Douglas Todd: Is Burnaby mosque a victim of its own openness?

posted on October 24, 2014

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Has the Burnaby mosque that Ottawa gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attended been a casualty of its own openness?

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun | Link to Article

Has the Burnaby mosque that Ottawa gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau attended been a casualty of its own openness?

The leaders of Al-Salaam mosque on Canada Way have for years said their place of worship is open to everyone. They welcome curious Christians, Jews, Sikhs and the non-religious.

The Sunni mosque, attended by roughly 1,000 people every Friday, has been home to food programs for the homeless, Girl Guide meetings, Canada Day celebrations, joint refugee aid efforts with the United Church of Canada, big-screen Canadian Olympic hockey games and an Oct. 2 event with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who wore a head scarf for the occasion.

As one of the chief mosques of the 60,000-member B.C. Muslim Association, the Canada Way temple was also the place of worship that troubled, drug-addicted Canadian Zehaf-Bibeau chose to attend in 2011 and 2012, at one point stealing the mosque keys so he could use it as a place to sleep.

Zehaf-Bibeau came into conflict with Al-Salaam leaders because of its openness, says religious educator Aasim Rashid, of the Muslim Association. When Zehaf-Bibeau argued aggressively the mosque shouldn’t let in non-Muslims, Rashid says the young man was urged to try somewhere else.

Unfortunately for the many who attend Al-Salaam mosque, it was also the chosen place of worship for Canadian Hasibullah Yusufzai, who was charged in July with travelling to Syria to fight with a terrorist group.

“Yusufzai was asked to leave the mosque if he was going to have extremist views,” Rashid said at a Friday news conference at Al-Salaam, held jointly with the RCMP.

Both Burnaby RCMP Chief Superintendent Dave Critchley and I can attest to the mosque’s commitment to engaging wider Canadian culture. We’ve been visiting for years.

“When the mosque leaders say it’s open to Muslims and non-Muslims, I can say that’s true,” Critchley said Friday after the news conference at which Rashid denounced those who took part in two separate deadly attacks this week on Canadian soldiers, including a hit-and-run in Quebec.

It was almost four years ago that Critchley began getting to know the people at Al-Salaam mosque, after he returned from an RCMP-related stint in war-torn Afghanistan. Critchley and his wife especially like the mosque’s Canada Day celebrations.

I have been to Al-Salaam to write about its refugee program and to meet people like David and Farida Bano Ali, who share Christians’ reverence for Jesus Christ, whom Muslims consider a prophet. Farida Bano, in addition, works with victims of domestic violence, including immigrant Muslim women.

During a visit for a Ramadan story, I also met spokesman Imaad Ali, who graduated from Trinity Western University, which is evangelical Christian. He invited me to join in Friday prayers.

I told him I wasn’t Muslim. He didn’t mind.

I sat cross-legged on the floor in the men’s section of the high-ceilinged sanctuary designed by Vancouver architect Sharif Senbel.

The women, in head scarves, were in a separate balcony above us.

As a religion writer I have attended many worship services — Jewish, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Sikh, Buddhist and New Age. I generally stand when the adherents stand, sit when they sit. I try to fit in.

But it felt different, more intense, to be shoulder-to-shoulder with about 600 Muslim men. Even though I could not follow the largely-Arabic sermon and chanting, the men would at times stand, kneel and bow their heads to the floor. And I felt it only polite to follow.

No one blinked at my presence. And no one tried to pigeonhole me at the end. My participation was all just in a day’s worship for these welcoming Metro Vancouver Muslims.

“We try to be liberal and open — and sometimes things don’t work out,” says David Ali, referring to the public fallout from allowing in Zehaf-Bibeau and Yusufzai, whom RCMP officers referred to as “self-radicalized.”

There is little doubt the mosque is open to outsiders. But when Ali uses the word “liberal” he is not suggesting members of Al-Salaam mosque, most of whom are immigrants, are not theologically and morally conservative.

Like most of Canada’s 1.1 million Muslims, many believe the Qur’an to be the literal word of God. As polls attest, many also accept patriarchy, reject abortion, oppose sex outside marriage and are more leery than most Canadians about homosexuality.

I’ve found many Canadian Muslims also hold political views that often diverge from the majority of North Americans in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Western-led wars against Muslim-majority countries like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.

Rashid was put on the spot over such views on Friday. When a reporter asked him if the mosque’s leaders always report fellow Muslims to the RCMP when they air controversial political opinions, he stood up for openness, for freedom of speech.

“Not necessarily,” he answered. “The expression of an opinion that’s different from the mainstream should not be seen as a criminal activity in a democratic country like Canada.”


Read more