US and Canadian Muslims find themselves between an all-too-familiar rock and a hard place in catastrophes like the murder of a US ambassador and three other American diplomats in Libya Tuesday and the ongoing attacks on US embassies around the Muslim World.
The rock: An act of Islamophobia, in this instance a YouTube trailer for a US film mocking the Muslim religion and its prophet.
The hard space: A violent reaction to the video by extremists in the Muslim World that, like the video itself, perpetuates hatred of Muslims hoping to live and thrive in the West.
“When such things happen, the image of Canadian Muslims, like all Muslims everywhere, can be negatively impacted, especially in the eyes of those who never dealt with Muslims directly at the personal level,” said president of the Saskatoon-based Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), Amin Elshorbagy.
“Muslim diasporas around the globe ultimately end up being hurt by these things. Diaspora Muslims like us in America are put under extra scrutiny – always on the defensive trying to disassociate ourselves and painstakingly explaining this does not represent us,” Nasser Weddady of the American Islamic Congress (AIC) said.
Condemnation of extremist attacks
In each of these instances, the response of US and Canadian Muslims has been to disassociate themselves from the extremists.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Muslims carry great love and respect for Prophet Muhammad, but under no circumstances can love be expressed in the form of violence or transgression,” CIC's Elshorbagy said.
North American Muslim community leaders like Elshorbagy remain unconvinced by the ongoing riots across the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) region that the video is profoundly damaging to Islam -- as offensive as it is to Muslims.
“I would say to (the extremists), the Prophet Mohammed doesn't need your protection. And I don't need you to be a defender of my faith,” said Weddady.
Others feel the extremists' motives are not religious, but political, as post-revolutionary governments have yet to secure their power in the MENA region.
'Innocence of Muslims' video and response: why now?
“Why now? This video has been out for a little while. The response has been planned by different groups” jockeying for political power, said AIC founder and president Zainab Al-Suwaij.
The US and Canadian Muslims' disassociations are not a tenable enterprise, experts say.
“Within the American Muslim communities and Canadian Muslim communities … there's a fatigue with having to disassociate oneself with every one of these incidents,” Weddady said, explaining that the danger of this is the non-Muslim public sentiment that the Muslim community's silence quietly condones acts of violence.
Weddady called for a new response to the repetitive cycle of Islamophobia in the West and violence in the Muslim World – exacerbated by instances of what North American Muslim community leaders call political Islamophobia: One-time Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain's bid to make American Muslims take “loyalty oaths,” the US Tea Party's fight against phantom “creeping sharia” and Conservative Premier Stephen Harper's divisive war against “Islamicism” in Canada.
North American Muslims “need to sit down and think about their civic engagement on this continent,” Weddady said.
“Clearly all the existing models in the last two decades have failed miserably,” he added.
An African American archetype, a North American Muslim dream
Weddady said the American Islamic Congress is looking at various models of integration that have lifted politically and socially marginalized ethnic and religious groups out of a cycle of systematic degradation in the past.
American and Canadian Muslims are often divided internally by sect, religiosity, culture and national origin, which Weddady said has stymied a concerted effort to organize politically and carve out their place in the societies where they live.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the African American community coalesced socially and politically around a blossoming of their community's artistic and intellectual power – Black Americans were at the forefront of the their generation's innovation in literature, music, theater and painting.
Weddady said that various American immigrant communities have made their way into the fabric of accepted American society through the arts, noting that American Jews – after generations of discrimination and abuse – have entered the mainstream with movies and television employing Yiddish terms like “schmooze” and “Oy vey,” almost as part of a Hollywood lingua franca.
Weddady will feel his job is done “when we have a number of highly decorated Muslim generals in the US and Canada, actors, musicians, Nobel prize winners.”
A North American Muslim Renaissance?
A period of African American innovation helped lift their community out of the spectre of slavery and into the public spotlight as a community with talent and dignity. And that movement for integrity spread as far as Europe, where the French Black community, entrenched in the throws of colonialism, demanded respect in its own “Negritude” movement.
In the North American Muslim context, AIC's Al-Suwaij said, “I think it's very important to come out of the picture where we label ourselves as victims. We are people. We have bad and good people. We have shining stars. We have rich and poor.”
“There is nothing wrong with making a Big Fat Greek Wedding. It made people smile, learn about the Greeks, and I'm sure the Greeks themselves enjoyed it,” she said, referring to Nia Vardalos' 2002 hit that put Americans of Greek origin – and their culture – on the map.
“Let's do one Big Fat Greek Muslim Wedding,” Al-Suwaij exclaimed, laughing.
Canada at the forefront of the coming Muslim Harlem Renaissance
Some members of the Canadian Muslim community are already mobilizing in the pending Muslim Harlem Renaissance.
A Toronto-based Canadian of Jordanian Muslim origin, Lama Aggad, is a self-described Canadian Arab Muslim “Oprah or Ellen.”
In 2011, Aggad started her own online media platform, Lama TV, in English and Arabic that aims to “represent Arabs and Muslims to Canadians.”
“I truly believe that it is time to face those who misrepresent us in the Middle East and in the West,” Aggad said.
“For those who don't know who we are and speak negatively about [Canadian Arabs and Muslims], from the wrong sources, we should help correct them,” she added, explaining that her media platform speaks to and for Arabs of various religions and Muslims of countless ethnic and sectarian origin living in Canada.
“There are people speaking poorly of us just for the sake of increasing divisions between us and the rest of Canada. We should point them out and put an end to their unnecessary and unjustifiable attacks. We can no longer be silent.”
The Canadian Islamic Congress is also making gestures to unite and empower its community to make its way into Canada's social fabric – by showing that Muslims have already played a fundamental role in Canadian history.
“The Islamic History Month Canada (IHMC) that CIC initiated and sponsored is one of these great educational projects that build bridges between Canadian Muslims and larger Canadian society. This is one of the examples that proactively combat Islamophobia,” said CIC's Elshorbagy.
To young Canadian and US Muslims
Weddady, who said he has been a political activist since the age of seven in his native Mauritania, offered young North American Muslims a way to be a part of the coming Muslim Harlem Renaissance locally.
“Speak your mind freely. Bust taboos in your communities. There is no such thing as internal dirty laundry,” he said, offering support for Arab feminist Mona Eltahawy's bid to improve women's rights in the Arab and Muslim Worlds with a controversial Foreign Policy article entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?”
“Talk, write, create, make movies – get engaged in your political and civic life.”
Weddady said one of his dreams is to take foul-mouthed American Muslim comic Dave Chappelle to North American universities, in a push to help youth realize Muslims are a part of mainstream popular culture – regardless of how many conservative North American Muslim parents that would upset.