When Dr. Amir Hussain was growing up in Toronto, there were 35,000 Muslims in Canada. Now there are 3.2 million.
“So we have seen this shift from a very small religion to the second largest behind Christianity,” he says.
Hussain was born in Pakistan. He says his family’s immigrant experience is a classic North American success story.
“Both of my parents worked in factories. My dad worked at the Ford plant in Oakville and built trucks. I am a professor and my sister is an engineer. You come to this country, you work hard, your kids become successful.”
But still, since 9/11, he has been pulled aside in airports, questioned, fingerprinted, photographed. He’s says he’s had to watch Islam being misinterpreted everywhere.
“Since 9/11 suddenly everyone knows everything about Islam,” he says, “except it is all wrong. Where are you getting this from? Are you learning about Islam from Donald Trump?”
Hussain is a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In May he’s coming to the Kootenays to teach an introduction to Islam as a credit course at the Mir Centre for Peace at Selkirk College.
The course will look at Islamic teachings with regard to peace and violence, Muslim communities in Canada, the role of women, the meaning of “jihad,” and Islamic fundamentalism.
He will also discuss how the immigrant Muslim population differs between host countries and has a different role in each one.
For example, he says American Muslims are relatively assimilated and successful. “Your Muslim neighbour is more likely to be your cardiologist than the woman who cleans your toilets.”
But in Europe, Muslims have very high unemployment rates and tend to do the low-status jobs.
Muslims in North America come from a variety of countries and many of them are African American, but “in Britain almost all the Muslims are South Asian, in France almost all are North African, and in Germany they are almost all Turks. So both the host culture and the immigrant culture are much more homogeneous in Europe.”
In France, for example, the definition of what it means to be French is narrower than the perceived national identities in the US or Canada.
“What does it mean to be Canadian? It depends. Are you English or French speaking, are you white, brown, or black? What does it mean to be Muslim in Canada? Well it depends. Are you Pakistani, Somali, from an Arab country?”
Hussain also wants to address popular accusations that Islam is somehow a religion of violence.
“Last year 19 Americans were shot to death by Muslims. That is 19 too many, but 85 Americans are shot to death every day. Of course there are horrific acts of violence that Muslims have committed. How do we talk about that and deal with these things? How do you understand that Islam like any religion is both a religion of violence and a religion of peace?”
For an answer to that question, you’ll have to take Hussain’s Selkirk College class or read his book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God. He’s written and edited extensively on world religions, has won a number of awards, and has twice been voted Professor of the Year by students at Loyola Marymount University.
Hussain says the political reality for Muslims in Canada is different from the US. He says Stephen Harper’s focus on the niqab issue may have contributed to his election loss, “whereas in the US, Trump and [Ted] Cruz both double down on anti-Muslim rhetoric and they are ahead in the polls.”
Asked how a town like Nelson should approach the likely arrival of several Syrian refugee families, he said, “These people are coming from war. How do you deal with the trauma? Will they have a support network? If they want to be observant is there a mosque in the area?
“Little things like food — for many Muslims you might not keep halal but are you able to get stuff that is non-pork? We may unintentionally say here are some people coming, let’s have a barbecue of hot dogs and hamburgers, but do we check to see if the hot dogs are all beef? We may be doing something that we think is welcoming, then giving them food they can’t eat.
“Do they have kids? Will there be support for them in school? Are we neighbourly? Matthew 25 says ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked.’”
Hussain’s course, Peace 224: Introduction to Islam, will run all day for five days, May 2 to May 6, at the Mir Centre for Peace on the Castlegar campus. The course can be taken as a three credit, second year university course or as a community education course. For more information call Randy Janzen at 250-365-1288.