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From Tolerance to Understanding: Strengthening Canada's relations with Muslim communities in Asia-Pacific

Remarks by the Hon. David Kilgour,
Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) and Member of Parliament for Edmonton
to "Canada and Islam in Asia in the 21st Century" conference
Le Centre Sheraton Hotel, Montreal
September 24, 2003

Ten days ago while in Ulaanbaatar, I learned that during the Mongol wars an estimated three million people were killed in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan before 1350; that war casualties took ten percent of the population of Burma, 19 percent in Korea and 30 percent in China, where in the Song territory millions upon millions died. Hulegu Khan, as you'll know, attacked Baghdad in 1256 and killed an estimated 800,000 persons. He also turned to cinders fully five centuries of Islamic cultural treasures.

Perhaps like yourselves, I've argued that, despite such truly dismaying periods earlier, the 20th century was probably the worst ever for faith communities because of the systematic murders by the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

Let us hope that the 21st century becomes one where people of all faiths realize that we have much in common; by working together we can be a major-if not unstoppable- force for peace, non-violence and world harmony. In this regard, is it not encouraging to know that only a few weeks ago a Muslim South African man married a Catholic Canadian woman in a covered wooden bridge over the Gatineau river near Ottawa? The metaphor of this country as a bridge builder was out in force that afternoon.

Looking out this evening, it is comforting to know that the bridges between Canada and Asia's Islamic communities are strong and growing. The respected author M.J. Akbar, who is here, explained to the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that whereas the religious heart of Islam is based around Mecca and Medina in the Middle East, its demographic heart lies overwhelmingly in South and Southeast Asia. Of the over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, only one in five live in the Middle East.

Why is the topic of this conference of so much interest to Canadians?

Obviously, we have economic interests; Southeast Asia is the only region to which Canadian exports increased in 2003. Perhaps surprisingly, our investment there equals that in China, Japan and India combined. New markets are emerging continuously throughout South Asia - particularly among growing populations and an expanding middle class.

Politically, more and more decisions regarding our common future will emerge from the capitals in the Asia-Pacific region. India and Pakistan - two countries with among the largest Muslim populations - are increasingly important geo-political players in the region - not to mention being nuclear powers. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country on earth, was the site of the Bali bombing. Indeed, until then my daughter living in Bangkok used to email home that the events of 9-11 on this continent simply hadn't had a major impact in Asia.

Most importantly, we have an estimated 700,000 Muslim Canadians who, with origins in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East - embodying the diversity within Islam itself - are helping prove to the world that Canada is living, breathing daily defiance of the notion of a 'clash of civilizations'. We long ago rejected the model of a traditional nation state; choosing not to define ourselves through one common ethnicity, religion or language, but rather by diversity itself. It is upon this foundation that so many bridges can and have been built.

Muslims in Canada

This pluralism is both defined and increasingly driven by Canadian Muslims. Writer Daood Hassan Hamdani explains that the documented history of Muslims in Canada dates from the mid 19th century, when thirteen years before Confederation was created, the first Muslim was born in the territory that was to become Canada.

Unknown to many Canadians is that in 1938 Edmonton became home to the first ever mosque in North America. Many years later (in the 1980s), Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed appointed the first ever provincial Muslim cabinet minister (Larry Chabin).

Hamdami writes:

Muslims participated in almost every major event in the economic history of Canada. They hewed rocks, laid tracks and struck nails to build the Canadian Pacific railway in the late 19th Century, an event dubbed the "national dream" because of its importance. Muslim farmers were among the pioneers who opened up Alberta and Saskatchewan for cultivation and settlement in the beginning of the 20th century. Skilled and professional Muslim immigrants kept up the tempo of economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Muslim educators responded to the need for teachers and professors as the baby boom of the post-Second World War period rolled into grade school and then graduate schools, thus strengthening the foundation for a secure and prosperous economic future for the country.

Compared to our population as a whole, a greater proportion of Muslims aged 25-44 have one or more university degrees. Hamdani asserts that proportionally they withdraw much less from our social security systems and contribute much more than Canadians generally. In short, the contribution by Canadians of Muslim faith in a host of fields across Canada is enormous.

The Need for Dialogue

For that reason and many more, what I'm about to say is very difficult: for all of our nation's claims of multiculturalism and religious harmony, responses to 9/11 and the rise of extremism in some parts of the world by too many within Canada have indicated considerable ignorance and misunderstandings about Islam. At times, these were revealed in the most appalling ways.

Fortunately, hateful incidents were the exception, not the norm. On balance, the terrorism on September 11, which was intended to divide us, has had the opposite effect. Various faith groups saw each other come under siege. "An attack on one is an attack on all" became a mantra repeated across the country. Interest in Islam rose sharply for Canadians of all-and no- faiths. Books on the subject sold out; university courses were filled to capacity; and the media, politicians and governments began to explore what had been ignored for far too long.

For the many of us who opened our minds, I dare say the message is sinking in: Islam should not judged by the violence of individuals who distort its message any more than Christianity should be judged by individuals who, for example, murder doctors that perform abortions.

Is not Islam based on the guidance given by God to all Abrahamic faiths: Jews, Muslims and Christians? Is the Qu'ran not full of references to Christ and how he has a special place for Muslims as prophet? Is it not consistent with the basic precepts of all faiths - and wholly compatible with what we hold up to the world as 'Canadian values'?

Islam and 'Canadian Values'


Fundamentally, Islam seeks peace. What were the first words exchanged between most of us tonight? As-salamu alaikum. May peace be upon you. The very word Islam, which means "surrender," is related to the Arabic 'salam', or 'peace'. The primary meaning of the word jihad is not 'holy war' but 'struggle.' It refers to the difficult effort that is needed to put God's will into practice at every level - personal, social and political.


A premium on education is equally germane - if not more - to Islam as to most other faiths. Sufis underscore the duty and necessity of attaining knowledge. One Hadith clearly states, "the attainment of knowledge is a must for every Muslim - male and female." The Qu'ran also speaks of going to any length to seek knowledge. (Canadian Ambassador and respected scholar, Ferry de Kerckhove, who we'll hear from later this week, spoke eloquently on this subject while High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

Social Justice/Equity

It's no secret that many Canadians are apprehensive about globalization. In this concern for social values, culture, the environment and more, we are joined by Muslim friends around the world. Muslim economists, including many in Asia-Pacific, are leading the study of development through both economic growth rates and social indicators. Dr. Turgay explains, "Islamic development plans include moral and material development, economic and social, spiritual and physical advancement." Is this not what the responsible among all of us ought to be seeking?

No Inherent Incompatibility

We must begin with the premise that there is no inherent incompatibility between Islam and the West. Countries in Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, continue to prove this.

While no system of government - including democracy - is proscribed by the Qu'ran, participants in Dr. Turgay's study pointed readily to "democratic practices in early Islamic history, particularly in consultation (shura) and consensus (ijma)". Although at times suppressed and suborned by radical rulers, key elements of democratic societies have long been part of Islam's historical traditions: compassion, freedom of expression, the rule of law, accountable government, participatory politics, individual dignity. The first Caliph was chosen by a form of democracy. The Qu'ran speaks of the "creation of different nations and tribes so that they may come to know one another." Indeed, the verse stating, "Let there be no compulsion in region" is itself a call for pluralism.

Some of these principles were developed through interaction with other cultures and faiths, including Western ones - for which all humanity has been enriched. Islam has ebbed and flowed - at times interacting with Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, at others with Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. It epitomizes resilience and adaptability.

Countering Extremism: a Strong and Vibrant Islam

So why the rise in Islamic militancy? One reason often cited is a lack of democracy and stifling lack of opportunity in some countries governed by allegedly "Islamic" governments. While likely strong factors in motivating individuals to turn to extremism, neither can be blamed on Islam or its tenets as much as on irresponsible leadership in some capitals.

And so perhaps there are deeper, underlying conditions we must take into account? Dr. Karen Armstrong, in her compelling book "The Battle for God," argues that Islamic extremism is rooted in the fear that Islam will be annihilated: the fear that "at some visceral level, modern secular liberal society wants to wipe out its face".

The answer? A strong, vibrant Islam. As many interpretations and variations of a strong and vibrant Islam that the peoples of this earth wish to create.

If this is truly what we want, some of our first steps can be taken in Canada.

Redefining Multiculturalism: from Tolerance to Understanding

'Multiculturalism' is a word most Canadians use freely - often very proudly - when describing this country. And rightly so. His Highness, the Aga Khan, is proposing to open an institute on pluralism soon in Ottawa so that more at home and abroad can benefit from our experience. We have achieved multiculturalism: we are a nation of nations - home to virtually every people on earth. We fulfill the definition of pluralism: we have numerous distinct ethnic, religious and cultural groups. Canadians generally believe such a condition is desirable and socially beneficial. This, however, will only take us so far. Already - it's proving not to be enough. To make our experiment of multiculturalism succeed, we must redefine it so that our primary descriptor is not 'tolerance' but understanding and harmony.

Permit me to insert here a word about a story prominent in today's Globe and Mail about Irene Waseem, a sixteen-year-old Montreal student who has evidently been told that she cannot wear a hijab as a symbol of her Muslim faith to her private school here in this city. Two fellow Members of Parliament from Montreal agree that this is an issue of religious liberty. I understand that the Quebec Human Rights Commission so ruled in 1995 in a case involving a public school, relying on the equality guarantee in the Quebec Charter of Rights. Like yourselves, I suspect, I hope that the Commission will soon rule the same with respect to private schools.

This understanding will happen in part through interfaith dialogues. Like those at this conference, the ones emerging on Parliament Hill, provincial legislatures and city halls, and most importantly, like the ones in homes, community centres and places of worship across the country. The objective of genuine dialogue is not necessarily to find agreement, but more importantly mutual respect.

Of course reading the text of the Qu'ran and the words of the prophets are but a starting point to understanding the evolving reality of Islam. Before Canadians can proclaim ourselves ready to bridge gaps with our friends in Asia-Pacific, we must also come to know the many Muslim communities within our own borders. Reading the Bible and then purporting to understand the contributions of Christians to this country, to understand our sometimes adversarial relationships with each other, our often different views on world events, and to know what we dream for our children - would be absurd! The teachings of a faith must be learned in tandem with an appreciation for the way these teachings are lived.

We have nothing to fear: building a stronger understanding of others faiths doesn't mean sacrificing our own. Rather, it's an opportunity to reaffirm them. In this spirit, we can encourage the teaching of respect for various faiths in schools, and demand responsible journalism that rejects the abuse of such terms as 'Islamic terrorist'. Interestingly, an Australian I met in Mongolia told me he only now hears the term 'Muslim extremist' pronounced as a single word!

And, we must appreciate that while we are a nation characterized by the informal separation of church and state, religion today is a major driver of change. Indeed, this new century is becoming one in which religious faith of many kinds is replacing other ideologies in most parts of the planet. We discard this phenomenon at our own peril.

During seminar sessions following Canada's National Prayer Breakfast, (May 9, 2002,) Dr. Janet Epp Buckingham made reference to the fact that much of Canada's population and certainly it's media already hold religion in very low esteem, scorning religion as the root cause of much of the world's ills. It is vitally important that representatives of the world's major religions enter into serious dialogue with each other. Failure to be at least willing to speak with each other will further lower our credibility and the relevance of any and all forms of faith in the context of Canadian society.

In the spring of this year, Canada's Foreign Minister launched a nation-wide foreign policy dialogue. For the first time ever, a specific focus was put on the role of religion in foreign policy. This is progress! The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) has held roundtables on "Canada and the Muslim World". Many of you came to know Canadian diplomats through their work in this area. Of course we're here today in part because DFAIT commissioned Dr. Turgay's report and followed up by funding this conference.

Supporting Islam around the World

Enhancing our approach within Canada is only a first step. Muslims here and around the world contributing to the strong, vibrant Islam we agree is needed require visible, substantive support.

Dr. Turgay's study of the perception of Canada among Muslim communities in Asia-Pacific affirmed what many in this country already understand: Canada is unique!

  • We're a Western nation...but also an Asia-Pacific one.
  • We're a member of the G8...and are active in APEC, ASEAN and the UN.
  • We're entrepreneurial and capitalist, but with a reputation for equity and respect for human rights.
  • We're the next door neighbour, biggest trading partner and closest friend of the world's only superpower...but did not commit troops to the war in Iraq.

We have a differentiated voice in a changing world order (a "cachet of goodwill", some have called it) and would be foolish - and irresponsible - to let it go unused. Before us is the opportunity to build a framework for solving problems that is not considered hostile. In building a common language based in respect and understanding, there is much we can say and do.

Clearly, we're compelled to speak out against terrorism in all its forms and support nations who share our commitment to fighting it. We must be prepared to challenge at home and abroad the voices of individuals - and autocratic regimes - who subvert the meaning of Islam as one of the world's great religions.

But we must also respond with more than words. This means expanding support for education programs that provide alternatives to narrow-minded systems that perpetuate intolerance. It means continuing to support women through education and skills programs, cooperatives and other efforts to improve their economic, educational and political status.

It involves equipping civil society everywhere - and especially in the world's 'hot spots' - with the capabilities and desire to democratize from within - in a manner fully compatible with the teachings of Islam. It means supporting those who reject violence and authoritarianism, which, as many in this room know all to well, is never an easy road. Dialogue among leaders is important, but it's not enough.


How to build these bridges - these two-way flows of support - is the question of the day, and the ultimate challenge before you over the next two days. Dr. Turgay has made a number of useful suggestions. Many emerged at the highly successful 'Diversity and Islam' conference held in Ottawa and sponsored by Women Engaging in Bridge Building in June of this year. I hope to learn and be a part of the creation of more concrete ideas for follow-up to this conference over the next two days. Among you is a wise man who commented that at least on the first day of many conferences, people are too polite. Most, he said, are trying too hard to make sure they'll be invited again!

So to help set a tone of truly frank exchanges, allow me to open the floor to what I hope will be your unreserved questions and comments.

Permit me to close with words of the Prophet (pbuh):

"He who learns for the sake of haughtiness, dies ignorant. He who learns only to talk, rather than to act, dies a hypocrite. He who learns for the mere sake of debating, dies irreligious. He who learns only to accumulate wealth, dies an atheist. And he who learns for the sake of action, dies a mystic."

Thank you.


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