MOHAMMED AZHAR ALI KHAN was born in Bhopal, India in 1932 and moved to Pakistan in 1950. He took BA degrees from the University of Karachi and the University of the Philippines and an MA from the University of Michigan. He served as news editor of Morning News in Karachi and as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Baltimore Sun. He joined the Citizen in 1965, becoming a member of the editorial board in 1967.
Many Muslims believe both they and their religion generally get a raw deal from the media and academics in North America. This belief was reinforced by discovering that the University of Manitoba is sponsoring a three-day conference on “Islamic Terrorism in the 1990s and the Threat to North America,” beginning today in Winnipeg.
This is the third terrorism conference organized by the university’s Counter-Terror Study Centre in Winnipeg. The first in 1985 was devoted to hijacking and airport security. In 1986, the conference dealt with “Right-wing terrorism in North America.” Although such right-wing terrorist groups, like the Aryans and the Ku Klux Klan, are mostly Christian, that conference was not titled, “Christian terrorism and the threat to North America.”
This year’s theme is particularly galling because there has been no threat to Canada from any Muslim group. Even when Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor hid U.S. diplomats in his house in Tehran and then smuggled them out of the country on forged papers, there were no Muslim reprisals against Canadians in Iran, or in Canada.
The only known incident of “Islamic terrorism” in Canada took place two years ago — a smashed window in a Winnipeg bookstore that displayed Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, which Muslims regard as sacrilegious.
It’s never been proven that vandalism was caused by a Muslim, but what if it was. No one links the many broken store windows elsewhere to “Christian terrorism” or sees them as threats to a nation.
First to publicly voice concern was Mark Assad, member of Parliament for Gatineau-La Lievre in western Quebec, who is a Christian. Assad said the conference theme and panel titles link “Islam to terrorism so unabashedly that it could be considered to be bordering on hate-mongering.”
The Criminal Code outlaws the promotion of hate against members of any distinct group.
But Assad’s complaint was dismissed as “rather foolish” by Peter St. John, conference organizer and professor at the University of Manitoba.
In Winnipeg the Free Press newspaper misreported Assad’s valid objection as a jihad. That’s an Arabic term that means struggle for a noble cause and includes self-defence. In the West, the term is often distorted to indicate an aggressive attack on any who do not follow the Islamic faith.
Of the eight sessions at the conference, six at first were devoted to the “threat of Islamic terrorism.” No Muslims were initially included as speakers even though there are numerous Muslim academics in Canadian universities.
Anwar Islam, a sociologist with the Manitoba government, asked for a chance to present a Muslim’s viewpoint. Conference organizers agreed.
The imbalance of the conference also disturbed other Muslims. Manitoba Islamic Association members declared: “This conference should be cancelled and rescheduled to look at terrorism in the world and how to combat it. The Muslim community would like to be a part of the solution. The conference should not be aimed at a certain religious group.”
Organizer Peter St. John agreed to change the conference name — to “Middle Eastern terrorism” — and to add another Muslim speaker, Jamal Badawi of St. Mary’s University, Halifax.
Other titles were also changed. A speech billed as “Islamic terrorism: the threat in the 1990s” became “Changing trends in Middle East politics: The view from the region.” A panel discussion on “Islamic terrorism and the threat to North America” was changed to “Middle Eastern terrorism and its impact on North America.”
In addition, the organizers included one of the university’s own Muslim academics, Rais Khan, in a panel discussion.
The conference still implicitly links Islam with terrorism. No sessions have been devoted to terrorism being perpetuated in the Middle East by groups whose members do not belong to the Muslim faith, suggesting that terrorism is an exclusively Islamic phenomenon.
Prof. St. John said that he had wanted to include Muslim academics and had written to the embassies of Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the League of Arab States in Ottawa asking for names of Muslim scholars but did not receive a single reply.
However, he could have easily obtained names of Muslim scholars from universities, such as Toronto or McGill, which have good Middle East programs, from the Department of External Affairs or from Muslims in Winnipeg.
St. John explained that the initial conference title came from the book of Iranian dissident journalist Amir Taheri, The Inside Story of Islamic Terrorism.
The whole incident leaves a residue of bitterness. Canada’s Muslims number some 300,000, very few of Iranian or Arab origin. Those of Iranian and Arab origin have given no indication of anything other than loyalty to Canada.
The turmoil in Iran and the Middle East is tragic. But Canada enjoys relatively good relations with all parties in those conflicts. Canadians of different origins and faiths likewise live in peace, friendship and harmony.
If there is one thing we need, it is more understanding between Canadians of diverse faiths and backgrounds. What we do not need is stirring up hatred, prejudice and enmity among Canadians of different faith and to import the bitter conflicts of other regions into Canada.