muslims, politics

Hamza Yusuf and Contemporary Muslim Discourse

By all indications, Hamza Yusuf is the most influential and recognizable Muslim figure in North America. He routinely gives talks at conventions in the United States and Canada that draw out tens of thousands of Muslims. Having studied with well-known scholars in the Muslim world, Yusuf adds to his sophisticated “Western” sensibilities a serious Islamic academic background.

He also co-founded the first Muslim seminary in the United States (Zaytuna College). He was an independent advisor to George W. Bush and other political figures (to no avail it would seem). He routinely appears on media outlets throughout the world.

So why is it that the non-Muslim populations in North America have basically no idea who he is? Why is it that his voice, and the voices of Muslim scholars like him, is almost never heard in the contemporary Muslim discourse of North America?

It’s true that Yusuf has spoken at non-Muslim gatherings and has appeared on some mainstream media programs since 9/11. This is good. For those of us who observe the Muslim communities in North America, it is obvious that even Yusuf’s religious detractors recognize his position as a pillar of the community. Yet, his presence is lacking when journalists report on issues of particular interest to Muslims. The examples are too many to list.

Sh. Hamza Yusuf spoke at the 2011 RIS Convention and gave  what may perhaps be the most important lecture (in recent years) regarding the role of Muslims in the issue of economic justice. The talk was heard by thousands of Muslims, but the conference was ignored by most established media.

This absence is emblematic of the Western Muslim communities’ abhorrent public relations situation in general. The relationship between the mass media and the vast majority of Muslim populations in the West has been unproductive. Many Muslims blame the media for perpetuating lies and stereotypes and choose not to participate. This is understandable. However, this stark absence of Muslim voices leaves a vacuum to be filled. Unfortunately, those who fill such a space often misrepresent both Muslims and Islam itself.

This is primarily why Hamza Yusuf is not a household name when it comes to setting the framework of debate on Muslim-related issues. His spot has already been taken. Of course, this can be said about many leaders within the Muslim communities, all of whom deserve to be heard when there’s a discussion on “honor killings”, “halal meat”, so-called “Islamic terrorism”, or whatever else.

Those who do pontificate on such issues usually lack the scholarly erudition of a Yusuf (or of another qualified scholar). Sadly, many such commentators delegate to themselves the task of partitioning what kind of Muslim can or cannot be trusted. Often, these very commentators describe themselves as subscribing to the Muslim faith, but paint the bulk of “lived Islam” as incompatible with “Western values”. This isolates them as the lone, brave, Muslims who stand up to the onslaught of intolerance shown to them by their co-religionists.

This handful of commentators has better public relations than all the Western Muslim communities combined.

These problems can be solved by putting someone like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf at the center of public discussions on Islam and Muslims. It’s not so we can show off his erudition. Rather, placing serious scholars and Muslim intellectuals in the middle of agenda-setting media is the only way we can solve what is perhaps the most pressing sociopolitical problem facing Muslims in North America today. Given the prevalence of television and visual media, this means having knowledgeable Muslim commentators appear on outlets like CNN and CBC. This is certainly not being done in Canada, for example.

Muslim organizations have to actively pursue journalists and feed them stories. They have to regularly meet with the board members of major newspapers and other media outlets. A journalist’s success in terms of completing a story is highly dependent on whether his/her sources call or email back on time (this is known as “the waiting game”). As far as Muslim-related matters are concerned, respected scholars like Hamza Yusuf should consistently be one of those sources. The bulk of Muslims in the West should become those sources. Organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council (U.S.) as well as Civic Muslims (Canada), among other groups, have already started doing these things.

Being committed to these tasks will help foster understanding and dispels myths. It will familiarize the broader society with Muslims and their concerns. It will help facilitate justice and peace for Muslims and non-Muslims this continent.


Islam Care Centre to expand for more services

Published on: Muslim Link, April 6th, 2012

The popular Islamic Care Centre has just received the official rubber stamp from the city of Ottawa to renovate its property. The 18-year-old centre at 321 Lisgar St. wants to refurbish the aging facility as well as construct a new building in order to expand services.

“Demand has really gone up,” said Raed Arab, a member of the Centre’s board of directors. “We want to increase our capacity in order to serve more people.”

City councillors met on Mar. 28 at a city council meeting to officially approve the expansion project. Prior to the meeting, leaders from the centre met regularly with the city to explain what they wanted to do.

“The city also wants us to renovate, since our building is getting very old,” said Sulaiman Khan, a manager at the centre. “More people have come to pray, and more families have come to seek out services, so we are also expanding our facility.”

The zoning has already been approved, but detailed plans for the expansion have yet to be completed.

According to the centre’s own literature, the project just went through “Phase 2” of the reconstruction work plan. The next phase comprises of the actual construction.

The centre will use its spacious backyard for the new building, which is set to have four floors and a basement. The basement and main floor will be the prayer halls. The second floor will be a library, the third will be for family services, and the fourth floor will be a set of conference rooms.

“We are going to do some fundraising as well, so we hope the community will come out to support us,” Mr. Arab said. “So far, the response from the community has been very positive.”

The centre’s new building is supposed to accommodate the increasing demand for social services from the Ottawa Muslim community. Counselling for immigrants and young Muslims will form the major focus of the service expansion.

The centre also hopes to develop a more sophisticated library of Islamic literature. For purposes of dawah (calling to Allah), the centre’s leaders say that the current Islamic information centre needs to be expanded.

“The city has been very, very cooperative with us,” Mr. Arab said, “We’ve gone through all the steps required to get approval and we’ve done a lot of talking back and forth already.”

Mr. Arab and Mr. Khan said that getting permission was not the difficult part. Drawing up detailed plans and doing the actual construction will be the project’s most challenging phase.

Insha Allah (God willing) they are successful,” said Raheel Khosa, an Ottawa resident and a frequenter of the Centre. “I pray a lot at this building, and it’s time for an expansion, since every time I come here I see more people, alhamdullilah (praise be to Allah).”

Over four million dollars is needed to complete the project, which is estimated for completion in the next two years.



Muslim cemeteries to open in Richmond Hill and Ottawa this summer

Published on: Muslim Link, April 6th, 2012

The city of Ottawa and Richmond Hill are two municipalities in Ontario that are about to get their first Islamic cemeteries this summer.

The Ottawa Muslim Cemetery Inc. has been fundraising for the past four years to complete the cemetery project in southern Ottawa. It hopes to wrap things up in the next couple of months in order to begin official operations in June.

“We got licencing from the province four years ago,” said Abu Nazir, the President of the OMC. “We purchased land in 2005, which was much harder than getting the license, but the actual project started in the mid 90’s.”

Mr. Nazir said he hopes the Ottawa Muslim community will increase their support in the coming months to help finish this project.

“There has never been a proper burial ground for Muslims in this city, and I think the Muslim presence here goes back to about a century,” Mr. Nazir said.

He also noted that the remaining work on the cemetery can’t be done unless the right equipment is purchased. The majority of the fundraising being done is centred on acquiring the equipment needed to complete the construction of the 6-hectare property.

“It’s hard to believe that this city doesn’t have a cemetery for Muslims,” said Ottawa resident Ammad Wajahat, whose grandmother passed away recently. “I think there are around 100,000 Muslims in Ottawa, so it’ll definitely be a big help for us.”

In Greater Toronto, the city’s very first Muslim cemetery completed its ground breaking ceremony last November. It’s set to open officially in Richmond Hill, Ontario in June.

The Toronto Muslim Cemetery Corporation got the operating licence from the provincial government in late February. More work is being done on construction and ground-levelling, but the cemetery is ready to receive bodies. The price is $1,500 per plot.

“We have around 300,000 Muslim in the Toronto area,” said Abdulhaq Ingar, one of the founding members of the cemetery project. “So there’s a lot of demand for doing burials according to religious guidelines, and it’s about time we give this option to our population here.”

Most Toronto Muslims are either forced to accept religious compromises for burial, or have to go through services that arrange for Islamic burials in non-Muslim cemeteries. Until now, there has been no plot of land designated specifically for Islamic burials in Greater Toronto.

The Toronto cemetery is also a joint Sunni-Shia venture aimed at bringing the Muslim community closer. “I’m leading the Sunni side of things,” Mr. Ingar said, “but the Shia side have their own thing going.”

The fourteen-hectare property was purchased from a Jewish cemetery group called the Beth Olam Cemetery Corp for under seven million dollars.

Mr. Ingar said that the Toronto cemetery is already beginning to receive pre-order calls from individuals who have terminally ill relatives.



Tories pass controversial omnibus crime bill

Published on: Muslim Link, March 30th, 2012

The Conservatives have passed the omnibus crime bill on Mar. 12 as they promised they would within the first 100 days of sitting Parliament. Bill C-10continues to be a polarizing piece of legislation, and key provinces continue to voice their opposition.

The Safe Streets and Communities Act passed the House by a vote of 154 to 129, and is supposed to be the first of several Tory anti-crime initiatives. The federal government has estimated that implementing this Act will cost the country around $1 billion at least.

This has led Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur to say in a public statement Monday that “Ontario taxpayers cannot be expected to pay the full costs for federal anti-crime initiatives.”

Ms. Meilleur also says that Ontario is not ready for the 1500 new inmates that the Act will likely produce.

Both the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union have voiced concern over the introduction of “mandatory minimums”. This stipulates that a minimum amount of jail time will have to be served for certain low-level crimes. The CCLU said in a public statement that they do not see this new measure decreasing crime rate.

“Now, I think the other fear is that the Conservatives have a majority and can pass whatever they please on this issue,” Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of CAIR-CAN says.

Other civil society groups that have voiced concern over the omnibus bill include the Canadian Bar Association and the Urban Health Research Initiative. The Initiative even published an open letter to a year ago to the federal government opposing section of the bill, then called Bill S-10.

Among the bill’s most vigorous critics is Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, who introduced amendments last year to the bill that were eventually rebuffed.

“We would have preferred Parliament accept the amendments put forward by the Quebec government in conjunction with a number of organizations,” Mr. Fournier says in a statement.

Bill C-10 is estimated to cost Quebec up to $600 million.

NDP Justice critic Jack Harris also says that the bill will eventually end up exacerbating crime, not preventing it. Mr. Harris says that Bill C-10 will increase recidivism, put people in jail longer, and imprison people at a higher rate. He said that this means that less people will receive rehabilitation.

The Tories have made no apologies or compromises in the face of criticism. Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says in a public statement that”These are very reasonable measures. They go after those who sexually exploit children, people in the child pornography business and it goes after drug traffickers, so this will be welcomed particularly by victims, those involved with law enforcement, and as we know, Canadians are supportive of what we are doing in this area.”

Much of the opposition salutes the provisions in the bill that try to deal with sexual exploitation of children. The problem is that Bill C-10 is so large in scope that more common ground can be found if the bill was passed in pieces. The bill is an omnibus version of nine different pieces of legislation that the Tories tried to pass when they were still a minority.



Prayers essential part of school life: Muslim students

Published on: Muslim Link, March 11th, 2012

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted 8-4 on Feb. 14 to reject a motion calling for a report to be done on religious policies in schools. Trustee Pam FitzGerald proposed the motion, and said that accommodation for Muslim students interferes with class time.

Ms. FitzGerald said that missing lessons for Fridays prayers meant that the same lessons would have to be repeated on Mondays. She was afraid that teachers would have to put in extra work to repeat these missed lessons. These concerns were not included or mentioned in the rejected motion.

“The most I’ve ever missed for a class is around two to three minutes,” said 17-year-old Nour El-Nadr, the “Head Girl” at Ottawa’s Bell High School Muslim Students Association.

“The teacher usually takes around five to ten minutes to even get the class started, so me being a tiny bit late doesn’t affect my learning whatsoever.”

Nour said that Friday prayers are important for the unity of Muslim students at school, which is one of the top priorities of the association in the first place.

“We never missed large portions of class,” said 17-year-old Ibrahim Soukary, “Head Boy” of the Bell High School.

“First of all, Friday prayers are not held during class times,” Ibrahim noted, “it’s always held at the beginning of lunch time.”

“There were times when we went a couple of minutes into class time because of jumah (Friday prayers), but we told the khatib (speaker) to pace himself,” Ibrahim said.

He added that Friday prayers at school have become an essential part of student life for Muslim students at his high school. He said that over a hundred students attend each Friday.

“Having it at school is definitely a positive thing, because it reminds us of a lot of things, like the need to respect others, especially our teachers and fellow students,” Ibrahim said.

Marwan Saeed, 15, of Merivale High School echoes these sentiments. Marwan started the ritual of Friday prayers at his high school with another friend. Since then, the numbers have gone up.

“If we stopped holding jumah at school, that’d be much more of an inconvenience for us, since we would have to go out of school or something.”

Marwan said that having to go off campus for Friday prayers would mean returning for class much later. He noted that having Friday prayers at school actually saves time and ensures that students arrive back at classes on time.

Like Marwan, Colonel By High School’s Mujeeb Mirza also initiated on-campus Friday prayers about a year ago with his friends. Around a dozen or so students attend every week.

“I think students have the right to practice their religious obligations at school,” said the 16-year-old Mujeeb, whose school does not have a Muslim organization. “Before, we had to skip prayers because there was no accommodation, and there was no mosque nearby for us to go to.”

Mujeeb said that if no one initiated something at school, it was either miss jumah altogether or go off campus to a distant mosque. He said that the latter option would certainly have meant that he would miss class time. He said that having Friday prayers at school ultimately meant saving time and helping Muslim students arrive to class promptly.

Hundreds of Muslim community members attended the Feb. 14 meeting. The language of the rejected motion was asked on several occasions to be clarified, as several parents were not happy with what they noted as a “negative” framework. Ms. FitzGerald said that she would not seek to pass the motion again.

“People should be glad that jumaa is held at school,” Ibrahim added. “It keeps everybody mindful and respectful like I said, but it also helps keep everybody happy because we don’t have to go far or miss class.”

“If people don’t understand what we’re doing, or think that something that we do is negative, then they should either ask our leaders, or just come and ask us,” Ibrahim said.