Hussein Hamdani: “When I was growing up, my friend’s father used to call me a terrorist”
Author: Casey Korstanje
Source: The Spectator (Hamilton), January 28, 1995, p. C9
Original title: Islam: the Canadian experience Finding acceptance and understanding has been an uphill battle for Muslims keeping the faith in Canada
Imagine a life where you must constantly keep up with the world news to be able to defuse attacks upon your faith.
Imagine your deepest held beliefs ridiculed on a washroom wall.
Imagine a high school teacher or a university textbook tagging a billion people, a fifth of world’s population, with a narrow, ill-conceived label.
Imagine your faith portrayed in the news as synonymous with terror and bloodshed.
Imagine being a Muslim in Canada.
The realities of life for Muslims in Canada can be harsh, even frightening.
There have been scattered reports of women wearing Hijab — covering their hair and wearing a long-sleeved, loose-fitting gown – – and being taunted and harassed on the streets as has happened in Montreal.
A Muslim student in Quebec was asked to leave her elementary school because she covered her hair with a traditional scarf.
Closer to home, Hussein Hamdani, treasurer of the McMaster Muslim Students Association, reported anti-Muslim graffiti on the walls of a washroom at the university this week.
And Arshia Baig, a first-year business student at McMaster University, has twice written The Spectator complaining that international news stories in the media display a decidedly anti- Muslim sentiment.
Commenting on a Philadelphia Inquirer article carried in The Spectator, Ms Baig wrote, “The author apparently has the religion of Islam confused with some kind of terrorist movement.”
But rather than fading into the shadows, Canadian Muslims are learning how to make adversity work for them.
More than 1,000 Canadian women belong to the four-year-old Council for Muslim Women based in Edmonton which seeks to educate Muslim women about their rights under the Quran, the Muslim Holy Scriptures (sometimes spelled Koran).
The council points out that during the 7th century, when the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam, women acted as judges and were free to decide who they would marry.
And younger Canadian Muslims such as Ms Baig, 19, or Mr. Hamdani, 22, are re-examining their faith, stripping it of cultural influences to be able to address the confusion between Islam and politics.
“I wrote an essay for one of my political science courses about how Muslims are portrayed in the media,” said Mr. Hamdani. He traced negative portrayals to 1978 and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
“The Americans were pro-Shah,” said Mr. Hamdani. “And now there was an Islamic republic. That’s when the negative portrayals began.
“I remember seeing a commercial when I was kid. There were flashes of Arab and Islamic leaders and the message was, ‘These people control our oil.”‘
That touches home.
“When I was growing up, my friend’s father used to call me a terrorist. I sincerely believe there wasn’t anything malicious to it but he used to say, ‘Oh, little terrorist, how are you doing?’ When you’re in grade seven, 12 or 13 years old, you just kind of laugh because you don’t know what else to do.”
Ms Baig added a high school story. “A teacher in grade 12 made a comment in class that really offended me. He said something about two Islamic leaders in power and he called them, ‘A bunch of crazies.’ I talked with that teacher afterward about his ideas about Islam and fundamentalism.
“Many times I’ve found myself defending my religion,” she said. “I always have to be on top of the issues because I might have to respond to them.”
One of those issues is wearing Hijab, covering the hair and wearing a long-sleeved, loose-fitting garment in response to Islamic teaching regarding modest dress. The Western impression of Hijab is one of oppression because it has been forced upon women in some societies.
But that’s not what it’s about, said Ms Baig.
Wearing Hijab, or submitting to any other religious code, is only a valid expression of faith when it is done voluntarily. Enforcing a religious code strips away its validity before God. If the heart rebels against an outward act, the act loses any religious significance.
For example, many religions recommend fasting, but, if one is forced to fast, you are merely being denied food, you are not performing a religious act.
It is a view supported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In a statement released this week, the council said, “The Islamic rules for modest dress apply to men and women equally. If a particular society oppresses women, it does so in spite of Islam, not because of it.”
From a religious perspective, “Hijab is a very personal issue,” said Ms Baig.
“I hope one day to wear Hijab, but I have to come to that stage in my faith. It’s not, ‘I’m a Muslim so I’m going to wear it.’ You have to reach that feeling in your heart,” she said.
“In this society women are objectified… seen as body parts. When you wear Hijab it forces people to see you as a person.”
In religious circles people don’t say all Christians are like Jim Jones, or Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell or John Paul. It just isn’t so. So why are all Muslims painted extremists or following the same political agenda. How can anybody paint a billion people with one color, asks Ms Baig.
“If people in the West read Islam for what it offered… they would see how fair it is,” said Mr. Hamdani. “Islam offers liberation.
“It offers liberation by providing moral constraints for our daily actions. For example, we can’t charge usury. I can’t make a profit from your misfortune.
“Islam offers liberation by warning us to guard our modesty. It calls upon men to lower their gaze and not gawk at women, showing disrespect for them.
“Islam says, do not backbite. If we lived in society where no one would slander another, it would be a lot more peaceful.”
And that message is getting across.
Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in Canada. A 1981 census showed about 100,000 people are Muslims. By 1992 that figure had doubled to 200,000. Now, three years later, it has doubled again to 400,000.
There are more than 500 Muslim families in Hamilton-Wentworth and 200 families in Halton.
Caption: Barry Gray, The Spectator Arshia Baig with a copy of the Holy Quran. Trying to dispel ignorance around Islam is a part of daily life.