March 18, 2013

I.LEAD Part One: Identity

I'm not generally a "conference" guy as I've written before, but I acknowledge that they have a place and a purpose, and that they do have the ability to change lives.  This isn't even an exaggeration; I'm sure most readers know at least one person whose life was deeply changed by the various Islamic conferences that take place around North America.  While I rarely found them personally beneficial, they can certainly be a means of promoting the greater good.

Nothing of this magnitude had been attempted in Ottawa before, at least to my knowledge.  This was not for lack of interest or enthusiasm; the local community has grown considerably and is blessed with a number of Islamic programs and organizations.  It was not for lack of unity either; recent years have seen the various Islamic organizations in the city come together in ways that seemed impossible a decade ago.  In fact, it may have only been for lack of physical space - it was only within the last couple of years that Ottawa had the facilities to host something of this scale.

In short, this was the right time for the city to take this on, and that must have become apparent to the early organizers.  Thus began fourteen months of effort to make the vision a reality, through the coordination of hundreds of selfless volunteers.  I hadn't even heard about the event until a few months ago, but the hype grew considerably in the final weeks to the tune of nearly 3,000 in attendance this past Saturday.

The title "I.LEAD" stood for "Islam: Learn, Engage, Achieve, Develop", with the official theme as "YES: Youth Engagement and Support".  I don't intend on repeating exactly what was said during the various lectures, but rather to comment on what I personally learned and understood.  So in the Irrelevant Opinions version of the days events, I extracted three separate themes, the first of which is "Identity".  I'll address this here, and insha-Allah the next two in separate posts.

The concept of Muslim Identity in the West is something that has always interested me.  One of the lectures was entitled "Can I be both Muslim & Canadian?", which I thought could have been an eight second speech: "Assalamu'alaykum.  Yes, you can.  Thank you."

But of course, it is not that simple, and this question is considerably more difficult for others than it has been for me.  Many people feel they have to choose between conformity or cultural isolation, resigning themselves to the belief that one can't have the best of both worlds.  Dr. Jamal Badawi addressed some of the obvious challenges, speaking of terrorism and how the media portrays Muslims.  It is an unfortunate reality that many are turned away from religion because of the negative media portrayals, but Dr. Badawi encouraged others to build the confidence to transcend those portrayals and challenge the stereotypes.  Many of the speakers and volunteers were the product of Dr. Badawi's da'wah efforts, a testament to the resonance of his message.

Others such as Dr. Yacoub Mahi spoke more about the personal choices one has to make to identify oneself, through social, intellectual, and spiritual frames.  Leaving aside how others may view a Muslim Canadian, how should one view oneself? For each frame of reference, he provided a structure for building closeness to Allah, and how one can bring value and honour into ones identity through this nearness.  On the other hand, he argued, one devalues himself - socially, intellectually and spiritually - when they seek recognition from the ghairullah.  This personal approach spoke more directly to me, as I've never been one to care for the media  portrayals anyway.

Perhaps nothing is more central to ones identity than the leanings of ones' heart, and this is what Shaykh Riad Saloojee focused on.  The heart is not bound by the geographic constraints of national citizenship, and thus can be in any state in any place.  A heart that yearns for nearness to Allah is a pure heart, whether it be residing in Canada or Madinah, and one that yearns for the world will be eternally unsatisfied wherever it exists.  Thus, it should never be a matter of deciding between being Canadian or being Muslim; it is only a matter of deciding between a heart that seeks purity or one that succumbs to corruption.  Spiritual purity and corruption are not products of the country we live in, but are rather products of our aspirations.

My appreciation of this conference was driven largely by the diversity of viewpoints on topics such as this.  It was not a conference that promoted a specific way of thinking, the audience was free to interpret it however they liked as I am doing now.  Some may argue that this was a very "soft" approach, avoiding the controversial topics that keep Muslim hearts racing.  No matter; controversy is overrated, and an inclusive approach is a better way to capture the hearts and minds of large gatherings like this.

Ultimately, discussions of identity are very personal, and thus the debates and arguments are largely internal.  This is perhaps why this topic is often neglected; introspection doesn't get people excited.  But ultimately, if one wants to change a society, one needs to change oneself.  And to change oneself, one must know oneself.

Once we get past the internal struggle, the external struggles follow.  The next two themes fall in the latter category.  Stay tuned.

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