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An exploration of Muslim-Canadian identity

Ajmal Tahir, a fourth year microbiology student at UTSC and member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), talks to fellow students during Islam Awareness Week. Photo by Ken Jones.

When it comes to the place of Islam in Canadian society many cultural stereotypes abound.

Combating those stereotypes while exploring the Islamic identity was the aim of a recent week-long celebration held at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). Hosted by the UTSC Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), Islam Awareness Week (IAW) focused on the theme of integrating Islamic heritage along with other identities in a multicultural society like Canada.

“Many have misconceptions about Islam, that it’s incompatible with Canadian values,” says Azzam Abu Rayash, a third year neuroscience student and coordinator for the IAW. “Our goal is to raise awareness to the fact that you can be an observant Muslim and follow the teachings of the Koran and still be a positive contributor to the school community, the Scarborough community and Canadian society.”

Abu Rayash says misconceptions are often two-fold. While the media and segments of society make generalizations about Islamic culture, he says there are also misconceptions within the Muslim Canadian community itself. Many in the community feel there is no place for them in civic society, which is unfortunate because many have important skills to offer, he adds. 

“Some Muslim Canadians hesitate in becoming involved with our security forces like the Canadian Armed Forces, the police and even non-security related jobs in the government out of fear of being negatively targeted,” says Abu Rayash. “We want this event to bridge the Muslim community with our Canadian community. We have to trust one another, we are one people.”

While the theme of the weeklong event was to explore Muslim-Canadian identity the aim was to involve the whole UTSC community. In addition to information about Islam, IAW featured interactive workshops, speakers, discussion panels, displays such as Arabic calligraphy and Henna and even an opportunity to try on a hijab or headdress. There was also a fundraiser to support those fighting oppression in Syria. 

The event was also meant to remind people that Islam is not limited to worship rituals alone, says Sameeha Zaynab, a second year sociology student and volunteer IAW coordinator.  In fact, she says, if you ignore the holistic concept of Islamic worship you will miss the cosmopolitan nature of Islam.

To a Muslim, worship also entails eating healthy, smiling kindly and most importantly respecting all humanity. On that point, she emphasizes that both Muslims and their fellow non-Muslim citizens can live together in peace while continuing to build a unified Canada.

“We want to let people know that in practicing Islam there is nothing to be afraid of and that we should understand issues by having an open discussion rather than relying on stereotypes,” she says.

Abu Rayash points to fellow Muslim-Canadian Zubair Khan, a former world champion in Muay Thai, who was a guest speaker during the IAW’s modern role model event. Khan’s message of how his religious convictions enabled him to be a better athlete and a better person is one that can resonate with many Canadians, adds Rayash.

“Like many athletes, Khan was not humble when he used to win matches. However, by renewing his faith he became more modest,” he says. “He started to recognize that his success was a blessing from God and from the support of his family and friends. He also told us that even in times of victory you should be humble out of respect for your opponent’s feelings.”

Abu Rayash echoes those teachings of tolerance and firmly believes that the Canadian model is still the best in the world when it comes to peacefully integrating people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities.

“Canadian society is very accepting and tolerant of people with different religious backgrounds. What we want to show (through IAW) is that Islam is compatible in any place at any time,” he says.

© University of Toronto Scarborough