The Ninth General Conference:Islam And The West Past - Present - Future
Boundaries and Bridges: Muslim Communities in Multicultural Canada By: John Sigler
Of Boundaries and Bridges: Muslim Communities in a Multicultural Canada
By: Dr. John Sigler Carleton University (Otlaea) Canada
(Paper presented to the panel on Islamic communities in the west, The Supreme council for Islamic Affairs, Cairo, 3-16 July 1997.)
This paper stems from work in promoting dialogue among the religious communities in Canada, a secular and multicultural Western country which continues to receive significant immigration, particularly from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The Muslim community today numbers at least 400,000 in a country of some 30 million people and is increasingly visible, thanks to its active participation in community life, in politics, and even sponsors a weekly presentation on national television to promote a greater understanding of Islam. Observers from abroad are well aware of the great test now going on, in maintaining a united federal Canada as pressures mount for separation from francophone Québec. But the Canadian formula of acceptance and participation among Canada's diverse communities remains. In the recent federal elections, a Muslim Canadian immigrant from Lebanon, Mac Harb, was reelected as the Member of Parliament for central Ottawa, the seat of parliament and the main institutions of federal Canada. He had served earlier on Ottawa city council, with strong backing from the Arab community which is the third largest ethnic group in Ottawa alter the founding ethnic groups from Britain and France. For many years, a Palestinian Arab immigrant served in the federal cabinet under Pierre Trudeau. Today Pierre Debanne continues to serve as a Senator. What is more surprising is that the ethnic and religious backgrounds of these successful immigrants have never been a subject of commentary in public or private debate in Canada.
So Canada is a relative success story among Western countries, but this only indicates a strong need for continuing our common efforts at building bridges of greater understanding across the diversity of world cultures and religions. In my own work in the media, I often repeat the advice given students in the university as they take up these questions of cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. And that advice is to be very wary of labels in dealing with individual human beings and the complexity and multiplicity of identities on this planet. The media and our own conversations are filled with labels! state labels like France, or Russia, or the USA, national labels like the French, or the Russians, or the Kurds, or the Arabs, or religious labels of Muslim, Christian, or Jew, or Hindu or Buddhist. The labels of course reflect realities of background, belief, and identity, but they are not exclusive.
All of us resent being treated on interpersonal grounds in terms of some exclusive identity, since we know we possess many different identities at the same time, and that the primacy of these identities change as context and our diverse roles change. We may differ in national identities or religious belief Systems yet share other common identities of mother, or father, son or daughter, city or citizenship, doctor or patient, male or female. To reduce such diversity of our multiple identities to only one label is often very dehumanizing, and the recent critique of the otherwise admirable aspects of Canada's multicultural policies shows the problems in fragmenting a society into entirely separate identities, privileging culture over other vital shared identities. On some issues and in some contexts, one of our multiple identities may be more important than another, and there are real boundaries out there in many of these identities. But when it comes to immediate and direct interpersonal relations, rather than the abstraction of labels, it is important to recognize that the meaning of we and they is constantly shifting, not some fixed and rigid category system which ignores other shared identities. My title is intended to reflect this diversity and multiplicity of identities: we have definite boundaries of distinctiveness of family, ethic group, citizenship, and religion, but we also have bridges across these different identities, so it is not a question of choosing between boundaries and bridges, but seeing both as interacting in complex ways. In this, so many other categorization schemes in modern thought, philosophers have tried to challenge these dichotomies of "either-or" as a way of understanding, and instead emphasize, "both-and" as more meaning ways of constructing our social worlds.
For social scientists, these ideas are particularly important in under how, where, and when intense human conflict occurs. The idea of the enemy is based on seeing someone as totally different from our "we" group. Where multiple identities are recognized, then the "we-they" distinctions are not so polarized, and the meaning of who "we" are; can shift according to what identities are emphasized. Allies and enemies are not then permanently fixed, but vary according to the issue in conflict. Who is an enemy on one issue may be an ally on another, so conflict is diffused and not polarized. One does not get rid of conflict, which is frequently an important instrument of social change, but one does try to reduce the dangers of lethal conflict, where violence can be used against someone who is seen as wholly other.
In a secular age, many interpreters have often interpreted religion as promoting conflict and even violence because of the exclusive identities involved. For the secularists, progress is equated with the growth in human reason, as opposed to religion which is interpreted as a domain of superstition and unreason. Samuel Huntington of Harvard University has recently carried this idea of exclusive categories to characterize the post-Cold War era (1) He sees no longer a clash of states, as between the US and the USSR, but a clash between civilizations, where he sees Islam, perhaps allied to Confucian civilization, as the great enemy of the democratic, secular, and scientific West. These prejudices about Islam and the West lie deeply in Western thinking, and as Edward Said stressed in his important work, Orientalism, in 1979 (Vintage Press); the prejudices toward Islam are promoted by many of the Western scholars who have studied Islam and the Muslim world. In they legacy of the Crusades, they have constructed a West which is wholly different from its opposite, the world of Islam. The meanings change over time, but the sharp "we-they" distinctions remain. In the Victorian age in Europe, the Muslim world was seen as full of sexual license and abandon. In the late 20th century sexually explicit West, Islam is a domain of Puritanism and sexual repression. The only constant is whatever the West is, Islam is not. As Thierry Hentsch of the University of Quebec at Montreal, has recently brought out, in his magisterial sequel to Said's work, entitled Imagining the Middle East (Black Rose 1992), not all Orientalists accepted these rigid "we-they" notions. The Muslim world had preserved Greek science and philosophy, passed on to them by the conquered Byzantines, and had synchronized the great civilization of china, Persia and India into a vast new eclectic civilization, in which the ideas, the arts, the social practices of these conquered civilizations were incorporated into a vastly larger "we." For students of comparative religion, Islam with its emphasis on the common heritage of the Abrahamic faiths has, in both doctrine and practice, been more tolerant of Christianity and Judaism than they have of each other, or more particularly than they have been of Islam. Indeed, the terrible Holocaust of Europe's Jewish population in this century was a product of both the strong doctrinal anti-Semitism of a Christian inheritance and the new anti-Semitism of a deeply secular fascist philosophy. Nationalism, Europe's secular religion of the 18th century, has done far more than religion to create deeply polarized "we-they" identities which justify the killing of the other. In Bosnial, the media have been faced with explaining how it is that the most tolerant and integrated- and least violent- in this plural society are the Muslims, not the Christians of either Orthodox or Catholic inheritance. In the Muslim world's most secularized state, Turkey, recent revisionist thinking has explored the legacy of secular nationalism, with one scholar recently arguing that the genocide of the Armenian minority could only have taken place in the name of secular nationalism, not in the name of Ottoman millet system of tolerance of fellow believers in a common God. (2)
The group assembled here in Cairo is dedicated to continuing the very valuable work in correcting the many biases in the Western media and culture about the history, theology, and practice of the diversity of the Muslim world. This has become increasingly important when one under stands that 1/3 of the world's 1.2 billion Muslim, some 400 million people now live in minorities in non-Muslim countries. But it is also important for non-Muslims to play an educational role in showing the vital contribution that Islam played in integrating diversity and in laying the foundations for the Renaissance in Europe. There was deep interaction among the Mediterranean civilizations, and what the West became was a product in large part of what it had learned from others. But it was not all bridges either. The Egyptian economist Samir Amin has argued, in his important book Euro-centrism (Monthly Review Press, 1989) that the Europe which emerged from the feudal / medieval period was still a poorly integrated civilization, and that the strong push toward individualism and free enterprise and the dominance of economy over the society and the polity could only have emerged in a society where social cohesion and deep moral responsibilities toward others were relatively weak. Islam, he argues, was at its outset a religion of merchants, so the economic dimension (the suq) always ranked high, but closely bound by the community responsibilities of the mosque. While the enterprising spirit of the West spread through colonial outreach and in today's global markets, there remain deep questions about the loss of social cohesion and the growing threat of ecological catastrophe in a world of excessive technological expansion and consumption. In the growing social crisis engendered by unrestrained economism, Islam's closest allied voices have come from many of the Christian churches, who share a deeply moral perspective on all human activity, not least the economic one. While secular writer deplore the alliance of the Vatican and some Islamic leaders at the World Population Conference in Cairo, they do not emphasize the shared concerns of these Abrahamic voices about social decay and a loss of concern for the poor and the disadvantaged. We seem to believe that science and technology, and economic development are the hallmarks of success in a new global civilization, and we privilege science and technology as the keys to success for your young and talented. What great civilization was ever built on technology alone, and what does that sole emphasis on high technology say to our young people with other talents in music, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, religion, and in relevance for our common life, less deserving of encouragement and development? These are vital questions with alliances beyond the religious to the humanists as well.
In a period of rootlessness, loss of identity, and amoral apathy, let me take up this theme that the world religious have a major role to play. In 1993, in Chicago, leaders 32 of the world religious gathered for the Second World Parent of Religions, the first having been held in Chicago a hundred years before. The eminent Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, who has done magnificent work in showing the way for dialogue among the world's faiths (see his Christianity and the World Religions, Doubleday, 1986), helped draw up a common document entitled, "Towards a Global Ethic," which received assent from 200 respected leaders of all the world major faiths. It argued that the world is in agony and need of a new ethical commitment, affirming that a common set of core values is found in the teachings of the religions", that these include that "rights without morality cannot long endure," that "the realization of peace, justice and the protection of the Earth depends on the insight and readiness of men and women to act justly," that "every human being must be treated humanely," that, "what yon wish done to yourself, do to others;" that "No One has the right physically or psychically to torture, injure, kill, my other human being," and "no people, no slate, no race, no religion has the right to hate, discriminate against, to "cleanse", to exile, much to liquidate a foreign minority, which is different in behavior or holds difficult beliefs," that "every people, every race, every religion must show tolerance and respect indeed high appreciation- for every other," "'we must utilize economic and political power for service to humanity indeed of misusing it in ruthless battles for domination," that "'we condemn sexual exploitation and sexual discrimination as one of the worst forms of human degradation" and that we must constantly seek truth and incorruptible sincerity instead of speaking ideological or partisan half-truths." An appeal was made to the non-religious as well to join in this common global ethic. An important paragraph was directed at religious bigotry: "When the representatives of religion stir up prejudice, hatred, and enmity toward those of different beliefs, or even incite or stir up legitimate religious wars, they deserve the condemnation of humankind and the loss of their adherents." There will be of course many religious voices who will not share this emphasis on beliefs, commitments and condemnations, but I would agree with Thierry Hentsch in his response to the secularists who see religion as a major source of the world's conflicts: Hentsch wrote "it cold he fairly argued that the living experience of faith has never been a source of intolerance"(P. 195).
I have put my emphasis on bridge building because the dominant culture in the modern world, the secular rationalist one, has caricatured and trivialized the contribution of the rich inheritance of the world's religions and has particularly put down the world's second largest faith, Islam. It is all well and good to talk of dialogue, but genuine dialogue is only possible on terms of relative equality where each participant acknowledges the legitimacy of the other's participation, even if quarreling over specifics. My own experience in interfaith dialogue, or even more than between the secularists and the believers, has been the asymmetry in the communications. The weaker party starts from a defensive position and must upend a great deal of time dealing with the accusations from the stronger party. Indeed, Thierry Hentsch argues that true dialogue between Islam and the West is unlikely as long as the dominated party feels incapable of modifying the asymmetry of power intellectual power included- which underlies the exchange (p. 190). Nowhere on the contemporary political scene is this asymmetry more dear than in the so-called Palestinian-Israeli peace process, initiated by the Americans and rescued once by the Norwegians. There is no dialogue here, no acceptance by the Israelis of the legitimacy of Palestinian suffering and desperate human needs. We have only what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls strategic interaction, where the powerful impose their will on the weak. This can never be the basis for a satisfactory peace as the needs of both parties must be the basis for any satisfactory conflict resolution. Some Israelis understand this clearly, but they are not in any positions of influence in the present Israeli government. Amos Oz, perhaps Israel's most celebrated novelist, recently criticized a fundamentalist Jewish minority that has been pushing the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy into an area of religious conflict over holy places. He wrote:
The future of Israel is not in tunnel but in a historic compromise between the two nations living on this land. Peace cannot prevail while Israel does as it pleases with the disputed areas while expecting the Palestinians to provide law and order. Peace cannot prevail when Israel gradually gnaws at what is left of Palestine. Peace means first and foremost accepting the other as a partner rather than as a nuisance... we Israelis are not alone in Jerusalem, just as we are not alone in this country. We must accept the other, respect their position and meet them somewhere hallway. (Globe and Mail, 14 October 1996)
This is the same message which French President Jacques Chirac delivered in October 1996 in his tumultuous visit to Israel. The US has demanded an exclusive right to mediation with the same argument that the Israelis have the power and what they will give is all the weaker party can expect. So we have the asymmetry of the parties re-enforced by the world's last remaining superpower siding completely with the Israelis, while Europe, more closely tied by history and trade, to the area is forced onto the sidelines. But Chirac's message that someone outside understands the frustrations and legitimate needs of the weaker party, the Palestinians, may have played a vital role in stilling for the moment the voices of violence who despair of any just outcome.
This is a moment to take up the World Parliament of Religions concern with those who justify violence in the name of religious faith, whether in the American Christian right militia, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Islamic in Hamas, Jihad, and Hezbollah. I have recently written as a social scientist trying to understand-not justify- the emergence of these groups. (3) I think indeed a political scientist may have more to say about their actions than a specialist in theology. One common theme is to turn religion info a political ideology, where the goal is to achieve control of the state by whatever means necessary. This is almost entirely a 20th century phenomenon and says more about the crisis of modernity than about religious inheritance. Curiously enough, many of these true believers come from the most modern sectors of secular Western society- engineers, technicians and computer scientists. They seem to want in social relations and in religion the same stark black and white, right and wrong, which characterizes the cognitive styles of the modern, technical world. In periods of intense social change, such extremist movements are increasingly likely, but it would be a mistake to analyze them in terms of religion, rather than social psychology and political grievances. They reason precisely in the sharp "we-they" language about which I have been so critical in much of modern Western political ideology. In the Muslim case, the Western media have treated these extremists as characteristic of the religion as a whole; hence talk of an Islamic bomb, but never of a Christian bomb which took a quarter of a million lives in this century, or a Jewish bomb. These labels are grossly misleading, and we should do everything possible to avoid such prejudiced thin-, particularly about a Muslim world, which in history and on this planet today, is characterized by such remarkable diversity, and which has provided solid foundations of identity, social responsibility and faith for such a large part of humankind.
My mentor in Islamic studies, the late Professor Jacques Berque of the Collage de France, argued "Respecting the other in his difference is not enough. We must accept him analogically into ourselves; there is no other legitimate way for us to project ourselves into him" In this, he saw a vital rule for the Muslim world in the building of a new planetary sense of space. Islam, he said, is called upon to repair the damage the secular West has wrought, to help remedy the failing of the modern age. Clearly I do not speak as a Muslim, but I do speak as a believer, in that inclusive sense which Yassir Arafat used so insightfully in the anecdote which I recounted earlier.
In 1776, at the first convention to draw up a constitution for the newly declared independent state of Pennsylvania, the elected delegate of the Western frontier, Heinrich Roth, from the small sect of German Drathran who had emigrated from Germany to escape religious persecution, argued for the inclusion of a clause guaranteeing freedom of religion in the new state. Benjamin Franklin, who chaired the session and was well known for his strong secular beliefs, asked Roth why a religious person would want freedom of religion. Roth answered, "because we're not sure we're right," to which Franklin responded that he was the most admirable religious person he had ever met, because all the others were so sure they were always right. In the dialogue which is being practiced in Canada is to continue to succeed there as well as elsewhere, and then we will need much more of that spirit of listening to others with the recognition that we have so much to learn from each other. And we should always be aware of our biases and prejudices if there is to be any genuine effort at mutual learning. On that basis alone can we enter any real dialogue of healing in this troubled age?
(1) Samuel P. Huntington (1993). The clash of Civilization", Foreign Affairs, 72 (Summer), 22-29
(2) On the night of signing of the PLO-Israel accord in Washington on 13 September 1993. Larry King on CNN asked Yassir Arafat why he hated Jews. Arafat's at the question was deep, saying repeatedly to King that he was "a believer" forbidden to hate people of the Book- King, puzzled by the reply then asked Arafat what he "believed" in. The story indicates the depth of misunderstanding of a secular media personality of the history of the Abrahamic Faiths Arafat insisted on the inclusive term "believer", rather than "Muslim" to show the shared heritage of the Abrahamic Faiths. His repeated reference today to his Israeli "cousins" falls completely on deaf ears, whether in Israel or the larger western world.
(3) John Sigler (1996). Understanding the Emergence of Islam; the case of Political Islam, "Middle East Affairs Journal, 2 (Summer, Fall), 97-91.