Progressive Muslims group launched in Toronto to reclaim ‘hijacked’ faith
Progressive Muslims are denouncing the violent extremism wrongly associated with Islam. But there remains a reticence to speak out amongst some Muslims.
By: Wendy Gillis News reporter, Published on Mon Jun 17 2013
Tahir Gora shouts into a microphone, cuing a response from the sparse group of supporters gathered with him at the steps of Queen’s Park.
“Terrorism,” he yells.
“Unacceptable!” they reply.
Their voices carry across the grassy Legislature grounds that are, with the exception of a few bike cops and pedestrians, deserted. A stack of unused signs, their slogans reading “Hate is not my religion” and “Love it or leave my Canada,” lean up against a nearby pole.
Mighty but small, it was not quite the turnout the newly formed Progressive Muslims Institute Canada had in mind for their first rally, held last week. As one of the organizers mused with a chuckle, there were more white faces than brown in the crowd of roughly two dozen.
But when the goal is as big as reclaiming a faith many Muslims feel has been hijacked by terrorism, you’ve got to start somewhere.
“We thought, enough is enough,” said Gora, the institute’s director and a Pakistani writer and social activist.
The quick succession of Islam-linked terrorism — the Boston Marathon bombing, the alleged plot to derail a Toronto-bound train, the killing of a British soldier in London, among others — was the final push for Gora and a handful of other activists to officially band together, Gora said. Part of umbrella think tank Canadian Thinkers’ Forum, the institute is the latest Canadian Muslim group promoting progressive ideas, including gender equality, separation of church and state, and condemnation of terrorism.
But while many Muslims have long been denouncing the actions of fundamental Islamist extremists, there remains a reticence among some to speak out.
“It’s 25 years that I’ve been in Canada, but I haven’t seen the Muslim community come out to protest,” said rally attendee Rasheed Nadeem. “There are progressive people, but they are silent. They do talk, but in their dining rooms.”
Fear plays a role, said Arshad Mahmood, honorary director of the new progressive Muslims group — “fear of being an outcast, fear of social boycott, fear of being trashed by certain extremist priests,” he said.
Saadia Ali Bokhari is a well known activist in the GTA Muslim community, and has spoken out on controversial issues including supporting the ban of face coverings in Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Because of her activism, she says she has been the recipient of hate and threats.
Last month, she participated in a downtown rally protesting the suspected vote-rigging in Pakistan’s recent election. After a photo of her at the rally was posted online, Bokhari began receiving harassing and threatening messages. She said her brother and sister in Pakistan were also contacted by people saying Bokhari needed to stop speaking out.
Bokhari believes some people are offended by the idea of a vocal, confident woman. “This is what they are doing to discourage me,” Bokhari said.
Mahmood, a Mississauga mortgage broker who moved to Canada from Pakistan in 1999, says another factor keeping Canadian Muslims from demonstrating is the false sense of security that Islamic extremism won’t affect Canada.
“That is a mentality that develops with some people to stay in a comfort zone — as long as it doesn’t happen on my street, I’m comfortable,” he said. At the rally he apologized for falling victim to this thinking, saying: “I am sorry that I didn’t stand up when my religion was being hijacked.”
For some Muslims, terrorism is so foreign to their idea of the Muslim faith that it seems odd to have to decry it, says Max Khan, an Oakville town councillor active in the Muslim community, because “we don’t identify ourselves as being a terrorist group.”
But he believes that community leaders and imams still have a responsibility to condemn terrorism.
“I do hold people who sit on the sidelines accountable,” Khan said.
There is frustration, however, that Muslim statements decrying violent extremism are falling on deaf ears. Dr. Aliya Khan is a member of an interfaith group in Peel and has been working to spread the message that Islam is peaceful. She says many imams are regularly denouncing terrorism, but the media aren’t covering their statements.
In December, for instance, several international imams in Toronto for a large conference spoke out against extremist violence and “there wasn’t a peep from the media,” Khan said.
“The imams are feeling very frustrated, and they say ‘we’ve condemned this a billion times, we don’t know what to do,’” she said.
David Rayside, a University of Toronto political science professor who has researched Muslim organizing in Canada and the U.S., points out that it’s unfair to put the onus on Muslims to defend themselves from the actions of people who have twisted their faith.
“The problem for many minority groups is that the actions of one or two people are read by some people as representing the broader group, so the broader group has to respond,” he said.
For Asma Mahmood, secretary general of the Progressive Muslims Institute Canada, the reality is that Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to help communicate that terrorism has no place in Islam.
“We need everybody’s help. We need like-minded people to be a part of this struggle,” she said.
Reflecting on that first rally last Sunday, Arshad Mahmood is pleased that those present represented various religious communities, including Christian, Jewish and different sects of Muslims. Many are leaders, and will take the group’s message of peace to their faith communities.
“If one more person shows up at the next demonstration,” he said, “then I think we are successful. This is how it starts.”
Wendy Gillis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org