Of Hockey and Hijab – by Sheema Khan, TSAR Publications, 2009This is the latest book on Islam and Muslims in the Canadian context, by a female progressive modern Muslim, who chooses to wear the hijab! It comes in 161 pages, in five major chapters entitled: The Hijacking of Islam, Living in Fear, Islam in the World, The Canadian Way and The Rights of Women. Even within her introduction she addresses the struggle between integration and identity, which is possibly why her book has been endorsed by Michael Adams, author of that excellent book “Unlikely Utopia”; and between security and civil liberties, which perhaps explains the endorsement by Monia Mazig.
The first chapter talks about the semantics used in discussions of Islam, indeed the meaning of ”Islamism” or “Islamist” as opposed to plain Islam or Muslim; fatwa, and most importantly what the true meaning of Jihad is, as opposed to what the West understands by the word. She quotes Benjamin Barber’s acknowledgement that Jihad is a rich word whose generic meaning is ‘struggle’ of the soul to avert evil. However she does not absolve Muslims, such as Osama bin Laden, from such misinterpretations, and she demands of Muslims to reclaim the authenticity of their own language, although she is in fact talking about Arabic, since there is no such thing as an Islamic language, any more than a Christian one.
She also points out how some Muslims who adopt a militant ideology tend to cherry pick verses from the Koran to justify their criminal behaviour. She laments attempts by the West to pigeonhole 1.6 billion Muslims (25% of the world population) into distinct groups based on their practice and interpretation of Islamic text; and to reform Muslim nations as liege nations rather than equal partners.
She is encouraged, on the other hand, by the popularity of Muslim reformers who come with a message of compassion and personal accountability, such as Amr Khaled, from Egypt and Farhat Hashmi, from Pakistan.She urge Muslims to abandon the ethos of victimhood and the politics of grievance which do not empower them, but asks them and Canadian security agencies to improve their relationship.
Although very critical of Bin Laden throughout her book, Sheema Khan does have the intellectual honesty to point out that he did warn the West that “if you continue to kill civilians in our countries, we will do the same in yours, until you stop” and he also addressed Canada specifically by saying “Our fight is with the Americans, but if you insist on supporting their aims by invading our lands, then we will bring the fight to you in yours.” She also quotes former CIA agent Michael Sheuer who pointed out that al-Qaeda’s attacks were not based on who we (the West) are, but because of what we do in their lands; and who criticized American leaders for lying to their people about al-Qaeda’s true motivation.
It was great to see the author confront the death penalty issued to those accused of apostasy, pointing that the Koran says “la ikrah fiddeen” which translates as “there is no compulsion in religion”, and therefore Islam does not prescribe any punishment for it. This is indeed a sensitive subject which is bound to evoke a heated discussion, even in this day and age.
Chapter 2 is about the fear Canadian Muslims experienced after 9/11. The author avoids the controversy of who exactly is behind the attack and seems to accept the official American version. It would have been quite legitimate for her to discuss the controversy and the doubts, since these are widely shared by many in the Muslim and other communities.Since then 60 percent of 300 Muslim respondents admitted being subjected to some form of discrimination. One very disturbing statistic is that as many as 48% of Canadians were in favour of some form of racial profiling.
Sheema Khan lists all the other communities that had gone through this before: Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, Germans, Japanese and Jews, and tell Muslims to come to terms with the reality that it is now their turn.The author points out one single Christian pastor who was convicted of inciting hatred against Muslims. On the other hand, David Warren, a Catholic regular columnist of the Ottawa Citizen claimed that Christians and Muslims have been antagonists since the very beginning of Islam; and got away with calling Islam a “splendidly false” religion.
A major chunk of this chapter deals with many instances of double standards, such as refusing entry into Canada of Imam Sheikh ul-Haq, but allowing in Rabi Kahane and the Reverend Franklin Graham. It also discusses in some detail the “reasonable accommodation” controversy in Quebec, where the author believes xenophobia is alive and well. Sheema Khan, who herself wears the hijab (head cover) during playing hockey and soccer, passionately defends that right. She claims that “more often than not, Muslim women are freely adopting the veil”. However, she does not provide any statistics to back that up.
The author refers to the double standards to which Muslims have been regularly subjected. On the one hand they have been subjected to laws and investigations shrouded in secrecy, under the guise of national security. On the other hand, the same politicians dare to criticize Muslim governments for their secrecy, such as Iran, when Bill Graham opined that “Justice will not be done behind closed doors”. She also quotes Mr Justice James Hugesson, who expressed his frustration with the secrecy of our system thus: “We hate hearing only one party. We hate having to decide what, if any, sensitive material can or should be conveyed to the other party” adding that it sometimes felt “like a fig leaf”. In addition, she pays tribute to Kerry Pither, audacious author of the book “Dark Days”, and the work of Supreme Court Justice Iacobucci.
In Chapter 3, Islam in the World, the author explains why Muslims are angry and frustrated with the west, especially the USA, because of the disconnect between American ideals and American actions abroad. They are disappointed at the ignorance of American citizens of the foreign policies of their own government. They see the disparity in wealth, where 6% of the world population, the Americans, owning 50% of its wealth, maintain that difference by plundering Muslim lands with bombs and missiles. The amount of bombing in Iraq is quoted as equivalent to 7.5 Hiroshima bombs. Then they accuse Muslim Iran of nuclear ambitions, but do not dare do anything about North Korea, or Israel. The USA talks about democracy, and when a democratically elected government was chosen in Algeria, they supported military intervention to annul it.
The author speaks a plenty about the denigration of Muslims and Islam, and also speaks courageously against the well documented burning of the Danish flag. But I am not sure that she is accurate when she claims that “the Koran emphatically prohibits its desecration”. The Koran, to my recollection, does not mention the subject, period. She also decries the poor level of education and scientific research in Muslim countries, but glosses over the reasons rather quickly, although she did say that autocratic governments, often supported by the West, and colonial occupation have formed the daily reality of millions of Muslims.
Chapter 4 is entitled “The Canadian Way”. It gives her the opportunity to talk about her passion for hockey. Her comments about casual nudity in the locker rooms may be interesting to read for westerners!
She refers approvingly of the TV show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” and the use of comedy in initiating dialogue about Islam; and approves efforts to export the principles of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights to the Muslim world, because human rights and human dignity are germane to Islam; but she asks why not one single Muslim sits on the advisory council of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. For Muslim immigrants, the question of loyalty is being asked. Is it to Canada or to the country of origin? But this is not confined to Muslims. She relates the story of a friend who told her of her discomfort when a Rabbi asked her son at his Bar Mitzvah whether his primary allegiance lay with Israel or Canada.
She urges Muslims not to abide by “my tribe right or wrong” but by principles of universal justice – sound advice indeed.Religious schools, and more so the funding of them, have recently been discussed in the country, especially in Ontario. The author feels that there is a place for them, because people need spirituality. However, the issue of having children growing up separately for years as Hindus or Ismailis or Catholics or humanists, and not intermixing during those crucial formative years has not been adequately addressed. In the section about China’s Hui community, I learnt for the first time, that there were mosques run by and for women, with female imams!
The final chapter is all about the rights of women, not surprisingly. Six years ago I gave a talk to the Arab Canadian University Graduates Association about the place of the Arab community in Canadian society, in which I claimed, with no stats at the time, that the main reason for any negative feelings Canadians have about Arabs is to do with their treatment of their women, and that 9/11 only made it worse. This is confirmed in this chapter, only this time about Muslims. Sheema speaks from the heart about her own struggles against taboos and chauvinism, while going through her different levels of education, and her sporting interests.
Sheema Khan disapproves of Premier Dalton McGuinty’s capitulation to the campaign against what has been called “Sharia Law”. She reminds us that similar arbitration systems already exist in Ontario for Aboriginals, Ismailis and Jews, so why not Muslims? She accuses: “our own neosecularists (including several Muslims) brazenly peddled Muslim family law as an existential threat to Western liberal democracy.”
On hijab, the author discusses the controversy in France, and the possibility of the same in Quebec, with the banning of 11 year old Asmahan Mansour from hockey. She says that she only donned the hijab (head scarf, NOT veil) at Harvard after much spiritual reflection, but when she tried the niqab (veil) she found it stifling and “unnatural” and yet she respects those who choose to wear it. She thinks that the pressure on women to discard the hijab resulted in the unforeseen reaction of more women deciding to use it as an expression of nationalism, as in Algeria under the French, or resistance, as in Iran under the Shah, or simply as a symbol of identity or even rebellion.
She also decries the custom of honour killing, which she calls “the mother of all oxymorons”, giving examples, albeit not from Canada. She asks the obvious question “Why should a victim of sexual assault carry any guilt about rape?” The exemplary story of courage of the famous Pakistani woman Mukhtar Mai Bibi, gang raped by order of her own community, is described in detail. It is a story worth reading.The issue of wife beating, seen in Muslim society is also briefly discussed, and the author urges Muslims not to misread the Koran in order to justify it; and to abandon female genital mutilation, relating success stories on that issue from Africa.
Several stories about violence against women are cited. Misconceptions in Western society about the so called right of husbands to beat their wives are exposed, even amongst judges! The author poses this question to Muslims: “Are women inferior, or are they worthy of the same treatment as men?” She also admits that “We Muslims have a greater responsibility than the mere preservation of image. We have a duty to address social injustice head on...”
In summary, this is a small book packed with analysis and ideas about and for Muslims. I believe that it should be read by all Canadians, but especially by the David Warrens and others who seem to opine about Islam in the media, often with very superficial knowledge of the subject. Having said that, I think that Sheema has left uncovered a gaping hole in the book; namely the issue of sexuality in the Muslim Canadian community. These are questions that need to be asked: We know how the average Muslim male behaves, at least those who are willing to be honest about it, and of course those who are more than willing to boast about their real or imaginary conquests, with total approval, if not admiration, for their male prowess. But what is the prevalence of virginity in young Muslim Canadian females in high school and university and the work force? Is non-vaginal intercourse commonly practised to preserve virginity, as I read in a British newspaper last December? What is likely to happen when a Muslim girl “dates” a non-Muslim man? Why is it OK for a Muslim boy to date a Catholic girl? Are we going to invoke Islamic rules to deal with this? How will Muslim parents handle their gay or lesbian children? Perhaps the author, or some other female writer, will produce the sequel “Of Sex and Hijab”! I am reserving my copy now. Qais Ghanem, January 2010