These are difficult times for all of us. Difficult for the non-Muslims because all of sudden they find themselves in front of people that they don’t know. They found themselves in front of concepts, vocabulary, ideas they have not paid attention to them before. They found themselves participating in military conflicts in far away countries. Countries on which they ignore almost everything: the language, religion, culture even the geography.
This is also an extremely difficult time for people of Muslim faith. Many of them came to Canada to flee war, famine, persecution, and oppression… Today, many of these Muslims find themselves obliged to take sides in complex wars. Sometimes they see their own children going back to the wars they themselves fled. And many of them find themselves going through discrimination and fear.
Faced with this painful situation, one is conflicted:
- do nothing
- keep watching the news with a passive attitude
- live in fear
- despise the other
- surround yourself with people like you
- be proactive
- learn about the other
- understand the other
- surround yourselves with people different than you
I came to Canada in 1991 in the middle of the first Gulf war. I was against the war. In Tunisia, I participated in my first demonstration to show my disagreement with it. Many of my friends, my family, everyone around me didn’t want to see the Americans drop bombs on Iraq. I didn’t like Saddam Hussein. I thought he was a ruthless dictator. He killed his own people with chemical weapons. He persecuted Shias but also he persecuted Sunnis who didn’t approve of his crimes. But I saw in that war a huge injustice to the Iraqis people. I saw in this injustice a continuation of the imperialistic attitude the American government have been implemented around the world for many years in South America, in Asia and in the Middle East.
When I came to Canada I lived several years in Montreal in Quebec. I was one of the few who wore a hijab, or scarf over my hair. I was exotic and people rarely paid attention to me. I was an invisible minority.I barely heard programs on TV or radio about Islam. Internet as we know today was inexistent. And then there was the huge debate in France about the “foulard”. The media in Quebec picked upon that issue. Some journalists started reporting about it. Questions were being asked whether to introduce such a measure of banning the Islamic scarf in school like France did or not.
And the glances at me in the streets started to change. From an exotic creature, I became to represent the veil of the Muslim French girls that were presented on TV. I became to represent Islam with all the unanswered questions about it. People started asking me questions like:
“What is this on your head?”
“Do you wear it by choice or are you forced to wear it”
With a smile, I answer back that “I wear it by choice” and all of a sudden the face of the person asking me the question became so radiant. They were happy that I am able to choose. As if my simple words reassured them about something. But what if I was lying to them? May be I was oppressed at home. What if my brother beat me everyday so I can wear it. They didn’t want to know anything else. My words sufficed.
But one at home I would ask myself : “why did these strangers think that a scarf can’t be worn by a woman with her own choice?” What made these strangers stop me in the middle of the streets or in the halls of my university worried about my well being and about my own decisions or lack of it?
Personally, I wore the veil when I was 20 year old after 8 years of intense reflection. For me, hijab had a strong sense of religious identity. It defines me, it gives me what we call today confidence.
When I hear some women saying that I can’t get out of the house without make-up. I am surprised. And then they elaborate and they say make-up gives me some confidence then I am still surprised but I understand better. However, when I go out with my hijab people look at me as an alien. They think I am oppressed. I tell them this is my religious identity. And they don’t get it. I try to be smarter and tell them that this is my confidence and then they laugh at my silly argument.
But despite all this incidents, anecdotes happening in North America, Muslims and non-Muslims kept ignoring each other. Each group burying its head in the sand with the hope that God or Allah, will intervene. So for the main stream society, everyone dream of the day when all the Muslims can became less religious, less oppressed, less invading or more westernized and on the other hand, many Muslims lived with the hope that one day all the non Muslims will become with beards and hijab!
And unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks came. The dreams and hopes of both groups were shattered. The war began and the two groups started looking at each other with defiance and suspicion.
After 9/11, two new wars were declared: one in Afghanistan and Iraq. And another one, very insidious, off the radar, was conducted all over the world. This other war is called: war on terror.
Both wars were ugly devastating and with many victims. But on TV, only pictures of Muslims women in burqa were shown and coffins of soldiers being sadly brought home.
As if the message conveyed was the following:
“The men who went there to liberate women in burqa are killed by the horrible terrorists”
But the reality is far more complex than this easy cliché.
Today who still cares about women in burqa in Afghanistan? Who still care about the thousands of refugees, orphans, displaced because of the war? The TV doesn’t show any of their pictures.
What about children elders bombarded? What about men arrested for being suspected as terrorists? What about drones attacks killing civilians? Those were not mentioned they are called collateral damages.
Today the whole word seems to care only about ISIS, the Islamic State. Everyone confuses the Islamic State with Islam. Equally everybody seems to confuse terrorism with Islam.
Personally, I think this is the time where each one of us has some serious homework to do.
As a Muslim, I condemn all sort of violence. As a Muslim I try everyday to answer questions about my religion. I try to educate my own children about their religious identity but I try also to inform people around me about my faith. I don’t pretend to be the only true Muslim or the best representative of my faith. I don’t want to be called a moderate Muslim. I don’t want to be named an extremist Muslim. I am neither a liberal Muslim nor an oppressed Muslim. I am just a Muslim. I am a human being with some strength but also with a lot of weakness. So why do I have to be always the defender of Islam?
If you are a Christian, can I blame you for all the sexual abuse scandals that happened inside the church? No! If you are a German can I blame you for all the horrors of the world war II? Of course not! Today, as a Muslim I can’t be always denouncing and denouncing and denouncing the crime of a group that I don’t have any control on. I can have an opinion yes and I can act upon it.
Also I can have some little control or at least some influence over my family, my friends and my community. I can build strong bridges between people of different faiths. I can explain what Islam requires me to do and I can choose arguments to discuss with the others.
But this can only works if the other is listening. This can only work if the other doesn’t feel superior over me. This can only work if we do it together. This is like a marriage. It can only work with communication and consensus.
Also what I think is important for me to do is that I can give my own narrative. I can speak of Muslim women as I understand them as I see them. I can write books about them to show them like human beings and not simply like beings in cages or in boxes being oppressed. This is how we can eliminate the solitude between us.
Yes we are different but at the same time we are close to each other in our humanity.
This was the speech I gave on March 3, 2015 at the Emmanuel United Church.