I have been asked to write a reflection piece on Canadian Islamic Heritage Month, which was held all of last month (October). Very truthfully, I’ve grappled with trying to string words together to try to convey my optimistic sentiments regarding this designated month meant for embracing Islamic heritage. My personal enthusiasm is muddled up a bit with hesitation. Hesitations aside, I wish to cast some strong positive light on our government’s more recent inclusive act of recognition and respect towards all Canadian Muslims (either newly arrived or from generations past) and also towards those among us (self-identifying as a practicing Muslim or not) who have Islamic heritage of some sort in their ancestry. This written reflection serves to hopefully encourage you, dear reader, to celebrate Canadian Islamic History Month for many years to come.
I should mention that I wasn’t aware of this special month until now so it took me by surprise to hear of its existence. Through a quick online browse and a brief skimming of the Government of Canada website, it was confirmed that the Government of Canada passed legislation to federally designate October as Canadian Islamic Heritage Month back in 2007 and that this month of recognition was much more recently officialized on a provincial level in Ontario as of 2016. The recognition of Canadian Islamic Heritage Month was slower for Alberta and involved with petitions a year or so ago from organizations such as the Muslim Council of Calgary encouraging Alberta’s (then NDP) provincial government to recognize the month which was successful and led to the proclamation of this designated month last year. This year (2019), Alberta did come through with celebrating Canadian Islamic Heritage Month, which included a well-publicized Calgary Parade walk celebrating Canadian Islamic Heritage. Personally speaking, I am very grateful Islamic Heritage Month exists in Alberta as of now and I hope such a designated month never goes away.
For Canadian Muslims in particular, Canadian Islamic Heritage month may serve as a beam of hope for many of us who wish to have the practices of our peaceful religion normalized in our Canadian society, in coexistence with (and held in the same esteem as) rituals and practices of various other religious groups living amongst us here in multicultural Canada. We, as Muslim Canadians, belong to this country and its communities just as much as any other Canadian of any other faith, heritage or upbringing. Additionally, Canadian Islamic month may also be a great opportunity for Canadian Muslims to raise awareness about the determined Muslim pioneers (of Lebanese descent, etc) who settled in Canada in the 19th century onwards and developed strong working partnerships with indigenous counterparts for the purpose of mutual trading and community building. And this designated month may one day serve as an opportunity to take the time to build Muslim-Indigenous interfaith relations here in Alberta and other Canadian provinces and territories, and pay strong tribute to Indigenous peoples role in being the original inhabitants and dwellers of this country that we (as Canadian Muslims) call home. We as Canadian Muslims do share a lot of commonalities with Canadian Indigenous peoples, given that we both identify as visible minorities and both continue to face nuanced types of painful systemic oppression and discrimination while trying to navigate this society.
On a broader societal level, Canadian Islamic Heritage month is a beautiful opportunity (for Muslim and non-muslim Canadians alike) to recognize the contributions Canadian Muslims have made to Canada and globally since the start of mankind (in Literature, Sciences, Medicine, Health, Architecture, Technology, Mathematics, Physics, Astrology, Sports, Arts, Business, etc). Additionally, Canadian Islamic Heritage month offers all Canadians an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history of Islam in Canada (earlier places of Islamic worship, community building, etc), as well as learn more about the ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of Canada’s heterogeneous and growing Muslim communities. As stated by the Government of Canada, Canadian Islamic Heritage month is a month designated to celebrate the Muslim communities that are a very unique and dynamic addition to our overall Canadian populations.
Moreover, it is also important to note that Islamic Heritage Month gives non-Muslim Canadians an excellent opportunity (each October) to be comfortably aware of and openly appreciative of those around them who are of Islamic heritage by birth and/or Islamic faith by reversion. Societal inclusion is a behaviour that requires participation by both parties (those who already have the privilege of belonging to the majority group in our society and those of us considered as members of the minority or ‘others’). The open-minded nature of the term ‘Islamic Heritage’ allows for every Canadian to take part in celebrating this month, regardless of their ethnic or religious orientation. Please note that Canadian Islamic Heritage month does not have anything to do with influencing your own personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Islam, itself, states that there is no compulsion in religion.
“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error. And [those] who reject false deities and believe in Allah [have] grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is All-hearing, All-knowing.” [Quran 2:256]
This Canadian Islamic Heritage Month encourages moving past simply talking about the need for inclusion of Canadian Muslims but rather, being about it. It’s important, on a personal level, to also walk the talk. Let us make efforts in our everyday lives to be inclusive towards those around us (i.e. Muslim to Muslim, practicing Muslims to non-practicing Muslims (and vice versa), Muslim to non-muslim, non-muslim to Muslim, non-muslim to non-muslim). Let’s try to embed anti-islamophobic and pro-inclusionary/pro-equity discourse into our everyday conversations, even if its a conversation between two non-muslims about Muslims. Let’s stand up for Muslim coworkers who are having trouble fitting into their predominately non-muslim workplace environment. Let’s stand up for a newly immigrated Muslim child who enters elementary school not knowing how to speak a word of English instead of letting the other children bully or mock them. Let’s not mock the Muslim woman who loves her religion but doesn’t wear hijab or typical Muslim garments at all times. Let’s stand up for the Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab, even if her hijab isn’t aligned with the traditional ways of wearing one. Let’s stand up for Muslim women or men who are struggling with their faith (even if you’re not Muslim yourself) in a society that is at times very hostile to faith in general. Let us not assume that Muslim women need to be liberated just because she deeply embraces her religion and beliefs. Let us not assume Islam is about oppressing women or ‘backward ways’. Let us not assume that the quiet Muslim coworker or peer you see sometimes doesn’t want to say hi to you because chances are, they’re just shy. Let us not assume that a Muslim’s gentle plea for more inclusion in our institutions is a threat to the autonomy or reputation of non-muslims in positions of power. Let us normalize acts of inclusion as absolutely necessary in our society, instead of a luxury that can’t feasibly be accessible at all times. At the end of the day, social belonging is a human need and as such, we all have the human right to embrace our individual religion, culture(s), heritage, etc without indirect or direct cruelty or oppression.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world” – Dead Poets Society (1989).
Overall, this reflection on Canadian Islamic Heritage Month (held each year during the month of October) reminds me that we all (as human beings) belong to one humanity at the end of the day and that He who is God (Allah) is one for everyone who believes in Him. On a less religion-attuned level, behaving in a consciously inclusive manner to everyone (in or outside one’s faith) is a human obligation we all need to fulfill in honour of each other’s human rights, regardless of faith, biased opinion, ignorance or random mood. It’s important for all of us, myself included, to shift our sense of fear (of animosity, of the unknown, of oppression, of hurt, of exclusion, of more emotional trauma, etc) into a feeling of empowerment. It’s important that we as Muslims not let fears (some very warranted, some perhaps trauma-triggered from past social situations gone wrong) control how we treat those around us and ultimately, how fully we practice our peaceful religion privately and in public.
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” [Quran 49:13].
The following link contains our Government of Canada’s statement from October 1, 2019, on Canadian Islamic History Month: https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/news/2019/09/statement-on-canadian-islamic-history-month.html