By ISHRAQ ALIM

“In this climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, this is the best time for us as Muslims to show our community what we have to offer and take it upon ourselves to reach out to those who may not know about Islam and show them that by having Muslims in our communities is a benefit to all people not just Muslims.”

The past few days during the blessed month of Ramadan have been difficult for me as a Muslim living in the West. The news from our neighbours to the south is inundated with stories of protests against mosques and Islamic cultural centres, stabbings of fasting cab drivers and the ever growing fear of Muslims “taking over” America. The cover of Time Magazine poignantly asks: “Is America Islamophobic?.” which leads many Canadian Muslims to say “Thank God we don’t live there!” If we travel back in time almost a year ago to when the Swiss voted to ban new minarets in their country, I am sure many American Muslims would have said “Thank God we don’t live there!” This leads me to question if we as Canadians are immune to this kind of fear-mongering, and, with the recent arrest of a young Muslim Canadian Idol contestant and the proposed ban on the Niqab in Quebec, is the issue of widespread fear of Muslims is no longer a question of if. but a question of when?

Many pundits both from inside and outside the Muslim community have accused Park51 as a primary reason for the current climate in the US. For those who don’t know, Park51 is a proposed community centre being built 2 blocks north and around the corner of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory building. The complex will have a swimming pool, auditorium, gym, culinary school and a prayer space; its advisory board is made of community members of different faith groups and other community centres like the YMCA and Manhattan’s Jewish Community Centre.

As you can tell, I am in support of this initiative and freedom of religion for all in the US, as are many Americans including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, Fareed Zakaria, Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama. To me this centre has the potential to represent the best the Muslim community has to offer in an area filled with liquor stores, abandoned buildings, strip clubs and off-track betting stores all of which are closer to Ground Zero than Park51. And the argument about being sensitive to the families of 9/11 families falsely implies that all Muslims are collectively guilty of the 9/11 attacks, that all 9/11 families are against this centre (many families have come out in support) and that there were no Muslim victims of 9/11. With all that being said, to me this project was simply the match that lit the fire to an underlying fear of Muslims that has been growing in America. This was bound to happen sooner or later, if not with Park51 then with something else. As Canadian Muslims, we must ask ourselves: How can we prevent this from happening here?

Unfortunately, Muslims in the West get stuck in the idea that we must keep our heads down, not interact with too many people outside our community and we must maintain all aspects of our cultural background. This attitude is often exemplified in our religious institutions, particularly our mosques.

Although it might seem nearly impossible to prevent backlash like this in our country, there are ways to inhibit the scale of it. Some would suggest giving in, not making it obvious that you are a Muslim, or even sacrificing ones rights as a Muslim Canadian to ensure the happiness of the majority. To me this is giving in to injustice and bigotry, two things that many Muslims are vehemently opposed to. To me the best way to fight Islamophobia is to be the best Muslims we can be in our communities. Now when we look at the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) we see many examples of the importance of being a good neighbour, such as: “Worship God and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbour who is near of kin, the neighbour who is a stranger, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet)… Verily, God does not like such as are proud and boastful.” (Quran 4:36)

When we look at the Qur’an verse above it is obvious that those whom we must be good to are not exclusive to those who are your family, or those who are Muslim or even those who live next door to you, but rather being good to those in your community. Unfortunately, Muslims in the West get stuck in the idea that we must keep our heads down, not interact with too many people outside our community and we must maintain all aspects of our cultural background. This attitude is often exemplified in our religious institutions, particularly our mosques.

A few years ago there was a mosque built near where my parents live and of course they were quite excited with a mosque closer to home. However, that excitement quickly faded once it was built, when looking at this mosque the first thing you notice is that it is surrounded by these big ugly black gates, which to many gives it the impression that it is an exclusive location for Muslims only. This is in sharp contrast to the Church across the street which has an open garden in the front where neighbourhood children of all faiths play. Next, with the construction of the mosque there was an influx of Muslims in the neighbourhood, which is great, but many of their non-Muslims neighbours began to complain that the Muslims were often unfriendly to them or failed to maintain their property (for those who live in the suburbs, keeping a nice garden in your front yard is a big deal and makes the neighbourhood feel more pleasant). This unfortunately led to an exodus of many wonderful non-Muslim neighbours. And finally. the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a few years ago at Eid prayers, when for some reason someone at the Masjid decided that the Khutba was going to be in Classical Urdu, a dialect most young Urdu-speaking people won’t understand let alone those of us who don’t speak Urdu. Is there any wonder why the general public has suspicions of Muslims, when so many of us don’t bother to create an unfriendly environment for our neighbours and we often fail to communicate with them?

This problem is not in our neighbourhoods but also in our workplaces and in classrooms (particularly at University of Toronto). Think to yourself how often have you said greeted the stranger sitting next to you in class or showed what it means to be a practicing Muslim to your friends, instead of saying “I gotta go take care of some business” as you go to pray Jummu’ah. In this climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, this is the best time for us as Muslims to show our community what we have to offer and take it upon ourselves to reach out to those who may not know about Islam and show them that by having Muslims in our communities is a benefit to all people not just Muslims.

In the case of Park 51, community centres like it are what we should be building everywhere to benefit everyone in our community. The Qur’an states: “To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward” (Qur’an 5:9), which should be an incentive for Muslims to move towards being a community that is both faith-based and service-based. Finally, although I do support the Park51 project, I would suggest to their community and our campus community to start today by being productive members of society, don’t wait until a complex is built or for someone to do it for you, but do it today because no one knows what will happen to Muslims tomorrow and only Allah (swt) knows what hardships may come.

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