I often hear about these phantom "Canadian Islamic websites", but no one ever actually tells us what they are. Certainly, I have read some rather extreme comments by Muslims on blogs and forums, but I have never read anything that comes even close to condoning this sort of behaviour on any legitimate Muslim Canadian website.
And the imams of our mosques certainly are not encouraging this. I have not prayed in every mosque, but I have been in a fairly unique position over the last few years to experience Friday prayers in many different mosques in many cities throughout North America. The Friday prayer is usually a fairly good vantage point by which to get a feel for a Muslim community, and I've never heard anything of the sort from any imam, anywhere.
If it were only non-Muslims railing against these "radical imams", I could forgive them; they're not the ones meeting these people every day and learning from them. But too often, I read Muslims writing about these imaginary imams, never citing any specific examples, but ranting about how they are perverting the religion for their own benefit. I've heard this even from some of my friends, who themselves could not offer any specific examples, falling instead into vague generalizations before conceding the point.
One reader of my article cited an article about an Iranian cleric who allegedly said that "unveiled women should die".
A top Muslim cleric in Iran, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hassani said on Wednesday that women in the country who do not wear the hijab should be killed.
“Women who do not respect the hijab and their husbands deserve to die,” said Hassani, who leads Friday prayers in the city of Urumieh, in Iranian Azerbaijan.
Aside from the fact that the article is uncited and a Google search about this supposed "top Muslim cleric" shows that his only other noteworthy statements involved a campaign to "arrest short-legged dogs", the crux of the matter is that this person does not speak for us or Canadian imams, nor does he have any influence upon matters in this country. If I were to cite some random Romanian priest making some ridiculous claim, would this have any influence on the Christians in Canada? No, and neither would an imam in Iran influence the overwhelming majority of Muslims here.
The complaints against our imams can be that they are sometimes boring; perhaps some of them are not with the times, or lack the knowledge of contemporary culture to resonate with the people. But to condone and encourage the sort of aggression that took the life of a sixteen year-old Muslimah? You would have to search very hard to find an imam who will justify that. If one is found, I am certain that those who follow him would be quick to condemn the statement, and remove him from his post if necessary.
The same people who criticize the imams also speak of the "madrassas" as sinister Islamic seminaries where children are brainwashed with political propaganda and dreams of martyrdom. Again, these allegations are always vague, with no specific examples. Madrassa is not a scary word, it simply means "place of learning". And if you were visiting one for the first time, I'm sure you'd be very much underwhelmed - most are run by kindly uncles teaching the Arabic alphabet (often, quite poorly) in their basement or on the mosque floor.
I am not denying that there may be Muslims out there who hold extremist views. I don't believe they are nearly as much of a threat as the media make them out to be, but there are certainly some Muslims with beliefs that contradict classical teachings, who have a more militant understanding of the religion's history. However, these people are mostly the ones who have pushed aside the scholars and imams, who have failed to heed their advice. They are the ones who went off on their own, ignoring what the imams are teaching, while getting their knowledge instead from shady websites and shadier personalities. It is often through the connection with imams and community leaders that many youth today have protected themselves from extremist thinking, by aligning themselves with classical scholarship rather than letting their own overzealous enthusiasm dictate their beliefs.
Sit with them. Learn from them. Hear them directly, rather than let others tell you what they say and think. Islamic scholarship is a vast discipline with awe-inspiring science and people behind it. Muslims believe that the legacy of the Prophets is knowledge, and that Islamic scholars are the inheritors; we have such people in our midst, a treasure which should not be taken lightly. We as Muslims should show how much we appreciate that, lest it be taken away from us. And I invite any non-Muslims to visit our scholars as well, and hear from them directly; most would be happy to meet you.
Many of the imams and scholars have given up a lot for their communities, asking for little in return, and yet we continue to blame them for all that ails us. And though the character assassination efforts will continue on, these individuals ultimately deserve our honour and respect. It's the least we can do.