Issues in Islam – OIC Hosts Symposium in Toronto
By Faisal Kutty – About 150 delegates from Canada, the U.S., Europe and the Middle East gathered in Toronto from Oct. 12 to 14 to participate in the first-ever Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Symposium in Canada.
The invitation-only conference, jointly-sponsored by the OIC, the Libya-based World Islamic Call Society, and the Toronto and Region Islamic Congregation (TARIC), attracted leading North American Muslim activists, scholars and intellectuals to address the topic: “Islam and the West Toward Dialogue and Understanding.”
The aim of the meeting was to set the stage for dialogue between Muslims and others. Haroon Salamat, chairman of TARIC, says Toronto was selected because organizers “look at Toronto as a city where there is more enlightenment in terms of relations between non-Muslims and Muslims.”
Dr. Ahmad Sakr, president of the Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, told delegates that there were many misunderstandings about Islam and Muslims. This was echoed by other speakers at the meeting. Speaking at a press conference, His Excellency Dr. Hamid Algabid, secretary-general of the OIC, said that the misunderstandings arise from ignorance and from historical reasons.
The OIC sponsored the conference as part of its mission to increase understanding and communication between Muslims and non-Muslims. According to the secretary-general, similar symposia have been organized on all the other continents.
The OIC was founded in 1969 to bring together Muslim states around issues of common interest. Today, with 53 member nations and 3 observer states, it is the largest cooperative organization in the world next to the United Nations. Perhaps the best-known arm of the OIC is the multi-billion-dollar Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB), which provides loans and grants for projects and programs around the globe.
TARIC, another sponsor of the event, serves more than 2,000 families in the greater Toronto area and is one of the major Islamic centers in Canada. It has made it its mission to reach out to the non-Muslim community. The third organization which had a hand in making the symposium a reality was the Libya-based World Islamic Call Society. The Society was founded in 1982 with the mandate of taking the message of Islam to all corners of the world.
The Society’s secretary-general, Dr. Mohammed Sherif, who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, was denied a visa to attend the symposium.
The aim was to set the stage for dialogue between Muslims and others.
Some delegates and speakers took the opportunity to question the OIC and Muslim diplomats in attendance. A participant asked Dr. Algabid what steps the OIC had taken in response to the killing of Muslims by Israeli soldiers over the tunnel issue. Dr. Algabid, a former prime minister of Niger, replied that the organization had done everything within its mandate, which is limited to “political and diplomatic” activities. Egyptian Ambassador to Canada Mahmoud Farghal came to the secretary-general’s aid and said that “there will be no compromise on Jerusalem.” He added that “Israelis cannot decide the status of Jerusalem unilaterally.”
Eric Margolis, contributing foreign editor of the Toronto Sun, blasted the inaction and impotence of the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world. He rhetorically asked what Muslim nations are doing when Muslims are killed in Bosnia, Kashmir, Palestine, etc. The columnist, whose parents hail from Albania, suggested it was time for Muslims to take a stand and use their political and economic leverage to protect their own.
“How can you expect to get respect from the West, when you don’t even respect yourself?” Margolis asked. He concluded by advising that “better relations with the West is a worthy goal, but even worthier and far more urgent is better relations between Muslims.”
Overall, delegates thought that the symposium was a positive first step toward bridging the gap between Islam and the West by educating. “Education is expensive, but ignorance is far more expensive,” noted Dr. Sakr. The idea was elaborated upon by executive director Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, DC. Awad spoke about the importance of Muslims engaging in an all-out public relations campaign to educate the media. He called on Muslim leadership to put as much effort into public relations as it does to build schools, mosques and cemeteries.
Abdisalam Abdulkader, executive director of the Somali Youth Association of Toronto (SOYAT), told the Washington Report that the symposium was “successful in communicating the true picture of Islam.” He felt, however, that to have maximum effect, the conference should have been open to the greater community of Muslims and non-Muslims.
Other speakers at the three-day function included: Dr. Jamal Badawi, professor at St. Mary’s University; Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick, president, Islamic Social Services and Resources Association; Dr. Muzzammil Siddiqui, director, Islamic Society of Orange County; Dr. Yahia Abdul Rahman, chairman, American Finance House; M. Haroon Siddiqui, editorial page editor, The Toronto Star; Abdullah Idris Ali, President, Islamic Society of North America; Dr. Manazir Ahsan, director general, Islamic Foundation, U.K; and Zubeda Vahed, equity officer, Peel Board of Education.
Mahmud Ayoub, professor of Islamic Studies at Temple University, best summed up the symposium when he said that “Dialogue and understanding have a very important meaning and significance today as opposed to before when the relationship [between the West and Islam] was one of colonizer and colonized.”
Farrakhan’s Message of Atonement Comes to Canada
“Racism has poisoned the bloodstream of Christianity, Islam and Judaism,” says Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, adding that “if we don’t get a cure soon, God intends to wipe the slate clean and start again.”
The controversial head of the Nation of Islam spoke to a crowd of about 3,500 at the Westin Harbor Castle Conference Center in Toronto on Sept. 15, 1996. Since the Million Man March last year, Farrakhan has been on a world tour to spread the “idea of atonement, reconciliation and responsibility.” Toronto was the last stop on his tour.
Hundreds waited hours and were turned away because of lack of seating. Those who made it had to undergo extensive searches prior to admission.
Farrakhan’s message of Black redemption through political, social and personal uplift was well received by the city’s 300,000 Blacks. Provincial prosecutor Pryor Boras saids “There’s a good and bad side and I think his message is often misinterpreted.”
Speaking about the Million Man March in October 1995, in which hundreds of Canadians participated, Farrakhan said, “The day of atonement was called by us to answer a specific need in the Black community in America and we found that the need is worldwide.” The Nation of Islam, which critics say has no more than 20,000 members, appears to be gaining new recruits, and not just south of the border. Many disillusioned Black youth in Canada are attracted by the discipline and self-respect Farrakhan represents. “Something is wrong if we are 5 percent of the population in Toronto and nearly 50 percent of those confined for criminal actions,” he told the enthusiastic audience.
Farrakhan stayed away from making any remarks that could be construed as anti-Semitic. In fact, the 63-year-old clergyman denounced anti-Semitism and wished “members of the Jewish community a happy new year.” His wishes were not reciprocated by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC). “Even though today he was careful…this man makes hundreds of speeches littered with racist comments,” charged Bernie Farber, national director of the CJC. Farber asserted that the fact that Farrakhan made one speech that is non-racist does not absolve him of racism.
The CJC unsuccessfully lobbied Immigration Minister Lucienne Robillard to bar Farrakhan from entering Canada. Immigration laws allow authorities to exclude anyone who may violate anti-hate provisions of the Criminal Code. Officials rejected CJC’s request. Farber said that the CJC will continue to oppose any future visits to Canada by the Nation of Islam head.
Note: First Published: November/December 1996, page 46
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