Leading scholar asks Canada’s Muslims to consider their identity
Canadian Muslims should join the discussion on what having a Canadian identity means, according to Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a well-known academic and Muslim leader.
“I think part of rooting Muslims in a healthy way in Canada is to have Muslims engage in this discussion of what is Canadian identity,” said Dr. Ingrid Mattson. “What is our history, what has been the good part, what has been the bad part?”
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. She made the remarks on January 22 at Emmanuel College’s official opening of a new, dedicated prayer space and special ablution facilities to accommodate the needs of Muslim students at the University of Toronto.
“Canadian Muslims need to be like other Canadians and be able to say that there are parts of this identity and history that I find repulsive or problematic and there are parts of it that I can embrace,” she said. “Being a Canadian means that I am going to claim that and continue to be involved in the discussion of what these values are.”
Emmanuel College is associated with the United Church of Canada and is a constituent college of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. The public event marking the opening of the prayer space included Dr. Mattson’s lecture on “Rooting a Canadian-Muslim Identity.”
Dr. Mattson noted that there is a preoccupation by North American Muslims with identity politics.
“Identity is probably one of the most commonly employed or engaged terms used by the Muslim community in North America and this is quite interesting,” she said. “If we look at centuries of scholarly text, I don’t see that much about identity – this phrase ‘Muslim identity’ is not something that we see appear or as a focus of attention – they were concerned with the law, ethics, and behavior.”
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian, recently returned to the country from the United States where she held a number of high profile positions. She is the former director of the Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and the former President of the Islamic Society of North America.
In her lecture, she said that the demographic makeup of the American Muslim community has influenced how Muslims there understand their identity.
“The reason why I think American Muslims have been able to extract themselves a little bit from simply making American Islam into an anti-Western discourse is for one simple reason and that is approximately 25 percent of the American Muslim community is African American,” Dr. Mattson told the audience. “The priorities of African Americans, in terms of justice, and seeking justice and identifying what is not just, are different than immigrants.”
“African Americans are looking at their lives in terms of the structural injustices within the United States, as Americans, and they see an economic system, a legal system that has resulted in the highest incarcerated population in the world, in terms of percentages, and that African Americans are incarcerated in far greater numbers,” she added. ”They see all around them, not only their history of repression within the United States, but also current legislation and practices.”
She opined that the African American Muslims have pushed the Muslim community to question their understanding of justice.
“So they were the ones that turned the question around to their immigrant brothers and sisters and said wait a minute – you talk about injustice but ignore the injustices being done to us; you talk about injustice yet you ignore the fact that there are people in your own community who are contributing and participating in systems that oppress us, who are participating in economic systems in the inner-city that take advantage of poor African Americans.”
Dr. Mattson went on to tell the audience that this interaction between African American Muslims and immigrant Muslims has resulted in the discourse moving beyond identity politics to ethics.
“So I think for American Muslims, African Americans really elevated the issue of justice and generalized it and made it a universal principle and brought it out of simply identity politics – the West versus Islam,” she said “They made us look more deeply at systematic injustice and understand that justice is not about identity but it is about ethics that we should carry wherever we were and we needed to start prioritizing our issues differently.”
She then proposed that, for the Canadian Muslim community, First Nations people can be the challenging conscience for Canadian Muslims as African Americans were for U.S. Muslims.
“I think this is something that Canadians have lacked in terms of having these role models that African Americans have been for us – the challenging voice that African Americans have been for American Muslims,” she said. “But I do think there is an opportunity – I think there is a great opportunity right now and this is something that I have been saying for many years – the First Nations issues in Canada can provide for the Muslim community the kind of mirror through which we can see our own – whether our idea that Islam is just, our statement that Islam is about justice hold water, whether it is a value or ethic we embrace or whether it is simply about us and them, about identity politics.”
Dr. Ingrid Mattson then asked the audience some provocative questions, “What is the Canadian Islam that we want? What is the Canada that we are trying to be part of? What are we rooting ourselves into?”
“I think the reality is that if Canadian Muslims are trying to squeeze ourselves always into a kind of Anglo-Canadian or French-Canadian identity, justifying ourselves in those cultural terms, it would be problematic, it would always be a little bit of an awkward fit,” she proposed.
“We should examine this third founding (Aboriginal) identity, in fact the original founding identity, and I think, if we do that, we will find that there are values and practices and beliefs that are often more amenable to us as Muslims.”
Dr. Mattson said that the Canadian Muslim community would need to come to terms with how they want to define themselves.
“Why hasn’t Muslims rushed to that (consider Aboriginal identity) before? I think the reason why we haven’t rushed to that before is that we don’t want to affiliate ourselves with an oppressed people,” she said. “So this is why we want to present our identity in terms of Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic.”
“But if we want to be Muslim – if our identity means living our values and beliefs – should we be always trying to get in with the most privileged people if the system that they have established is always not just? Or do we go and look instead at another form that I may call counter-culturalism?
Earlier in the evening’s program, Dr. Katherine Bullock, Coordinator of the Certificate of Muslim Studies Program at Emmanuel College, commented on the significance of the event.
“This is a historic evening – the opening of the first Muslim prayer room on the east side of the University of Toronto campus,” she said. “As time passes, we will all remember being here tonight to listen to Dr. Ingrid speak and share in this launch of the prayer room – Dr. Ingrid Mattson is one of the Greater Toronto community’s favorite lecturers.”
Emmanuel’s Principal, Dr. Mark G. Toulouse, in his welcoming remarks told the gathering that the college’s aim is to provide forums for faith communities to engage and appreciate each other.
“Muslim Studies at Emmanuel is part of our own effort to create forums where persons representing diverse faiths can engage one another, discover common concerns and interests and learn to respect and appreciate the differences that provide fullness to our experiences of what it means to be human,” he said.