“There is no definable Canadian culture, merely competing versions; one from ‘white, middle-class Canada,’ another from orthodox Islam.”
The above quote is from Kathy Bullock of ISNA to the Globe and Mail in 2005. It tells the story of how the Islamist network operates in Canada what most Islamists feel about Canada.
November 8, 2005
Canadian Muslims divided over sharia, funding from overseas, and religion’s role in a secular society
By MARINA JIMÃNEZ
and OMAR EL AKKAD
The Globe and Mail, Toronto
MISSISSAUGA — Several ornate chandeliers glitter in the sunlight of this well-appointed mosque, where congregants gather for Friday prayers. Women in shalwar kameez and hijabs enter through the same door as men and sit behind them on a mint-green carpet, divided by a two-foot-high, frosted glass partition. In tidy washrooms at the entrance, latecomers bathe at state-of-the-art ablution taps.
Located off a highway in Mississauga, the mosque is an impressive building, with a traditional minaret, a travel agency specializing in trips to Mecca for the hajj, a bookstore and a brand-new high school.
This is the Canadian headquarters for the Islamic Society of North America — an umbrella group of Muslim and Islamic organizations that, according to its mission statement, focuses on building an Islamic way of life in North America.
ISNA is also one of a few facilities in Canada that is funded by the Islamic Development Bank, which is based in Saudi Arabia.
In 2002, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information announced that King Fahd gave $5-million (U.S.) and an annual grant of $1.5-million to the Islamic Centre in Toronto. (The Islamic Centre of Canada is also housed at ISNA.) This year, the IDB announced a $275,000 grant to ISNA’s high school, as well as a scholarship program.
The IDB funding — touted on ISNA’s website, although officially denied by a society spokeswoman — is of concern to some Canadian Muslims who advocate for a secular government. They worry about the potential ideological parity between the society and its funder.
“We are opposed to funding from foreign governments because theoretically it could change the narrative and culture of Muslims in Canada. Our fear is they will proselytize the Wahhabist message,” said Munir Pervaiz, a director of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a grassroots organization based in Toronto.
Critics contend that, in the past, Saudi Arabia has funded mosques overseas in an effort to export Wahhabism, which developed in the late 18th century and emphasizes a return to the literal text of the Koran and the establishment of Islamic law.
The debate about ISNA and its funding reflects the divisions inherent in Canada’s 650,000-strong Muslim community, as competing organizations struggle to control the discourse and public face of Islam. The groups are becoming increasingly sophisticated, embarking on outreach initiatives and sharpening their media message, as they refuse to allow extremists and terrorists to hijack their faith.
Yet tensions remain. They came to the fore most recently in Ontario during the furor over sharia, with the MCC advocating against religious tribunals to resolve family disputes, and ISNA and other organizations lobbying in favour them.
In the end, Premier Dalton McGuinty reversed course and decided in September that religious tribunals would no longer be permitted under the 1991 Arbitration Act. In declaring “there will be one law for all Ontarians,” he said that faith-based tribunals “threaten our common ground.”
In Toronto, ISNA recently organized a protest in favour of religious arbitration, with the rallying cry: “No Islamophobia, racism or Islam bashing.” Proponents of sharia say the problem isn’t with Islamic law, but with the way some imams apply it.
Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, calls sharia critics un-Islamic. In a recent open letter, he likened opposing sharia to “smearing Islam, ridiculing the Koran, badmouthing Mohammad . . .”
In this battle for the very soul of Islam, it is hard to say which side has more to lose. No wonder ISNA is loath to disclose details of its IDB funding.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi-financed mosques and schools in the United States and Canada have been under greater scrutiny. Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest financier of fundamentalist Islam, as well as the nationality of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.
A 2003 report by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations found Saudi Arabia had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund 210 Islamic centres and 1,359 mosques around the world, including at least three in Canada. The report found that U.S. interests were threatened by Saudi efforts to export Wahhabism, which could foster intolerance toward the United States, Christians, Jews and other Muslims.
In 2004, the U.S. Senate finance committee, in an investigation of possible ties to terrorism, sought the tax records of ISNA in the United States.
ISNA co-operated fully, saying it had nothing to hide. The society has worked hard on outreach, inviting U.S. President George W. Bush to its annual convention, held last month in Chicago.
In Canada, ISNA has been much more low-profile, achieving prominence only during the recent sharia debate. The society, while not known for its advocacy work, enjoys a relatively mainstream image, according to one Muslim organization.
On its website, ISNA talks about advocating Islamic solutions to societal problems and becoming involved in “righteous change,” guided by sharia.
Kathy Bullock, a native Australian who converted to Islam, is ISNA’s articulate spokeswoman. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, she said the society does not follow Wahhabism, but practises a mainstream version of the faith, and notes that it has been active in speaking out against extremism. ISNA in the United States was one of the first organizations to issue a fatwa against terrorism after the terrorist attacks in London in July.
“ISNA is very mainstream, moderate philosophy, teaching people to be good citizens in the countries in which they live and to engage as Canadians with the non-Muslim mainstream,” Ms. Bullock said. “It eschews violence as a political strategy . . . and tries to promote integration without losing your Islamic identity.”
Ms. Bullock is less clear about ISNA’s funding from the IDB, which was set up in 1973 by Islamic countries to foster economic development and social progress of member countries and Muslim communities, according to the principles of sharia.
In the interview, she compared ISNA’s IDB funding to the Canadian International Development Agency, which supports sustainable development projects in developing countries. She said there was no pressure to follow Wahhabism as a result of the IDB money. “It is like a grant,” she said.
In a follow-up e-mail, Ms. Bullock denied ISNA receives IDB funds, although ISNA’s website says the opposite. An official with Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington also said he believed King Fahd’s $5-million grant went to ISNA.
Tarek Fatah, an MCC spokesman, says ISNA should be transparent about its funding. “What are they scared of? There is double-talk going on here.”
A member of another Muslim organization calls the debate around sharia, and the question of ISNA’s funding, “mudslinging” and corrosive to the community. “I think it is a healthy debate to have different perspectives [in the Muslim community], but unhealthy when you have pejoratives thrown around,” he says. “Calling someone a Wahhabist these days is tantamount to calling someone an extremist. The term has taken on a life of its own.”
Ms. Bullock says she also feels the debate over sharia has been shaped through the lens of “Islamophobia” and “us versus them.” She sees Islamic law as inherently equitable, although concedes there is room for reform. (For example, in the notion that women are only entitled to three months of alimony.) Ms. Bullock calls herself a feminist who wants to work for change from within.
ISNA’s understanding of the faith, however, is rooted in orthodoxy. Ms. Bullock recently told a panel on the Michael Coren Show that she has no problem with polygamy.
Muslim women must cover their bodies and hair and accept that their primary responsibility is to care for children and the home, Ms. Bullock explains. Once these obligations are fulfilled, there is nothing to stop women from pursuing a career outside the home as she does, lecturing at the University of Toronto.
Muslims should not take loans from banks that charge them interest, should not go to restaurants that sell alcohol, eat chocolates with rum-filled centres and women should not swim in pools unless they are wearing long bathing shorts and there are no men present, Ms. Bullock says. She adds that these issues are also individual and may depend on the circumstances.
ISNA’s high school enforces a strict Islamic dress code and gender segregation in the classrooms, with girls on one side and boys on the other. Girls must wear a head scarf properly pinned under the chin, but may remove it for the all-girls gym class. Islamic studies is part of the curriculum, with an emphasis on Sunni Islam.
With about 75 students, the school stresses the importance of Islamic values, while exposing students to non-Islamic Canadian culture, including ski trips and excursions to Paramount Canada’s Wonderland.
Critics contend that some aspects of ISNA’s understanding of Islam, especially the gender segregation, are out of step not only with mainstream Canadian culture, but also with the way smaller minority sects such as Ismailis, Ahmadiyas and Sufis see their faith.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a Sufi convert and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Islamic Pluralism, supported the introduction of sharia in Ontario, calling Mr. McGuinty’s decision to ban religious arbitration in the province “unspeakably ridiculous.”
However, he said the sharia interpretations presented by ISNA during the debate didn’t include those outside the Saudi tradition. “All the stuff I could get in Kosovo, Indonesia and other Muslim communities was nowhere to be found,” Mr. Schwartz said.
Adds Mr. Pervaiz of the Muslim Canadian Congress: “ISNA’s version of Islam is not my vision of a moderate, mainstream Islam. As a practising, yet secular, Muslim, my fear is when you bring the principle of sharia into the public domain [instead of leaving it in religious centres] it works against separation of church and state and against integration.”
Atique Azad, a Bangladeshi immigrant and regular at the ISNA mosque, attended on Aug. 12 and did not like what he described as the “anti-woman” sermon delivered by a visiting imam. Mr. Azad said the imam referred to all females as a source of temptation and seduction.
Ms. Bullock said ISNA later informed the imam his choice of words was “offensive and inappropriate.” The speaker apologized and pledged not to repeat such language, she said.
She does not see ISNA’s overall philosophy as contradictory with the “Canadian way” because she says there is no definable Canadian culture, merely competing versions, one from “white, middle-class Canada,” another from orthodox Islam.
“The Canadian way to me is a way that accepts my religion, and makes the greatest attempt legally to accommodate religious practices including the right to pray, wear a hijab and all the rights that flow from religious accommodation,” Ms. Bullock says.
She hopes that one positive effect of the sharia debate and the spotlight on Muslim organizations will be to foster a greater understanding of Islam, and a breaking down of negative stereotypes about the religion.
“I’m committed to a more orthodox, conservative faith, but it is not contrary to Canadian values. I see them as very much in sync,” she said. “There are no monolithic Canadian values and no monolithic Muslim values.”