This is a draft of Canada's Muslims in Critical Muslim|36 2021

Humanity has always been on the move since we descended from the trees, stood up and started heading for the horizon. We have always been at war with each other too, and as we developed more technology, our wars become more and more lethal. Enter imperialism. Voila Canada today.

US-Canada were settler colonies, unlike the Asian subcontinent, which was merely raped and pillaged, with no real intent for Britons to settle and replace the natives. So while colonial Muslims began appearing in the ‘mother’ country as sailors, servants, students, soldiers as early as the 17th century, there were few Muslims crossing the Atlantic.

It was not till the 19th century that a few brave souls popped up in Canada, the legendary wandering Lebanese, who spread out across both North and South America, and Albanian revolutionaries (Toronto's oldest Muslim community). Once the native Canadians were pushed aside, ‘Canadians’ were de facto (mostly) British and Irish white immigrants. The flow of Muslim immigrants into Canada was almost nonexistent till after WWII.

Today's hijra

When white Brits see hijabs, modest flowing dresses, long bushy beards, turbans, brown and black fellow Brits, they think 'the Raj', 'Britannia rules the waves'. There is an undeniable history that brought these non-Anglo Saxons to this gloomy island in the North Sea. That doesn't necessarily mean less racism, but the logic of Islam-in-Britain is there. Not to mention the need for 'gastarbeiter' to do jobs whites don't want.

The ‘flood’ of Asian immigrants to Britain since 1948 is really just a trickle, and is a vital element in making Britain a healthy, responsible post-colonial society. As for Canada, the arrival of Muslims, mostly from the shambles left behind by British (or French, Dutch), and since WWII, the US, makes them natural allies of Canadian natives, who suffered even more than Indians at Plassey or in 1857 (if that is possible). So there's logic to Muslim immigrants there, a colonial one, though a very different one from mother Britain.

As for the problems of immigrants, race, they are really just more of the same old story: class-based poverty where government is uninterested in broad social problems, or in the case of Thatcher, intent on creating government that serves only the capitalist ruling elite. The 1930s and 1980s--2020s, the worst of times.

Imperialism just keeps on giving. Just as communism is the logical end of capitalism, multiculturalism is the logical end of imperialism. Reducing the world to warring nations whose essence is profit-loss with 1% owning 99% leads to the radical solution of peace, equality and world citizenship. Of course the struggle against imperialism does not have to aim for that equally extreme, communist society or for a corporate-dominated internationalism. The point is to recognize the logic at work and go from there.

Muslim emigres were traditionally merchants or sufi teachers. In precapitalist times, there never was any large-scale movement to Christian-dominant countries. The Muslim world was more advanced as a civilization, richer than the West, which was hostile to Islam -- dar al-harb. But that changed as the Muslim world was occupied and despoiled, blurring the difference between dar al-salam and al-harb, pushing the new casualties to seek a better life somewhere, anywhere that was less raped and pillaged. Now there are large muslim 'colonies' in the centres of world capitalism, including all British settler colonies, France and Germany. Muslim nations themselves are captive to world capitalism in our post-colonial global soup. Can Islam survive in this global dar al-harb?

I set about my weekly Food Bank ritual (a special 'once a week' in honour of covid) on Wednesday. Rituals are comforting even in 30-degree heat. A leisurely 20-minute bike ride across town, leisurely thanks to covid, but no one in sight, the barred gate ominously closed. No sign. Approaching armageddon? It wasn't till I got home that I realized it was July 1, Canada Day! Then it struck me, our national holiday has been so completely trivialized, that it is erased from my consciousness. Yes, post-colonial multicultural Canada really has nothing much to celebrate. Much like its twin, July 4, it celebrates rampant colonialism, Great Game scheming. In need of a major overhaul.

Canada Day celebrates the British North America Act of 1867, uniting Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, with Manitoba and the Northwest Territories hastily added in 1870, and British Columbia in 1871. This was a desperate attempt to forestall the now independent settler-colony US from gobbling up the last of British America. A precarious federation was patched together. Looking back a century and a half later, it is hard to believe Canada survived, as the US was quickly taking over the entire continent, including the purchase of Alaska from Russia just months after Confederation in 1867. We can only be grateful the US was too busy expanding west and south, leaving the cold wasteland to the north till it was too late.

The intent from the start for Alaska was to build a tunnel and unite the world by rail. William Gilpin, first governor of the Colorado Territory, envisioned a vast Cosmopolitan Railway in 1890 linking the entire world through a series of railways. Tsar Nicholas II approved a tunnel in 1905. Imagine if the US had managed to swallow up Canada and unite with Russia...

To any Canadian, that thought is chilling these days. Yes, Canada is as artificial as countries come: the land cleared of natives, poor British, Irish and later Germans, and then just about anyone who looked white (hence the Lebanese, Albanians and Jews slipping in), now faithfully parroting whatever the US says. It is hard to get emotional about being Canadian after 70 years of wholesale multiculturalism. The only glue, Hollywood movies and Chinese toys, leaves Canadians in a situation at least as precarious as in 1867.

Suddenly the the ummah, the coherent Muslim civilization (at least in theory), centred on family and worship, takes on a prominent role among immigrants and their second and third generations. All other immigrant groups focus on ethnicity but Muslims have an outsize presence in media, dress, Ramadan. Muslim organizations take French and English in their stride. The ummah speaks one language.

Islam is the only visible force with a clear civilizational platform, which, in Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (2005),  Ziauddin Sardar describes as 'liberal humanism', reaching back to the Abbasids, Mutazilites, and 12th century Ibn Rushd as the most articulate exponent. Muslims have never been imperialists, racists; they are natural allies of the oppressed, be they slaves or just natives pushed aside in the secular/ Christian rush to conquer and exploit the world as fast as possible before others get there first.

This is the lesson that Canadian Muslims can (humbly) teach their fellow Canadians. 'No force in religion' is the clarion call of the Quran, but also 'Islam as a powerful force for social justice'. This is a threat to those despising the moral call of all religions, and those intent on exploitation as their way of life in the dunya. So no surprise that as Muslims continue to arrive, grateful for Canada's still open doors, Isamophobia accelerates. Muslims don't want any part in the moral decline that they see, subtly making their secular fellow Canadians unsure themselves.

Toronto the Good

As the 2020 covid-19 pandemic begins to wind down, places of worship have begun to open. I attended Toronto's oldest functioning mosque, Jami Mosque on a sultry high summer day in July. Built in 1910 as a Presbyterian church, the building was purchased in 1969 by Toronto's small, still predominantly Balkan, Muslim community and converted into the city's first Islamic worship centre. Jami originally had a large cohort of Tablighi Jamaat followers, though the numbers declined after an influx of Gujarati Muslims settled in Scarborough, east Toronto, converting  the ‘Second Church of Christ, Scientist’ church into the Madina Mosque. Jami was saved with the help of the fledgling Muslim Students Association.

As I rode my bike along the quiet, shady Boustead St looking for a church-mosque, I noticed a short, stocky bearded fellow who looked equally lost. Ahmed, a recent political refugee from Egypt, was standing in front of the mosque, with no one else in sight, as 1:30 salah time approached.  Ahmed is Nubian and was thrown in jail in Cairo for demonstrating for Nubian rights. Any Nubians who can have fled Egypt, and Canada is their 'promised land'. 

We were clearly not-in-the-know, but finally found a small notice among the postings, instructing us to use the rear entrance, which required a long detour around the block. Neither of us had registered online, as now required at all mosques, in case of covid problems requiring later contact. The first prayer session was already underway. There were just 4 spots left for the second service and organizers registered us on their mobile phones. We were reminded: Didn’t you hear about Dallas? 38 infected at one go, and all mosques shut down again! We must have everyone’s email and cell phone number. (Woe to anyone trying to stay out of the internet age.)

Both services were 'packed', with 50 men and 10 women, 30% capacity. Our khutbah was about a sandpiper laying her eggs in the road at a provincial park the Imam was visiting, a nice parable about how we must respect and celebrate Allah's miracles of life and family.

After our prayers, Ahmed shared his nightmare experiences in Egypt. 'The Aswan dam destroyed our livelihood, our culture. We are despised as 'black' in Egypt. All we can do is try to stay alive.' Ahmed, an accountant who had worked in Saudi Arabia, recounted how he managed to get into the US as a tourist, and immediately headed for the border at Niagara Falls. His English is still poor after a year in Canada, so I marvelled at his courage to gamble everything on a wing and a prayer, and throw himself at some border guard's mercy. 

His gratitude to Canada makes him the real Canadian today, a hard working, devout citizen who will bring his wife to build a solid family for the future.  Worshipping with Ahmed was a fitting celebration of this Canada Day, proof to me that Muslims can be the sturdy glue to hold precarious Canada together. You can be sure that they are happy to build their lives apart from our imperial neighbour to the south. 

I live in Kensington Market, about the only really 19th century style community left in downtown Toronto. It traditionally has been home to new immigrants -- Jews, Italians, Portuguese, Chinese, now West Indians. Good Jamaican restaurants. I love the feel in that bit of the market. You're not so much a client, customer, but a friend dropping by. Two synagogues from the early 1900s when Jewish immigrants flooded in from Russia, but now almost unused. Just 'heritage'. Canada's history writ large. Or rather small, as Kensington is that rare phenomenon in the age of suburbia and the car, a genuine urban community where cars and trucks are barely tolerated. 

No mosque, but the University of Toronto nearby, and like all universities, with a healthy Muslim community and prayer spaces. When I studied Quran recitation with a group of students and paused for prayers, I remarked to Soheil: ‘We are the only people in the university praying.’ To me, that was a ‘wow!’ moment. I don’t think Soheil had thought of that.

There are 1.2m Muslims in Canada (3.2% of the population) making them the second largest religion after Christianity. In greater Toronto, 7.7% are Muslim, and in greater Montreal, 6%. Toronto has the most Muslims in Canada, but still no central mosque. As most Muslims live in communities in distant suburbs, worship there means owning a car, and the mosques are more like box stores with the de rigueur massive parking lot.. But many Muslims work in the financial centre, and in 2002, Masjid Toronto, became the only downtown mosque, taking over a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada near the central bus station. It is small and always full.

Importance of university Muslim presence

Pre-covid times, I frequented the Multifaith Centre at the University of Toronto for Friday prayers, as it is a stone's throw from my apartment. Prayers are always packed during the school session. Students are mostly science grad students, most toying with extending their visa and abandoning the thought of returning to a nightmare, be it in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan... . Though they become part of the (imperial) brain drain, I can hardly blame them.

Already, second generation Muslim Canadian undergrads make up the majority, with the occasional convert, both white and native. University of Toronto Imam Yasin confirmed what I thought, that prison is a place of conversion to Islam, often natives who have reached rock bottom and only find solace in Islam.

Just as Britain and Ireland have a vibrant Federation of Students Islamic Society, Canada and the US have their student associations. The MSA was founded at the University of Toronto in 1965, following the MSAs in the US, which started in 1963, with other branches now in all Canadian universities, and the umbrella Islamic Society of North America set up in 1977. 

These organizations have been under pressure from the start, ISNA eventually suffering a nightmare of legal cases starting in 2003, accused of terrorism. The 2007 case focused on support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Though no smoking (terrorist) guns were found, the cases highlight the close watch on anything Muslim. 

Starting in 2001, Islamophobia jumped; notoriously, a feminist militant attacking a hijab-wearer in a university washroom, rotten eggs on women's day, pushing the MSA to intiate Islam Awareness Week, and to found the jourmal The Muslim Voice. In 2009, the first female president Asma Maryam Ali was elected. 

The MSAs originally were given funding by King Faisal in the 1970s. The MSAs run courses in tafsir, host iftars, and have strong Shia participation. The Chaplaincy started in the 1990s and became a full time position in 2012. Chaplaincies have opened in University of Waterloo, Windsor, and Ryerson. This year, the University of Toronto Student Union donated $100,000 to the Muslim Chaplaincy.  

The current chaplain is Imam Yasin Dwyer, a Jamaican convert who prior to that was chaplain to Canada's federal prisons. Over time, more women became involved, the eponymous Koffler Multifaith Centre opened in 2005, funded by the Jewish 'Shoppers Drug Mart' magnate, for prayers, iftars and meetings. 

Reviving the Islam Spirit conferences have been organized each year by Toronto MSA activists began in the 1990s. Islam in Canada has closest relations with US groups. The RIS convention 2019 included speakers and participants 'from every continent except Antarctica', 400 enthusiasts, with most participants and speakers from the US. 

Held from December 23--30, it struck me that the spirituality was intense and thoughtful, unlike the secular Christmastime spirit on the streets. It felt like a mini-UN, a productive period of outreach and networking. Suddenly I was surrounded by American Muslims, probably half converts, even a (very odd) retired US marine, Mark, who staunchly defended his time in Iraq, swearing that troops were only there to help. He had just converted, abandoning an Episcopal theology degree. While there were surely informers at RIS, Peter was just too strange.


The main Muslim Canadian organizations include the Canadian Arab Federation formed in 1967, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), which successfully lobbied for a parliamentary motion condemning anti-Muslim bigotry in 2016. The NCCM also brought to light serious cases of racism against Muslims in the North York schools which the Ontario government acted on in 2016. 

The Islamic Society of York Region carries on the political activism of Kalim Siddiqui (1931–1996), co-sponsoring Al-Quds Day and other Palestinian solidarity actions.  Al-Quds Day at the end of Ramadan is the only Muslim protest across Canada, with city administratons always threatening to ban it under pressure from B’nai Brith and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the main Jewish lobby group. 

There is the Muslim Association of Canada centred in Edmonton, which is more Deobandi. There is a large Ahmadiyya community in Toronto as well as Bahai. And then there is Salaam Canada, centred in Toronto with groups across Canada, which ‘supports queer/trans people who identify with Islam ritually, culturally, spiritually, or religiously.’ A cacophony of voices.

In an op-ed in the Toronto Star, the NCCM pointed to the Keegstra verdict (conviction for ‘Holocaust denial’), based on Section 319(2) of the CriminalCode for willfully promoting hatred, as the precedent to convict Kevin Johnston, who was charged with promoting hatred of Muslims with such statements as “Beat the living hell out of these [Muslims]. Pin them down on the ground, and beat them until they pass out. And when they’re passed out, you beat them further...” 

Mohamad Fakih won $2.5 million in a libel suit against Johnston, who went to prison, only to be released due to covid. Lord Scarman’s call for a blasphemous libel law to protect religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians is already a powerful tool of Zionists in today’s world. It is nice that Muslims (all faiths) for once can benefit from the work of the Israel lobby.

University of Toronto's previous chaplain, Amjad Tarsin, moved on to Philadelphia. Another imam, Yusuf, a mixed-blood convert at SeekersGuidance Canada, was from New Jersey and planned to return. Already, there is a growing network of Muslims in North America, established and thriving, as a vibrant, low-key resistance movement against the woes of today’s world. People pushed into Islam by living in the heart of the beast, seeking guidance, as my plucky teacher-imams in Mississauga. 

Activism generally avoids touchy political issues, though in 1984 the MSA held demos against Israeli occupation of east Jerusalem. Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) was invited to give lectures on Islam in 1983-4. Rushdie became a focus for education in 1988. H. Rap Brown came in 1995 to talk on Islam and black civil rights, Sarajevo Mayor Tarik Kupusovic in 1995.

Muslim Awareness Week is the main university activism, but no with politics, an unspoken rule. Anti-Israel activism on campus is limited to Israel Apartheid Week and leftist groups, where Muslims can join in without drawing special ire from the JDL et al. The only political campaign recently was passing out a postcard to send to your MP, supporting Egyptian Canadian Yasser Ahmed Albaz, who ran an engineering firm in Oakville, Ontario. He was about to board a plane in Cairo on his way back to Canada in February 2019 when he was “flagged”, arrested and transported to Tora prison, described by Human Rights Watch as “the central site for those deemed enemies of the state.” Albaz's daughter Amal Ahmed Albaz said, “My father has no political affiliations,” but the strong antipathy to el-Sisi in Canada is surely being noted in Cairo. The likely scenario is that someone informed the Mukhabarat that Albaz was speaking out too loudly about Egyptian 'justice'. His arrest sent a chill through the Egyptian Canadian community. 

Canada has 67,000 Egyptians, many of them having fled in fear of persecution. It’s safe to say that no one approves of what has happened after the coup. Former Muslim Brotherhood adviser Wael Haddara, professor of medicine at Western University, London, Ontario, said Morsi's death was not a surprise. 'We had been expecting the worst for some time. ... There were many failures during the year Morsi was in office, but also many successes. The former have been amplified by many, the latter muted.' But while anti-Morsi/MB sentiment is fine, pro-MB sentiment among the Egyptian Canadian community is targeted by both Canadian and Egyptian security forces.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims deals with  contentious issues such as Quebec's anti-hijab law, which is now being appealed in the courts. Whether Islamophobia is increasing or not is hard to tell. The murder of six worshippers in Quebec City in January 2017 has left an indelible mark. Defacing of mosques occurs. The number of police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims in Canada more than tripled between 2012 and 2015, though the overall number of convictions over the same period fell.

Two high points of student activism over Palestine, both organized by broad-based secular student groups, where Muslim students keep a low profile:

1/ A mini-riot at Concordia in 2002, when Netanyahu was forced to cancel his speech. This was not an MSA action, but Concordia's MSA became an easy target for pressure. It made the news in 2005 when CBC reported the university asked the MSA to remove certain books (dealing with treatment of women) from its library. The university even  offered the MSA the services of the university library to help them through the process.

2/ York University has seen the most turmoil. The fight that erupted in 2016 is a classic case of Zionist blackmail and student courage. Students were emboldened by David Noble (1945–2010), a professor of history of science and technology at York, who became an outspoken anti-Zionist with his Beyond the Promised Land: The Movement and the Myth (2006).

Noble, who was Jewish, sued the school (really the Zionists attacking him) in 2004 for defamation, and won, the first professor in Canada to be paid a cash reparation ($2,500) for a violation of academic freedom. 

The simmering battle broke into the open in 2016, when prominent donor Paul Bronfman, a relation of Samuel Bronfman (head of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1962), objected to a painting “Palestinian Roots”, displayed on campus. Bronfman was planning to endow the hi-tech William F. White Center at York. “York is going to lose thousands of dollars of television production equipment used for emerging student filmmakers, and access to technical people. ... York University will be persona non grata at William F. White International until they take that poster down.” In January 2016, he ended his donations to York when his threat was not heeded.

Canada's Zionists have the country in lockdown much like in Europe and the US, and Canada's Muslims are helpless and are easy targets. In fact, the rising Islamophobia is exacerbated by the shrill CIJA/ B’nai Brith attacks given prominence by mainstream media.

Popular culture 

Arriving as a refugee from Egypt last year, Ahmed can't thank Canada enough for being open to him.* That gratitude is widely felt among Muslims, especially after Trudeau welcomed more than 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. Muslims generally are seen as excellent immigrants, and the quietism they show in terms of politics is part of that. Despite Quebec's anti-hijab law, Muslims in Canada must keep their heads covered as a collective, out-of-sight.

The darker side is the draw of ISIS to frustrated young Muslims, 47 of whom have been abandoned by their Canadian government, now languishing in prisons in Syria, the government refusing to take them back. The Canadian government's zealous support of all things Israeli is the other side of Trudeau's generosity. That the UN voted down yet again Canada joining the Security Council is a well-deserved blot on our international standing.

Islam is finding more presence in popular culture in Canada. In contrast to the Hollywood stereotypical Muslim as terrorist, an unlikely tv sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie, created by Pakistani-born Zarqa Nawaz, captured the attention of Canadians, first broadcast from 2007 to 2012 on CBC, and since then a hit around the world. Muslim stand-up comics, male and female, from India, Egypt, the US are fashionable in North America. Nour Hadidi hosted Being Muslim in Canada: A Comedy Show, part of the inaugural Comedy is Art festival in Toronto in 2019. 

As with Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century, Canadian Muslims generally look south for inspiration rather than to Britain. Colonial ties are too weak. US native Muslims, both immigrant and afro-american, and converts such as Hamza Yusuf and Yahya Rhodus are popular speakers at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference. 

I have found myself asking: how valid is it for Muslims to emigrate in large numbers to a heathen world, dar al-harb? My own understanding is that the entire world is now dar al-harb, capitalist, where competition and war reign supreme, including all but a handful of countries (Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea), which are attacked for their temerity.

Just as in the 9th century, muhajireen (emigre) Muslims have to persist in their faith and by example encourage people to at least be friendly to Islam. I.e., dawa. I’ve seen that happening in Canada with our attempt at multiculturalism. Muslims are prominent in their Ramadan fasting and celebration of charity through obligatory zakat. It certainly is a risk trying to bring up your children here. Will Islam survive the corrosive effects of in-your-face capitalism?

The situation in Canada is tense after the mass shooting in 2017 in Quebec City and the anti-hijab law now in Quebec. On the other hand, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and others allowed mosques to play the azan during Ramadan for the first time. There were a few noisy denunciations, but also solidarity.

Imperial Britain encouraged divisions between Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, the better to rule, and left a broken continent at war with itself, chunks of the Raj dismembered into Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, countries precariously uprooted in time. But Britain is still bound to the Raj (tea, cotton, riches stolen and incorporated into the seams of Britishness). Its Asian Brits just an incarnation of modern ‘greater Britain’. Muslims enrich the meaning of being Canadian when we confirm the bond that Islam offers, a reliable glue to bind us to our ‘host’ countries.

The energy unleashed following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 will give Canadian Muslims the opportunity to help Americans (and Canadians) build the case for Islam arising out of the US legacy of slavery. Malcolm X, who was both Muslim and Black, advised shortly before his 1965 assassination: "America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."


*Ahmed was one of the fortunate refugee claimants to succeed in using the US as point-of-entry to Canada. In 2004, the US and Canada signed a 'Safe Third Country Agreement', which tries to prevent this, to discourage potential claimants from coming to the US just to get into Canada. Canada has let claimants in and the US under Trump started to get tough. In April 2020, Ethiopian Nedira Mustefa was detained in a New York jail in solitary confinement and spent four weeks with common criminals, forced to eat pork, all because she attempted to seek refugee protection in Canada. The Federal Court of Canada rule STCA is unconstitutional in August, giving more persecuted Muslims a chance however perilous arriving in New York may be.

Receive email notifications when new articles by Eric Walberg are posted.

Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Connect with Eric Walberg

Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here

'Connect with Eric on Facebook or Twitter'

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

Purchase Eric Walberg's Books

Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here