Sunday, July 7, 2013

Muslim Canadians: Stigma, Identity, and Rap

Canadian Muslim Union logo

The following post was drafted some time ago, as evidenced by the linked articles which date from 2011. However, I have decided to post this now, as I have had a number of conversations about this question of Muslim identity, and especially living as a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country, specifically Canada, in recent weeks. The week that just past was also a week of national celebrations--Canada Day (July 1) and (USA) Independence Day (July 4). Next Sunday is the French national holiday, Bastille Day (July 14).

The articles below demonstrate a range of positive attitudes and suggest that one can invent more. There are ongoing challenges, perhaps especially for women wearing hijab, even in Canada, where we like to think of ourselves as more accepting of others and more diverse than other countries. Indeed, we see that as part of our identity--even though we don't necessarily live up to it, as recent studies and accounts of personal experiences have shown.

Whether you read the articles or just skim, and whether you are Muslim or not, of whatever nationality, I look forward to your comments on the topic and its general themes.

General Mgr. Hussain Guisti of the the Zubaidah Tallab foundation that raised funds for the project stands in front of a mosque destined for the Arctic being prepared on Aug. 31, 2010, in Winnipeg, to make the 4500 km trip to Inuvik, NWT. The mosque is 30x50 ft, and there are about 100 Muslims working in Inuvik. - General Mgr. Hussain Guisti of the the Zubaidah Tallab foundation that raised funds for the project stands in front of a mosque destined for the Arctic being prepared on Aug. 31, 2010, in Winnipeg, to make the 4500 km trip to Inuvik, NWT. The mosque is 30x50 ft, and there are about 100 Muslims working in Inuvik. | The Canadian Press

Globe Editorial
Consider this: visit a mosque
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 03, 2011 9:00PM EDT

Have you visited a mosque lately? Islam is a religion that in practically all its incarnations preaches kindness and hospitality, and the doors of its places of worship – in the basements of private homes or in purpose-built cultural centres – are often open to strangers.

Why go through the trouble, the discomfort? Because Canadian Muslims are here. From the 2001 census, Muslims were the fastest growing large religious group in Canada, with a median age of 28 – 9 years less than Canada as a whole.

Like many first- or second-generation immigrants, young Muslims in Canada are torn between tradition and modernity. Unlike others, they are the object of a particular skepticism and fear. A 2010 survey of 1,700 people in Canada by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation study found that 55 per cent disagreed with the statement “Muslims share our values.”

That betrays a lack of curiosity about Muslims in Canada, a group that can’t be painted with one brush, but includes everyone from the explicitly secular to the highly devout, from the recent Sunni immigrant from Pakistan to the Canadian-born Somali.

A conversation with an imam or a Muslim neighbour can quickly yield an invitation to a gathering of Muslims. And in the process, we can start the bigger conversation, around what it means to be a Canadian today – something that Canadian Muslim youth, in overwhelming numbers, want to be a part of.


Third year student Aisha Raja poses for a photo at the University of Toronto on June 30, 2011. Raja who has been Muslim her whole life, is involved with promoting 'Keeping it Halal', a campus internet publication which she hopes will help break Muslim stereotypes. She has been wearing an hijab since high school and feels it is part of her.

The new Islam comes with a reluctance to label orthodoxy
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 03, 2011 9:00AM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Jul. 03, 2011 10:38PM EDT

Aisha Raja is rarely hassled on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus or at home in diverse Markham, Ont. It’s the space in-between – she takes a subway, light rail, and bus to and from school – that is troublesome. When she commutes, she’s not a political science student, a campus activist or a tea store employee. She is reduced to a young woman in a hijab.

“I’ve had random people yell really rude things sometimes, like, ‘Oh, you bloody Muslims!’ and you obviously can’t engage with those kind of people in that time,” said Ms. Raja, the 20-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants.

Her experiences indicate that, for some young Canadian Muslims, an “us and them” mentality persists in their home country.

A 2006 Environics poll of 2,045 Canadians bears this out, finding that of those who had rarely or never had contact with Muslims, 49 per cent held a negative view of them. The large majority (70 per cent) of those who were “often” in contact with Muslims had positive views of them.

But regardless of what other Canadians think of them, it’s getting harder to ignore Islam, and young Muslims, in Canada. Islam is Canada’s fastest-growing major religion. According to a Statistics Canada estimate, the Muslim population will soar to 2.9 million by 2031 from its 2006 base of 884,000 adherents.

A population shift alone may not be enough to close the gap between the solitudes. Ms. Raja is optimistic that attitudes will change, but said the responsibility also lies with her and her fellow Muslims.

“I guess people gravitate towards their own community, but for me, I feel like it’s extremely important to engage with the larger Toronto community,” she said.

High-profile stories, including the Toronto 18 terrorism bust, the murder of Mississauga, Ont., teenager Aqsa Parvez by her father and brother, and tales of radical youth travelling overseas on jihadist missions, have left many non-Muslims with a skewed understanding of the religion – a faith whose diversity, especially within Canada, is immense, with differences across sect, ethnocultural or national origin, and levels of adherence.

The same narratives also make some Muslims pessimistic about engaging in community work while representing themselves as Muslims, Rizwan Mohammad said. “They felt almost like, ‘We’re fighting a losing battle.’”

In 2009, Mr. Mohammad set out on a two-year cross-Canada project with the Canadian Council for Muslim Women to better connect young Muslims with their communities. The more than 800 Muslim youth who participated in workshops shared one gripe in particular: their portrayal in the media as an isolated, alienated and – in the case of females – oppressed group.

Although Sana Rokhsefat serves on the University of Toronto’s student union, takes karate classes and wears the same trendy clothes as her peers, she still must battle those who equate her decision to wear the hijab with patriarchal forces in Islam.

She said her Iranian-born parents were surprised when she chose to wear the headscarf in junior high, so soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“There’s nothing about me that is oppressed. To have people think that about me is very disheartening,” said Ms. Rokhsefat, 20.

Dispelling the widely held belief that Canadian and Islamic values clash can be a burden for Muslim youth: they often have to correct both their parents and their peers.

Adam Koshin’s Somalia-born parents enrolled him in Islamic schools in Calgary and Regina until he was 13 because they feared he’d “meet the wrong people, start doing the wrong stuff” at a secular public school, he said.

Now 15, with a circle of mostly non-Muslim friends, he still prays regularly and visits his local mosque at least once a week on his own.

Leaving the Islamic school cocoon was a shock to him, though. His friends’ views of Islam were shaped by sensational media stereotypes.

“They think we’re all terrorists and we’re all waiting for 40 wives in the afterlife. All the stuff from the TV. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Although there are significant Muslim populations throughout north and east Africa and Indonesia, his classmates thought all followers of Islam came from the Middle East or South Asia.

“Most people when I tell them they go, ‘I didn’t even know black people could be Muslim.’”

Muslim youth in Canada don’t practice the faith in any single, prescribed way. Some follow the schedule for five prayers a day with rigour (Ms. Raja has excused herself from exams to pray) while others visit their mosque only a few times a year with their families.

But some young Muslims are reluctant to label or rank their level of orthodoxy.

“Every label has connotations around it, right? I’m not a fan of words like moderate and everything like that,” said Sabour Baray, the 20-year-old president of York University’s Muslim Students Association.

Mr. Mohammad said that when the subject of radicalism came up during the workshops he led with Muslim youth, participants were at first reluctant to talk about the existence of extremist views among their peers.

They eventually acknowledged that “bullying” and “intimidation” with a radicalizing intent occurs at some mosques.

At the same time, young people stressed that simply adhering closely to the Koranic tenets of the faith does not automatically lead to extremism.

Although 15-year-old Emaad Mohammad, the son of Pakistani immigrants, feels a responsibility to correct his classmates’ misconceptions about his faith, he wishes teachers at his Mississauga school took on that cause instead.

“You could learn about math, you learn about science, you learn about all these things, but to learn about people and people around you and their culture and their religion is probably more important,” he said.

Educators have grappled with the idea of bringing education on Islam to public schools.

In 2006, after the Toronto 18 arrests, the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education appointed Sarfaroz Niyozov, a professor with the department, to lead the Muslim Education Project. Its goal was to explore ways to accommodate and teach Muslim students in the public school system.

While school boards may offer a world religions elective to high school students, the majority of teachers, he found, are reluctant to discuss controversial political issues involving Islam: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But inclusiveness in lesson plans isn’t the end of it. While most major universities have designated prayer rooms on campus for Muslim students, that’s not the case in the public school system.

Providing such accommodations should be a priority for public schools, Prof. Niyozov said. Holding back could mean losing more students to Islamic schools or home-schooling, where they have limited opportunities to meet and interact with their non-Muslim peers.

At the same time, school boards must define “reasonable accommodation,” he said.

This spring, a group of parents in Winnipeg requested their elementary school-aged children be excused from music and physical education classes out of concerns about the content of “Western” music and the mixing of sexes.

In their desperation to keep students and compete with private schools, public school administrators might go too far in indulging the whims of parents, Prof. Niyozov said.

Ms. Raja said some of her co-workers have been shy to ask her about her faith when she takes prayer breaks in the back room or fasts during Ramadan. She’d rather be burdened by their questions, she said, than have them hold onto outdated stereotypes.

“An issue a lot of people have is they don’t understand it is a lifestyle … For Islam, you can’t have it separate from the public sphere.”


Yasmin Alsalman aka the Narcicyst seen on Rene Levesque Boul. in Montreal, July 4th 2011__The ring on his finger spells "YAssin" in Arabic.

Time to lead
Rap it or paint it, Muslim artists tackle identity
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jul. 04, 2011 10:44PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 04, 2011 10:53PM EDT

Sabrina Jalees is a lesbian comic of Pakistani-Swiss heritage who grew up in Toronto, now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her girlfriend, and likes to joke that when she came out to her parents she was worried her Muslim father would force her to take 10 wives. Yassin Alsalman is a Montreal rapper known as The Narcicyst who uses the aggressive language of hip hop to denounce the heavy hand of U.S. Homeland Security and the war in Iraq, his parents’ homeland. Boonaa Mohammed is a spoken word poet of Ethiopian extraction who celebrates Islamic history in his work – when he is not teaching at an Islamic school in Scarborough, Ont.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a generation of Muslim Canadian artists has emerged that addresses identity and religion through art – and whose members are quick to identify themselves as Muslims, no matter how tenuous their adherence to Islam.

“Maybe it would be easier if I just took photographs of Muskoka,” says Alia Toor, a Toronto visual artist born in Pakistan and raised in Canada, “but that is not who I am.”

Instead, Toor has created work about security and religion: She belongs to an artistic community shaped by the terrorist attacks and the wars that followed them.

“I learned about terrorism from CNN,” Mohammed says, explaining his urge to counter unrecognizable stereotypes by writing celebratory poetry about Islamic heroes and values. “After 9/11 you were either brave enough to wave the flag and declare yourself and be proud of your faith or you just shrivelled up and tried to blend in. There was this joke: Mohammed turns into Moe.”

But people who want to blend in rarely become artists: Jalees, who points out she could pass for Portuguese, began making jokes about her Pakistani heritage because she wanted to confront people’s new discomfort with Muslims.

For artists like her, political events and the gap between stereotypes of Islam and their own cultural experiences have provided plenty of inspiration. Immigrants themselves or, more often, the children of immigrants, these artists are steeped in Western culture and have no time for doctrinal debates about whether or not Islam prohibits imagery of the human form or limits the use of musical instruments. The vocabularies they use are usually those of Western media – stand-up comedy, contemporary visual art, documentary film and popular music.

“We learned from the African American community on how to be vocal about our experience artistically,” Alsalman wrote in an e-mail explaining the development of what is known as Arab hip-hop. “... before hip hop and the Arab world met, we were silent. Now our generation is speaking out more than ever.”

Others have adapted traditional art forms. Tazeen Qayyum, a visual artist who lives in Oakville, Ont., trained as a miniaturist in her native Pakistan, where that historic practice, once used to paint tiny portraits of battling heroes and frolicking monarchs, is being revived as a contemporary art form. Today, she creates work about political issues using the delicate and colourful miniaturist style, painting intricate images of cockroaches, for example, that represent the civilian body counts in Iraq.

The artists disagree about how well this work is received in Canada and how much Canadian attitudes are shifting. Alsalman, for example, argues that racism is still very prevalent and that the image of Muslims is generally a negative one; others perceive a gradual change in attitudes since the panic of 2001, precisely because people have been forced to confront the prejudices expressed against Muslims, and add that the popular rebellions of the Arab spring have helped build a more positive and diverse image.

“The racism and the intolerance and ignorance when it comes to Muslims is no longer cool; people know it is unacceptable,” Jalees says.

Meanwhile, some of the artists also believe Canada is particularly open to the kind of hybrid art they are creating because of its multiculturalism. Their work is made possible by a world of global communications and social media, where artists and audiences can follow the culture of any place they choose. If there is one theme that emerges, it is a refusal to define being Muslim in a context where East and West are themselves increasingly impossible to untangle.

“There is no one Islam,” says Montreal filmmaker Omar Majeed, the creator of a 2009 documentary about Taqwacore, the North American Muslim punk movement that he believes arose precisely because young Muslims felt marginalized by narrow depictions of Islam. “That’s an idea a vocal minority tries to push, the right-wing extremists in the United States and the religious fundamentalists inside Islam. It’s bogus. ... There is no pure Islam that exists any place. Wherever you may be, your are living in a global world.”


Would you visit a Canadian mosque?
42% yes 58% no
Have you attended an Islam-focused entertainment event this year?
3% yes 97% no


Photo Gallery
Tazeen Qayyum's political miniaturism
Globe and Mail Update
Published Monday, Jul. 04, 2011 10:00PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 04, 2011 10:53PM EDT
Oakville, Ont. visual artist Tazeen Qayyum trained as a miniaturist in her native Pakistan.

(Tazeen Qayyum, courtesy of the artist)
"Its Complicated" (2010). Artist Tazeen Qayyum says "The hot-water bottle, generally associated with comfort, serves as a metaphor for the female body in my work. The series 'Its Complicated' examines the challenges and everyday struggle of a universal woman and its commonality across cultures."

(Tazeen Qayyum, courtesy of the artist)
"Test on a Small Area Before Use III" (2007). Opaque watercolor, entomology pins, labels and cotton thread on wasli (archival paper) in wooden display case. Of these pieces, artist Tazeen Qayyum says "My work comments on aggressive global politics and the subsequent suppression of difference. Borrowing the language of entomology museum displays, a dead cockroach motif is repeated or opened up for investigation, to simultaneously attract and repulse; commenting on human rights violations, fatalities and fear as a result of wars of our times."

(Tazeen Qayyum, courtesy of the artist)
"A Journey Unfinished" (2008). Opaque watercolour and entomology pins on wasli (archival paper).

(Tazeen Qayyum, courtesy of the artist)
"Avoid Prolonged Exposure" (2008). Opaque watercolor on wasli (archival paper).


The Narcicyst (Montreal/Iraq)
from Hip Hop Diplomacy: Global Hip Hop culture and geopolitics

Yassin Alsalman, better known as The Narcicyst or Narcy, is a rapper, journalist and political activist of Iraqi origin, currently living in Montreal. Born in Dubai and raised in Canada, Narcy has experienced life in many different contexts and has always prided himself on questioning the powers that be, whether in his music or his writings. His musical career grew out of a collaboration with the Muslim artists collective known as the Euphrates family, of which Narcy became the lead MC. The crew gained international attention with their first two albums, “A Bend in the River” and “Stereotypes Incorporated”, but Narcy decided to go solo after the death of one of its members.

In addition to his life as a musician, Narcy also earned a graduate degree in Political Science and Media Studies, focusing on identity politics in Hip-Hop and the Arab-American experience. His thesis project, “Fear of An Arab Planet”, has since been expanded into a full book, set for release in 2010, along with a new album, “The Illuminarcy”. Narcy has shared stages with international Hip Hop icons from Talib Kweli to Dead Prez, and continues to tour, while also writing regularly about issues affecting Arabs worldwide, including mediation between Jews and Arabs.


What are the challenges of constructing a private/public identity when one is in the minority? and misunderstood?
What is it like to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country compared to a Muslim majority country?
Are certain places that you have visited or lived more challenging than others regarding being Muslim? regarding being a different kind of minority?
If you are a non-Muslim, would you like visit a mosque? Have you done so?
What are the private and public roles and importance of expressing one's identity through art?
Other comments, thoughts, experiences, feelings?

Image from an article on the history of Muslims in Canada, "Canada's Muslims: An unnoticed part of our history", based on an address to the Canadian Parliament


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