Naureen Aqueel

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.”

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.


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.

An edited version of this article was published in Islamic Horizons magazine, published by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) 

Scouts - 65th IMO - 01

Murjan Hammad, 17, Senior Patrol Leader for boy scouts, walks up to the front of the room to begin the scouts meeting for Troop 1576 at the Sterling ADAMS centre in Virginia on April 17, 2012. The laughter and chatter among young boys in scout uniforms aged between 10 to 17 dies down as expectant eyes follow their leader. Hammad outlines the agenda for the meeting. They are going to play a game today. Each scout has to complete a list of 10 native plants and 10 native animals that they can find and submit it in the next meeting. It’s almost Maghrib time and beginning to get dark. The scouts proceed to the outdoors to begin their activity. They have to come back in to perform their prayers. They also play a game of ‘anti-over’ before they return to resume their troop meeting.

This is a typical day of the boy scouts meeting at the ADAMS Centre, Sterling. Similar Muslim Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts belonging to the national Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and Girl Scouts of the USA organizations, but sponsored by mosques and Islamic centers and thus having exclusive Muslim membership, can be found throughout different cities in the USA and Canada. According to the Boy Scouts of America, Scouting membership in the American Islamic community in 2010 was over 2000 divided into Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers in the approximately 91 Muslim units associated with the BSA. There are no clear statistics on Muslim membership in the Girls Scouts, but reports have mentioned a number of exclusively Muslim Girls Scouts troops existing in states across North America. Muslim boy and girl scouts can also be found in troops that are not exclusively Muslim. Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Brooklyn, Sterling, Houston and Dallas are some of the cities that have active Muslim Scouts groups.

Scouting in the Muslim community has a long history that extends beyond the borders of the USA and Canada. “Scouting is not an American thing,” Assistant Scoutmaster at ADAMS, Yusuf Rambo explains. “There has been scouting in Muslim countries for as long as scouting has been around in the world. It has been there in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for a long time.”

The Scout Association of the UK estimates that more than a third of all scouts worldwide are Muslim. According to Dawud Zwink, former Vice President of ISNA, who served as Chairman of the National Islamic Committee on Scouting from 1990 to 1993 and is currently working as Facilitator at the Canadian Muslim Fellowship of Scouting, persons with Scouting experience in Pakistan and Lebanon played a major role in the development of Islamic Scouting in the USA in association with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Brothers from the Muslim American Society (MAS) developed their own groups that are now affiliated with BSA,” explains Zwink. “Brothers and Sisters from the African American community have developed their own Scouting organizations, some originating in the black liberation movement organizations of the 60’s and 70’s with many independent of BSA. The community headed by Warth Deen Muhammad has developed Scout groups that are affiliated with BSA.”

Scouting is a unique youth program in that it engages young people in fun-filled activities that lead on to build a sound character and strong personality. The fact that it includes activities viewed as fun by the youth, beyond those limited only to the religious domain, helps provide for the youth a platform where they can enjoy and be themselves while at the same time being involved in constructive activities that help them learn essential life skills. It is also an effective means of involving Muslim children in the mosques and Islamic centers where they can build healthy friendships with other Muslims.

“The whole premise behind boy scouting is teaching our boys leadership skills through outdoor activities that test them — a leader only gets to be a leader after going through some trials,” remarks Rambo. The rank structure that is an essential component of scouting helps reinforce the aspect of challenge based learning and competition. “As you slowly acquire a new skill, they transfer you to another rank. Boys and girls have a value for accomplishment. Our whole aim is to trick the kids into teaching them leadership skills by masking them into fun and play.”

Rank advancement culminates in the Eagle scout rank. A scout must accomplish many things before reaching the Eagle rank but once the rank is achieved, it is an achievement that helps the scout immensely in the future. When an Eagle scout goes to college or in the job market, the employer knows that everything else in that person’s life is also exemplary. For Girls Scouts, the highest rank is known as Gold.

Scouts can earn merit badges in a number of activities of interest that they engage in. The BSA lists more than 100 merit badges that Scouts can earn. The subjects range from archaeology, astronomy, art, family life and chemistry to skating, swimming, painting, camping, theater and veterinary medicine. The merit badges are ways to introduce the youth to all the opportunities out there for them that could be potential career options. In addition to the regular merit badges, Muslim Scouts can earn special emblems by studying certain subjects of theology as well as by engaging in faith related community service.

Each scouting group has an activity based program suited to the needs and interests of the children that participate. Most groups meet every week or every alternative week. Perhaps one of the defining features of Scouting that distinguishes it from other youth programs is the opportunity it provides to young people to get outdoors and do things that cannot be done at home or in the neighborhood. Activities like camping, rafting, canoeing and biking are among some of the appeals of Scouting that helps attract a large number of youth.

Each Scouting group also decides its own method of action and program content. So while some centers may not focus too much on Islamic knowledge and lessons in their activities other mosques and centers might choose to keep their program religion-centric by incorporating examples from the Quran and Sunnah. For example, Faiza Rahman, Girl Scouts coordinator for the MAS Youth Center of Dallas explains how her group always uses examples from the Sunnah. “When we teach the girls about the aspect of honesty in the Scout Law we also tell them stories of the Prophet (saw) and how he used to be honest.”

Scouting is also instrumental in providing Muslim youth with mentorship in the form of positive relationships with adults that serve as good role models. Some groups also have chaplains who provide spiritual guidance to the youth on issues of concern to them.

“For me as a mom, this is the best thing you can offer to your children for friendship, leadership and fun,” says Badria Kafala, mother of 12-year-old Yosaf Omeish who is a boy scout. Kafala put her son into Muslim scouting so that he could have Muslim friends from the community. “It helps the kids especially when they are teens – they can have a group where they can spend their time. It also helps build personality and self-esteem, and they learn from their leaders who are older boys. In scouting they practice leadership at the age of 11. It also gets them involved in various activities like hiking, canoeing, community services…so many things they can’t do in their own home and family.”

Hadia Rizwan*, another mother whose 8-year-old son was part of a cub scouts den in San Antonio, Texas last year feels that the entire experience was a positive one. “They teach the kids a sense of responsibility and there is focus on physical fitness and doing your best,” she says. Her son, however, had to stop going to the scout group because he started Quran classes during the same time.

The ADAMS Scouting troops participate every year in the Camporee with 100 other scouts from different troops which include non-Muslims. “We don’t segregate ourselves. How else are we going to be ambassadors of Rasulullah (saw) unless we don’t participate?” asks Rambo. “In camps we make sure we do not miss out on our Wajibaat like Salah. We let the kids understand that they serve as an example to the community at large. If it is during Ramadan, we fast. We eat halal food. We make sure we have a presence within scouting at the national level.”

“Scouting instills in young people, values that last a lifetime and cultivates ethical character as expressed in the Scout Oath and Law,” explains Zwink. “Scouting trains young people in citizenship, service, and leadership. We also offer our members a wealth of useful knowledge and skills. Scouts have the opportunity to learn fascinating and useful information and to build skills and the confidence that goes with them, which will serve them throughout their lives. For older youth, extreme adventure provides new meaningful experiences, generally in the out-of-doors, to promote team-building, practical leadership applications, and lifelong memories.”

Girls scouts usually do not have the same high adventure activities and ranks are often different but the goals and values of the program are the same. “In the meetings, we participate in activities that are mentioned in the scouting book and we get badges for those,” says Ushna Ahmed who goes to the Girls Scouts group at ADAMS. “We volunteer in charity organizations and arrange events. In terms of religion, being part of scouting helps us meet Muslim friends and in my life, I know it just gives me an opportunity to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done.”

Scouting, however, is not without its share of critics. Some Muslim critics point out that it is primarily a Christian movement and Muslim participation is not acceptable. When posed with a similar question once, Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, Founder President of the Islamic Council on Scouting of North America said, “Do not see who is saying it, but look to what is being said.”

“The Scouting Law given by Lord Powell contains the same principles mentioned in the Quran,” says Naqvi. “When we are living in a country like the USA, we need to get our youth involved and this is the way. My organization has achieved a number of Dawah opportunities through the scouting activities we have participated in. We have been able to teach others about Islam and distribute pamphlets.”

The Boy Scouts of America has been working with the Islamic Council on Scouting since 1982 and has gradually made policy changes to cater to Muslim Scouts in the United States. Among the initiatives taken to cater to Muslim Scouts are the provision of halal food and a place for prayer at outdoor camping events.

The Scout Oath binds a scout to do their duty to God and to their country and to abide by the Scout Law which enunciates 12 virtues that a scout must possess including being trustworthy, friendly, loyal, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. “There is not a single aspect in the law that is contrary to Islam,” says Rambo. “If anything, the most exemplary of scouts should be Muslim scouts. Scouting and Islam go hand in hand.”

Scouting helps youth develop a positive Muslim American identity and provides a positive platform for the youth to utilize their energies. The fact that it provides a complimentary education system that can run parallel to a child’s mainstream education keeps it accessible to all Muslim children whether those attending Islamic schools, public schools or being homeschooled.

The biggest challenge facing the Muslim Scouting community in North America, according Syed Ehtesham H. Naqvi, is the lack of funding and human resource. Although Muslim Scouts have a number of dedicated individuals who are doing commendable service to the community, apart from the little funding that comes from the Islamic centers, Naqvi says he fears most of the scout leaders end up paying from their own pockets for participation in national events, meetings and other activities that serve to benefit the whole community.

Zakaria BenYaqoub, MAS Dallas Boys Scouts Coordinator points out another difficulty faced by the Muslim Scouting community: lack of involvement by parents. BenYaqoub states that parental participation in organization and mentorship is essential for a better quality Scouting program.

The Muslim community in North America needs to recognize and support Scouting as an effective program providing guidance, character development and constructive activity to the youth. In a world where parents are constantly worried about providing their children with good company, mentorship and constructive activities, Muslim scouting serves as a ray of hope.

*Some names have been changed upon request

Christmas has a magical aura that seems to draw everyone into the spirit of celebration. Colourful Christmas trees, glimmering candles, sumptuous cakes, melodious carols and Santa Claus act as the face of Christmas festivity. But for practising Christians like Menin Rodrigues, the real spirit of Christmas is “about loving, caring and sharing the goodness and graces of God’s love for His people, and about Jesus coming to our homes.”

Rodrigues calls Christmas a “Holy and Happy occasion”. “Christmas is about God’s People, no one is rich or poor, young or old to await, celebrate and welcome Jesus in their homes, hearts and lives!” he says. “All people come together for special Christmas prayers, commonly known the ‘Midnight Mass’ which is held in all churches on the eve of December 25. On Christmas day, many groups and families make it a point to visit the Old Aged Homes to share happy moments with the old and feeble. Many groups of people and individuals alike, prepare special ‘Hampers’ for poor children and families.”

Reverend Christopher Hawks of the Central Brookes Memorial Church speaks of the same spirit as the catalyst behind the festive mood. “We know that the real meaning of Christmas is that God came down to take care of and love and forgive the ‘undeserving’,” he shares. “‘Undeserving’ expands it to the whole universe; salvation is about the universe. It means we take care of not only humans, but animals and the planet too. Christmas is about taking care of everything and celebrating what God has done for us.”

It is the same spirit which drives Christmas celebrations that start with the Advent Sunday, which is symbolic of the lightning of the four ‘Advent Candles’, each lit on the four Sundays leading to Christmas. “The focus is on preparation for the feast of Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ,” explains Rodrigues. “This period ahead of Christmas is called Advent – the New Liturgical Year – during which the Church involves her congregation, the faithful, in spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus. Special activities are held for children during Advent to make them understand the true meaning of Christmas.”

Prior to the beginning of these activities, Central Brookes Memorial Church prints a Christmas card detailing all the programmes lined up for the occasion. The cards are distributed so that people know about the activities beforehand and the Church encourages members of the community to participate actively, says Hawks. Different events like social dinners, prayers and sermons are organised to prepare people for the occasion spiritually. Specific areas attributed to specific services like the Women’s fellowship, the Children’s Bible School and the Youth fellowship organise their own events like singing, dramas etc for the occasion. Like all Churches, Central Brookes Memorial also holds Sunday Carols where the spirit is to worship through singing, explains Hawks.

Rodrigues shares that neighbourhood Advent services are also held in individual homes and Evenings of Carols are held in all the major churches in the city prominently including St Patrick’s Cathedral, The Trinity Cathedral, St Anthony’s Church, Our Lady of Fatima Church and St Lawrence’s Church, including Christmas pageants in schools and colleges. “Choral groups from various parishes (localities where Christians live) participate in these performances, attended by a large number of people,” explains Rodrigues. “Carolers also go singing ‘door-to-door’ – an activity which was very popular in the past but has lost its charm today due to security and safety issues.”

Traditional sweet and cake making is another highlight of Christmas that keeps Christians busy ahead of the big day.

“All Christmas activities lead up to the main event of the Christmas eve mass on the midnight of the 24th of December which is to remember the birth of Jesus Christ in the small town of Bethlehem in Palestine,” says Reverend Dr Pervez Sultan, the principal of St Thomas Theological College. “General celebrations then continue till January 6.”

Hawks says the number of participants in a single event can go up to around 500 to 700 people when other churches are invited to theirs. The main Christmas event, the Midnight Mass which Hawks describes as “the climax of Christmas events” draws approximately 1500 people in the Central Brookes Memorial Church. In St Patricks Cathedral which is the largest Church in Karachi, approximately 4000-5000 attendees show up for the midnight service. In the Holy Trinity Church in which Reverend Sultan’s college is located, the number of attendees come up to around 800 to 900. Marquees are sometimes extended beyond the Church buildings to accommodate the number of people attending.

Speaking about security, Reverend Sultan says the government is conscious is about security and so are the Church authorities. “We have never had any problem as such,” he says. “We look to God for His protection.”

I woke up today to read a friend’s SMS inviting me to join them in a walk to commemorate Global Work Party day to help raise awareness about global warming and climate change. Looking forward to a lazy Sunday, the message slipped my mind only to come back when I logged on to Facebook later in the day to see the same call on a friend’s Facebook status.

I admit. I did feel a little guilty. But climate change and global warming…what could I have done?

The idea behind “Global Work Party” which was floated by a group called is to do something that can help deal with global warming in each community or city, and in doing so, to send a message to leaders and politicians to make efforts on a larger scale that matters. More than 7,000 events were scheduled in 188 countries. From tree plantings and trash cleanups to solar panel installations, there was much that was done across the globe. And those participating were common people like us.

The group seeks to build a movement to unite the world for solutions to the climate crisis focusing on the number 350 which represents the level of atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that is the safest. Getting below that is the aim, as unless that happens, the damage resulting from global warming will continue to accelerate.

We have already seen the devastating effects of global warming in the form of the floods that have ravaged our country. The world in the past year has experienced heat waves, droughts, melting ice-caps and rising seas. Needless to say, the damage caused to the environment by years of neglect and harmful activity is finally showing its effect.

So what can we do?

Walks and slogans do make a difference in creating awareness. But what ultimately matters is whether you act on all that talk.

While the decisions of powerful governments, legislators and companies seem to be the ultimate determinant for the course the environmental crisis takes, there is still much that we can do as individuals to become the solution generation. It all begins with taking ownership. So whether it is planting a tree, not flinging a wrapper out of the car window or closing the tap while you brush your teeth, it is small steps like these that can help make a difference.

While many will smirk at the idea, I have always believed that it is the little things that go on to make a big difference. If we remain hopeless of the impact we can make, our attitude leads to nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy of helplessness. No action leads to no difference. Small acts by many lead to a big difference.

So, it’s time for us to step up and take an initiative. Take small steps in your own individual capacities, do something to help the environment. May be it isn’t too late for me and those of you who didn’t participate in this global campaign to play our part.

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