canadians to confront the tricky implications of freedom of expression, conscience and religion. These issues, and others, seem to be straining Canadians’ famous tolerance.

It’s been a rough decade for multiculturalism all across the world. In particular, some non-Muslims have become more afraid of Muslims following 9/11, despite worldwide Muslim condemnation for the perpetrators of those terror acts. Animosity between Muslims and non-Muslims, however, has actually been building since before 9/11—since al Qaeda first set out to dupe the good people of the world into fighting each other instead of joining together against al Qaeda. Too many of us have now fallen for it. In Canada, I’ve watched rational people on both sides of the imaginary Muslim/non-Muslim divide become progressively polarized. 

Alberta has a long and storied history of an Islamic presence. This province isn’t perfectly tolerant, of course; discrimination and prejudice exist here just as they do everywhere. But given Islam’s long history here, might this be as good a place as any for Muslims and non-Muslims to begin to sort out our differences, learn what we have in common and set an example for the rest of the world?

So, what’s the “Muslim” perspective on Albertan multiculturalism? The old French adage “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” comes to mind. Most of us wouldn’t say this in French, of course, but we likely wouldn’t say it in Arabic either; only a fifth of Alberta’s Muslims are of Arabic descent. And since the time of turn-of-the-century fur trader Sam Jamha (who spoke Arabic fluently—but also English, French and Cree) we’ve generally been multilingual. Most of us are either of South Asian or African background. A growing number of local Muslims are fair-skinned Europeans, or North American-born. A growing proportion of us are converts to Islam, like me.

Many Lebanese immigrants became fur traders in the north in the 1930s

Many Lebanese immigrants became fur traders in the north in the 1930s. (Finne/NWT Archives/N-1979-063-0039)

Peter Baker, one of Alberta’s earliest Muslims, likely hoped he’d faced down discrimination for good over a century ago. Although his birth name was Bedouin Ferran, Peter Baker was given an anglicized name by a friendly Catholic priest to help him fit in before coming to Alberta, where he opened a store. This forethought was only partially effective, as Baker describes in the story of a conflict with a Fort Smith, NWT, fur trader: “When (Willy) Lyall moved over he started talking nasty and mean… he told people all about the ‘Jew’ and made up a name for my place, the ‘Jew’s store.’ The people—Indian, Métis and whites—came and told me that he was spreading false propaganda about me. Along with Lyall, a young Scotch policeman, McIvor, was also annoying me. Before Lyall came to (Fort) Smith I had never heard anybody mention such a word as Jew… In those days, when anybody was called a Jew, it meant ‘outcast and despised,’ because a Jew was a ‘Christkiller.’ I was called that most often.”

In Baker’s day, prejudice wasn’t restricted to ordinary people confusing Islam with Judaism; it even reached to the highest levels of Canada’s government. In 1926, when Baker confronted federal Minister of the Interior Charlie Stewart over his modification of the Territorial Trading and Trafficking Laws (which restricted Baker’s right to trade with the Aboriginal population), Stewart replied, “It wouldn’t be necessary for the new rule if it was not for those damned Syrians and Jews going around fooling the poor Indians!” 

Yet Baker proved his commitment to Canada’s highest values when he went on to represent a mostly Aboriginal constituency in the legislature of the Northwest Territories. He is buried in the graveyard of Edmonton’s Al-Rashid mosque, opened in 1938, the oldest mosque in Canada. It’s not surprising that Alberta’s Muslims are inspired by stories such as Peter Baker’s. Encouraged by his example, we have unquestionably thrived. And through it all, our best and brightest—from Larry Shaben, Canada’s first Muslim cabinet minister, who represented the riding of Lesser Slave Lake, to Moe Amery, the current MLA for Calgary–East, to Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi—have continued to serve Alberta and show the rest of the country how multiculturalism can work.

Given our history in Alberta, one point on which every Muslim will likely agree (and believe me, there aren’t many—we’re as diverse a community as they come) is that we’re wary of the title “newcomer.” Mahdi Qasqas, director of Muslim Youth Services in Calgary, finds the label problematic because it can connote a weak commitment to Canada. Sitting in his office at the back of a converted exercise centre (where the “Love My Curves” logo now reads simply “Love MY,” the “MY” standing for “Muslim Youth”), Qasqas explains, “Even our newest arrivals just want to work and raise their children like everyone else.” In other words, Muslims come to Canada to be Canadians, to enjoy the much-envied freedoms and opportunities of Canadians—not to make this country resemble the place they left.

In truth, “newcomers” is perhaps a designation we all share—Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Canadian history didn’t begin with John Cabot in 1497 when he claimed what is now Newfoundland for God and England. The first ocean voyagers to come to Canada’s shores were the Vikings, bringing All-Father Odin. The next explorer to make it here was Chinese-Muslim admiral Zheng He. However, the distinction of being the “first-discoverer” will always belong to the first man, woman or child who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia over 40,000 years ago. According to the Huron Carol, which I learned way back in grade school in Ontario, the people who discovered North America were partial to Gitchi Manitou.

The thing is: God, Odin, Allah and Gitchi Manitou are all understood by their worshippers as being inadequate names for the same God-concept: the one who made us all and wants us to treat each other with respect. Rather than being the name of some “foreign” non-Christian God—as portrayed by non-Muslim preachers such as evangelical leader Franklin Graham—Allah is even the word that Arabic-speaking Christians use when they’re talking either to or about God. 

Ever since Islam began under Muhammad (after which name Muslims respectfully add “peace be upon him,” as they do after naming every prophet, including Jesus, peace be upon him) people who live by Muhammad’s example, regardless of their language, have revered and protected the path to worship of other believers, whether Muslim or not. Muhammad’s society in Medina promised equivalent status, rights, roles and responsibilities for all, regardless of race or religion. Muhammad’s Islam affirms women as the equals of men. Muhammad appointed a woman named Um-Waraqah an imam. 

When the first Muslims took over Jerusalem, they hallowed the Western Wall of the Old Temple and even allowed the Jews—who’d been evicted by the Christians—back in. And a Christian monastery still sits at the foot of Mount Sinai, where they cherish a document in which Muhammad promises religious freedom and Muslim protection to “all those who adopt Christianity both near and far,” and in which Muhammad makes his promises binding on all other Muslims until the end of time. 

In the earliest and best Muslim civilization, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in peace. And despite Islamophobic claims to the contrary, our greatest regret isn’t that Muhammad’s legacy of civilized living didn’t become a worldwide empire under Muslim domination, it’s that the legacy of peace that he left the world didn’t last.

I grew up as a Lutheran, became a Baptist when I decided I needed to take God’s Word more seriously, and then became a Muslim when I realized I should take my faith more seriously yet. I’ve made and held close friendships with people of every religious faith, and one thing I’ve learned is just how similar we all are no matter what we believe. 

Sitting in Alberta’s mosques, whether under an elaborate crystal candelabra on carpet designed to arrange worshippers in rows or in a converted school gymnasium under mercury vapour lamps with cardboard in place of carpet, you’ll find—as I have—that Muslim sermons sound more or less identical to those heard in Christian churches or Jewish synagogues. How do you have a happier home? (Answer: Treat your spouse as your equal.) How do you raise children to be good to their parents? (Answer: Treat them with respect yourself.) How should you show your love for God in heaven? (Answer: Love your neighbour here on earth.) Imams such as Jamal Hammoud, a member of the Canadian Council of Imams and senior leader of all Calgary imams—teach that Islam promotes religious pluralism, gender equity and individual freedom of choice. Gratitude for Canada’s freedoms figures strongly in all our imams’ messages: Imam Hammoud has been particularly vocal about the need for all of us to help Canada’s Muslim immigrants integrate and make Canada their home. 

So, given these indications that Islam’s and Canada’s values are closely aligned, what’s the reason for any lingering suspicion of Muslims in Canada? Alberta-born and -bred Nagah Hage, leader of the Muslim Council of Calgary, thinks it has to do with Muslims’ growing population and increasing visibility. 

“Before mosques were here, I don’t think many people noticed us,” Nagah says while sitting in his grocery store in the Trans-Canada Mall. “But every mosque we’ve built has made us harder to ignore.” Hage’s Mideast Foods & Halal Meats is the social centre of Calgary’s Muslim community. Decorated with pictures of pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca, Arabic inscriptions from the Quran, and hookahs, and smelling of cardamom, tea, fried chicken and pizza, here you can find a representative slice of our multi-ethnic population any time of the day. Food and groceries are sold to women garbed in everything from burkas to miniskirts, and to men wearing everything from prayer shawls to tractor caps. It’s an interesting place to hang out—and so, many of Calgary’s Muslims do. 

Nagah pauses to pour tea. “Mosques are a focus for anti-Muslim feeling anytime there’s conflict with Muslims in the rest of the world,” he says. “Interestingly enough, we didn’t see much right after 9/11, but we had to deal with anti-Muslim graffiti and vandalism after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and after Israel invaded Lebanon and Gaza.” 

Where does that sort of prejudice originate? In my experience, a small but vocal group of politically or religiously driven people attempt to fan the flames by referring to mosques such as the one in southwest Calgary as “The Wahhabian Mosque” (a word commonly associated with the most repressive and extreme interpretations of Islam) and by claiming such buildings are built with Saudi money. Let’s be clear: the last time Calgary’s Muslims got any money from Saudi Arabia was a congratulatory gift of $50,000 from King Faisal in the early 1970s. And Calgary’s mosques are far from being hotbeds of Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam. 

Most Albertans seem to understand this. Last year, when Angus Reid commissioned a survey of Canadians’ attitudes toward Islamic people, Albertans responded with the most favourable attitudes toward Muslims of people of any province in Canada. On a question about whether or not Islam is a mostly peaceful religion, Albertans again offered the most favourable response in the country.

Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi

Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi. (Naheed Nenshi)

Yes, it’s true that some radical and politically motivated Muslims—and non-Muslims—strive to draw extreme interpretations from 1,000 years of Muslim history in order to manipulate credulous Muslims—and non-Muslims—to their own ends. Rest assured that in Canada’s mainstream mosques, under Canada’s mainstream Muslim leaders, Muhammad’s multicultural example reigns supreme. The Canadian Council of Imams’ declaration that our mosques promote pluralism, gender equity and individual freedom is specifically designed to starve those extremist perspectives of support.

This past Ramadan (Aug 11–Sep 9), Canada’s scholarly imams declared Islam to be completely in line with the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms—because when Islam is practised the way Muhammad practised it, it is in line with the Charter. That’s the Islam taught in Canada’s mainstream mosques.

Yes, extremist members of all faiths—including Islam—exist in this country. But it’s important that we don’t conflate the few with the many. The vast majority of Canada’s Muslims have all along stood up for Canada and everything good Canada stands for. Just as have the vast majority of Canada’s Christians, Jews and members of other faiths.

Yes, many Muslims are angry about various Canadian governments’ support for Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinian people, the half a million orphans the war with the Taliban has created in Afghanistan, the way Muslims are more and more treated with suspicion by Canadian government officials. Frankly, we expect that most Canadians, Muslim or otherwise, would share our anger and recognize the inherent contradictions between what Canada stands for and how it sometimes acts. 

If optimism is going to spring from anywhere, however, it would seem to be Alberta. Muslims have been part of Alberta’s history for over a century. Alberta has struggled with—and for the most part overcome—the challenges of multiculturalism, and Alberta’s Muslims have been part of that overcoming from the very beginning.

Islam and Canada are both powerful symbols to those who believe in them, promising justice, equal rights and responsibilities for all, regardless of race, creed or gender. And far from being antagonists in a war for world domination, that makes Islam and Canada each other’s strongest ally in the struggle to make the world a better place for everyone.  

David Liepert, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Calgary, is author of Muslim, Christian and Jew: Finding a Path to Peace (2010).


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