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A Muslim house divided

Canadian Muslim organizations are anything but unified -- something the United Church must face

By Sabitri Ghosh

Congregational study groups who delve into That We May Know Each Other, the United Church's 2004 report on Islam, close their session on Shariah law and jihad by invoking the prayer of St. Francis: "Grant that we may seek . . . not so much to be understood as to understand."

It's a sentiment that comes up repeatedly in the United Church's interfaith work with Canada's Islamic community. "We commit ourselves to try to understand people as they want to be understood, to know people as they want to be known, and to hear their perspectives," says Gail Allan, the General Council's program officer for inter-church and interfaith relations. But trying to understand may be the easy part: for the United Church, knowing where to turn to get the perspectives of Canada's 788,000 Muslims is proving the greater challenge. Part of the difficulty has to do with deep divisions among Muslim organizations themselves.

"It is very difficult to name one Muslim organization that can answer on behalf of all Canadian Muslims," says Wahida Valiante, vice-president of the 14-year-old Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC). "There is such a diversity of opinion on everything from who is moderate, liberal, progressive, reformed, born-again to orthodox, traditional. . . . However, the majority of Canadian Muslims sit right in the middle."

That's where the CIC, Canada's largest Muslim organization, publicly positions itself. On matters of dogma, it adheres to traditional Islam. On public policy and foreign affairs, it champions Umma -- the idea of a unified Islamic world -- consistently and sometimes controversially. In 2004, it found itself in the national spotlight after president Mohamed Elmasry made comments that were widely deemed to be condoning attacks on Israeli civilians. (He denies the charge.)

A year before the media firestorm, the CIC issued an advisory cautioning people not to confuse it with the recently created Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC). But anyone who knows anything about its Toronto-based counterpart would be hard-pressed to mistake the two.

In its short existence, the devoutly secular MCC has clashed with the CIC over allowing Shariah law in Ontario family courts and public funding for private religious schools -- both of which it emphatically opposes. Its core tenet is separation of religion and state. "Most Muslims who come here want to live in a secular society," insists the MCC's founder, Tarek Fateh, "but there are immense pressures on them not to admit that." As part of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, the United Church collaborated with the CIC to help Ontarians living in poverty. And, during the debate on same-sex marriage, it joined forces with the MCC to support gay and lesbian couples who wished to wed. "There aren't formal dialogue relationships or anything like that," Allan explains. "It really does depend on the issue."

The United Church meets more formally with the CIC and the MCC on the National Muslim-Christian Liaison Committee. Representatives from the committee, which also includes about a dozen other Islamic and Christian groups, worked closely with the Inter-Church and Interfaith Committee in preparing That We May Know Each Other. Based on its recommendations, commissioners at the 2006 General Council endorsed a statement affirming that "God is creatively at work in the life of Muslims" and acknowledging "the prophetic witness" of Muhammad. The CIC hailed the report and subsequent General Council statement as "a milestone in interfaith relations in this country." As Valiante observes, the United Church is not just reaching out to Muslims but also embracing them as spiritual kin. "I am sure in theology there are divergent views, yet The United Church of Canada is the only church that recognizes that Muslims worship also the same God as Christians."

Furthermore, she notes, the United Church shares the concerns of the CIC's constituency on many temporal matters as well, including "the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Canadians dying in Afghanistan, security certificates and so forth." The MCC, on the other hand, regards the liaison committee with skepticism. Some of its Muslim members are resolutely anti-Christian, Fateh says. The MCC greeted That We May Know Each Other with little enthusiasm. "It's very well written," says Fateh. "But who wants to know each other? What are we talking about? . . . It's doing like a project chart, ticking off boxes -- `done, done, done' -- and any time I've seen where you want to have a meaningful dialogue where there's no hypocrisy or hiding, it will not be allowed."

Despite agreeing on a host of social issues, the MCC and the United Church rarely work together. An exception was the campaign for same-sex marriage. And that, according to Fateh, was by default: "Not one of their partners was willing to support them on gay rights, not one Muslim group. The only people who wanted to support them were the people they don't want to meet: that's us."

And therein lies the real issue, as he sees it: the inseparability of religion and state and human-rights violations in Islamic countries. "Will the United Church come out and say that there are Christian villages being attacked in Pakistan?" he asks. "They are so politically correct they won't."

Allan, meanwhile, characterizes the United Church's voicing of opposition to such abuses as careful, rather than tentative. "Our practice is to focus comment on human-rights abuses on those places where we have partnerships and can hear from the voice of partners their call for response and what is most helpful to them," she says. "In some cases, Christian concern is most effectively expressed through a broader body such as the World Council of Churches, speaking on behalf of the member churches."

But the United Church did, famously, speak out when the now-defunct Western Standard magazine decided to reprint inflammatory Danish cartoons of Muhammad in early 2006. In a publicly released letter, then-general secretary Rev. Jim Sinclair and Rev. Bruce Gregersen, the General Council minister for mission and ministry, expressed their "deepest regret" to Canada's Islamic communities and said the motive for publishing the cartoons was "simply racial hatred."

At the time, Allan was in Porto Alegre, Brazil, attending a meeting of the World Council of Churches that also included representatives from Islamic organizations. "There was an appreciation for anyone who was acknowledging the concerns that Muslims were feeling as a result of those cartoons," she recalls, "and, certainly, I experienced that." Fateh, yet again, sees the letter from an entirely different perspective. "When the entire culture of engagement is based on b.s., that's what will emerge. Of course, the cartoons were in bad taste, but I wouldn't ask anyone not to print them." He observes that the desecration of Christian symbols and places of worship in predominantly Muslim countries rarely prompts the kind of outcry that greeted the publication of the cartoons. Gregersen, the letter's co-author, admits he now regrets "that we did not state in the first letter that responses of violence or threat as a result of the cartoons was unacceptable. We did that in a follow-up release."

But as for the basis of the United Church's engagement with the Islamic community, Gregersen says it springs from much more than political correctness. "We come from a long history of acknowledging God's creative and redemptive activity in the religious life of humanity. We appointed what was likely the first full-time interfaith officer of any Christian denomination in the world in the early 1970s. We have constructed theologies that respect the activity of God in other traditions" -- within, he adds, "a deep understanding of Christology."

The United Church will continue to build on that tradition in its developing relationship with the Islamic community. In the process, though, it's also learning a valuable lesson about the political, religious and cultural complexities of interfaith work: while understanding is great, being understood is nice, too.


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