9/11: The Canadian Muslim Experience

None of us will forget what we were doing at around 8:30 a.m. on September 11, 2001. We will always remember how we got the news.

I was with a patient when she matter-of-factly said, “A plane flew into the world trade center this morning.” After a brief silence she continued, “and a second one flew in about 15 minutes later.” I didn’t know how to respond. It was bizarre.

My first thoughts were, “Where is the World Trade Centre, again? That must be New York.” I finally mustered a response, “Wow. That’s weird.”

When I finally got to a television and the shocking reality set in, my confusion gave way to profound sadness. You see, no matter your religion or skin colour, news of a catastrophe like the World Trade Centre attack takes away your innocence. It reminds us that we are not as secure as we would like to think. And when you see the pictures and hear stories of the loss of life, when you view the heroism of the NYFD, there is a very human and sentimental part in all of us that is deeply touched.

The suffering that resulted from the World Trade Centre attacks affected everyone in North America. Whether you are white, black, Native, Muslim, Christian or Jewish. If you call this continent home, then it has to hurt to see this happen to the place where you live — and to your institutions and your economy.

This includes the Muslim community of North America, which makes up about 6,000,000 of the total population. More than 600,000 Muslims live in Canada alone and about 7,000 of them make their home in Manitoba. Each one saw those pictures of 9/11, heard the tragic stories and grieved at the colossal loss of life and property. You’re not human if you didn’t react just as we did.

But the perspective of this type of event is decidedly unique from a Muslim viewpoint. Muslims grieved for more than 3000 who perished in the hijacked planes, on the ground, and in the horrific collapse of the twin towers. We learned later that as many as 15 per cent of those innocent victims who died in the attacks were themselves Muslim men and women; more than 200 were from Pakistan alone. So, along with the rest of North America, we experienced a newfound sense of vulnerability.

And then, we learned of the allegations that this terrible crime was planned and carried out by Muslims. How traumatizing! We endured a vicious backlash in the media against our great religion and suddenly found ourselves forced to distinguish between one another as being either “moderate” or “extremist” Muslims — a precarious distinction that no Muslim in recent memory has ever had to make. With the emphasis in Islamic teachings on the importance of moderation in all things, how can a true, practicing Muslim be “extreme”?

The fact remains that, second only to the 3000-plus victims of September 11 and their families, Muslims have suffered more as a result of this incident than any other segment of North America society. We have suffered two-fold: first, in the unprovoked attack on our homeland — yes, most of us do consider Canada or the United States our one and only home — and secondly, through the societal backlash that shoudl have been directed solely toward the actual perpetrators of the 9/11 crimes, all of whom apparently died while carrying out their obscene missions.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic advocacy group based in the U.S., with a Canadian chapter in Ottawa, reported well over 1000 incidents of anti-Muslim hate attributed to the WTC attacks in the days and weeks following 9/11. The nature of these racial attacks ranged from verbal abuse and termination of employment, to arson and murder.

While the wholesale attack on Islam and Muslims was unfair and undeserved it was, perhaps, understandable on some level. Humans can be impulsive and short-sighted in their reactions to major events of this sort and people are often judged guilty by association. I suppose the people responsible for 9/11 were, in their own demented way, also acting on a guilt-by-association sentiment. Yet the backlash likely made us better Muslims, and better Canadians, as a result of the introspective climate created by the ordeal.

It wasn’t long before U.S. president George W. Bush donned his 5- gallon hat, jumped on his horse, and headed out on a Lone Ranger- styled global “War on Terrorism” with his six-shooter loaded and his trained media posse following hand in foot.

Locally, however, we found that people weren’t buying into America’s “you’re with us, or you’re with them” ultimatum. Canadians, as a whole, refused to associate all Muslims and their Islamic faith with the incident. There was tremendous support from level-headed people telling us that we needn’t be concerned. Other religious groups called to offer support, school children sent cards and gifts to Islamic schools, government officials personally called to offer Muslim organizations “whatever assistance” they needed.

But one year later, while many of the short-term discomforts are still recent history, some of the long-term “security” measures implemented by our government pose a genuine threat to the free and tolerant community we all aspire to live in. Bill C-36 and Bill C-55 give the government sweeping new powers that have been criticized by many academics as a threat to our freedoms and liberties in this country — that is, the liberties of all Canadians.

This legislation is of particular concern to Muslims because of the racial profiling implicit in it. The pretext that Muslims are a bigger threat to national security than any other identifiable minority is preposterous. The Qur’an clearly teaches that if one takes an innocent life, it is as if that person took the life of all of humanity; similarly, if one saves a life it is as if that person saved the life of all of humanity (Qur’an 5:32).

The average Canadian Muslim holds firmly to these basic Islamic principles, pays taxes, respects the law, gives charity and contributes of the betterment of Canadian society in any way he or she can. The “average Canadian Muslim” might be the guy you see at the local hockey rink, or the woman who walking into your school class wearing her hijab (head-cover). We only hope that our children will enjoy the same rights and freedoms tomorrow that their parents had as little children growing up in Canada. It would be a shame to make them pay for the mistakes of a misguided few.

Dr. Asim Ashique is a member of the media committee of the Manitoba Islamic Association and a Regional Director for the Canadian Islamic Congress.