Like most Canadians, I’ve been following with great sadness the events and fall-out from two incidents this week which have rattled (understated?) the citizens of this country I call home. We watched in horror as news reports came in that two members of the Canadian Forces, Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo were killed in separate incidents in St Jean Sur Richelieu and Ottawa. We were all horrified by this. But something else about this has horrified me as much or more. We’ve discovered that not only are we not immune to acts of horrific violence against our system, we are also not immune to the kind of xenophobia nd racism we see elsewhere. Yes, most Canadians, especially most of our media outlets, handled this very well, waiting for facts to be confirmed, and investigations to unfold, and have called for Canadians stand together. But many were quick to jump to conclusions, and begin lashing out almost immediately. Cries of terrorism, and “we’re under attack” and “they’ve declared war on us” were flooding social media almost immediately after the first news broke.
I watched in horror as anti-Islamic rhetoric came flooding across my screen; calls for War Measures and the rounding up and deportation of all Muslims, and the closing of all immigration of any and all Muslims to Canada. Of course at that point nothing was known about the shooter (later announced to be Michael Zehaf-Bibeau). As details have come in, the rhetoric hasn’t softened much from some. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Rouleau (who hit two Canadian soldiers with a car, killing Patrice Vincent) have now been said to have been in contact with Jihadist ideologies here in Canada. These two men have been demonized, along with Islam as whole, and the fear-mongering of Islamic immigrants destroying and/or taking over Canada is being voiced and presented in memes and all sorts of nasty online rhetoric.
But here’s the thing; these two men are not Islam.
Both were born in Canada, neither being part of an Islamic community until just recently. Both appear to have a history of mental illness, and problems with the law (Rouleau had his passport seized after attempting to travel to Turkey this past summer and was being investigated by the RCMP, and Bibeau has been imprisoned on more than one occasion). Islam is not the problem here. In both cases, it appears that these are men who “fell through the cracks” and turned to violence. The Jihadist ideology (which is real, and very terrifying) is not the issue here. Given the violence we’ve witnessed in the news from the US, we know that Islam is not the root cause of this sort of violence. I may be assuming too much here, but I would be surprised if these two men hadn’t sought out violent ideologies to suit their anger. We live in a world where young people in trouble and struggling do not get the help they need, and lash out at the system. In these two cases it seems that Islam is just a mask to justify what was already simmering (or perhaps at full boil). Islamic Jihadist ideology just happens to have become their justification. They could have just as easily found anarchist or other militant ideologies to justify their violence.
This is not the logical outflowing of Islam. In fact, the vast majority of Canadian Muslim leaders are coming out against this sort of action, but are still experiencing considerable backlash and hatred.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is not the face of Islam.
What does Islam look like? I was born in Toronto, and lived in a very diverse neighbourhood until the age of 8. This area had a fairly significant Muslim population (even moreso now). So I had multiple classmates and friends in the neighbourhood from Muslim families (especially of Somali, Lebanese and Iranian background). While many North American folks remember playing with Billy, Tommy, and Jimmy, I recall playing with Azeem, Zameel, Fareed (who got the unfortunate nickname Fufu), and Bazad. These families integrated into the neighbourhood, attended school functions, interacted with other non-Muslim families, and made themselves at home in the community. They were part of the neighbourhood.
In 2013 I was fortunate to be part of a group of Pastors who went to Lebanon to observe and learn from the incredible work being undertaken by members of the larger Baptist family. While there I had the incredible opportunity to meet with and have tour given by a Muslim leader (because of current security concerns in Lebanon I won’t give his name, location or picture, which is unfortunate because I have this photo of myself and him sitting and discussing how Islamic education is undertaken which would have been a cool image to help with this post). This man, showed us his city with incredible pride. He took us to several Mosques, including his own, and the oldest in that city, dating back about 1000 years. He used his influence to get us free admission to some of the city’s museums, and even a particular holy place for Eastern Christians. He taught us about how a Mosque is run, how children are taught, how Muslims in that city have worked with Christians to end tensions and violence. This man called us “friends”. There was no agenda except graciously showing hospitality. This man is the real face of Islam. This man is committed to dialogue with Christian leaders, to building a just, peaceful, and thriving society. He is committed to justice for the Palestinian and Syrian and Iraqi refugees currently experiencing unbelievable turmoil and despair in Lebanon. He loves his people. Along this tour he dropped in on several members of his Mosque where they work to do what was basically a pastoral visit.
That remains with me as the image of Islam. A tortured and mentally ill young man with a gun lashing out at a system that let him down is a tragedy, not an example of a “real” Muslim. We, as Canadians, have prided ourselves with the way we have opened our doors to people of various backgrounds. We boast of our multiculturalism. When we see acts like the two we’ve seen this week, Canadians, by our stated values, are called to respond with “what can we do better so that those who live here don’t feel abandoned and rejected by our system?”. We do not ask how we can get rid of the group these two men claim to belong to (but fail to accurately represent). Is the Jihadist ideology present in Canada? Yes. Has it now been a piece of the puzzle of the last few days? Yes. Do we now demonize Islam? No. Do we become xenophobic, paranoid, racist, Islamophobic? No. We sit down with our Muslim neighbours and ask “what can we do better?”. We protect our Muslim neighbours from the hatred and abuse which is becoming part of their reality. We seek to end stigmas. We invite them in to show us who they are. We stand up against Islamophobia, we do not take part in it.
We, the church, are to practice radical, no strings attached neighbour love. We extend grace. We stand up for anyone being abused. We seek to do justice.
Jesus called us to love our neighbours in radical, sacrificial ways. Muslims are our neighbours. And if we actually reached out, we might realize that like my childhood friends in Toronto, or my friend in Lebanon, they make pretty awesome neighbours. They are people of hospitality, who value education, who show mercy and compassion. And they food… oh the food! One sad feature of St. Thomas is that it does not feature a good Middle Eastern restaurant.
So, my challenge to anyone and everyone is this, let’s establish some “rules” for dialogue with Muslims:
If you are speaking, writing, or sharing anti-Islamic things, stop.
Don’t speak about them but with them.
Before saying anything about Muslims, get to know some.
Read some books or articles about Islam by Muslims.
If you are upset about the idea of Muslims “taking over our country”, speak to some folks from our First Nations communities about what “taking over” looks like.