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Islam Awareness Week: Natives finding Islam

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University of Toronto's March "Islam Awareness Week: Power of Diversity" featured talks highlighting nature, the trials of boxing great Muhammed Ali, and an festival of fine arts and food. The talk by two native Canadian converts was especially empowering. We first honoured the native peoples who once dwelt on the land where we were sitting, the Mississauga, Huron and Iroquois. Toronto (Tkaronto ) is an Iroquois word, meaning  'reflection of trees on water' or 'meeting place', and the Toronto Passage – the Humber and Rouge rivers – as a shortcut between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay. It was a vital link in the trade route that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior.

The first speaker was David Alexanderson, a Cree/ Lakota from Saskatchewan, who spoke about the nightmare of growing up native in Canada -- his parents alcoholics, his father violent, his childhood spent in 57 different foster homes, where he suffered frequent abuse by these constantly changing authority figures. Because his parents were drinking heavily during his mother's pregnancy, he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which creates severe behavioural problems.

David was out of the child welfare system at 16, which meant on the streets. He ended up in Vancouver, where at least the winters are mild. There was virtually no counseling, and he was drinking heavily (children of alcoholics are more prone to repeat this tragedy), and soon on crack. But there was a voice inside him which he started to listen to. One turning point was when he met a woman in an alley preparing a dose of crack. He thought she was 50, dried up, haggard, unkempt. He saw the many needle scars on her arms. "Why do you keep doing this?" "I'm trying to get the same high I got the first time." He was shocked and determined not to let himself sink so low.

He reached out to a Christian mission, but reluctantly, as the Christian churches had destroyed his parents and grandparents. He kept drinking, trying to get mental health counseling, but the waiting list for long term care was several years, and the one week drying out session would end, leaving him on the street again. He married and had a son, but his condition meant that the child welfare agency would take his son until he was sober and more responsible. That was an incentive, but he couldn't stay sober for long. He eventually had a near fatal road accident and his legs were paralyzed, leaving him in a wheelchair.

9/11 made him aware but wary of Islam, and his brother joined the military, intending to go to Afghanistan. David ended up in jail, where he read the Quran and Martin Lings' Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (1983). He eventually took the shahadah in Toronto, stopped drinking and drugs cold turkey. He began his life in popularizing Islam, dawa, going first to his relatives in the Lakota reserve where two cousins and nine others embraced Islam, including the reserve chief, Muhammad (Mackenzie) Sanderson.

David has plugged into social media for dawa, with his own facebook page dawahtothenorth, which has spawned other private pages for helping natives, spontaneous 'truth and reconciliation' groups. "My sleep schedule is 5 hours a day, from 7--12pm, because I'm getting calls at night, helping people in trouble with no counseling available." He recommends especially a youtube lecture "The purpose of life in Islam" by Khalid Yasin, which he credits with enlightening hundreds of thousands, and Nouman Ali Khan's video lectures. Khalid Yasin is an American convert from Christianity to Islam who lives in Manchester, England and lectures in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Yasin frequently travels overseas to spread his faith and has called himself a "media-bedouin," remarking that the bedouins are willing to settle wherever there is "water and shelter"Khan is  founder of Bayyinah Institute, an Arabic studies educational institution in the United States.

David doesn't pretend to be a scholar, but has a sincere belief. "You must have Allah in your heart. Then you will never be deserted by Islam." In answering to how Muslims can reach out to natives, he said, "Contact one of the native organizations and volunteer to help. They are always looking for volunteers." Another listener asked, "Why did you keep returning to religion to find an answer when you had nothing but bad experiences?" "When you hit rock bottom, there's only one way to look. Up. It was only when I tried to commit suicide that I realized I had to do something radical in my life. As for the bad experiences, I knew that not all religious people and religions are wrong. Same with Islam. There are good and bad Muslims."

The second speaker was Tamisha Mos, a Micmac from the Nova Scotia Paqtankek reserve ("in the middle of nowhere"). "My family was full of alcohols too, some 'functional'. The natives and blacks mixed in the Maritimes. Many went into the military as they didn't think there was any other option. One recent tragedy was of a returnee from Afghanistan who had PTSD, could not get help and shot his family."

Tamisha was raised in London Ontario. "The school was all white except for a few Muslims and natives. We hung out together. I took world religions. My friends were Muslim. Islam spoke to me more than the other religions." Her family were not happy about her hijab, but eventually accepted it. "It is important to go to your family first. Don't abandon them. They eventually come round when they see you are happy. The best dawa is dawa-by-example."

Tamisha and David both enjoy SeekersHub, a lively support group on facebook, not just for Muslims. "The trouble is most groups like this or Risala and mosques are far from anywhere," said Tamisha. David added, "It is hard to get a license for a mosque unless it is far from anywhere."

Tamisha compared the dawn and sunshine native prayers to the  fajr and maghreb prayers of Muslims. Natives have a natural affinity to Islam through their grounding in nature and innate recognition of a higher authority than man. Natives and Muslims share a common, unjust persecution in Canada, and are Canada's greatest assets. Together they can help transform Canada into a a genuinely multicultural society, where people not just tolerate each other, but delight in other traditions and find common cause in nature and humanity.

But this requires keeping up with our fast changing social environment. Both David and Tamisha regularly used "Sheikh google/ yahoo" for queries. The trick is not to be distracted or overwhelmed by the rapid changes taking place in today's world. It is heartening to see both universities and the internet making room for Muslims to practice our faith and to bring others on board. The University of Toronto has a Muslim Chaplaincy and of course a Muslim Students Association, which conducts three jummah services to accommodate the hundreds of Muslims nearby.

Crescent International

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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.

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