Edmonton Muslims Need To Have The Hard Conversation About Extremism

Two events took place this weekend in Edmonton. The Muslim response to both was quite different.

There was what is being termed a terror attack — a Somali refugee stabbed a police officer and rammed into pedestrians. Apparently, he was found with an ISIS flag. Within hours, Edmonton Muslim community stakeholders planned for a vigil at Churchill Square.

The Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council condemned the attack. Likewise, Al Rashid Mosque sent their statement through email.

Edmonton Police investigate at the scene where a man hit pedestrians, then flipped the U-Haul truck he was driving, pictured at the intersection at 107 Street and 100th Avenue in front of the Matrix Hotel in Edmonton, Alta., on Oct. 1, 2017.

On the other hand, we had planned for the first-ever Conference on Islam and LGBTQ Muslims in Edmonton. Speakers were invited from across the United States to help sustain the conversation on faith and sexuality. The same Edmonton Muslim community stakeholders were sent invitations twice.

We had also invited representatives from the Edmonton Islamic Academy, the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities, the Muslim Community Liaison Committee, the Green Room — a project of the Islamic Family and Social Services, amongst others.

The conference was widely promoted in the Edmonton Journal, Metro News and the Ryan Jespersen show to escape recognition.

The response was freezing silence.

The perpetuating narrative is one of victimhood. This is true for mainstream Canadians and Canadian Muslims alike.

It seems that the response of Edmonton Muslim community stakeholders is often more reactive than proactive. It is directed more outwards than inwards. It is more to counter Islamophobia from without than it is to counter the supremacist discourse of popular Muslim preachers from within.

The perpetrator of the heinous attack was noted for espousing extremist ideology in 2015. The Muslim community would be quick to relinquish him as part of the community. Others may claim that he was mentally ill.

Yet, blaming mental illness for terrorism is inappropriate as it brushes all those with mental illness with the same brush. Likewise, excommunicating an individual is simply a Pontius Pilate tactic to wash one’s hands off any responsibility.

In the context of the terror attack, great speeches will be offered. Terrorism will be unequivocally condemned. Others will question why should we have to assume responsibility for one lone person’s attack.

The verse, “whosoever takes one life is as if he has killed all humanity” will be projected. The importance of not stereotyping all Muslims will also be emphasized.

But once all the speeches and condemnations are done, all will return to their respective abodes until the next time such an ugly incident or its backlash takes place.

The perpetuating narrative is one of victimhood. This is true for mainstream Canadians and Canadian Muslims alike.

However, what is really required is a proactive discourse that is based on constant reflection. This comes when people look inwards.

Hard questions need to be asked. Is there a system of oppression that marginalizes Somali or minority youth? Is there a supremacist discourse that is being sold as religion?

This includes carding, racial abuse and other factors that produce alienation. This also includes a xenophobic, hateful narrative on the one hand and a narrative of Caliphate and death punishments on the other hand.

The responsibility to check xenophobia lies with the mainstream society. This responsibility has manifested through hashtags “We will not be divided” and expressions of solidarity with the Muslim community in the face of any backlash.

Yet, the Edmonton Muslim community response is one of victimhood, of fear of a backlash instead of one of strength.

Indeed, it requires great strength to look within and address supremacist tropes that are preached by popular Islamic preachers and promoted by neo-traditionalist Muslim communities.

Consider for instance the Muslims in Calgary website that offers a legal disclaimer on their Ask the Scholar section on homosexuality. Posted in November 2016, the response clearly reads:

“Muslim jurists hold different opinions concerning the punishment for this abominable practice. Should it be the same as the punishment for fornication, or should both the active and passive participants be put to death? While such punishments may seem cruel, they have been suggested to maintain the purity of the Islamic society and to keep it clean of perverted elements.”

Speakers like Abdullah al-Andalusi, who openly promotes a benign Caliphate, has been twice invited to the University of Alberta in January 2016 and 2017.

University of Alberta in Edmonton.

In fact, opinions on the validity of the caliphate and the death punishment for homosexuality, blasphemy and apostasy are often shared by a large swathe of neo-traditionalist speakers that are quite popular amongst Muslim Student Associations.

As such, while there are conversations to combat xenophobia, any conversation to address religious supremacism is met with freezing silence.

Often people blame various socio-economic factors but go at great length to excuse the narrow religious discourse that is used to mobilize perpetrators of terrorism.

Socio-economic factors are addressed structurally through policy changes and institutional change. Xenophobia and racism are addressed by mainstream anti-oppression activists.

However, religious discourse is more difficult to address as heightened emotions are involved, which makes one immune to the oppression inherent in death punishments for homosexuality, blasphemy and apostasy.

In the absence of a supremacist religious discourse, terrorists will have to find another vehicle for mobilization.

Imagine if a new religious discourse allowed Muslim community stakeholders to accept interfaith marriage, ex-Muslims and LGBTQ Muslims, all issues, which really are about religious supremacism.

In such a counterfactual scenario, Islamophobes will have no leg to stand on to attack Muslims. At the very least, they will find it extremely hard to justify their hate.

Likewise, in the absence of a supremacist religious discourse, terrorists will have to find another vehicle for mobilization.

But for this to happen, Edmonton Muslim community stakeholders will have to end their freezing silence and actually start listening to the most vulnerable amongst them instead of abandoning them to medieval legal manuals copy-pasted on the net.

However, for the foreseeable future, Edmonton Muslim community stakeholders have chosen to maintain freezing silence. This means after venting our frustrations at vigils, we can go home and expect the next ugly incident to happen.

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Author: Junaid Jahangir