In the current issue of the U.S. journal Foreign Affairs, Dominique Moïsi of the French Institute of International Relations proposes that current world tensions are not symptomatic of a clash of civilizations but rather a result of interdependent layers of conflict.
One such conflict, he argues, is not so much a clash between Islam and the West but rather increasing tensions between secularism and faith. Polls conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project show that the role and importance of religion is declining in the West (with the exception of the United States), while the opposite is true in much of the rest of the world (with the exception of China). In particular, the role of faith in daily life is quite central to many Muslims, whether they live in Europe or in the Muslim world.
These tensions have been evident lately in Canada. Look at the rumblings in Quebec about accommodating practices of the province's Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Last fall, a national debate took place over the niqab, the veil worn by a minuscule proportion of Muslim women. In 2005, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty capitulated to an international campaign aimed at banning the use of Islamic principles in family arbitration. These tensions are not going away any time soon.
Another layer of conflict, according to Mr. Moïsi, is an emotional clash of cultures. But not "culture" in the traditional sense. On the one hand, Europe and the United States embody a culture of fear - that is, the discourse focuses on fear of immigration, terrorism and economic decline. On the other hand, there is a culture of humiliation, predominant in Muslim countries, where many feel they are at the receiving end of an unjust global system. Autocratic governments (often supported by the West) and colonial occupation have formed the daily reality of millions of Muslims over the past few decades. Many also feel the "war on terror" is, in reality, a war on Islam. Frustrated by a lack of empowerment, many Muslims are seeking to regain dignity and a semblance of control over their own destiny.
Within these overarching themes, enter Canada, with a contribution so unique, so Canadian, that it has people talking across many divides.
The CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie created an unprecedented worldwide buzz last month. The brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, it is a modest attempt to build bridges of understanding by showing Muslims as ordinary people interacting with ordinary Canadians. The chisel of humour is used to whittle away at our mutual insecurities.
Many Muslims have loved the show, having the confidence to laugh at themselves. A prime-time comedy about their identity signals their integration into the mainstream.
Many of the situations are rooted in reality. For example, North American Muslims have failed to unite in the determination of the start of Ramadan. The first episode captured this absurdity with poignant hilarity. And while it seems incredible for someone to mix up "Protestant" with "prostitute," I attended last summer a Friday sermon where a community leader spoke about the arrests of Canadian Muslims in an alleged terrorist plot, saying: "We condone such behaviour, we condone it!" He paused to hear advice from the front row, and resumed his speech: "Sorry - I meant we condemn such behaviour." We prayed that the mosque informants had a sense of humour.
Some critics decry a lack of realism in the show. While disagreements are solved amicably in the quaint town of Mercy, perhaps Sects in the City best describes the nasty community politics of urban landscapes. Yet, given the number of legal battles within mosques, hiring an ex-lawyer as an imam is not so far-fetched. Reality is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
Why are so many rooting for Little Mosque to succeed? It embodies that most Canadian of traits: dialogue. And we fervently believe that a culture of dialogue transcends the mutually antagonistic cultures of fear and humiliation. A parallel thread runs through the story of Maher Arar, who has experienced first-hand the humiliating consequences of a society gripped with fear. His success is inspiring, since it shows us that our collective commitment to justice can prevail over fear and humiliation. Mr. Arar has graciously paid tribute to the Canadian people for their support, for, without it, his efforts would have been for naught.
What is it about our Canadian mosaic that fosters the success of people such as Ms. Nawaz and Mr. Arar in a post-9/11 era? Both are observant Muslims with bold initiatives to change the Canadian landscape for the better. Their plucky efforts have resonated with Canadians nationwide, reflecting a culture of compassionate meritocracy. Yet, we need to be on guard against the erosion of our defining values. A recent study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy shows that visible minority immigrants and their children are less integrated than their white counterparts, due in part to a sense of exclusion. There is enough alienation in the world - let's guard against its growth here.
According to Mr. Moïsi, globalization is an accelerant to the tinderbox of conflicts. We can instantly know what the "other" says or thinks about us, and react instantly as well. But so many of us lack cultural and historical understanding to properly decipher reactions in context. If Mr. Moïsi's thesis is true, then Canadians can play a pivotal role in lowering the potential for further conflict. Our commitment to dialogue, justice and compassion will go a long way, both at home and abroad.
There really is a Canadian way
A little dialogue, a Little Mosque, a little laugh help us cross the divides,