Alberta’s Muslims- overcoming the Harper’s effect
Source: Alberta Views
By Eoin Murray
Shahab Ahmad was born in the state of Bihar, in eastern India. He left India to study for his Ph.D. in psychology in Glasgow, Scotland. Like many Muslims before him, Shahab benefited from Canada’s relaxation of federal immigration laws under Pierre Trudeau. In 1968 Shahab moved to Halifax, where he lectured at St. Mary’s University. Later his family moved to Alberta.
The Ahmad family’s home is in an expansive suburb on the outskirts of south Edmonton. On the walls are ornate Islamic decorations. One particularly eye-catching frame contains the 99 names of Allah, in thick and thin lines of Arabic script. Three generations of the Ahmad family live here: Shahab, his son Mobarak, his wife Fozia, their two boys, Khalid, 25, and Haris, 21, and daughter Sidra, 14.
It is the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, the Islamic fasting period of 30 days. By the time the Ahmad
family sit down to eat after sunset, they have been without food for almost 14 hours. Edmonton’s long days of summer present the Qu’ran’s call to fast from sunrise to sunset at almost its most physically challenging. Each family member has their favorite Ramadan food, all rooted in the family traditions of Indian and Pakistani cooking, such as black chickpeas, aloo pakora and beef with potatoes. During the meal the family chat enthusiastically about Fozia and Mobarak’s impending trip to Mecca to complete the Hajj, a pilgrimage conducted around two and a half months after the end of Ramadan.
Last year the Ahmads’ other children visited Mecca for the Umrah, a pilgrimage conducted at any time of the year. The restrictions in Saudi Arabia gave the whole family a sense of the abundant freedoms available to them as Canadian citizens. Fozia describes life in Edmonton as rewarding for Muslims. “We have freedom of speech and freedom to write and have little fear of attack, compared with my sister who lives in America. We are blessed to be in Canada. People accept how we are.”
Over the evening, conversation touches on many topics: rising tuition, the tightening job market, gay–straight alliances and the Islamic perspective on climate change.
This well-educated family seems comfortable with any subject, and it is clear they have drawn on Islam’s rich heritage to forge a life in North America that is congruent with both Islamic traditions and Western ones. The Ahmads are members of the Ahmadiyya movement within Islam. On July 5, 2008, the Ahmadi community celebrated the opening of the Baitun Nur mosque in Calgary (Canada’s largest mosque, and spiritual home to 2,500 Muslims). Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the opening of the mosque and praised the Ahmadiyya movement as exemplary: the “true face of Islam.”
While the community appreciated this endorsement at the time, the policies of the Harper government became increasingly harsh toward Muslims in the years that followed. While pursuing an anti-terrorism agenda and joining the military resistance to ISIS in the Middle East, the Harper government took steps domestically that exerted negative pressure on Canadian Muslims. On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks Harper gave a TV interview in which he identified “Islamicism,” rather than terrorism, as the major threat to Canadian security. Speaking in Parliament in January 2015, the Prime Minister directly linked Canadian mosques with the radicalization of young people wanting to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His comments were described as “troubling” by the National Council for Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Muslim Lawyers’ Association, who accused the Prime Minister of fostering a climate that led to mosques being vandalized. Just two months later Harper was back on the offensive, describing the niqab, a cloth covering the face, as originating in a culture that is inherently “anti-women.”
Harper’s public statements about Islam were backed by far-reaching policy changes. In 2015 his government passed Bill C-51, a comprehensive security package criticized by Canadian civil liberty groups, including Muslim organizations, for stoking a climate of fear. One measure targeted dual-citizenship holders who, if convicted of terrorism or treason, could now be stripped of their Canadian citizenship and deported to their country of origin. Even though the overwhelming majority of Muslims had nothing to fear, the measure created a sense of a two-tier citizenship among those who were not born in Canada.
The Conservative government’s objections to the niqab had shown up earlier. In 2011 Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney introduced a policy banning anyone from covering their face during citizenship ceremonies. The policy was clearly aimed at Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab. After the policy was introduced, the Conservatives campaigned to secure public support by inviting people to sign an online petition backing the Prime Minister’s argument that it is “offensive that someone would hide their identity just at the moment they are joining the Canadian family.”