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Canada's Relations with Countries of the Muslim World

Canada's Relations with Countries of the Muslim World

A Position Paper
presented to
the House of Commons Standing Committee
on Foreign Affairs and International Trade
by the Canadian Islamic Congress,
May 6, 2003.

The Canadian Islamic Congress acknowledges with appreciation the invitation to present the views of a great many Muslim Canadians on the very timely and important issue: "Canada's Relations with Countries of the Muslim World."

A -- An Overview of Islam

Islam seeks peace and justice through active participation, alongside the rituals of its adherents, in all spheres of human existence: political, social, economic, educational, as well as in the pursuit of human rights, economic equity and social justice.

"Truly God loves those who are just." (Qur'an, 49:9) "And let not the hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just; that is nearer to piety." (Qur'an, 5:8)

Islam is an inclusive religion that encompasses all humanity and celebrates human diversity and plurality. Instead of "us" and "them," the Qur'an -- which is the primary revealed source of Islam -- emphasizes "all of us."

"O humankind, We have created you out of a single pair, male and female, and have made you into differing peoples and tribes that you may know one other. [The] noblest among you in the eye of Allah is the most righteous [both in deeds and action]." (Qur'an, 49:13)

Islam is a religion of balance that seeks the middle way in matters of religious practice and material life. Extremism, either in religious thinking and practice, or in the physical realm of life (i.e. immoderate pleasure-seeking, etc.), is believed to create chaos and imbalance within the individual and throughout society.

"We sent our Messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the balance." (Qur'an, 57:25).

The Qur'an explicitly advises human beings not to commit excesses (5:87), and also advises them to be moderate (31:19). Moderation, in and of itself, implies the faithful avoidance of excess in all things.

Throughout the world today, there are growing numbers of Muslims who are beginning to reflect seriously upon the teachings of the Qur'an, as they become disenchanted with present conditions in Islamic societies. As this reflection deepens, it is likely to lead to the realization that the supreme task entrusted to human beings by God -- that of being God's deputies on earth -- can only be accomplished by establishing justice, which the Qur'an regards as a necessary prerequisite for authentic peace. Without eliminating the inequalities and injustices that pervade the personal and collective lives of human beings, it is not possible to talk about genuine peace in Quranic terms.

B -- Is there a single Muslim world?

From the viewpoint of cultural and linguistic differences, one can say that the Muslim world is neither monolithic nor ubiquitous. But after centuries of colonial rule, the struggle to find its own authentic Islamic self-identity and common purpose in both the political and social realms is a common bond. This struggle is fraught with many obstacles, some external, and some internal.

Since the 19th century and earlier, external Western intrusions in the form of political, military and economic interference have stifled the Muslim world's energy and continuously diverted its focus away from much-needed internal political, social, economic and educational reforms. Such reforms are vital in order to build democratic institutions, maintain civil societies, create economic equity, ensure human rights for all (including women), and further the development of science and technology.

Key issues that have plagued the Muslim world since 1948 are; the ongoing occupation and resultant suffering of the Palestinian people, and America's unwavering support -- financially, militarily and politically -- of oppressive Israeli policies. This has created much of the unrest, anger, and frustration in the Muslim world. Even today, nothing has changed for ordinary Palestinians; thus it continues to fester in the hearts and minds of the Arab population and throughout the Islamic world.

One of the most damaging negative outcomes for the entire Islamic world of this unresolved occupation is that Muslims everywhere, including Canadian Muslims, are being viewed through the prism of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

Additionally, for the past decade the Islamic world has been experiencing the trauma of helpless Muslim men, women and children suffering. They have been witness to rape, murder, genocide, death, destruction, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities thorough out Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Images of raped women, slaughter of unarmed men and children dying from targeted shootings has had a very negative impact on all caring people of the world, but particularly on the Muslim psyche.

The recent death and destruction and occupation of Iraq have created further psychological distress and political unrest in the Muslim world. However, this time Muslims are not alone, for a great many non-Muslim people have also said a resounding "no" to this war.

As to the internal struggle of the Muslim world, it has been directed toward cultural practices and tribal loyalties, the very things the teaching of the Qur'an sought to eliminate. These preoccupations have impeded reform and the growth of grassroots movements for establishing indigenous democratic institutions and human rights. Therefore, much needs to be done in the field of intellectual and critical analysis of the classical interpretations of the Qur'an and of its traditions, in order to free Islam from the barriers raised by competing local cultural and tribal practices.

C -- Canada's Relationship with Muslim Majority Countries

Although Muslims make up a significant minority in Canada (numbering about 650,000) they have had very little impact on Canadian domestic or foreign policy. There are several reasons for this situation.

One is the absence of any federal government initiative or commitment to promoting a better understanding of the Islamic world; this could be largely rectified through the establishment of a Muslim affairs portfolio or ministerial department in Ottawa, providing a centralized venue for sharing information and ideas.

Secondly, Canadian Muslims are rarely invited to participate in policy discussions concerning issues of the Muslim world, or to sit on committees that develop strategies and programs that affect Muslims in Canada and abroad.

A third area of concern arises from the collective Muslim community itself. Even though Canadian Muslims are very diverse, they share common concerns over individual rights and freedoms, as well as about war and the killing of Muslims throughout the world. What they lack here in Canada, however, is a unified understanding of the political system and the importance of engaging politicians in proactive discussions on issues of national and international importance; this is a vital component of being citizens of a democratic society.

There is some perception in the Muslim community that sociopolitical theories such as the "clash of civilizations" and prevalent "anti-Islam" biases in the media have in some measure influenced Canada's foreign policy and direct dealings with the Islamic world. Nationally, many Muslims feel that they cannot make a noticeable difference in Canada's foreign or domestic policies, especially concerning Palestine.

Recent events, for example, have had a prolonged negative impact on the lives of ordinary Muslims and Arabs in Canada, especially among the younger generation. Since 9/11 and the widespread investigations launched into numerous Arab-Islamic organizations, Canadian (and all North American) Muslims have been afraid to donate to legitimate charities, because they have no idea which charity will be targeted next. This reduction of charitable funding is causing incredible hardship to victims of war and occupation overseas, especially women, children, the elderly and the sick, whose local care giving organizations rely solely on donations received from Muslims all over the world.

I have seen with my own eyes the work done by charities in the occupied territories, including: schools for orphans (especially girls); child day care; providing of school uniforms; establishing sewing classes and computer training for women; running co-ops to sell handicrafts; or providing hospital equipment. Some of these projects have been supported also by CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency).

Historically, the consensus among Muslim countries regarding Canada's policies towards the Islamic world has been positive because of two factors. One is based on the shared concept of mutual respect and negotiation through dialogue, rather than through the gun-barrel, sanctions or coercion. The second rests upon Canada's stated philosophy that true community means "all of us," rather than "us" versus "them." This resonates with the Muslim heart and mind, for the Qur'an emphasizes the equality of "one soul" in humanity and this has generated very positive feelings across the Islamic world.

Many recent changes to our laws -- especially those regarding charities that play vital roles in the lives of poor women and children in the Middle East -- have exerted great pressure and anxiety upon the lives of Muslims both in Canada and overseas. Fortunately, this has not so far negated the longstanding positive feelings and perceptions about Canada held by Islamic countries; even more so in the light of America's illegal invasion and occupation of Muslim lands and resources. But even though there have been considerable differences between the moral and political methodology used in Ottawa and that used by Washington in resolving international conflicts, those differences are sadly diminishing.

Historically, including during our era, democracy and rule of law have thrived most successfully in the West. But hundreds of years before the signing of Britain's Magna Carta in 1215 and its Bill of Rights in 1689, or France's Declaration of Rights in 1789, and the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, human dignity and freedom were sanctified in Islamic political theory, which is rich with many principles and institutions of public law. Here are some examples:
  • The concept of a written Constitution was exemplified in the Medina Constitution by Prophet Muhammed in about 600 CE.
  • Both state and the government are regarded as trustees of the people (Qur'an 4:58, 2:42, 42:38, 3:159, 4:59).
  • A citizen's duty to obey any secular law and government is conditional upon rulers obeying the law of God and fulfilling the trust of the people. In this context were sown the seeds of later ideas, such as legitimate "civil disobedience" and the right to disregard "lawless laws."
  • Government is necessary, but the state and the law are not ends in themselves.
  • Political and civil rights, such as the right to equality and dignity, freedom of speech, the right to differ from one's rulers, claims to private property, presumption of innocence, the right of due process, freedom of religion, and the right to privacy, must all be recognized.
  • Political and civil rights (or negative liberties) must be backed by socio-economic entitlements (or positive, affirmative rights).
  • The independence of the judiciary is a cardinal principle of Islam. Judges are required to do justice fearlessly and impartially, even if it must be rendered against themselves, their parents or relatives (Qur'an, 4:135). The theory of ijtihad, or independent reasoning, allows judges to be wholly independent in exercising their reason.
  • In Islamic history, competitive politics are discouraged, and ideally, public office should not be sought. It should be accepted as a sacred trust, and only when offered. Thus, hereditary succession is rejected. The process of bay'ah, or nomination and approval, is recognized as the legitimate means of electing a head of state.
  • A ruler is duty bound to conduct public affairs by mutual consultation (Qur'an, 3:159). This paves the way for a whole range of consultative processes, including the right of free access to information, openness and transparency in government, and the right to differ with one's rulers on issues of law and policy.
  • The common law principles of natural justice (the rule for fair hearing and prevention of bias) have their equivalent and antecedents in Islamic jurisprudence.
  • The principle of proportionality is also taught within the Holy Qur'an (42:40).
  • Judicial remedies are well known to Islamic public law. A qadi (or judge) who pronounces a judgment is allowed to reconsider it, either on application or on individual initiative. This is referred to as i'adah al-nazar (or review). Other courts, too, may review a qadi's prior decision under the process of al-isti'naf (or higher review).
  • Every citizen is enjoined to do what is right and to forbid or prevent what is wrong (Qur'an 3:104, 110; and 22:41). This paves the way for a liberal attitude towards the rule of locus standi.
  • The system of ombudsman, attributed to the genius of the Scandinavians, may have originated during the Caliphate Imam Ali (35-40 Hijrah or 656-661 CE) in the form of the Diwan al-Mazalim - a powerful administrative court that bears some similarities to the French Conseil d'Etat.
  • In an Islamic state, neither the government nor its appointed ruler(s) are entitled to any immunity from due process of law, and are amenable to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts.

D -- Current Developments

America's response to the crisis of the September 11th 2001 has substantially determined what Canada and the rest of the world should do. Canada, for example (like the rest of the Western and Islamic world) supported the U.S. war on Afghanistan, although Afghani people were not even involved in the terrorist attacks.

For more than 12 years, Canada has also supported American sanctions against Iraq and its people; these sanctions have caused tens of thousands of needless deaths and suffering among Iraqi children.

Furthermore, Canada has supported the United Nations in its efforts to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. It obviously succeeded in doing so, as attested by reports from the UN-endorsed weapons inspection teams. In this regard, it appears that the former Saddam Hussein government was telling the truth.

Our government's decision to join a number of European countries in refusing to support America's illegal and immoral war against Iraq to some extent has restored Canada's sovereignty and enhanced its position in the Islamic world. Although this decision may have created some difficulties with the Bush administration, these are surmountable because both nations share numerous economic interests.

E -- Recommendations for Canadian Foreign Policy

Hopes for global peace are currently under a dark cloud of war and destruction, thus Canada has a very important and strategic role to play in bringing together the common interests and goals of the Islamic world. This can be achieved through comprehensive foreign policies designed to reflect the best of Canadian values and principles.

Canada's foreign policy toward Muslim countries must reflect an understanding of the historical and religious sensibilities that are driving their internal struggles to solve ongoing social, political and economic problems, and to reclaim their authentic Islamic self-identity. This is a similar process to that experienced by Europe in its post-WWII search for its self-identity and social reform. There is, however, an essential difference between the Islamic and European process. At the time when Europe was going through its mid-20th century changes and reforms, there were no longer foreign powers at its gates threatening to loot its land or natural resources, or meddle in its internal affairs.

Canada's foreign policy toward the Muslim world should include clear directives to engage in dialogue with Muslims intellectuals and scholars here at home, as well as in Islamic countries, in order to accelerate the exchange of ideas, skills, knowledge and experience that would facilitate constructing or rebuilding civil societies and democracies that embrace diversity and plurality.

There is much that Canadians do not understand about Islam and Muslims, thus public education is a vital tool for promoting harmony, peace and human rights. Through education, Canada's security concerns can be addressed by promoting social justice, both at home and abroad, and resolving conflicts based upon the principles and morals of natural justice, which are the best guarantee for achieving global security. Therefore, Canada's international status at this point in history would be potentially very effective if our government were to take the initiative in launching an international diplomatic effort to bring about peace with justice in Palestine and Iraq and to help Muslim countries develop civil society, human rights, and grassroots efforts for bringing about genuine reform.

In conclusion, we would urge the Committee to refer also to the CIC's related position paper, "A Dialogue on Foreign Policy," recently presented to the Hon. Bill Graham, Minister of Foreign Affairs, which the Committee has a copy.

Additionally, the Committee is invited to consult our web page which contains up-to-date information and a number of research papers and articles pertaining to current issues in Islam.

Respectfully submitted by:

Mrs. Wahida C. Valiante,
National vice-president,
Canadian Islamic Congress