The weekend of July 2nd to 4th 2010 saw the 3rd annual Journey of Faith: Annual Islamic Conference (JoF) take place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the third year in a row. Claiming to be the largest Islamic conference in North America , JoF hoped to amass around ten thousand attendees over three days.
One of less than a handful of large Islamic conferences in North America, JoF’s arrival onto the Canadian scene was met with the usual post-911 epithets, full of suspicion and xenophobia . This year was no different. Labeled a “hate-fest” by media outlets like the Calgary Herald , JoF was, generally speaking, not described with the rosiest of terms by the Canadian media—not that it received a lot of coverage in the first place.
It is both tiresome and somewhat predictable to see that old and played-out post-9/11 hatemongering is still alive today, and ready to pounce on an Islamic gathering, even one as big and popular as JoF. Speakers at the conference, without going into too much detail, spoke on a wide variety of topics from spiritual guidance to civic participation. This year, a spark of controversy was initiated when the top-billed Indian Muslim “televangelist” Zakir Naik was denied a visa to speak at the conference. Canada, in this case, followed in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, which also denied entry to Naik, claiming that Naik’s presence would “not be conducive to the public good” .
Naik, a physician by profession, heads up Peace TV from Mumbai, India, one of the world’s largest Islamic television channels. He has spoken out against the Western media’s portrayal of Muslims, especially in the post-9/11 era. His fiery rhetoric regarding the plight of Muslims in the world today was what in the end provoked the ban from the UK, setting a precedence to be followed later on by Canada. Naik claims that his words have been taken out of context, and that the UK government caved into internal pressure from advocacy groups that wanted to see him banned. One piece of evidence that allegedly exemplifies Naik’s “hatred” is an occasion where Naik claims that “Every Muslim should be a terrorist”. This statement supposedly illustrates Naik’s sympathy with terrorism and Osama bin Laden.
However, if one were to listen to the entirety of the statement within its contextual framework, what Naik said doesn’t seem so scary: “When a robber sees a policeman he’s terrified. So for a robber, a policeman is a terrorist,” says Naik. “So in this context, every Muslim should be a terrorist to the robber. I am aware that a terrorist is more commonly used for a person who terrorizes and innocent person. In this context, no person should even terrorize a single innocent human being.” This is hardly a statement calling for terror and destruction of non-Muslims.
On the other hand, proving what Naik said or didn’t say is not really the crux of the issue here. A nation has the right to reject entry to persons or elements that they consider dangerous and will elicit harm onto its people. Given the weak evidence produced by the UK and Canadian policy makers, Zakir Naik does not qualify as such a dangerous element. He has the right to express his opinions, regardless of who may or may not agree with him.
The overall attitude and perception of both the Canadian media and government toward the JoF conference is illustrative of Canada’s inability to fully accept its Muslim population without xenophobia and suspicion. Be it for political reasons or cultural/religious ones, Canada’s multicultural character cannot be correctly exemplified until, as a nation, it embraces the whole of its Muslim citizens.