Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Dubai vs. Toronto: Part 4 - The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 1: The Myths of Dubai
Part 2: The Harsh Truth Facing Immigrants to Canada
Part 3: Living in Toronto
Part 4: The Islamic and Cultural Aspect
Part 5: Dubai or Toronto?
The Islamic Aspect
Around 5 years ago, my Dad and I were exploring the IKEA store at one of the malls in Dubai. In the middle of our visit, it was time for Maghreb prayers. We parked our shopping trolley outside the small room at the mall that served as a prayer room, made our abolutions, and offered our prayers - and then went back to shopping. Some time back, my wife and I were in Ganting Highlands, Malaysia. Right next to the casino, they had a prayer room where we offered our zuhr prayers.
I recall this because last weekend, I was shopping at IKEA for a kitchen cabinet and the time for Asr prayers was due. Even though there are many mosques in Toronto, it's not often within walking distance - you may have to drive 10 minutes. So we ended up going to our car and praying there. For many muslims who may have to perform abolutions, doing it in a public washroom can be a hassle.
Another important aspect of the Muslim life is halal meat. Halal meat, just like kosher meat for the Jews, comes from an animal slaughtered in a ritually mandated manner. Many muslims in the West believe that since we live in a Christian majority country, the meat is allowed as Christians are one of the "People of the Book" as stated in Islam. Some other Muslims, mainly those formerly from the Middle East in my experience, eat strictly halal meat. Some are even stricter, but we will not go into that.
Again, this being Toronto, there are many halal stores and restaurants abound (we even have halal Japanese food now!) but most fast food and other 'common' restaurants do not serve halal meat.
Since prayers and food are the most important aspects of a Muslim's life (and for girls perhaps the hijab if you wear it) but I am a guy so I will stick to prayers and food (and food more :-p) these ritual aspects of Islam are easier to practice in the Middle East and other Muslim countries.
However, Islam is not about ritual aspects alone. Prayers, fasting etc. make up only a part of what makes one Muslim. There is a lot more to being Muslim - taking care of others, behaving nicely with others, taking care of the elderly, the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the economically disadvantaged. Being Muslim involves taking care of the society and improving it by upholding the right and shunning the evil. Being a Muslim means to read, to learn, to better oneself and to think. Cleanliness is one half of Islam, it used to be said, be it personal hygene or spiritual wellness. Being a Muslim is about practicing not just the rituals but the spirit of Islam. And it is this important component that I find missing in the Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East.
In Canada, the culture is such that people are polite to each other. Due to our diversity, people are tolerant of each other and each other's personal beliefs. It's true - bump into a Canadian and he will say sorry! We respect each other's work (there is no shame in sitting next to a plumber or labourer on the bus - in Dubai there was strict class separation in a society that caters to the rich - this is much worse in a country like Bangladesh where a businessman will not even speak to the street sweeper).
Racism is a huge fact of life in Dubai. If you are brown, you can be sure of earning less than white person of equal caliber, regardless of your knowledge, and the white person will earn less than an Arab, who will earn less than a local Arab. Also, the amount of work done also decreases with pay!
I have a true story. A local guy I knew worked at a power plant. He went once a month to the plant - to collect his paycheque. When told by his manager (a British guy) to come at least one MORE day - the guy asked him - will I get two paycheques then? When said no, the Arab guy told the British guy (his boss, remember!) - "you have come here, we pay you well, so shut up about me and just be worried with your own work."
You can find job advertisements in UAE papers saying "UK/America" educated only and so on. One of my Australian cousins once applied to a job that asked for Australian educated applicants. When the Arab interviewer saw him, he remarked, "you are not a real Australian!"
In Canada, many mosques run soup kitchens and welfare programs that cater not just to Muslims but to everyone in the community. On any Saturday or Sunday, you will find lots of Muslims volunteering their time at these places. The Islamic Foundation of Toronto was the top fundraiser group for Sick Kids hospital. Many Muslims run for political office in Canada (we have had muslim Members of Parliament long before the US elected any Muslim senator). Muslims here are involved with the community. In Dubai, the mosque never raised funds, we never went out of our way to help the downtrodden (in fact, speaking about the truly oppressed in UAE - those labour workers - was banned). People attended Friday prayers, heard a sermon in a language they never understood and went back to shopping. Here, people will actually discuss the sermon (and perhaps even complain!) but Islam is thriving here.
If you go to any mosque during Ramadan, you will find it buzzing. I lived in the Middle East and it's a different type of buzz here. People here related to their mosque in Ramadan - it's a sense of community. In Dubai - it was mostly a thing to do because you are Muslim. Here, it's ... different.
Which brings me to the final part about Islam here. Freedom of speech. People here are free to criticise Islam - and Muslims. The effect this has is to make Muslims look inward, and see where the problem lies. Many of our faults are not due to Islam but due to backward cultural practices (such as forced marriages, status of women etc.) The fact that one can cause blasphamey has also caused Muslim thinkers to blossom in the West. The likes of Sheikh Hamza, Sheikh Yusuf, Imam Ziad etc. could never blossom in Dubai or other countries because you have to constantly watch what you say - for fear of the law. Therefore it is my belief that the revival of Islam and rebirth of Islam as a progressive religion perfectly capable of solving humanity's ills can come from the West. Even the Prophet of Islam, and the Caliphs succeeding him, permitted criticism - yet the Muslim leaders today are of higher stock than these illustrious people - it seems.
So if you can plan your prayer timings with your daily schedule, and plan where you want to eat (or abstain from meat if no halal options are there), Islam becomes much easy and a pleasure to practice here in Canada.
The Cultural Aspect
Not much to say on the cultural aspect, but Canada has an official policy of multiculturalism. You are encouraged to retain your own culture while integreting into Canada - which is different from the USA melting pot concept. If you read my blog you will notice that I have been a very Bengali guy in TO :-p always attending our cultural meetups and events - and there's a huge Bengali community in Toronto with lots of stuff happening all the time in Danforth. However, it's not Bangladesh, and yet - it's not that bad a place to be a Bengali.