November 15, 2010

The Forgotten Slaves: The Curious Case of Slave Lake

Our perspectives repeatedly clashed, but we typically got along very well. Me, having lived all my life in Canada; him, having grown up in Africa, then migrating to Canada, then returning to Africa for studies, and eventually settling back in Canada. He was uneasy, unsettled, ready to leave at the first opportunity in order to secure the value of tradition in his family. That I felt no desire to leave, he felt, was a sign that I rejected tradition and embraced a culture that placed no value in family and morality.

While leaving has crossed my mind in the past, it usually ended up detouring to Tim Hortons before forgetting where it was trying to go. The thought could never make full the journey from idea to objective; the body, meanwhile, remained unmoved entirely by those fleeting ideas.

He never did feel comfortable in Ottawa, afraid for his daughter born days before my own. How could it be, he argued, that his daughter grow up in this society, with this culture, and still find room in her heart to embrace and practice her faith? How could she identify with the religion when she could not identify with a land that embraced the religion?

It was a conversation that carried on for a while, as we travelled westward towards the Rockies before the journey north to Yellowknife. It was an intimidating journey, one that would take days to complete, but it was sure to become a memorable experience.

And then we arrived at Slave Lake.

After the Second World War, as Muslim immigrants began migrating in large numbers to Edmonton, a smaller community made the journey northwards to this small fur trading town to establish business. Muslim generations grew up in this small town, mixing with the larger community until they were as much a part of them as they were of each other. By the 1990s, a small mosque was established to finally meet the needs of this growing congregation.

However, the mosque was something of an anomaly for Slave Lake. While the Muslim community worked for generations to mesh with the greater population to the point of becoming indistinguishable, the mosque stood out like a weird uncle. It didn't quite fit the family values, nephews would pretend they weren't related, but ultimately it still was part of the family - it had to be tended to, respected, and visited. And like this, the community maintained a relationship, however tenuous, with the mosque. Its existence was a significant achievement for the city as a whole, but it suffered from a lack of scholarship, a dearth of individuals capable of teaching, and a general disconnect with the larger urban centres nearby. As such, the promising Muslim community of Slave Lake, with roots four generations deep, lost touch with their identities.

Then, in the days following 9/11, the mosque was set ablaze, leaving a fiery ruin that suffocated whatever little spirit was left.

The people became afraid. It was never established, at least to me, who caused the fire - it may have been the Muslims themselves, it may have been others. It may have been a freak coincidence. But however it happened, it gave birth to a prevailing sense of fear in the community, the desperate feeling among the threatened populace that they could no longer be associated with this religion any longer.

A new mosque was rebuilt, eventually. A beautiful mosque, in fact - one of the best I've seen in the country, for its size. But it was little beyond mere walls; barely five people, mostly travelers, would join the Friday prayer, standing behind an imam who with his best intentions struggled with even basic Islamic terms. The mosque timetable only included 'Asr and 'Maghrib prayers - there was no expectation that one might actually pray outside of those hours during the summer, and no expectation of any prayers at all during the winter.

But more depressing was the refusal of basic services to those of us passing through the city who appeared visibly Muslim. "All I want is a slice of pizza!", pleaded a friend at one Lebanese-owned pizza place. But his beard indicated to the owner that he had other intentions, and the owner kicked him out with no meal. The business owners, afraid of being associated with those who identify themselves as Muslims, refused even to sell to us travelers, ironic given the economic history of the city.

This, my friend argued, was what our second generation communities were coming to. He felt that Slave Lake represented a microcosm of the growth of a new community in the West - initial optimism, gradual loss of tradition, and an eventual disappearance of all connection to Islam within a matter of three to four generations. This, he argued, was why he could not raise his own children in this country; perhaps, with Allah's help, they could keep things going through one generation, but two or three generations down the road, they may be refusing pizzas to men with beards.

Circumstances are different, I felt. Slave Lake was a small town, isolated and detached. The size, my friend argued, only accelerated the process of decline, but that decline was indeed the path all Muslim communities in the West will take over time. For larger cities, perhaps the decline would be more gradual, but loss of religion was inevitable.

Given my own upbringing, I have always decoupled the concepts of geographic tradition and religious tradition; one does not necessarily lead to the other in my mind. There is no guarantee that raising a child in a Muslim country would result in a better upbringing anyway; in fact, there are enough examples I can think of where youth embraced their religion only after leaving their Muslim homelands behind. But my friend was convinced otherwise, and who was I to argue with this friend whom I greatly respected; he had far more knowledge and experience than myself, and had traveled far more extensively throughout the country and world than I had. He was speaking out of experience, whereas I was only speaking out of false, misplaced hope.

But false hope is hope nonetheless. And it is that hope, misplaced as it may be, that can inspire a generation, while fear can suffocate it as it has done in Slave Lake. As Muslims, we are to live between hope and fear, which for me exists right where I am right now; it is home.