Calgary group serving as positive example of the Islamic faith

In the last few months, the Canadian public has been awash in news about Muslims and the Islamic faith.

Between talk of the ISIS movement, acts of vandalism against mosques in Alberta and Quebec and the murders of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, the media depicts a clash between cultures and raises questions about the nature of Islam.

It was these events that inspired the Calgary Journal to sit down with some members of a local Islamic youth group to talk about the nature of their faith, their experiences with living in Canada and their own perceptions of the aforementioned events.

With the media’s focus on mainly negative instances involving those claiming to be doing work in the name of Islam, Canadians sometimes forget that it is only a handful of people who promote hatred, carry out violence or commit murder.

For Calgary’s Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at, which means ‘community’, these are times that call upon faith and love the most.

Based out of the Baitunnur Mosque, located near a busy industrial area in the northeast corner of the city, the Calgary Ahmadi Muslims have been trying to dispel the negative images attributed to their religion and themselves.

The Ahmadi Muslims differ from Sunni and Shia Muslims in their religious leadership. The Ahmadiyya community follows Khalifa Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad whom they believe is the fifth successor of Hazrat Mirza Ghulama Ahmad, founder of the Ahamdiyya Muslim Community.

The Ahmadi Muslims live by the motto “Love for all, hatred for none,” and emphasize that they have a great deal of respect for their Canadian neighbours.

“First of all, I would like to say that Calgarians, Canadians, are truly the nicest people I’ve ever met,” said Behzad Ibrar, a SAIT student studying petroleum engineering.

“I’ve been here for three and a half years and [Canadians are] the most polite, the best models you could say. I would say there is no problem. People are very nice and very accommodating.”

Ibrar, originally from Pakistan, is one of three Muslim young people who agreed to participate in a Calgary Journal group interview organized by Imam Umair Khan at the Baitunnur Mosque on Oct. 25, 2014.

Ibrar emphasized at many points that Canadian values and tenets of the Islamic faith, like community, compassion and peace, are in unison. The soft-spoken 23-year-old man was often candid throughout the interview, taking the lead at various times.

“Islam is such a complete religion. It guides you in each and every aspect of your life. Your relationship with your parents, your relationship with your God, what it teaches you about good and bad…why is something good? Why is something bad?”

Ibrar, joined by Danial Khan, 20, and Ali Shan Butt, 13, comes to the mosque to study the Qur’an with Imam Umair Khan and enjoy the brotherhood and camaraderie that remains a staple of their tight-knit community.Behzad Ibrar, 23, Ali Shan Butt,13, Danial Khan, 20, participate in a roundtable discussion about Islam and their lives

Photo by Brandon McNeil

In addition to regular prayers and teachings from the Qur’an, the mosque also offers youth a chance to connect with each other and build community through sports of all kinds, academic competitions and career courses.

Khan (no relation to Imam Umair Khan) a Mount Royal University biology major, agreed with Ibrar. Khan spends much of his non-academic time at the mosque.

When at school, he offers prayers at the university’s spiritual centre during his down time.

“Faith is synonymous with my daily life. It’s basically filling the gaps of my personal fulfillment,” said Khan. “It defines what kind of man I’m going to be and how I’m going to wake up every morning. It perfectly encapsulates the way I want to live my life.”

Khan said that most non-Muslims he meets have not fallen victim to fear or paranoia, using the recent vandalism of an Alberta mosque as evidence for Canada’s mutual respect for the Islamic community and way of life.

“The majority of Canadians are open, they’re loving, they’re caring, they’re the most compassionate human beings on the planet — we saw this example in Cold Lake,” Khan said. “A mosque was vandalized and you saw the community come out and completely say that ‘we are not going let fear and let this madman who has committed an awful crime affect our relationship with our neighbours.”

In addition, Khan has found solace in the fact that through his personal relationships he has worked past cultural barriers and religious differences to a place of respect and friendship.

“Muslims are not the only people in Canada that face prejudice. One of my best friends growing up was an indigenous person, and there are so many negative things associated with being indigenous — very negative and very, very false things. We actually bonded over the fact that we are widely misunderstood and through that bond we could develop a mutual respect for one another. I think that’s the best way to combat prejudice and racism.”

Ibrar said that the way Muslims are depicted in the news has made non-Muslims question Islam since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We can’t just stereotype 1.6 billion people by the actions of 30,000 people,” said Ibrar. “So, it kind of affects me when people say [extremism] is a ‘Muslim’ thing — when they generalize.”

Ibrar adds that those stereotypes can make it awkward when meeting new people, and that telling someone he is Muslim is usually followed by an explanation of his faith.

“It puts in your mind that you don’t know what the other person is thinking. I tell them ‘I’m Muslim’ and you don’t know if he thinks good of you or bad.”

The youngest of the Ahmadiyya Muslims at the group interview, Shan Butt, enjoys studying the Qur’an and playing basketball with his friends at the mosque. Shan Butt said he rarely encounters prejudice at school “because many kids don’t care about that stuff.”

But Shan Butt said that even children can be targets. Shan Butt recalled that while handing out flyers in the downtown core for a theatrical event on Sept. 26, 2014, some non-Muslims verbally harassed him and other Ahmadi Muslim volunteers.

At the same event, the Calgary Journal observed a white male in a silver truck yell profanities and raise his middle finger at the group of junior high and elementary school children before speeding off.

For Shan Butt, incidents like these reflect some of the skewed perceptions that exist.

“No Muslim likes being called a terrorist and from some of the media coverage that is basically the message being conveyed,” said Shan Butt. “And that is what the people start thinking — Muslim, terrorist — they think they are the same.”

Shan Butt said that when he is faced with discrimination he remembers the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Ahmadiyya motto.

“Love for all, hatred for none, it just makes me who I am. Love for all. It teaches me what I’m supposed to do. It teaches so much, it’s so complete. It’s like guiding me through everything.”

Like in Cold Lake, there are still some non-Muslims who do not understand that the Ahmadi Muslims promote a message of peace. It is those people that the Ahmadi Muslims feel like they need to help the most.

Through open houses, flyer handout days downtown and events like their annual blood drive for the Red Cross, the Ahmadi Muslims have taken what Umair Khan calls “practical steps,” towards informing non-Muslims about Islam.

The Ahmadiyyan Muslim Jama’at practice their teachings and events at the Baitunner Mosque. The mosque is one of the largest in North America, located in Castleridge, NE

Photo by Brandon McNeilThe Ahmadi Muslims also encourage and invite anyone from any religious background to learn more about Islam by visiting the Baitunnur Mosque in Castleridge, N.E.

In regards to those committing some of the heinous acts in the name of Islam, it has been widely noted by the Ahmadiyya Muslims that some of Calgary’s homegrown extremists have had personal or mental issues that may have made them vulnerable to extremist rhetoric.

Salman Ashrafi — who the National Post reported as the Muslim-Calgarian who allegedly killed more than 30 people in a suicide bombing in Iraq last year — was one such case.

For Imam Umair Khan, Ashrafi represents more than just a cautionary tale for the young Muslims at the mosque but also a personal connection to extremism.

Khan knew Ashrafi while attending high school in Calgary but the two were never close.

“A lot of these youngsters, they come from not the best background. Islam says don’t drink, don’t smoke weed and do drugs, but they have been involved in that,” said Khan.

“They are usually the type that have bad attitudes and start fights over small things. Eventually they come to a point in their life where they are like ‘I have to do something with my life, I need to change my life and do something positive’.”

Khan explained the last time he saw Ashrafi was more than four years ago, when Ashrafi said he was having relationship issues with his wife. The next time he saw Ashrafi was in news reports following the suicide bombing in Iraq.

Khan added Ashrafi had gone through a painful divorce, which may have provided the opportunity for someone to take advantage of Ashrafi and convince him to take his own life and more than 30 others.

“Now what they end up doing is they take that same (bad) attitude and put the name of religion on it and then that would justify them fighting and doing the same behaviour. Now to them it is honourable because we’re doing this for Allah and we’re going to go to paradise.”

It’s those isolated cases that have brought out the best in the Calgary Ahmadi Muslims, who use the continued struggle as motivation to keep spreading their own message of peace, wisdom and tolerance.

“A way of doing that is by reaching out and talking to other people,” said Danial Khan.

“It’s by inviting people to your house, showing people that ‘Look, we’re not that different’.”

“Sure, I may not eat pork. Sure, I may not drink alcohol…but, I mean, I still have compassion for my parents, I still love my brother, I still love hockey — go Habs go. I mean, we are so alike in so many ways so why put these barriers in between us?”