Naureen Aqueel


Reshaping the media narrative about Islam and Muslims

An edited version of this was published in The Message International magazine. 

It seems that every time an act of terrorism is performed in the name of Islam, reporting and discussions in the mainstream media and social media tend to follow a predictable pattern – almost as if there were a template that journalists and analysts pull out when discussing the incident. The media often gets its groupthink going on “Islamic terrorism”, “Islamism” and “jihadism”. A familiar discourse of linking Islam to violence unfolds and talk shows on television and radio channels and comment sections in newspapers and websites are inundated with debates discussing what drives Muslims to violence; questioning Quranic injunctions often specific to war time; and examining the existence of blasphemy laws in various Muslim countries among other topics.

There have been a number of studies done in academia which have found Muslims are often negatively portrayed in popular media discourse. Such negative portrayals, though in existence for a long time, increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. A recent study done by a group of social science researchers in 2014 titled “The rise of anti-Muslim prejudice: Media and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States” found that media coverage surrounding the issue of the building of the Islamic Community Center in New York in 2010 was predominantly negative and those exposed to this coverage had negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims.

In 2012, Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan conducted a study which found that negative portrayals of Muslims received more media attention than positive ones. Bail’s study also found that press releases from many Muslim organizations condemning acts of terrorism got lesser attention in the mainstream media than emotional messages from these organizations in response to acts of discrimination against Muslims.

It is unfortunate that positive everyday stories happening in the Muslim community rarely, if ever, make the headlines in the mainstream media. However, when negative incidents do happen and crimes are perpetrated by those who describe themselves as Muslims, the mainstream media are quick to pick on the Muslim or Islam association and promote a narrative about “Islamist violence” and “Islamic radicalism”. A study by Charles Kurzman in 2011 found that the kind of terrorism incidents by self-described Muslims that are reported in the media account for less than .0002 percent of murders in the United States since the September 11th attacks and .0003 percent of deaths each day worldwide. Yet, sadly, these are the stories that would pop up if one were to search for “Islam” or “Muslim” on the website of any popular mainstream media outlet.

Discussing the media narrative about Islam, Nabil Echchaibi, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a chapter on American Muslims and the media in “The Cambridge Companion to American Islam” writes: “Most probably, the suspicion of Islam and Muslims is also bred and animated by a media framework that reduces Muslims primarily to the role of the reactive, reinforcing thereby a perception of either complacency and indifference or powerlessness in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal religious force that is Islamic radicalism.”

Anyone familiar with the workings of the newsroom would know that the practices, news values and deadlines in newsrooms facilitate this stereotypical discourse. Stereotypes become the common understandings journalists turn to when making sense of events as they happen. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge fuel negative portrayals. Under tight deadlines and the frenzy that accompanies breaking news events, it becomes increasingly easy to draw on these stereotypes. Add to that a lack of voices to correctly represent the Muslim community and you have the perfect recipe for misrepresentation.

Muslims like any other community in the world have a number of positive things happening within the diverse worldwide community every day. Why, then, do a few negative incidents come to define the overarching narrative about the community? Why do discussions about Islam in the media always tend to focus on issues of violence, terrorism, oppression and radicalism? Why does no one talk about the incredible spirit of volunteerism present in the Muslim community? Why aren’t there reports of achievements by Muslims in mainstream society? Why aren’t there discussions about campaigns and new projects in the community?

Part of this can definitely be attributed to mainstream media news values and a newsroom culture that has been shaped by years of similar practices driven by stereotypes and misunderstandings. But part of the blame also lies within our own community. The fact is, very few of us step up to try to change this narrative either by engaging with the mainstream media or by producing our own. Some of the ways we can try to change this narrative include having discussions with and sending letters to those in the mainstream media; by providing the mainstream media access to authentic Muslim voices to represent us; by working with the mainstream media either as journalists, producers, anchors, writers, commentators and analysts; and by producing and supporting our own media.

Communicating with the mainstream media

This is one of the most common strategies Muslims have used to counter and respond to negative stereotyping of the community in the mainstream media. Individuals in the community and representative organizations have often written letters to the editor to be published or letters to media management to complain about the misrepresentation of Muslims in the media and suggest areas of improvement.

National advocacy organizations like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) have often issued statements, sent letters and press releases to mainstream media organizations to complain about or respond to any misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam. These statements have often followed events in the national and global news for example, the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in France and the Ottawa shooting at Parliament Hill, as well as responding to specific statements in the media or specific coverage in the media that was found to be biased. Among some of the aims these organizations mention is the goal of monitoring local and national media to challenge stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

In addition to national and local Muslim advocacy organizations, individuals have also often written to the mainstream media to complain about or clarify misperceptions about Muslims. As readers and viewers of mainstream media and as active members of society, we should be more active in our engagement with the mainstream media when it comes to identifying and correcting misreporting and misrepresentations about Muslims. When negative events bring Muslims or Islam in the spotlight, one role we can play as individuals and as organizations is to condemn these acts and issue statements about them. We can also respond to specific mainstream media coverage that negatively represents Islam or Muslims in general by drawing attention to problems in such reporting or commentary and clarifying or correcting these misunderstandings. This would involve writing letters/emails to various mainstream media organizations, participating in online and offline campaigns to promote awareness and respond to mainstream media coverage and interacting with these media to draw attention to problematic coverage.

Providing access to authentic Muslim voices

Some journalists and scholars, however, argue that this traditional mode of Muslim engagement with the mainstream media is ineffective. Canadian Muslim journalist, Nazim Baksh, a broadcast producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) wrote an essay suggesting a strategy of moving beyond what he calls this traditional method of “confrontation and accusations”. His essay titled “Beyond Flak Attack: A New Engagement with the Newsroom” discusses how this strategy whereby Muslims “launch letter-writing campaigns, file complaints to the media-licensing bodies or the Ombudsman, and initiate boycotts and protests” serves to “deepen the chasm between Muslims, whether they live in majority or minority societies, and the Western mass media.”

Baksh writes: “To get past this impasse Muslims must abandon a media strategy that targets journalists with allegations of bias, lies, bigotry, racism and prejudice. Such accusations are usually interpreted as deeply personal in nature and perhaps will, more often than not, force journalists to defend their reports, even when they contain a mountain of factual mistakes, innuendos, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Baksh does not advocate a complete end to what he calls media flak, but he proposes the strategy of establishing a Muslim equivalent of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) to effectively get alternative messages into the mainstream media. The IPA, which was set up in the late 1990s with the aim of ensuring that certain issues of public policy were addressed in the mainstream media, utilized the media’s dependence on a body of experts to provide analysis and commentary. The organization maintained a detailed and constantly updated database of producers, commentators and journalists at media organizations across North America and whenever there would be a breaking news event it would send out a list of experts that it wanted to promote to provide comment on a number of issues in the news. Baksh says that a Muslim equivalent of such an organization would be able to shape stories in the mainstream media by providing its own body of experts to the mainstream media.

A somewhat similar suggestion was recently put forward by renowned Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi on his Facebook page where he encouraged members to e-mail mainstream media organizations with the names of Muslim voices they think represent them. Qadhi pointed to the fact that the media often do not know who to choose to interview as experts and commentators from the Muslim community and most of the time pick people who have been in the spotlight often for negative reasons. “If you want more mainstream voices to be heard on national media, such as CNN, NPR, and others, then YOU the people must tell these agencies who you want. Rather than having some crazy fanatics, or people with strange views, or people who don’t even believe in our faith, represent us, we need to pressure these news agencies to put on mainstream Muslims who can vocalize what we believe,” Qadhi wrote on his page.

By drawing the mainstream media’s attention towards experts that we think represent us, we can try to prevent the misrepresentation and misunderstandings that often result from the lack of authentic Muslim voices in the mass media.

Working with the mainstream media

While there are very few authentic Muslim voices contacted as commentators and experts by the mainstream, there are fewer Muslims who work in the mainstream media as journalists, reporters, producers, editors and writers. In order to have Muslim perspectives in the mainstream media, we need to have Muslims working within those media.

When Muslims work as journalists, editors, writers, reporters and producers we have more chance of having the correct representation of Muslims and their issues. If we always have someone else telling our stories, as outsiders looking in, we cannot expect the correct representation of our issues. This applies as much to the entertainment media as it does to the news media. For many ordinary North Americans who do not know Muslims in real life, their only source of having any perception about this community is shaped by what they see in the media. If they always see Muslims as terrorists, ignorant oppressors and criminals, this is how they will be viewing us. Changing these perceptions involves working on representing the average Muslim to the average reader or viewer. We need the media to cover more stories about everyday happenings in the Muslim community. We need them to cover Muslim charities doing commendable work in their communities. We need them to cover Muslim members of congress and councillors and the work they are doing for their communities. We need them to cover Muslim sportsmen and sportswomen and their struggles and achievements. We need them to represent Muslims as ordinary Americans and ordinary Canadians and as beneficial members of society. We need ordinary Muslims featured in films, movies and sitcoms. We need to see more Muslims as neighbours, friends, store owners and chefs etc. in the movies and shows that are broadcast in the average North American household. And this would only be possible when we have Muslims working in the media who can bring out these stories and depictions from within their community with the correct perspective.

More Muslims need to train as journalists and work in the mainstream media. We also need members of our community who may be experts in their field like Islamic scholars, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, sociologists, psychologists, diplomats etc. to work with the mainstream media as commentators and analysts. This would include giving interviews as experts and writing features and op-ed pieces when comments are needed in their area of expertise.

Producing and supporting our own media

In addition to working with the mainstream media, we must also have our own media. It is true that ownership and established practices have a major effect on the goals of different media and consequently the kind of content they run. And that is why, even if we try very hard to engage with the mainstream media and even work with them, we will be unable to have a complete representation of all our issues in their proper context.

The mainstream media with their wide audience are not interested in covering the day to day stories of different communities. One cannot even realistically expect them to cover all the issues and stories of each different community in the world or a given region of the world. Stories that are important to our community, like for example, the opening of a new mosque or Islamic center in an area or a national Islamic convention in the country may not necessarily be of interest to the mainstream media’s wide and diverse audience. Therefore, in order for our stories to be told and in order to have a place where we can discuss and debate issues of importance specifically to our community, we must have our own media. Having our own media lets us have a platform to write our own narrative, tell our own stories, and to tell them the way we want to tell them, discuss and debate issues of importance to our community and foster a sense of identity and unity among its members. In addition to this, our own media can help counter stereotypes and misrepresentation promoted in the mainstream media and address specific cases of misrepresentation in the mainstream media. Our own media can in this way serve as effective alternatives to the mainstream media.

Although there are a number of such Muslim media in existence today, and a number of them have populated the Muslim media landscape in the past but have been discontinued due to sustainability issues, the need for more such media is always there. Muslim media like newspapers, magazines, websites, blogging websites, radio shows, television shows, podcasts and video streaming sites have performed important functions in the communities they served. They have given a voice to the marginalized, countered stereotypes, educated, informed and raised awareness about important issues, triggered valuable debates in the community, negotiated identity, fostered political and social engagement and simply provided a platform for a number of stories that would otherwise have not been read or heard.

However, many of these Muslim media that have existed in the past were unable to survive the financial and workforce challenges that are a part of the journalism industry and the history of the Muslim media in North America has been spotty and inconsistent with very few long lasting initiatives. That is where our second role comes in with regards to these media: that of supporting our own media. Why are Muslim media so inconsistent and financially unstable? Why do they find it so difficult to survive? Why do most of them close down due to “financial problems”? Without support from the community, these media are bound to run into such problems. Our community has a number of successful businesses and members who are working with major multinational corporations and those that have been blessed with many resources and skills. Why do we not support our own media by allotting a portion of our advertising budgets to them? Why don’t we support them with donations? Why don’t we volunteer our time and services to helping our own media?

Until we as a community take responsibility for our media and for representations of our community in the mainstream media, we will not be able to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims. It is easy to sit and complain and have armchair discussions about how the media is misrepresenting us, but it is difficult to actually do something about it. As individuals, organizations and communities we need to step up and play our part.

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hajj

Source: Creative Commons

Published on AltMuslim on September 11, 2016

I was 27 years old and I was writing my will. I was apologizing to friends and family if I had ever done anything to hurt them. I was thinking over my life.

It was an eerie feeling as I imagined the possibility of dying and never returning to my apartment. To my bed. To my books. To the fridge that still had some food in it that I hadn’t found the time to give away or discard.

I wondered how it would be if I died and someone came to my apartment and saw the rotting food – which would have rotted by then – in my fridge. I was angry at my husband for leaving tiny specks of hair from his freshly trimmed beard and head scattered across the bathroom sink and tub.

What if we didn’t come back and someone else came and saw this mess? I thought as I wiped it away frantically.

We were leaving in a couple of hours and my mind was in a state of frenzy. I was excited, I was scared. I felt spiritual, I felt emotional. I couldn’t figure it out. And I didn’t have the time to.

My husband and I were embarking on the once in a lifetime journey of the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. We were both students and we were making this journey in the middle of the fall semester in 2013. That meant we had a lot of stuff to deal with and wind up prior to leaving, some things we just hadn’t been able to get to – like the food in the fridge or the clothes we had contemplated taking, but decided not to, strewn over the couch.

Hajj is religious obligation that Muslims who are financially and physically capable must fulfill at least once in a lifetime. Because of the dangers and difficulties involved in the journey, the Hajj has always been a powerful reminder of death. In the past, people would set out not knowing if they would ever return home. Over the years, although the difficulties of travel and scarcity of resources to cater to the pilgrims have eased, there have still been a number of deaths in accidents and disease outbreaks each year.

It is for this reason that pilgrims are taught to make preparations for death prior to their departure. This involves repaying all debts or making arrangements for them to be paid, writing a will and apologizing to friends and family for any wrongs you have done.

And so, I did all of that. I was excited to be making this journey. To be visiting the birthplace of my faith. To be getting the chance to pray at a place where Allah has promised He answers every prayer. And to be one of the close to two million people who had been blessed with the opportunity to make this journey that year. I was elated. But that eerie feeling still gnawed at my heart at various points in the journey. I was scared when I was squeezed in a crowd of massive proportions when making the circumambulation of the Ka’aba, the black cubicle structure Muslims around the world turn towards in prayer five times a day. I was frightened when people started yelling and pushing when we were in a queue to enter the Grand Mosque on the Friday right before the major Hajj rituals began. The horror stories of people being trampled and crushed in stampedes that we had heard and read came crashing back to me.

At these moments of chaos and confusion, I also felt my concentration in prayer affected. I wished it could be easier to get inside the Grand Mosque and closer to the Ka’aba without having to deal with the unruliness of the crowds. I wished for a peaceful moment of reflective prayer right in front of the Ka’aba.

But as the days progressed and I became a little more used to the crowds and the confusion, I gained a perspective that I felt was missing when I had left home and when I arrived in Mecca.

Patience – that is the most important thing you must practice in the Hajj, our guide had said. In each preparatory lecture and each talk he gave us there, patience was always mentioned.

The Hajj is unique in that it is a journey where Muslims set out for soul-searching, seeking forgiveness and to be connected to God, not to a secluded area, but to a place where close to two million people converge. I wouldn’t say I ever got completely used to the crowds, the fear and the chaos, but as I sat in the Grand Mosque one morning in front of the Ka’aba seeing the hundreds and hundreds of people, of different colours and different nationalities all moving in circular motion around the Ka’aba, all part of a system – as if in an orbit, I felt a peace in my heart. Perhaps that is what it was all about. To find that inner peace, that concentration and that connection despite all the chaos, confusion and uncertainty. To find that spiritual zenith in the midst of our busy, bustling lives. To understand that everything is part of a greater plan, a system set by God. To come out stronger at the end of it all. And I raised my hands in prayer.

“Labbayk Allaahumma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. Inna al-hamd wa’l-ni’mata laka wa’l-mulk, laa shareeka lak

(Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise and blessings are Yours, and all sovereignty, You have no partner)

I would miss being there when I went back home.

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An edited version of this was published in The Message International Magazine.

Mosques and other Islamic organizations and institutions have never been more active and widespread than they are today. Yet the imperative for greater engagement in society, and increased activities to serve the needs of the growing community, have also never been more pronounced.

Numerous Muslim institutions and mosques have been built across the continent over the years. Muslims have launched initiatives like One America and Canadian Muslim Vote to encourage involvement in federal elections. Mosques like the Islamic Society of Central Jersey have opened their doors to those of other faiths in events like “Common Ground Connection”, others like the Ummah Mosque in Halifax and Worcester Islamic Center have held open houses and “Meet a Muslim” days to help clear misconceptions about Islam in the wider community. Individual Muslims in their own capacities have launched initiatives like “Meet a Muslim Family”  or “Talk to a Muslim” to dispel misconceptions about Muslims and Islam in the wake of Islamophobic statements and incidents. Mosques, Islamic centres and organizations have participated in soup kitchens or halal meal programs for the homeless and needy as well as running food banks and free medical clinics for those in need (like those run by the Muslim Welfare Center in Scarborough, Toronto and at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas and many others). Many mosques and Islamic centers have educational programs including weekly and daily classes on various topics as well as classes catering especially towards the youth in addition to organizing and coordinating programs for Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Conferences like those held by ICNA, ISNA, Reviving the Islamic Spirit and ILEAD promote education and awareness. Various Muslim media initiatives like The Muslim Link, Muslim Link, Message International, Islamic Horizons, Illume, AltMuslim etc provide a voice to communities, aim to correctly represent Muslim communities and provide an alternative to mainstream media.

Yet at the same time, Muslims are facing challenges that need to be addressed more than ever before. While many institutions are active in promoting engagement and serving community needs, others are not doing much.

“Some masjids are doing a lot of activities, some are doing nothing,” says Doud Nassimi, a professor of Islam at NOVA College who also conducts classes at the ADAMS Center in Virginia.

“I think the Muslim community is finally waking up,” says Azra Baig, an elected member of the South Catholic Board of Education in South Brunswick, New Jersey. “9/11 was definitely a wake-up call, but I think people have just gotten more comfortable after that. But I think with what has happened recently at San Bernardino – the terrorist attacks and the Islamophobia and anti-Muslim remarks by candidates for elections, I think people are finally waking up to the need to get more engaged and more involved. I’ve heard it so many times in the polls – when someone knows a Muslim, they are more comfortable regarding Islam and different aspects, but if their only source of information is the media, then I don’t blame them for being scared, how else are they learning about Islam and Muslims?”

So, while many Muslim institutions and Islamic centers are working to serve community needs in various ways by providing educational and counselling services or mobilizing the community for civic engagement, the need for more such activities in the community outweighs the efforts that are being put in. As many community members agree, while some laudable efforts are being made by mosques and organizations, a lot more needs to be done keeping in mind the needs of the growing Muslim community and the present socio-political milieu we find ourselves a part of today.

Below follows a collection of suggestions and ideas that I have compiled after reading various articles and speaking to activists and community members about what our institutions can do to be more involved and civically engaged:

  1. Create awareness among the leadership

For any effective changes to take place in our institutions, it is vital that our leadership be well-informed and aware of the needs and problems of the community they serve. Many mosque boards are made up of first generation immigrants or leadership that has not grown up in Western societies and therefore does not understand the problems faced by the youth in these societies and those who often work in mainstream society.

Many of them also “do not understand the importance of interfaith activities because they may not be as important in their Muslim majority countries,” says Asif Hirani, Program Director at WhyIslam. “We need to create awareness in the leadership of the masjids and the board and shura members. In terms of keeping our masjids open, we also need to change the culture of our masjids.”

For effective civic engagement and educational and counseling activities designed to properly meet the needs of the community, it is essential that board members and leaders are trained or those with an awareness and experience of present day Western societies are appointed to the boards.

 

  1. Conduct a survey about community needs

Many a times, the biggest obstacle in the way of any institution’s ability to properly serve the needs of its community is a lack of knowledge and understanding of what those needs really are. Without proper knowledge, any available funds are just funneled into activities which may not be relevant or that do not adequately serve the needs of the community. Each region and each community has different needs based on the demographics of the population that makes it up.  Upscale neighborhoods may have different needs from those that are populated by more low income families. Those with more third generation immigrants would have different needs than those with more newly arriving immigrants. It is important to know who makes up the community, what issues are important to them, and what issues and topics they would like to get more education on.

Knowing all of this can help an institution or mosque cater to the specific needs of the community in terms of designing classes or lectures, mobilizing support for and advocating needs at city or town committees or education boards, providing counseling services, and organizing events that cater to their needs and interests. Areas addressed in any such survey would include finding out about the demographics, income, household composition etc but also about what social and political issues the community considers important, what they would expect their institutions to advocate for them, and what they would like to be educated and counseled on. Surveys could be conducted via the traditional method of assigning teams to speak to and communicate with community members but also by holding events and meetings where issues are openly discussed, debated and brainstormed.

  1. Designate teams or individuals for specific tasks

Once a community’s needs are identified, tasks must be prioritized and funds and resources channeled accordingly. Depending on the size of the community it caters to and thus the amount of work needed and the resources available, the institution must designate either an individual or a team to specific tasks. For example, an individual or team should be made responsible for social justice issues and thus for representing the mosque or the community at city council meetings or in meetings with regional representatives. Another team could be assigned to deal with media outreach and so forth.

“I go to meetings and sometimes I’m the only Muslim over there,” says Rameez Abid, Communications Director at ICNA Council for Social Justice, talking about the lack of Muslim representation in social justice related issues like homelessness, climate change, anti-drone campaigns etc. Discussing how mosques need social justice representatives, he says, “I think one person dedicated to this cause can do it as a volunteer. If they can’t find someone to do it, I suggest hiring someone part time to do it. It is very important.”

It is important that an institution assigns specific teams or individuals for a particular task so that no one person or team is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities and so that interests, skills and expertise are utilized in the relevant jobs.

“Religious leaders have their own roles to play and they are already overworked,” says Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). “The roles within mosques and institutions have to be broadened to bring in more people who are keen in different areas of work and so associations and mosques can foster greater involvement because they often do have some funding available to support this kind of work.”

Elghawaby says this could include the mosque hiring and training their own people to help represent the mosque in city events or city initiatives or designating a team of media specialists to ensure representation and relationships with the media. Training could be provided by the institution itself or in cases where the institution does not have the relevant expertise, training can also be delegated to organizations or individuals who have more experience in the area.

These jobs can be open to interns and volunteers to assist the person(s) assigned to the job. Not only will our institutions be able to benefit from the skills and expertise available in the community this way but it will also be a good way to get students to fulfill their volunteer hours and internship requirements by benefiting the community.

  1. Build better relationships with leaders, representatives and the media

Muslims need to build good relationships with their leaders and representatives at the national and regional level in order to be able to communicate their perspectives and concerns to them. Maintaining a relationship like this would include inviting local leaders to the mosque or other Islamic events, having meetings with them and attending any events organized by them.

Talking about having these relationships with our leaders, Azra Baig says “it’s important because they want to hear from us and they do represent us. If they are going to support us, we need to support them on the various issues. We need to be there when they have their press conferences, their petitions, we have to vote and a vote helps – especially this coming election the Muslim vote is going to matter.”

Baig says building a good relationship with the media is also vital because “the media is also our voice”. This includes sending out press releases and invitations about events or statements from the organization when needed. Having an effective media strategy can also include following mainstream media reporting about Muslims and responding to and sending feedback when necessary. According to researcher and journalist Nazim Baksh an effective strategy for engagement of Muslims with the media would include making spokespersons, analysts, scholars and researchers available to the media who can provide views and analysis when certain events take place and when the media is looking for those who can provide commentary.

 

  1. Represent the community in the mainstream

Our institutions and mosques must step out of the traditional roles they are used to and be ready to rise to the next level which includes not just serving as a place of worship and spiritual guidance for the Muslim community, but also as a platform for activism, mobilization and advocacy. Being part of a society where Muslims are a minority, it is easy for our institutions to get comfortable in their small cocoon of all-Muslim activities having nothing to do with the outside world, but in the present age it becomes increasingly important for our institutions to step out of their own circle and be a part of the mainstream. This would include advocating causes that would benefit everyone beyond boundaries of race, ethnicity or religion as well as representing the community in the sphere of mainstream society whether that includes city government meetings, education board meetings, media, national politics etc.

According to Abid, causes that our institutions take up must aim to benefit the wider community in addition to just Muslims. “We cannot be isolationist,” he says. “In order to secure our rights, we have to secure others rights as well and that is part of our deen.”

 

  1. Work on a stronger social media presence

In this age of the social media and digital world, it is important to utilize the tools of the time to spread our message and benefit our communities more widely. A big amount of any mosque event’s audience or beneficiaries are lost just because of the lack of a good social media or promotional strategy. The same goes for the need to promote any civic engagement campaigns the mosque runs.

“Many a time, many members of the community are not aware of the activities at the masjid,” says Muhammad Ibrahim Ali, an Arabic instructor at Taqwa seminary and Bayyinah. “So for example the event is over and they get to know late – so it’s very important for them to improve their social media presence and not only to improve, they have to compete with the other organizations – even utilizing modern methods of media marketing.”

Our Prophet (saw) also used to utilize the technique of his time to get his message across to a wider audience, for instance when he went to Mount Safa to call out to people to deliver the message of Islam when he wished to invite the Quraish openly to Islam, knowing that the custom of the time was to go to Mount Safa when one had an important message.

 

  1. Come together and unite with other communities

Although each institution works independently on its own, it is vital that links be maintained with other institutions and that the institutions stand united on a variety of causes. This would also include sharing resources, expertise, information, ideas and personnel as well as funds and also helping raise funds for each other.

“Unity is something that strengthens all communities,” says Elghawaby. “I think that we need to come together at the local level for sure to find out what’s going on in our communities and who is doing what… how can we either replicate or compliment or contribute to these efforts on a professional national scale and in a way that the work that is done is not lost in someone’s mind, it becomes part of our institutional memories.”

It is important for organizations to support each other and to share best practices, see what is already being done and help expand on that in addition to working on areas that are neglected.

 

  1. Work with professionalism and put in concerted effort

It is important that the efforts made by our institutions are made in an organized and professional manner so that things do not fizzle out and die down gradually.

“I think the really most important thing is to approach these issues with a very high degree of professionalism,” says Elghawaby. She says one of the challenges is that there will always be well-meaning individuals who will try to do some of this type of work and that’s fantastic. But the drawback to that is “when an individual undertakes this work, not with an institution, then there is going to be the loss of the memory of what they have done, so there is no institutional memory to the type of work or relationships they fostered. Once they lose interest or once they don’t have time to continue their work, it sort of disappears so that is one reason why it is so critical to engage institutions.”

“I think it’s really important that this work is done with professionalism and with real goal setting in mind. It cannot be done in a way that’s sort of ad hoc. It really has to be a concerted effort.”

Elghawaby’s organization has recently launched an initiative called “Stronger Together” which aims to galvanize Canadian Muslims in every major city to be more civically engaged and to advocate both on national and local issues. The organization has put up a pledge on its website inviting people to commit to being more engaged. Once a pledge is received, the organization will map out all those interested in being more engaged and cluster them together in teams according to the areas and provide support and training on how to engage on various issues. Their first campaign will be about an anti-terror legislation Bill C-51 in Canada and will be encouraging participants to approach their local parliament members and talk to them about the legislation. This is a good example of how institutions can work to promote more civic engagement in an organized manner.

It is important for our institutions to learn from each other and pool resources, ideas and expertise to better serve the community. Our organizations must rise to the next level, promote civic engagement and meet the various needs of the community.

 

baby

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, August 16, 2014.

Mother-to-be Rhiannon Andrews ignored the slight cramp in her belly as she was preparing for bed. A week past her due date and expecting her first child, she awoke the next morning to a similar sensation, but carried on with her day. Heeding the advice of her midwife and doula, the 33-year-old relied on relaxation techniques as her labour pains began.

The next day, she felt a tightening of her uterus, but visited a golf exhibition with her husband followed by a two-hour walk along Dow’s Lake with her mom. By that time, the sharp pains were coming about every 30 minutes.

At bedtime, her contractions were 10 minutes apart, yet she fell into a peaceful sleep after listening to relaxation tapes and visualizing scenes of nature, colours and rainbows.

The next morning, her labour pains were intensifying so she rocked on a birthing ball to ride them out and did breathing exercises. At 9 a.m., she took a nap, again using relaxation tapes to lull her asleep.

For a woman in labour — especially a first-time mom — Andrews was remarkably calm and credits the relaxation techniques she learned in a hypnobirthing class she took with her doula Pia Anderson. Andrews is one of a number of women seeking greater control over childbirth and managing their pain.

For many new parents, hypnobirthing offers the potential of a drug-free way to manage the discomforts of labour.

The use of hypnosis in labour is generating a buzz with about 60 certified hypnobirthing instructors in Ontario and four in Ottawa. In Canada, hypnobirthing training has been offered since 2004, while courses are now available in 46 countries.

“I knew I needed to equip myself with whatever was out there in order to ensure that I had the birth I wanted — a peaceful, calm experience that I was in control of,” says Andrews, who had always wanted a natural childbirth, believing that having an epidural or drugs, with their potentially unpleasant side effects, was more frightening.

When she became pregnant, she chose a midwife for prenatal care instead of an obstetrician because she wanted to play an active role in the choices she made during her pregnancy and opted to deliver at a hospital with her midwife. Her midwife referred her to Anderson, who is also a certified hypnobirthing instructor.

Hypnobirthing maintains that birth is a normal, natural part of life and shouldn’t be feared. It teaches techniques in self-hypnosis, breathing, relaxation, fear release and visualization to help women and their partners achieve comfortable births.

When she was in labour with her son, Andrews focused on “breathing down through her body, instead of out” and she visualized walking in the park with a green balloon and her dog when it was a puppy. There was no forced pushing and she gave birth on her knees, catching her son before handing him over to the midwife.

“Madoc was a beautiful, healthy, alert baby,” says Andrews, who was initially skeptical about hypnosis. But as she learned more, she became a believer. Hypnosis was nothing like what she saw on television and describes it as more of a meditation and relaxation technique.

“I run marathons and like when you are preparing to run a marathon, you train for it. What I liked about hypnobirthing was it’s training for labour and delivery,” she says. “It’s conditioning your mind and your body for birth.”

Practitioners teach parents that being relaxed and breathing properly is vital to allowing oxygen to flow to the muscles, uterus and baby.

Being relaxed also allows the body’s natural endorphins to kick in and makes a gentler experience possible,  says Lisa Keeley, a hypnobirthing instructor in Ottawa for the last three years. Keeley started teaching after her traumatic first birth and a much calmer second birth, which she had using hypnobirthing techniques.

Evidence suggests hypnosis is effective in childbirth, as well as other medical procedures where it has been used as an alternative for patients allergic to medical anesthesia or drugs. Studies in mainstream medical journals have also shown that women using hypnosis preparation for childbirth have required fewer epidurals and interventions than women who did not.

Practitioners acknowledge that not all pregnancies are uncomplicated and low risk. But even women having caesarean births have successfully used the method. When contacted, obstetricians from the Ottawa Hospital and the Queensway-Carleton Hospital declined to comment on the topic.

But practising the techniques is essential. “Practising is important because hypnosis is compounding, so the more you do it, the deeper you go, the quicker you go,” says Anderson, who has been a hypnobirthing coach since 2005 and doula for the past 11 years.

Andrews’ experience with hypnobirthing was so positive, she decided to use it again during the birth of her second son. This time, her labour was even shorter and smoother. While she admits that both of her birthing experiences were intense, she was able to do them drug-free.

“It’s almost like a marathon,” she says. “When you think you can’t go on any further, that’s when it’s about over.”

Nadine Miville, 32, of Gatineau teaches natural labour techniques and credits hypnobirthing with helping allay fears associated with the birth of her first child. She had a calm and relaxed home birth the second time and felt completely in control.

“Because in the end, you are the only person who can do it,” says Miville. “There’s no one who is going to get you through it except for yourself.”

It may just be time to say goodbye to steaming cups of coffee late at night and products piled neatly on shelves in the grocery stores in Fort McMurray, a booming town nestled near the boreal forest that covers the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta.

The federal government’s changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are forcing businesses to cut down their operations, negatively impacting the growing city, says Nick Sanders, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce.

“We don’t want to go back to 2006 and 2007 where all the food was piled in the aisles in the grocery store and there was no one to put it on the shelves,” he says, also mentioning how the local Tim Hortons is eliminating its night shift and cancelling plans for a new location at the airport due to staffing problems. “We just want what every other Albertan and every other Canadian has and that is food on the shelves and customer service that is reasonable.”

More than five months after the government announced changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program, businesses and business groups across the country are complaining that the negative effects of the reforms are already starting to manifest themselves. Some businesses have also reduced their hours after not being able to hire the Canadians that they need, says Monique Moreau, director of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB).

“Crocodile tears.”

That is how Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour describes the complaints by businesses.

“There is no company that shut down their operations, there is no evidence anywhere,” he says. “This is just overheated rhetoric from employers who have been addicted to the temporary foreign worker program and addicted to using cheap labour. Just like with any other addict when you cut off their drug of choice they will complain but they are likely to recover.”

McGowan says the changes have had a positive effect and that he has heard from Canadian workers who say they are finding it easier to find work since the changes have been put into place.

The reforms created an uproar among business groups when they were first introduced in June this year. Labour groups and some experts, on the other hand, have welcomed them saying that they would allow for more jobs for Canadians.

But tensions are rising as the effects of the government’s changes are starting to kick in.

Earlier this year, Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced in June that the government was phasing out the temporary foreign workers program in low-wage jobs by putting a 10 per cent cap on the number of low-wage temporary foreign workers employers can hire per work site by 2016. The cap will be phased in gradually starting at 30 per cent, then 20 per cent in 2015 and 10 per cent in 2016. Other reforms made at the same time included an increase in the number of inspections of the program, an increase in application fees for each worker requested; fines of up to $100,000 for employers who abuse the program; and reducing the amount of time a temporary foreign worker can be employed in Canada to two years, down from four. The changes were made after reports of widespread abuse of the program by employers who were either exploiting the workers or displacing Canadians by hiring labour from abroad.

Fees for applying to hire a temporary foreign worker have gone up from $275 to $1000. For small businesses, that is a substantial amount to pay regardless of whether or not they get an approval, says Moreau whose organization represents 19,000 businesses of which less than 10 per cent use the temporary foreign worker program. Moreau says the organization has received calls from members from across the country who are concerned that they would be at a risk of closing down their businesses because of the caps.

“We think this is a result of a few bad apples who were misusing and abusing the program and of course, all of our workers support penalizing those individuals,” she says. “Regrettably however, the industry is now suffering as a whole because of those individuals.”

These views are shared by Laxman Chouhan who owns an Indian restaurant in Toronto called Bombay on the Lake and used to hire a chef from India but currently has a permanent resident working as a chef. He says the caps are harmful for businesses and that the temporary foreign worker program is essential for businesses like his as it is very difficult to find labour with the specialized skills needed for the job.

Dave Kaiser, president and CEO of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association says its member hotels in resort areas like Banff and Jasper and rural and resource based communities like Fort McMurray and Cold Lake have been impacted significantly as access to the program has been restricted. Positions that have taken the greatest hit are for those who clean hotel rooms, change the linen and wipe the bathroom floors.

Moreau says this labour shortage exists throughout the country not just in the west. “For whatever reason Canadians have decided it’s menial work and they don’t want to do it,” she says.

Businesses have also complained that the policy changes made by the government are informed by flawed data about the number of temporary foreign workers companies are employing. The Conservative government is also beefing up its blacklist of employers who have broken temporary foreign worker program rules and provincial labour laws, leading to a fear among businesses that flawed data may lead to businesses erroneously ending up on the blacklist, having a “devastating” effect on operations.

Moreover, businesses decry the challenges with labour mobility in the country. In areas with low unemployment like Alberta, labour mobility challenges often leave employers with little option but to turn to temporary foreign workers.

“There are people from Ontario or somewhere else that are interested but once they find out where the job is yes they turn it down,” says Kaiser. “It’s easy for an economist to stand back and look at a spreadsheet and say we’ve got X number of unemployed people in this province and X number of jobs over here but in reality it’s not easy to just take those folks and move them all where the jobs are. That isn’t happening.”

However, McGowan says the labour market is a market like any other and in order for it to work price signals need to be sent. The problem with the temporary foreign worker program is that it was short circuiting market signals by allowing employers to access a large and growing pool of cheap labour from abroad as opposed to responding to the labour market by increasing wages and sending price signals to Canadians who might be looking for jobs, he says.

“These employers cannot legitimately say that there is a labour shortage unless they have actually increased wages but the evidence is clear that in many cases they haven’t done that,” says McGowan.

Critics of the Temporary Foreign Worker program say the program was not like it is today until before the Stephen Harper government. Under the Harper government, the low-skilled workers stream was introduced and many of the problems began. The opposition has also criticized the government for not properly enforcing the rules.

“It’s hard to say what impact the changes have had because a lot of the changes just seem to be there on paper,” says Jinny Sims, official NDP critic for employment and social development. “So every time the government gets caught in doing something wrong or the employers, the government makes a little tweak. But really does that fix the problem? No.”

The reforms to the temporary foreign worker program are affecting some regions more than others as is clear from the complaints from employers and business groups in provinces like Alberta. Business groups like the Fort McMurray Chambers of Commerce have called for a localized approach in regions of high unemployment that have trouble attracting labour.

On the other hand, critics of the program say the unemployment threshold that the government set for allowing the hiring of temporary foreign workers in regions where unemployment is below 6 per cent does not reflect the high levels of unemployment in First Nations reserves. Experts also say that problems with the quality of Canada’s labour market data make it impossible to know the level of the labour shortage in the market.

Dominique Gross who wrote the C.D. Howe Institute report on the temporary foreign worker program said in an interview that the changes the government made to the program were a bit too simple to fix the problems with the program. She said that the biggest problem is the lack of information about the labour market. According to her, the solution is for the government to work on obtaining this information about the labour market.

“So as long as there is no clear information about that, it is going to be very difficult to have an efficient temporary foreign worker program.”

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 15, 2013.

2013-06-22 13.31.14

For the Ottawa dragon boats that glide through the placid waters of the Rideau River each summer, the beginning was modest. The festival that attracts 190 teams, about 5,000 paddlers, more than 85,000 spectators and top entertainment acts began at a small meeting in Mont Tremblant, Que., in the fall of 1993.

When the small group of Hong Kong Canada Business Association directors discussed the idea in their annual retreat in the Laurentian Mountains, they had no drummers beating their drums to motivate them, nor thousands of fans that now cheer on the paddlers each year.

They had no idea that the suggestion by Gordon Huston, then manager of the Hong Kong Bank of Canada, to have a dragon boat festival similar to Toronto and Vancouver in Ottawa would one day turn out to become the largest in North America.

Frank Ling, who was the founding president of the Hong Kong Canada Business Association, agreed to take the idea forward. Ling, now 76, became chair of the festival and is credited as a founder along with Warren Creates and Mike Chambers who were present at the meeting.

It wasn’t until the next year that the festival saw the light of day: 28 teams, around 540 paddlers and about 200 spectators met at the Rideau Canoe Club on July 23, 1994.

The race course along the Rideau River was set to 640 metres, a distance chosen to replicate the international competition in Hong Kong. Sleek, long wooden dragon boats painted to look like the texture of a dragon’s skin with the beast’s head and tail at either end were rented from Toronto.

The boats sliced through the waters of the Rideau River, with each boat’s 20 paddlers striving in unison to be the first to reach the finish line.

“We went from zero teams, zero money, zero sponsors to having our first ever event,” recalls Creates who succeeded Ling as chair.

“And we broke even — we raised enough money to pull it off successfully.”

Ottawa became the third Canadian city to start the dragon boat racing festival that day. From a one-day event in 1994, the race has grown to become a four-day multicultural sports and arts festival billed as one of Ottawa’s top annual tourist attractions.

To accommodate the growing number of participants, the festival moved from its original site at the Rideau Canoe Club to Mooney’s Bay, on the other side of the Rideau River.

The races now end at Mooney’s Bay, starting 100, 200 and 500 metres upriver.

Dragon boat racing can trace its origins in Chinese culture back 2,400 years. It began as a fertility rite to ensure bountiful crops and ward off misfortune, with the dragon as the symbol of worship.

Ling recalls that the first day of the festival was fraught by bad weather. “It was thunderstorm, lightning,” he reminisces. “One of the boats even turned over, but we survived.”

Heather Jarrett, who has been a paddler and team leader with the festival since 1994, says the weather that day was the worst the dragon boat races have ever experienced. She recalls how two of her team members did not show up that day assuming that the races would be cancelled because of the bad weather.

“Their absence necessitated finding spare paddlers from among friends and family who had come to cheer us on — this established a precedent for the next few years, and some of the team’s fans became anxious about attending, for fear that they might end up wielding a paddle or drumming!”

In its early days, the festival was called the National Capital Dragon Boat Race Festival. It then became the Nortel Networks Dragon Boat Festival and is now called the Tim Horton’s Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival after its title sponsor.

Music and free concerts have been some of the festival’s most prominent attractions over the years, including Spirit of the West, David Usher, Steven Page, 54-40 and Bedouin Soundclash.

This year Sloan, Raine Maida, Born Ruffians, Sam Roberts Band, The Balconies, Great Lake Swimmers and Autumns will rock two stages. There is a children’s section, as well as a Ferris wheel and carousel.

On June 20, there will be a 20th anniversary gala on the beach with a Tiki theme, featuring festive music, fire dancers and area chefs with culinary samplings for guests.

“I think they have really found out how to get families involved,” says Michael Sulyha, a team leader and paddler who has been with the festival since 2006. “There are a lot of activities for children and big-name entertainment acts. It’s become much more attractive to not just people who want to come and watch the competition. There’s something for everybody over there.”

A fundraising component was introduced in 1996 and the festival has raised about $3 million in charity to date. More than 29 Ottawa charities have benefitted, including the CHEO Foundation, Ottawa Food Bank and the Rideau Valley Conservation Foundation.

According to Sandy Foote, the current chair of the Dragon Boat Foundation that manages the fundraising part of the festival, the event aims to raise $450,000 this year in charity.

Those participating in the festival come from all walks of life. Over the years, the festival has seen teams of teachers, media, bureaucrats, high-tech professionals, lawyers, police, people with disabilities and breast cancer survivors.

Some teams are made up only of family members — at times formed as a tribute to a family member they have lost — while others have a mix of family and friends. For some, the motivation is paddling for a cause, for others it’s good sport. Yet others see it as simply a way to get out there and have some fun.

Another one of the major components of the festival is the flower ceremony held by the breast cancer survivor teams.

During the ceremony, paddlers from the breast cancer survivor teams raise a pink flower above their heads, join hands with paddlers from the other boats and reflect on the lives that have been affected by breast cancer. They then toss the carnations into the water. The ceremony aims to honour all those who have passed away because of breast cancer, give hope to those who are battling the disease and celebrate those who have survived.

Ling is ecstatic by the festival’s growth over the years. “It is a world-class event and the largest festival in the world in terms of attendance.”

The festival attracts teams and spectators from across Canada and the U.S. and has served as an inspiration to other such festivals in the world.

John Brooman, president of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, says Israel’s festival, which began in 2012, traces its genesis back to Ottawa.

“Definitely, there are other festivals that will use Ottawa as a template to try to improve their own.”

Creates thinks the first day of the festival has had a role to play in its growth. In Chinese folklore, rain is seen as a symbol of good luck and he takes it as a sign.

“We got rained on that first day and we have been lucky ever since.”

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Published in The Ward, Nov 27, 2012.

ward-xray

Another osteoporosis drug has been linked to unusual thigh bone fractures in a small number of users, according to an alert issued by Health Canada.

Amgen Canada, the company that produces the drug denosumab under the brand name Prolia, joined with Health Canada in issuing a warning statement last week. Amgen said, however, that instances of the fractures were very rare.

Last year, a warning was issued by Health Canada about an entire class of osteoporosis drugs, known as bisphosphonates, which had been linked to unusual thigh bone fractures in users.

These unusual fractures, which are known as Atypical Femoral Fractures (AFF), can occur with little or no physical impact. They have often been associated with long-term use of certain osteoporosis medications. The fracture is often preceded by thigh or groin pain which may occur several weeks or months before the actual fracture.

“This is new safety information related to unusual thigh bone fractures and the use of Prolia,” Sabrina Paiva, senior manager for product communications at Amgen, told The Ward.

“Cases of AFF have been confirmed in patients receiving Prolia participating in the ongoing open-label extension study of the pivotal phase three fracture trial in postmenopausal osteoporosis,” said Paiva. “These events have occurred very rarely in less than one in every 10,000.”

Health Canada said the study is evaluating the long-term efficacy and safety of Prolia in 4,550 post-menopausal women.

The drug Prolia is used in the treatment of post-menopausal women with osteoporosis who have been found to be at high-risk for fracture. It works by reducing the amount of bone broken down by the body, making bones less likely to break.

Osteoporosis Canada, the national organization working for people who have or are at risk of osteoporosis, said in a statement released last week that while unusual fractures had been seen in people taking bisphosphonates and denosumab for several years, a causal relationship between the use of osteoporosis medications and these fractures had not yet been confirmed. The statement also said that the atypical fractures had been reported without osteoporosis therapy.

Tanya Long, education manager at Osteoporosis Canada, stressed although there has been some instances of these fractures associated with the use of denosumab, “they were very, very rare.”

Blossom Leung from Health Canada’s communications office said that all marketed health products have benefits and risks associated with their use.

“Health Canada continues to monitor the safety profile of health products once they are marketed to ensure that the benefits of the product continue to outweigh the risks,” said Leung in an e-mail to The Ward.

Leung said manufacturers  are also responsible for the continuous assessment of the benefits and risks of their health products.  “The risks of a health product should never be considered in isolation, but instead, the balance between possible risks and potential benefits needs to be taken into account, with benefits always outweighing the risks,” she said.

Leung added that information on adverse reactions, precautions, warnings and contra-indications associated with health products is provided in the product information to keep prescribers and patients informed.

Osteoporosis Canada recommends patients who are taking osteoporosis medications and experiencing symptoms like pain in the thigh or groin to contact their doctors immediately.

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