Islam and Education in Toronto

If Muslims are to be integrated into Canadian society, they need imams whose training makes them familiar with Western intellectual culture.

By Joan Montgomerie | 2007-01-01 12:00:00

A year ago, twenty world renowned experts were appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to explore ways of addressing the increasing polarization between Muslim and Western societies. The group, called the High-Level Group on the Alliance of Civilizations, reported back to the Secretary-General in November 2006.

They stated that double standards in the promotion of democracy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and events in Iraq and Afghanistan generated anger and resentment throughout the world. Within Muslim countries the repression of peaceful opposition and the slow pace of reforms also added to this anger.

The Group recommended, among other things, more effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also said that cross-cultural and human rights education was needed to develop an understanding of other cultures and religions. Social networks that support the integration of immigrants should also be developed.

Muslims are so much in the news, presently, particularly in foreign papers that I thought I'd look into how they fare in Toronto and, by extension, Canada. I have no expertise in the matter but just a citizen's and peace advocate's natural curiosity.

Listening in

In his great novel Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writesthat he has immense curiosity about the relationships between people. If a couple is fighting in a restaurant he would always listen in to hear what it's about. If they fight so coldly and quietly that he can't hear, he would call the waiter over to ask what it's about. So here I am, calling over the waiter to ask what's the buzz at the mosque.

I attended a forum in New College at U ofT about Racism and National Security. This attracted a large body of students, mostly Muslim judging by their dress and appearance. The atmosphere was peaceful but a bit depressed. Some students reported that parents no longer encouraged their children to go to activities at the Mosque. They might get into trouble or be stereotyped in some way. Rocco Galati described the court case against the alleged terrorists currently awaiting trial in Toronto. He argued that there was extensive involvement by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), including huge amounts of money, that could be characterized as entrapment. There was a feeling in the room of bafflement and dismay.

I look around myself at diversity in this multicultural city and see all types of manners and dress: girls in summer with their abdomens bare, young guys with skateboards and their pants falling off, business-types on the subway dressed entirely in black or beige, cell-phones glued to their ears, the elderly in winter, with no socks and threadbare overcoats, sleeping on the street, glamorous women in thousand dollar t-shirts, some women in hijab.

Which one doesn't fit the cultural mosaic? It isn't about headscarves as it might be in Europe. We're not fussy about what each other wears. It could be about limited, if actual, threat.

Who worships where

There are 70 Sunni (Traditional) and four Sunni (Salafi) mosques in Toronto. "Salafi is often referred to as Wahhabi, a particular orientation within Salafism. Most puritanical groups in the Muslim world are Salafi, but not necessarily Wahhabi," in the words of a "global security" website. In addition, there are 12 Shia mosques, two of which are Ismaili. The Ismaili tradition, particularly its dominant Nizari branch (represented by the Aga Khan) is considered the most socially liberal in Islam.

Most Toronto mosques conduct services in English, though six do so largely in Urdu with scatterings of Arabic, Turkish, Farsi or Bengali. Worshippers include Afghans, Somalis, North and East Africans, Indians, Asians, Indo-Caribbeans, Arabs, Iranians, Bosnians, Turks and anyone who converted to Islam recently.

We can't make assumptions about the relative importance and influence of conservative Muslim traditions in Toronto on hearsay evidence or ignorance. But what is of interest is where trained imams come from: it is evident that they no longer come as missionaries sent by Egypt or other Arab countries and don't receive payment from there. Only one Turkish imam receives a salary from "back home." The rest -- that is, the few trained ones -- studied abroad then came here as ordinary immigrants and are supported by their congregations.

Increasing understanding

Perhaps, as the Alliance on Civilizations report suggests, the polarization between "Islamic" and "Western" values could be about misunderstanding and lack of awareness of each other's culture, including religion. Looking further into that aspect of the problem, I spoke with Gail Allan at the Interfaith Council, who works out of the United Church national office. She sent me various excellent documents on increasing understanding between Christians and Muslims. The church has pursued dialogue projects for decades but its work doesn't always reach congregations. The current document "That We May Know Each Other" presents a view of the Koran as advocating peace and sees it as being read meditatively by believers. Like most scriptural texts, the Koran isn't easily accessed by someone from outside the Islamic tradition -- it is more meditative than instructive -- or by someone who doesn't have a good translation. Her document comes with a group leaders' kit and has neat exercises such as "guess which book these quotations come from, the Bible or the Koran." You'll get half of it wrong! She also has a great bibliography, which you can request.

I next spoke with Imam Abu Patel from a mosque in Scarborough. (He was just winding up his election campaign for a city council seat. Not successful but paving the way for the next attempt!) He has spent many years on the police chiefs' advisory council and loves to be involved in civic and social affairs. He is proud that Muslims have a remarkably low crime record.

When I asked him how imams were likely to address the issue of extremism or fundamentalism he replied that they usually, and from long tradition, focused on loyalty to country, emphasizing public safety and responsible citizenship. He thinks "fundamentalism" is a misused word and we should be saying "extremism." I asked about the usual training and educational backgrounds of imams. He said it varies widely.

The training gap

There is a cultural inequality. Imams, and other non-Christian clergy, including rabbis, haven't had access to the same academic training which mainstream Christian priests and ministers get. They don't get a four-year BA before embarking on seminary training. Imam Patel said that 90 percent, likely 99 percent, of imams in Canada are volunteers (Christendom would call this "the priesthood of all believers" but it's hardly practiced). Only a very few large mosques are able to hire professionals.

Boards manage the mosques and make decisions on day to day operations. Prominent, often professional, men and women (yes, women) sit on these boards.

Imams have the ability to lead prayer five times a day and can teach children. Professional imams are all foreign-trained, either in their homelands or in countries with a strong madrassa tradition. This serves the people well in some respects. But it doesn't promote leadership that ties together social concerns and faith in a contemporary context.

Humanities Plus seminary?

A western-style linking of undergraduate degree in the humanities plus seminary training can do that (admittedly it doesn't always). I just comment on this approach, as I value it so much myself. I was afraid my prejudices might be showing so I asked the imams about it. But Imam Patel said he had been seeking the same thing for years. He initiated talks with Emmanuel College and St. Michael's College several years ago but so far nothing had come of it.

Imam Slimi of the IMO agrees with all of this, saying there are fewer that 10 full-time imams for 450,000 people in the GTA. The absence of religious authority results in disunity, he says, but the community is not mature enough to support religious studies. Like Imam Patel he has tried to find support for broader, western-style education for imams, to no avail.

There is one Canadian imam currently working toward a PhD in Montreal, and there seem to be a good number of women, as well as men, from Islamic backgrounds doing doctorates in religious studies. Valuing higher education certainly isn't the problem. It's the linking of theology and general humanities programs to seminary training to financial considerations, such as how mosques are able to pay their professional staff, that is the concern. Some Muslim communities may be well-off financially but immigrants to Canada come from all parts of the world, and those from Kosovo or parts of Pakistan may be struggling.

The west has well-endowed divinity schools on the campuses of its major universities. They were built nearly a century ago by affluent churches. Big industrialists in the various congregations could afford to donate a lot. Through the 1970s and 1980s, students got government support. No divinity student of my generation or the one before me paid for their education, but, like students in other disciplines, they now have to pay.

There is nothing similar for imams. I want to link social justice to a religious concern. I think in the interest of "cross-cultural education and greater understanding of other religions and cultures" and in "supporting the integration of immigrants", there should be public money offered to imams to access broader, higher education.

Trust-building moves

Clerics from some other faith groups, e.g. Conservative and Reform rabbis, Russian Orthodox priests, and Unitarians, have to study south of the border. Their communities aren't large enough to set up seminaries in Canada. But these communities are not at risk, not feeling estranged. Muslims, on the other hand, are made to feel at odds with the surrounding culture and some have travel restrictions. It could be a very useful and trust-building move on Canada's part to underwrite the education they need to integrate more fully.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that imams be paid as civil servants and be fully trained at state expense as happens in Turkey and as some European countries are contemplating. Northern European countries like Denmark and Germany were accustomed to that a century ago, making Lutheran pastors servants of the state. Kierkegaard railed against it, saying it made the church complacent. If every Dane were a Christian simply by being born in Denmark then being Christian wouldn't mean very much. He felt religion, to be passionate and true, must necessarily "stand over against" culture and the state. And I'd rather lose my ability to type than be disloyal to Kierkegaard. So no ongoing state support, but really good start-up funds to get a degree-granting Islamic seminary going, would be useful and realizable.

In Canada this possibility is muddied a bit by education coming under provincial jurisdiction while multiculturalism, security and the integration of immigrants are federal matters. But that can be sorted out, for instance, by employing federal start-up funds but requiring provincial approval. The provincial approval is needed to certify creditable academic courses, at least if this came under University of Toronto's umbrella or other degree-granting institutions. There are academics who now teach, for example, Arabic hermeneutics of the Koran in Christian divinity schools in the United States. If such people taught here, they would certainly be providing "creditable academic courses."

Then independent, trained clerics can command the salaries they need. This could be broached, perhaps, through the multiculturalism section of the New Cities Initiative within Infrastructure Canada.

If there are hundreds of millions of dollars for security cameras everywhere, surely there must be a few hundreds of thousands for the professional training and integration of imams.

Joan Montgomerie is a psychotherapist and member of Peace's editorial board.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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