January 17, 2007

Simple mischief?

Vandals ransack Muslim school in Montreal | CBC News

59% of Quebecers say they're racist: poll | CBC News

Last night, a Muslim school in Montreal, École des Jeunes Musulmans Canadiens (JMC), was attacked. Twenty windows of the building were smashed, while the windows of the bus were shattered and garbage dumped in the aisle. My 6-year old nephew is a student at the school.
Montreal police said it is too soon to tell if the vandalism can be considered a hate crime.

"We're treating this as a simple mischief right now," Const. Laurent Gingras told CBC News on Tuesday.

This occurred a day after the results of a poll were released revealing that nearly three out of every five Quebecers consider themselves at least mildly racist. They won't call it a hate crime, because they only do that when Muslims are the suspects and not the victims.
[The poll] found 36 per cent of Quebecers have a bad opinion of Jewish people, while 27 per cent have a poor opinion of blacks. Fifty per cent have a bad opinion of Muslims.

These numbers don't surprise me, though I grew up and lived most of my life in Quebec. I'm curious to see more of a breakdown as to what parts of Quebec were more likely to admit racism. Montreal, where the attacks took place, is generally quite a functional multicultural society, though there have been a number of recent incidents that have marred that reputation. I spent two years in Gatineau, a far less diverse community despite it's proximity to Ottawa, and the racism there was far more blatant.

Some suspect a correlation between this poll and the attack on the school, proposing that perhaps this attack was a reaction to the survey results. That doesn't make much sense to me. This isn't a reaction; rather, it is an illustration of the poll results; it is an example of the 59% racism in the province, and a reflection of the 50% of the population that has a poor opinion of Muslims. Who would react to a poll in such a way?

What is disturbing about events like the one today at JMC is how it might affect the children. These are very young students; I doubt they understand why people might feel hatred for them. For a 6-year Muslim child from a Muslim family going to a Muslim school, with little interaction with people of other beliefs, this can potentially shatter their early beliefs about the sheltered society they live in. In 2004, the library of a Jewish elementary school in Montreal was set ablaze by a firebomb launched by a masked man. A year later, a 19-year old Muslim was charged in the attack, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Many children, inspired by Saturday morning cartoons, grow up with a very polarized view of the world, one of heroes and villains. For the young child gazing at the shards of glass in his classroom or ashes of the library he used to love, it becomes very easy to believe that the world really is that simple, and that the villains are truly lurking at every corner. It also becomes very easy to declare who the villains are.

In this country, children this young shouldn't even know how to hate. But we insist on teaching them.

January 08, 2007

Of Premieres, Prairies, and Prayers

These are interesting times for Canadian Muslims.

Tomorrow is the series premiere of "Little Mosque on the Prairie", a new CBC sitcom about the daily happenings of a young Muslim community in rural Canada. It is the brainchild of Muslim filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, a young Muslim mother of four, who has a number of films already to her credit. There has been considerable excitement leading up to tomorrow's premiere, with international media attention falling upon this unique take on Muslim culture.

What I like about this is that it is advertising itself as a take on a certain part of Canadian culture, rather than a take on Muslim culture. That is, it runs on the assumption that Muslims are part of Canadian culture, rather than a community removed from the rest. Just as other sitcoms may take a humourous look at other cultures that make up the greater Americana, "Little Mosque" appears to take a similar approach. My initial worry was that while this may be hilarious to people like me who would likely understand all the "inside jokes", it would not appeal to a wider audience. When a father looks upon her scantily clad daughter and mutters "Astaghfirullah!", would Mr. Joe Average know what this means? That, coupled with the fact that CBC sitcoms rarely garner enough interest to turn viewers away from American television, lead me to believe that while creative, this project would likely not succeed.

But perhaps that isn't an issue. The humour for most people may precisely be in the fact that the protagonists of this story are different. It wasn't only stuffy aristocrats who enjoyed Frasier, and I imagine that only a few of the regular viewers of Prison Break are former convicts. Ultimately, what matters is that the characters tell an interesting story. I rarely watch television, but I know I've laughed at humourous takes on Jewish, Italian, and American culture. Can others laugh at ours? They laugh at my stories of flimsy stereotyping, innocent misunderstandings, and Jum'ah shoe-switches; perhaps there is potential. Perhaps I can even contribute my own scripts.

There are of course certain conflicts of interest that this whole series presents. I won't get into them here, except to say that the culture of the arts often presents significant challenges for a practicing Muslim. One little-known aspect of my life was my early passion for theatre and improv. There was a time in my life when I considered it a legitimate career option; in fact, many people from my former improv team actually have made a career of it, and have been quite successful on the national improv circuit. But as Islam became more and more important to me, I realized that there was little chance of finding the right balance in that environment, with those people. If the team behind "Little Mosque" has managed to find that balance, I would like to know how. If not, the series may fall into the trap of inviting to Islam by falling into the unlawful. A male can't introduce Islam to a female by flirting with her, nor can a person promote Muslim culture by having Muslim actresses demonstrate their normalcy by wearing skimpy clothes on national television.

The series premiere of "Little Mosque on the Prairie" is being aired at 8:30pm EST on CBC. Anyone else among the Canadians readers planning on watching this? I'd love to hear your thoughts. And for those outside of Canada, have there been any comparable projects overseas?

January 05, 2007


The hockey fans among you will know what this is, but it's just too funny not to share.

January 04, 2007

Small Kindness

I received a wonderful gift from my employer today.

It is a clever, colourful book called "Change the World for Ten Bucks", with the tagline "50 ways to make a difference" gracing the front page. Apparently, there is a British, German, and Australian version of this book as well; I was kindly given the Canadian version, replete with Canada-specific tips on making the world a slightly better place. Somehow, I find it telling that there doesn't appear to be an American version of this book.

The book comes from an organization called "We Are What We Do", a grassroots activist movement with chapters around the world. It is based on the premise that seemingly small individual contributions to society can add up to significant change, be it social, political, or environmental. The opening page of the book quotes Mahatma Gandhi, stating that "we must be the change that we want to see in the world."

And in that regard, the book then provides 50 simple actions that anyone can perform to make the world a better place. The following are a few examples:

Action 3: Spend time with a child.
Action 6: Plant something.
Action 14: Spend time with someone from a different generation.
Action 16: Give your change to charity.
Action 19: Learn one good joke.
Action 23: Have more meals together.
Action 36: Take time to listen.
Action 44: Pick up litter.

Each action is accompanied by a couple of paragraphs of text and colourful pictures, much like a children's book. Consequently, the reviews posted on the back of the book come from children aged 14 and 15, as well as older people including Dr. David Suzuki, a prominent Canadian environmentalist. It's a book that I imagine would have a fairly universal appeal, which is probably why my employer selected it.

Naturally, I saw parallels between these actions and certain verses of Quran and hadith. The Gandhi quote, and the overall premise of the book, immediately reminded of this famous verse in the Quran:

"Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts." (13:11)

This verse frequently precedes discussions and lectures of how we must introduce internal change before we can expect serious change in our societies and communities. Understanding this concept is a start, but many of us stumble on introducing the internal change. We often think that others are the problem, and that our actions mean little in the grand scheme of things. And thus, the internal change we seek turns back into change we expect of others.

The Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam once instructed his companions not to belittle any small act of kindness, however insignificant it may seem. We never know if that little act of kindness is what we need to tip the scales in our favour.

To remove something harmful from a path is a branch of faith; this co-incides with Action 44, on picking up litter. Actions 3 and 14 echo the sentiments expressed in several hadith. One noteworthy hadith is the following:

'Ala ibne Kharijah narrated that the Prophet salallaho'alayhi wa salam said, "learn from your lineage to be able to do good to your relatives." (Tabarani, Majma'uz-Zawaid) The more we learn about our elders and fathers, the better we can relate to others. Their experience often goes a long way, and we as youth often dismiss that.

Numerous traditions express the value of charity, mentioned in the book as Action 16. Feeding guests is the subject of numerous sayings of the Prophet, and a number of stories from the lives of the Companions. A hadith recorded in Tirmidhi states that "there isn't a Muslim who gives another Muslim clothes to wear, except that he will be in the safe custody of Allah, so long as a shred of the cloth remains on him."

Another hadith, recorded in Sahih Muslim, states that the Prophet said that "any Muslim who plants a tree, then whatever is eaten from it is sadaqah (charity) on his behalf; what is stolen from it is also sadaqah; what animals eat from it is also sadaqah; what birds eat from it is also sadaqah; what birds eat from it is also sadaqah; whosoever takes anything from the tree, it is sadaqah (for the one who has planted the tree)." Sounds a lot like Action 6 to me.

As I pored over my copy of Muntakhab Ahadith to find these narrations, I found numerous others which illustrated the simple concepts discussed in the book. These are our actions, I thought. We as Muslims should be the ones writing books like this, and more importantly, actually doing these actions. I then went through each action listed in the book, and found a number that I could perform right then and there. It is probably a failing of my own imaan that stalls my action when I read hadith to the same effect.

Ultimately, actions are governed by intention, a principle so critical in Islamic belief that it is the first narration mentioned in many major collections. I recalled an article I read first in the book "First Things First" by Khalid Baig, about the significance of seemingly minor virtues. The essay, entitled "All Virtues, Big and Small", is available on-line for those interested. In it, the author reminds us that no virtue is too small; alternately, a seemingly minor sin can have major ramifications.

The "We Are What We Do" movement has their Canadian website at www.WeAreWhatWeDo.ca. The complete list of actions from the book is available here; readers can record their completion of the actions on the website, and summary statistics are given to show the overall progress. It's still new, with only 5182 actions performed by Canadian readers when I wrote this. The UK website shows that over half a million of these actions have been performed thus far among the British readers.

From the Muslim perspective, these actions should not be performed for the sake of improving statistics, but only for the pleasure of Allah. In any case, I did find this book encouraging, and strongly believe in the ability of such simple actions. So if you read this post and decide to avoid plastic grocery bags for a day, rest confident that some good will come of it. If not for the environment, at least it will add some weight to that pan of virtues if done with the right intention. Encourage another to do the same, and let them encourage others. Perhaps it will not tip the scales against global warming, but it may tip our own scales away from a heat far more intense.

January 01, 2007

A new year begins

This was the last black and white Calvin and Hobbes strip ever published. It appeared on Irrelevant Opinions a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, with the strip over, my little Javascript also broke, and thus the daily comic won't be working until I fix it somehow. It shouldn't be too hard to fix, hopefully. It'll cycle back to the first year of the strip, from 1985, which I found less entertaining than the later years.

Happy New Year everyone! I find the concept of resolutions somewhat arbitrary and unnecessary, but I pray that everyone has a prosperous year ahead.

And Eid Mubarak!

Update 1.6.2007: After some minor tweaking, the script works now. Yay!