Billed as "Canada's largest Muslim convention," Reviving the Islamic Spirit – 8th Convention was held in Toronto on December 25 – 27, 2009. Having heard the reports that 17,000 attendees from Canada and the U.S. were expected, I decided to see for myself. I also wanted to know if the convention would stress spirituality, promote moderate Islam, or offer apologias for radical Islam.
The lecture hall, with a capacity of 6,500 people, was completely full and there were still many people outside. The sales area contained around 50 booths selling Islamic clothing and books. I looked for books by reformers such as Salim Mansur, Tarek Fatah, Irshad Manji, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to no avail. Similarly, none of the speakers I heard addressed the violence of radical Islam. This gross omission about something so current and important was telling.
While waiting for another session to begin, I caught the tail end of a speech by Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna Institute titled, "The Social Implications of Domestic Violence." Shakir did not defend the oppressive practices that are pervasive in the Muslim world, but claimed that Islam does not approve of molesting wives and children. Instead, Shakir alleged, it was merely the fault of uncontrolled anger. He urged the community for help and understanding with these anger-related problems. There was no discussion of universal women's human rights or the actual treatment of women in Islamic countries.
Perhaps as some form of consolation to the women in the audience, Shakir promised that if a man beats his Muslim spouse, Allah might take his vengeance out on him. The crowd apparently found this humorous and laughter ensued.
Near the end of his talk, Shakir veered off course by stating that although the former Soviet Union was bigger than the U.S., Allah destroyed the USSR because of the invasion of Afghanistan. When he warned America to be aware of how they treat Muslims in Afghanistan lest Allah do the same thing to the U.S., loud cheers erupted from the audience. As a Canadian whose country also has troops in Afghanistan, I found this to be most disturbing.
Next up was the panel, "The New We: Muslims in Future of Western Society," featuring University of Michigan Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies Sherman Jackson (also known as Abdal Hakim Jackson) and the controversial Swiss Islamic studies academic Tariq Ramadan.
Jackson, an African-American convert to Islam, spoke first. He believes that the Muslim and Western worlds are in conflict and competition, and that only one can end up dominant. Put simply, he wants to replace Western culture with Muslim culture.
He congratulated Muslim women for sustaining this struggle by dressing religiously and thereby taking the brunt of alleged abuse by being targets when out in public. He said that Muslims must prove themselves in each country and that each country requires different tactics.
Jackson expressed a desire to be included in American society—but not if any sort of cultural sacrifice were required. He said that adapting to Western culture would lead to being a Muslim in name only and advocated defining America by Muslim standards and imposing cultural and intellectual supremacy. He urged Muslims not to follow Western cultural authority, but rather to achieve their own cultural authority from the inside, as part of the system.
Muhammad redefined the society in which he lived, Jackson argued, and today nothing less than the future of the Ummah ("community" or "nation" in Arabic) in Western cultures was at stake. Muhammad's vision was not just for Arabia, but for all humanity, including, presumably, the modern Western world. Lastly, to cheers, he said that his primary commitment was to Allah, not to America.
His speech was a call to battle. It had little to do with peaceful co-existence with the West, but was an exhortation for Islam to dominate the West.
Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, spoke next and offered a seemingly more moderate approach. His thrust was that Muslims are already part of Western society and must contribute positively to their adapted countries. Ramadan encouraged Muslims to integrate into Western society and to distinguish friends from enemies. Although Muslims have criticisms of the West and moral values to offer, he argued that they must respect the laws of the countries in which they are living.
But Ramadan relied upon the template of Islam to encourage this progress, urging Muslims to work through the universal values of Islam to make things better for everyone. He encouraged Muslims in the West to adapt in order to create a broad vision and an intellectual revelation. He claimed that Muslims are reforming their understanding of Islam and that they should experience the dominant Western culture, which may, according to Islam, be correct in many cases.
Ramadan's sentiments were laudable on the surface, but his history of doublespeak – depending upon the audience at hand – made me wonder if he was truly the reformer he made himself out to be or a stealth Islamist instead. Considering his troubling background, including being barred from entry into the U.S. under the Bush administration for contributions to Hamas-connected groups (a ban now lifted by the Obama administration), a weekly television program on the Iranian government network PressTV, ambiguous statements on stoning women for adultery, and a history of anti-Israel invective, the latter seems the most likely.
While I did not attend any of the other sessions, I left the conference with mixed feelings about what I had witnessed. The atmosphere in the convention hall was friendly and welcoming, and as an obvious non-Muslim I was treated with nothing but politeness.
But the speakers' silence on violent and oppressive cultural traditions within the Muslim world was troubling. So too were the bellicose statements of Sherman Jackson, particularly as a prominent and active academic in the field of Middle East studies.
According to the brochure and website, the conference was co-sponsored by a number of Muslim Students Associations (MSA) from universities across Canada. Leaving aside the MSA's Islamist predilections, taxpayer dollars used to fund universities and campus groups should not be funneled into off-campus, ideologically skewed events such as this conference. Promoting radical speakers such as Jackson, who advocated nothing less than the overthrow of Western liberal democracy, is hardly in the public interest.