June Chua
Sheema Khan stick-handles Muslim misconceptions

| December 16, 2009
Sheema Khan stick-handles Muslim misconceptions
As I was interviewing Sheema Khan about the debut of her collection of essays Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman (TSAR Publications), The Globe and Mail columnist shared a truly Canadian moment with me.

"In 2002, my husband was making the Hajj in Mecca and I hadn't heard from him in a couple days," recalls Khan, a patent agent living in Ottawa, who is also a hockey mom and a Habs fan.

"He called me, and this was during the Olympics, and I told him the men's and women's hockey teams had won gold. He was so happy and he told his fellow Hajji's because they had no news. Well, he returned home after two weeks and the first thing he asks me is: 'who did we beat?'"

Khan's light-hearted delivery of the story over the phone ends in a gaggle of laughter. It's evident her ability to tell stories is top-notch and that's reflected in her book of essays, which explores the gap -- as well as solutions to bridging that divide -- between Western non-Muslims and their notions of Islam and the adherents of the faith.

Writing for the Globe since 2002, she says she felt the book's time had come.

"There have been many issues over terrorism and security but recently, the issues have been more about integration and I felt there was a rich reservoir of material we could put out."

Khan confronts anti-Semitism in her first chapter, deriding her fellow Muslims for their anti-Jewish sentiments. It's a potent introduction to her collection of clearly-written, well-researched, clever pieces.

"Canadian while Muslim"

Khan delves into the radicalization of her faith, the war of words on both sides that detract from the true precepts of her faith while also pointing out the double standards applied to Muslims in Canada (in a chapter aptly titled "Canadian while Muslim").

She goes into examples in which either rabbis or Christian clerics espousing anti-Muslim rhetoric have been let into Canada while at least one imam was barred from entry because of his comments against Jews and Hindus. Rev. Franklin Graham freely enters Canada from the U.S. despite his incendiary view of Hindus and Muslims, repeatedly calling Islam a "very evil and wicked religion."

Khan is proposing a smarter examination of how to deal with the misunderstandings inherent in the discourse about Muslims in the modern world.

She talks of neutralizing extremism through civic engagement and the need for Muslim parents themselves to educate their children about the dangers of extremism and "cherry-picking" from the Koran.

"Our biggest strength in Canada is that we have an open society where ideas can be debated and discussed and those who hold extreme views have to be challenged, especially within the community," Khan tells me.

She also warns of the alienation felt by second-generation Muslim youth, whose parents came to Canada seeking to better their lot in life.

"All the young people know, because they have lived in Canada all their lives, is the promise of a better life. Then, they face discrimination or feel it's harder for them to get a job and they compare their reality with the promise. That's when they turn to some other cause to validate who they are."

Allophilia as the answer

In her book, Khan implores Canadians to see their fellow citizen Muslims as neighbours, co-workers and "parents trying to raise families." As far as she is concerned any attack by terrorists is an attack on all. What's needed to keep Muslims from being stigmatized isn't the age-old Canadian concept of "tolerance" but of "allophilia."

"With tolerance, I don't have to know any thing about you but I tolerate you!," Khan lets out a hearty laugh. "That's not much to build upon."

Allophilia is a concept concocted by researchers at Harvard who claim this attitude fosters more social cohesion. Allophilia obliges different groups to create positive feelings towards each other based on the ideas of "trust, admiration, interaction, kinship."

"I see allophilia right now with the Olympic torch relay," Khan points out.

"I read a newspaper article when it first began in Victoria about Canadians of all sizes, backgrounds and colours there along the route. I went through it in 1976, standing in downtown Montreal as the flame went by. It was such an inclusive moment when you felt a connection with everyone else."

While eschewing the Canadian tolerance model, she does uphold certain Canadian customs, which she says, provides a useful method for understanding "the Other."

For instance, the creation of the CBC show Little Mosque on the Prairie -- popular with Muslims and non-Muslims -- allows everyone to have a laugh at each other. Khan says the show signaled a move into the mainstream for Muslims in Canada while also serving to "whittle away mutual insecurities."

Part of the Canadian way is also to engage in critical inquiry, which she says is missing in Muslim societies. In the book, she urges fellow Muslims to learn more about the Prophet's life and for women to explore the Koran to understand what rights they have. That way, extremist views which don't jive with Koranic teachings can be refuted.

"I give the example of my mother who was a Muslim in India. She never stepped foot in a mosque until she arrived in Montreal. Where she came from, women were forbidden in mosques."

Khan goes on to say that education systems in Muslim countries "aren't geared towards inquiry but passive acceptance" which seeps into how Muslims deal with their faith.

WMDs -- Women in Muslim Dress

She devotes several sections to the role of women in Muslim societies including female inequalities, the controversies over the hijab and niqab, wife abuse and honour killings. These are intriguing analyses by Khan and plumb the depths of her own decision to wear the head scarf.

Khan takes a look at how the issue of WMDs (Women in Muslim Dress) is treated in Quebec. 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour was banned from playing soccer because of safety concerns about her head scarf (fortunately, her teammates decided if she couldn't play in tournaments, then they wouldn't either) and the Quebec election commission's prohibition against Muslim women wearing the niqab while voting. I asked her why it became such a touchy issue in Quebec.

"Prior to the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, the Catholic church had complete control of society in Quebec," Khan deduces.

"It was the last province to give women the right to vote back in 1945. The memories are still fresh about how women were not given full rights and that consciousness is still there. Quebeckers are more sensitive to issues of religion and faith than the rest of Canada."

That's in addition to Quebec's own issues of identity and culture, adds Khan.

Now, back to hockey. It's intriguing to note Khan was instrumental in creating the Harvard University intramural women's hockey league back in the early 1980s. That's where she got a PhD in chemical physics. She was a left-winger and when I queried her about whether she still played the game, her response was: "well, my knees don't but I still play soccer."

Much like the author herself, Of Hijab and Hockey is both engaging and illuminating. I conclude with words from Khan's final paragraph -- no doubt, the purpose of her collection -- that "ignorance must be vanquished by knowledge and fear by courage." And, perhaps I should add, hockey.

Of Hijab and Hockey is available at your local bookstore and through TSAR for $25.95.


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