Cover Story

IT’S A MATTER OF FAITH

Home page image by  MOHAMED ABDELGAFFAR  from Pexels.com.   Image above by  ALAN KLEHR.  Image below by  LIZA REHMAN  from Pexels.com

Home page image by MOHAMED ABDELGAFFAR from Pexels.com. Image above by ALAN KLEHR. Image below by LIZA REHMAN from Pexels.com

By SHAGORIKA EASWAR

Back when I was in high school in India, there was the practice of writing quotable quotes on the blackboard each morning at the start of the school day.

The idea was to inspire us, but with the know-it-all arrogance of teenagers, we dismissed most with a laugh. However, over the years, I learned to appreciate the nuggets of truth contained in many of those. Now, of course, these land in my Inbox and while some are trite, a recent one made me pause and think.

Prejudice is like a cataract, it doesn’t let you see clearly.

Prejudice divides people into us and them. Ausma Zehanat Khan addresses these prejudices head-on in her books which have been described as exceptional by The Washington Post.

A Deadly Divide, her latest, is a superb, old-fashioned whodunnit, littered with red herrings. I picked first one, then another, as the most likely perpetrator, but was totally unprepared for the denouement. You’ll find no spoilers here, but suffice  to say, it’s one engrossing page-turner.

It is set against the shootings at a mosque in a small town in Quebec. In the aftermath, the local police apprehend a young Muslim man who was helping the wounded at the scene, but release the local priest who was found with a weapon in his hands. The shooting looks like a hate crime, but detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty sense there is more to the story.

Khan chose the name Esa because she loves it, she says. “It’s the prophetic name for Jesus and symbolises honour, gentleness and compassion.

And she chose a chatroom format, where people hide behind anonymity to spew hatred to drive the narrative. It’s a powerful emotive tool, laying bare emotions, and how people use them. Almost prescient, as now we see calls for social media to control or pull down sites that spread hate. She makes a strong case for the connect between hate talk and hate crime.

“That was only a mild taste of what I’ve read in actual posts when I was researching the book. For me it was eye-opening that there was so much of it, so much venom being spewed out into ether. We see it across the world, the use of hate propaganda, the use of state radio and state television to make people see one group as different from you and then incite them to strike first. People don’t realize how strong the connection is. There is very little criminalization of the acts of harm and violence before culmination. We need legislation, but we don’t have it because of the wide gap of experience between the affected and the unaffected communities. I hear people say they had a general idea, but not how pervasive it was. And the marginalized community doesn’t have the power to shape the debate until tragedy strikes because people relate it to free speech. It doesn’t have to be mob violence, it could be one person ripping the hijab off a woman walking down a street. And then the person harmed has to prove that harm has been done.”

The gripping thriller is thus, sadly, a very topical book. In the weeks after its release, one witnessed the horrific shootings at the mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand and the passing of the Religious Neutrality Bill in Quebec that again divided the community with some saying it was about time such a bill was in place and others coming out in protest.

“Seeking to ban certain cultural practices, stripping people of religious identity comes down to bigotry. There is a group in the middle that is not in support of such bills, but what I am exploring is how the group experiencing legislative hate is different from those outside the targeted community. People don’t appreciate the impact on a targeted group. Fighting back is a constant, daily struggle. It wears you out. I hope things will change. The National Council of Canadian Muslims has done a lot of important work in contesting the various iterations of Bill 21. But I worry about what’s coming, the possible move to the far right.”

Islamophobia has been a running theme in the Khattak and Getty series.

“It’s always there,” said Khan, in a phone interview from Colorado. “In the background in some, explicit in others. In A Deadly Divide, it’s in the foreground.”

Crime novels are ultimately about a pursuit for justice, says Khan, who has a doctorate in International Human Rights Law, .

“My books are about accountability and fit right into the genre. I was always writing, always interested in exploring, in uncovering issues that vulnerable minorities deal with in their daily lives –  in all settings. Where law and politics are sometimes on their side and when they operate against them. Muslims living in the West face anti-Muslim sentiment and rhetoric, specially after 9/11. They face negativity, derogatory and dehumanizing behaviour.

“My personal encounters have been largely positive, I am not obviously identifiable as Muslim, but I see it happen to my family members and friends. It all makes one feel guarded, prepared for the next worst experience.”

Khan describes a mosque in her book, a modest building.

Almost as an act of self-defense, the blue and white provincial flag of Quebec flew from a staff in the parking lot. There was no accompanying Canadian flag, and no display of a crescent or a star. No exterior arches, no dome or minaret. A uniquely Québécois mosque? Or the sign of a community in hiding?

She asks the questions, and leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusions.

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While writing it, she was asking herself why the community was in hiding. “I’ve prayed in both grand mosques as well as in small, nondescript places. In Little Mosque on the Prairie, they borrow space from a church. I was also thinking of synagogues, where all the beauty is inside, but they tend to be plain on the outside. Is that what people who feel targeted do to protect themselves and their places of worship?

Shakil Choudhury had written in Deep Diversity that racially different people evoke an unconscious, emotional response... this makes it easier to put people into mental categories like ‘potential threat’ ‘terrorist sympathiser’ or female-hating’, etc.

In Out of Many Faiths, Eboo Patel wrote that while Jews and Catholics had faced discrimination a century ago and those belonging to other religions and ethnicities might face it some years from now, there’s no denying that Muslims happen to be the story now.

“That’s a much bigger conversation about global politics,” says Khan. “I have always believed in the power individuals have to change things. Right-minded people, compassionate people, can change things, but you also have to look at the political agenda in the larger context. These views are not coming out of thin air. What do they want? It requires critical thinking and engagement with democracy to determine if what is being fed to you is correct, to not get carried away by everything you read or hear. It requires asking what can I do as a human being to explore a variety of perspectives.

“I don’t think in binary terms, I don’t think of us and them. We are all human beings trying to get to a good place. That said, in every community, in every generation, there’s a target. 9/11 and then the horrific attacks carried out by ISIS made it easy to demonize a community. But I believe that says more about the community assigning the label than the one the label is being assigned to.”

When people say that White supremacists are a response to Muslim terror, when they almost justify it as something that was bound to happen, how does she respond to that?

“Ascribing collective guilt and blaming 1.7 billion believers for the actions of a lunatic extremist fringe? I call that bigoted.”

How often do we hear someone say, “I have Muslim friends, they are not like that, but...” and that one but demonizes a whole community. But if the Muslims one knows are all good people, does the answer lie in going out and meeting and getting to know more such good people?

Intercultural and interfaith initiatives bring together people of different religions and cultural backgrounds. Do these help or do they remain a superficial saris-and-samosas mingling?  

According to Shakil Choudhury, we are hard-wired to be biased, but there is hope as prejudice and stereotypes are neural habits, and can be altered.

“Interfaith mingling is very important, not superficial at all,” says Khan. “There are hundreds of groups doing this valuable work. It’s well-known that prejudice diminishes with personal engagement. Eyes are opened, fear melts away. When the next person speaks ill of a particular group, someone outside of that group speaks up for them and that has more weight than someone trying to defend themselves. I give a lot of talks and I meet a lot of people who want to know more about my religion. Was mine an arranged marriage? Was I controlled by my father? Am I controlled by my husband? I am not defensive, but as a person of faith, with an ethical framework, I see it as my responsibility to do this. I see it as an ambassadorship. Most people are looking for answers, they are taking a genuine interest and talking can build a bridge. I could say it’s not my job to provide the answers – and it can be tiring – but I am heartened by these interactions. I find them very life-affirming, reassuring.”

Khan came to Canada as a five-year old from England with her parents who settled in Saskatchewan. After eight years, the family moved to Ontario, as her parents were seeking a larger South Asian and Muslim community. She completed her education in Ontario and got married here. About 14 years ago, she moved to the US with her husband.

She describes the political climate in Trump’s America as “not fun at all”. While, she says, there is the vast, often silent majority which supports immigrants and Muslims and is opposed to discrimination, she has received vitriolic responses to some of her posts. She tries to stay away from political comments but even then, someone will object to something she posts in the strongest possible manner and she has had, on occasion, to delete stuff because she doesn’t want people who follow her to be exposed to that negativity.

“It started with his campaign rhetoric. People felt emboldened and it’s not just against Muslims, it’s pretty bad against Hispanics and Latinos. My husband and I are politically active and used to be vocal, now we’re careful. I’m cautious in my public identity. But I have to add here that I got published in the US, I’ve received massive support from my publishers and editors who value what I have to say, who lift my voice.”

Coming back to Canada, the country boasts one of the highest naturalization rates in the world. About 85 per cent of eligible landed immigrants become Canadian citizens. They must feel welcome, feel a sense of belonging, one might assume. On the one hand Canadians are clamouring to sponsor more Syrian refugees, on the other, there are people like Alexandre Bissonette – the shooter in the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting whom she’s quoted in the book – who said he didn’t want any more refugees in Canada. He didn’t want us to become like Europe, he didn’t want them to kill his parents.

How does one make sense of both in the same universe?

“Well, one simple answer is that these are not the same people!” says Khan. “I have 12 nieces and nephews. My nephews, specially, have been bullied a lot. For being brown, for being Muslim. One of them plays hockey and when they played against a team from Quebec, it was pretty bad. But young people are also very open-minded. They are building friends’ groups in which they learn acceptance and tolerance. No human being is all evil or all good. In one group a person may say one thing, and in a multicultural gathering, act another way altogether. I’m hopeful for the future. What we have to watch for are sanctions from the top, from the leaders and the media... People think acts of violence against a community are happenstance, that they have to do in part with Trump, but Islamophobia is well-funded. The European Islamophobia Report  shows how radio and television channels and paid commentators are used to deliver anti-Muslim views. It is fostered with a deliberate end in mind. Whether to have a target or how they will prevent more people from coming in or what they will do with the people already here.

“My books begin with a story, they are not agenda-driven. As an author, I can’t force people to change their mind, but I hope to educate, to touch them through my books, to develop and deepen empathy. The reality is that Muslims are so different from how they are perceived, it is almost farcical. Writing gives me the opportunity to speak for myself, to tell our story instead of what is projected upon me.

“What I am and how I see the world, with mutual respect and kindness. I hope readers can see that. Because I believe we can negotiate differences with respect. It takes just a little sensitivity and consideration. I hope readers will understand Esa’s humanity. He’s complex and nuanced. He’s a wholly and fully developed human being, portrayed in a manner that a Muslim man isn’t often portrayed. His desire to provide justice derives from a faith that many suspect.”

Khan is also the author of the fantasy series, Khorasan Archives and wrote a book for middle-schoolers on Ramadan. She has a new book coming out in October.

            

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A place at the table

Raheel Raza founded Muslims Facing Tomorrow five years ago to give space to moderate Muslim voices.

“We allow the narrative to be taken over by a specific group and while we spoke up against this in our living rooms, there was no formalized counter narrative,” says the human rights activist. “It is not enough to condemn extremists in every form, it is important to have solidarity with those wanting to live in peace and tolerance.

“Our vision and mission is to represent Islam not the way it is represented by extremists. To talk about the separation of religion and state, about one law for all. Islam is a very diverse faith but while different people choose to practise it in different ways, we all have to respect individual freedoms and everyone who walks a different path. Canada is a very diverse nation and the only way to get along with all these diverse faiths and cultures is through respect. As immi-grants, we accept from other cultures, we offer something from ours, we exchange. Everybody should have the freedom of speech – though we may not like what they say – and freedom of conscience.

“I have not experienced bigotry once in my 30 years in Canada, but I know it exists, like it exists everywhere. We all have that racist bone in our body.  I do not tolerate acts of hatred. Against anyone. The official list of hate crimes encompasses everyone, Jews, the LGBTQ community, Blacks... So I acknowledge hate and intolerance when it occurs, speak for human rights across the board, not just for myself or my community. But I also believe that in order to have peace and love, you have to pinpoint the source of the problem. That it is incumbent upon me to address it. I start by looking inwards first.”

Raza has faced backlash from within her community as well as from the extreme left for voicing her opinions and beliefs. “They would rather I said everything is wonderful and not talk about issues.”

Undaunted, and believing that these issues can’t be addressed alone, she organizes  interfaith get-togethers.

“Our social life involves people of all faiths and our discussions can sometimes get intense, but we can agree to disagree! You don’t convince everyone. Our mandate is, ‘Expose the problem; educate the masses; and empower the change from within’. We must communicate with each other. It makes such a difference, having that conversation.

“One of the things we are lacking is dialogue. These are Canadian issues, hate and bigotry against any group or community should affect us all.”

At one point, this promoting of mutual values got hijacked by “the la-la types”, says Raza. “It was reduced to my samosa, your perogie, but it is not enough to talk about similarities or to ‘celebrate differences’. We must acknowledge differences and their impact. In our gatherings, we don’t just pat each other on the back, we don’t shy away from controversial issues. We take up women’s rights and Hindu, Muslim, Sikh issues, too. We take up causes. When you have an honest dialogue, people share their experience. The Jewish community reached out to us for help with anti-semitic activities and we got representatives of different faiths to brainstorm over chai and samosas. We are not defaming anyone, we respect all perspectives. We recognize that we are not the only voice, we are just one of the voices.”

And thus the circle expands. They have no membership but followers in the thousands. Raza describes their home as an underground café. At a typical gathering, there might be 10 or 12 people, including newcomers as well as young people wanting to learn more about their culture and that of others. They may have a panel discussion, or show a film. Food is, of course, the main attraction with Raza being known as the food mama.

While some meet occasionally,  many have gone on to become  good friends. “There are those that we can’t detach!” says Raza with a laugh. “They will come, volunteer, get involved.”

Raza and her husband Sohail teach a course on Islam at Ryerson University. The topics vary and the one she was covering at the time of this interview was The Passion and Politics of Islam. It is a popular course, she says, filling up quickly. The students have many questions.

“Does the Koran promote violence? Yes, I have been asked that. We address those questions, without political correctness.”

The couple are now approached by government and community agencies when dealing with issues. She is also called to give testimony on human rights issues.

Raza says she derives strength from the passionate response from people at their gatherings. “It is very humbling. I have learned not to judge. It’s all about humanity. This has opened my heart and my mind. There are no closed doors.”  

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