"These people are drawing all kinds of filth in the name of the Prophet," says Montrealer Rauf Bakali. He will not even look at the Danish cartoons that have sent tremors of outrage rolling across the Islamic world. "Muslims love the Prophet on a higher level than their spouses, their parents and their children. If you can imagine someone harming your mother... well this, for us, is worse than that."
When the international cartoon crisis was beginning to dominate the headlines a few weeks ago, the Islamic Centre of Quebec (ICQ) was inundated with calls from furious Muslims wondering how best to manifest their anger. Bakali, an ICQ Spokesperson, says callers were immediately reminded that the Prophet Muhammad reacted peacefully to criticism in his own time and that his example should still be followed today.
With the news that angry riots have spread this week to Nigeria, it's refreshing to know that the demonstration held in this city on Saturday 11 February was described as "peaceful" and "calm" by the local media. But pacifist activism is nothing new to Montreal's Muslims-in many ways the community represents a model of peaceful dissent for the rest of the Islamic world.
Even the decision to organize a large-scale demonstration was imbued with thoughtfulness and restraint. "The other mosques were afraid because of incidents such as windows being broken at a mosque in Laval and an imam being stabbed at a metro station around that time, but you have to be courageous in life," said Imam Said Jaziri of the al-Qods mosque, the principal organizer and promoter of the march. Most Muslim leaders, however, discouraged protesters from joining the demonstration last Saturday, believing that it might reflect badly on the community and further polarize society if there were outbreaks of violence.
Anticipating the possibility of disobedience, Jaziri says he took steps, such as working with the police, avoiding the Danish embassy and preaching personal responsibility for one's actions, when he spoke in the media and at religious services leading up to the event. The only police arrest during the demonstration was that of a passerby yelling out anti-Muslim slurs.
Despite a relatively small turnout of 250 protesters, Jaziri believes that the march was successful and complementary to the other means Montreal Muslims have employed to react to the cartoon crisis. For Salman Elmenyawi, the president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, the ideal approach was to engage fellow Montrealers intellectually. The kindness that the majority of the Canadian media displayed in refusing to reprint the cartoons, he explained, contributed to a less-fraught atmosphere in which dialogue was possible.
Early on, the Muslim Coordinating Committee for Justice (MCCJ), which represents thirty-three mosques and Islamic groups in Montreal, called a press conference to announce that the city's mosques would be opened to the general public and that a conference would be held on the Prophet Muhammad's sacredness to Islam. MCCJ spokespeople also called for the federal and provincial governments to condemn the European publications that published the offending cartoons.
In the Montreal Muslim News, editor Yahya Abdul Rahman published an editorial on February 17 entitled "Dialogues, Not Death Sentences," condemning the call by the imam of the Mohabat Khan mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, for a fatwa on the Danish cartoonist. "It is regrettable," the editorial stated, "that the justifiable anger regarding the publication of these caricatures-which is essentially a slap in the face to Muslims everywhere-would lead a religious leader to make such an announcement ... He is merely venting is own opinion based on his emotions and not on the sound teachings of Islam."
Nafay Choudhury, president of the McGill Muslim Student Association, says that his group organized a panel discussion at McGill inviting people of all faiths to discuss the seemingly irreconcilable values of absolute freedom of speech and Islamic reverence for the Prophet Muhammad. Similar events have taken place at Concordia University and the Muslim Students Association of Concordia has called for the boycott of Danish products.
But the question remains: If Muslims in Montreal are employing such diverse means of peaceful protest, why has this not been the case globally?
"If a person has strong beliefs and is not educated, he will do anything to protect the Prophet and his religion," says Bakali, highlighting the very different political and social contexts that exist in North America and in the areas where riots have broken out. "Those who are educated look at things differently. The worst reactions have been in places where most Muslims are illiterate."
"These caricatures effectively ignited an explosion caused by the fact that many Muslims are living under dictatorships upheld by Western governments," offers Imam Jaziri. "[They are] fearing torture, and being denied freedom of speech."
Perhaps the most apt comparison in understanding the violence is the riots that raged through the suburbs of Paris this fall. There, the violence was the product of years of economic exclusion and xenophobia-a powder keg of anger and resentment that incited the poor immigrant youth of Paris to express their frustration in weeks of violent activity. Are not countless Muslims worldwide forced to endure poverty and vilification because of the actions of an extremist minority, sitting on exactly the same powder keg?
Not all Western perspectives on the conflict are as sympathetic, however. With so much energy in Muslim communities going toward the protests over this issue, it's been suggested in some op-eds that Muslims are only willing to rally together against the West and are quite unwilling to address human-rights issues both within and outside their own communities. This could not be further from the truth.
McGill student Deena Alabbas explains that she subscribes to a religious-oriented email list that informs her of activist events being held to promote women's rights, workers' rights, animal rights and a wide range of non-denominational struggles. Many of her Muslim friends protest regularly over such issues as deportation. "We're all Montrealers," she says, "so the laws affect us the way they do everybody else."
Such protests don't just occur at the grassroots level either. On December 5 last year, the Canadian Muslim Forum appealed for the safe and unconditional release of the four members of the Christian Peacemakers Team kidnapped in Iraq. These Christian humanitarian workers, two of whom are Canadians, had been working with civilians in Iraq since 2002 before being taken hostage by an armed group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. The Canadian Islamic Congress later went to the extent of sending local envoys to Iraq in an attempt to secure the release of the Christian hostages.
And the catalogue of pacifist activities undertaken by Salman Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, is extensive. When a Jewish elementary school library was firebombed last year, Elmenyawi met in prison with the perpetrator of the crime to deconstruct his ideologies. The young man later went on to write apologies both to the Jewish and Muslim communities for his actions.
Elmenyawi has written articles for newspapers such as the Montreal Gazette, condemning the violence into which children are drawn in the Palestinian territories and in other war-torn countries. He works for McGill University's Institute of Peace, which brings together students of Muslim and Jewish origins in order to build bridges between people. He has also brought his own children to sing in a choir with Christian and Jewish peers in the name of peace and mutual understanding.
In times of turbulence, it's difficult not to be afraid. Here in Montreal, it's worth appreciating that freedom of speech exists and that Muslims are choosing diverse and peaceful channels by which they can be heard, integrated and active within our multicultural society.