Show Biz Islam

Bilal and Saeed are best friends from Cleveland, Ohio. They appear to be two ordinary fun-loving men looking for some excitement in life. Bilal and Saeed are Afro-American converts and they wear the badge of Islam with pride.   When they popped up on the season’s premier of the CBS hit reality show, “The Amazing Race,” it was like “Hey, check out those brothers.” For those unfamiliar with the rich cultural diversity in the Muslim communities of North America, the spirited duo appeared to be in the wrong race. “Someone should have told them it was not a race to Mecca.” And Bilal and Saeed were soon nicknamed by fans of the show as “The Beards.” The two made it clear that while the prize money was important, they were determined to take time out to offer their obligatory five daily prayers regardless of how intense it got. And that’s exactly what they did at Los Angeles International Airport just before boarding a rushed last minute flight to China.

Saeed & Bilal

Can you imagine two well-built Muslim men with kufis and long beards praying openly at an American airport? Reality TV needs a reality check. Throughout the show, the two fussed over their diet, quibbling over what was halal and how to dress. At the end of the very first episode, Bilal and Saeed were sent home. There was no cry about Islamophobia, bias or racism from these two gentlemen. Although they displayed disappointment, (Saeed had quit his well-paying job to join the race) the men affirmed their faith before an audience of millions. Bilal’s parting words: “Being a practicing Muslim, this is truly what it means to me to be in this race. I don’t gamble, I don’t bet against the odds. My bank account is checking so that I don’t get interest. I don’t have credit cards.

This (losing) proves that we have no control over the decree of what it is that the Creator has in store for us. Mankind can only get what he strives for. If God wills it, then you can have it.” In just one episode, millions of viewers from around the world were exposed to a slice of American Muslim culture spiced-up with a great deal of jurisprudence (fiqh), snippets of creed (‘aqida), and the beauty of excellent conduct (tasawwuf) that no Islamic organization, big and small, has ever been able to achieve in all the years since 9/11.

Bilal and Saeed’s valiant foray into the glitzy world of show biz is one example of just how much Islam and Muslims are creeping steadily into that nebulous grey area we call “public space,” where cultural norms are constantly being negotiated. But before you greet this new trend with a loud euphoric takbir, you should consider that getting a handle on popular culture is as unpredictable as the weather. A great deal of what we’ve been seeing by way of entertainment is a welcome change from the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims that has characterized most of what Hollywood has churned out in the last few decades.

Ridley Scott’s portrait of the Muslim hero Salahuddin Ayyubi in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” is a welcome shift in the narrative. On the other hand, Albert Brookes’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” while harmless, was a display of compound stupidity. A film titled “In the Name of God” caught my attention because its poster of a topless male had the Arabic “basmallah” written on his back. The film described itself, however, as an attempt to “explore the complex intersection of Islam and sexuality.” It is not surprising that it was the closer of the “first ever queer Muslim film festival.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recently commissioned eight episodes of a risky sitcom titled “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a play on the hit show “Little House on the Prairie.” “Little Mosque” describes itself as a “funny, warts-and-all look at life in a small Muslim community in rural Saskatchewan,” of all places. “Instead of hoisting pitchforks, rolling down hills and selling eggs … (the Muslims) will be trying to interact with the denizens of a little prairie town in a post Sept. 11 world.”

The Muslim cultural reach is extending itself into the world of print as well. Bright burgundy colors and the stunningly beautiful face of a hijabed sister is how the magazine, “MUSLIM GIRL: Enlighten. Celebrate. Inspire,” announces its launch in Jan./Feb. 2007. Hijab! Now there’s a hot cultural potato. It got the British Minister Jack Straw knee deep into trouble.  The question here is whether our excursion into the realm of popular culture will serve to separate heresy from the deep religious truths of the tradition or will it turn the tradition on its head by making a mockery of everything Muslims hold sacred?

Published in Islamica Magazine

A Muslim Spy

Sporting a thick beard, a black turban, and a knee-length kurta (tunic), Mubin Shaikh looks very much like a dusty pilgrim fresh off a bus from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. His perfect Canadian accent and love of hockey reveals a different story. Mubin is a devout Canadian-born Muslim with immigrant Indian parents.

Mubin Shaikh

In mid-July, with his face splashed on every television screen and on every newspaper across Canada, he became an instant cause célèbre and the focus of a heated debate in Canada’s Muslim community. It is a debate that will likely have far-reaching implications for Muslims living in the West.

Two years ago, Mubin approached the Canadian Security and Intelligence Services (CSIS) and offered to assist them in an ongoing investigation. CSIS didn’t need his help with that case but was interested in recruiting the 30-year-old to work on another investigation. Two years later, on June 2, in part with his paid assistance, 17 young Muslim men were arrested in Toronto on terrorism-related charges.  The charges against them will evidently run the course of a lengthy trial that will most certainly hang on a defense that the charges were a result of entrapment.

Why did Mubin decide to become a spy for Canadian intelligence?

He believed that given his knowledge of the Muslim community, he was best suited to distinguish between Muslims who were most likely to carry out a terrorist act from those who often talk tough on the minbar (pulpit) only to crawl home to the warmth of their down pillows and fluffy comforters.

It didn’t come as much of a surprise when thousands of Canadians praised Mubin for his bravery, patriotism, and commitment to Canadian values. His story came out days after the ugly train bombings in Mumbai and Canadians said they felt relieved knowing that there were men like Mubin in Canada. Some said that by telling his story, he proved that Canada’s Muslims are prepared to go beyond hollow condemnations of terrorism.

The response to Mubin in the Canadian Muslim community was nasty.  Second- and third-generation Muslims used their blog space to dub him a traitor, a murtad (apostate), a munafiq (hypocrite), and a kafir (disbeliever). Their hatred for Mubin stems from several mistaken assumptions.

Some have suggested that it is wrong for Mubin to make his Muslim brothers the target of his espionage. By doing so and then “outing” himself, his punishment must be death. Short of that, he must be declared a kafir, murtad, etc.

What if he had spied on people who are not Muslims? Is one to assume that Muslims could do no wrong? And if his punishment is death, does that mean Canada has been declared Dar Al-Harb (a non-Muslim country)? On the authority of which Imam? Or is it because Canadian troops are in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban? Hamid Karzai, the democratically elected president of that country, has welcomed them.

It has been suggested that Muslims are oppressed by the West and are victims of occupation and colonization at a global level. Canada is a member of the G-8 and, thus, by engaging in espionage against Muslims in Canada, Mubin is working for the enemy. While this argument will garner support among people with a penchant for grand conspiracy theories, it has no merit in the Islamic legal tradition. Not today. Suffice it to say that those who hold this view are never likely to invite Mubin to their weekly biryani dinners.

The challenge for Muslims living as minorities in the West is to develop a clear exposition of the Islamic legal parameters as it pertains to them. Those who teach fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) for Muslim minorities must now move beyond issues of how to keep your wudu in a non-Muslim country. They must address issues that will seek to clarify the relationship between the community of believers and the secular nation state.

This is the time to enrich the many stirring ideas proposed by the brilliant master of the Islamic legal tradition, a faqih extraordinaire, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. For anyone interested in this topic, I strongly recommend his “Sacred Law in Secular Lands.”

In the absence of clear legal rulings on any given matter, the default position of a believer’s actions should be guided by the primary purpose (maqasid) of the Shari’ah — the protection and the safe-guarding of human life, any human life. Thus, if the intent of Mubin’s action was an attempt to keep the public peace and to save human life, he should be praised not cursed.

When all their arguments fall apart, those who damn Mubin to the dark pit of hell ask, “Why didn’t he try to convince the young men that what they were allegedly planning to do was evil?” His response, “I tried, they didn’t listen.”

Published in Islamica Magazine

Carnival of Caricatures – The Deadly Politics of Humor

Flemming Rose of the now infamous Jyllands-Posten argued that any offense caused by the publication of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad was the price Muslims had to pay to be included in modern society. In other words, you had better get used to being laughed at. Nazim Baksh sees things differently. While offensive humour can sometimes be a blunt instrument employed against the powerful, its use—more often than not—is indicative of deep spiritual crises defending the right of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten to publish a set of caricatures that Muslims believed denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, its culture editor, Flemming Rose, argued that “humour, even offensive humour, brings people together. Because by making fun of people we’re also including them in our society. It’s not always easy for those concerned, but that’s the price they’ve got to pay.”

Rose is correct to observe that humour has an innate ability to unite people. Though the fact that a large number of people will laugh at the same jokes during an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a Woody Allen film for example, indicates only that humour can lure people into a false assumption that they have a lot more in common than they actually do in reality.

What passes for humour today, whether from sitcoms or stand-up comedians, is a chain of trite, oft-repeated jokes that are meant to “crack us up.” And if this serves to “bring people together”; it is no wonder that conflict resolution in our litigious society is a booming business. We are told to “lighten up” and take a “chill pill”, that is until we can’t take it anymore. We have created an industry out of humour and by doing so perverted it. Instead of making us happy it has made us frivolous.

In seeking to justify his decision to publish the depictions, Rose mentions two types of humour as if they were equal – “humour” and “offensive humour.” Muslims can get downright silly when it comes to humour. After all, Islam has a rich humour tradition. In the post 9/11 years we have even seen a wave of Muslim comedians emerge and quickly gain prominence in both Europe and North America.

“Offensive humour” is a different story; it is irony that aspires to be humour and fails because it is a weapon forever aimed at someone else, never at oneself. Irony’s laughter wounds—it is sarcasm, parody, mockery, and ridicule. Irony’s laughter is cruel and it inevitably humiliates others because it holds everything other than itself in contempt. This genre of humour is alien to the Islamic tradition.

The Danish cultural intelligentsia, in contrast, holds that satire—which normally employs irony as its weapon of choice—is part of their national identity. Rose and others argue that when satire is used against a person or a particular group of people they should feel privileged, not insulted, integrated and certainly not excluded from Danish society. If this reasoning sounds loopy, chances are it is.

Offensive humour emerged and gained ascendance during carnival season, particularly in Europe, where the two-week festival leading up to Lent gave free reign to ritual spectacles, bacchanalia, comic verbal compositions and relaxed social rules that allowed bawdy and abusive language to be spoken openly. During the carnival season the comedian was allowed the freedom to mock, ridicule and scoff at those in authority as well as parody and laugh at the hegemonic ideals upheld by the rich and powerful.

The message of the carnival was undeniable—“so long as I can laugh at the rich and powerful, I am free.”

Carnivals not only nourished a culture of offensive humour, it gave it life beyond the carnival season. Publications embraced caricatures because they used artistic techniques to exaggerate a person’s physical features to make him or her look grotesque or ludicrous. Whether a person was literate or not he knew instantly that the person caricatured was to be scorned, ridiculed and reviled. Not surprising, in the 18th and 19th centuries the French and Spanish monarchs sent their caricaturists to prison, exile or, worse still, to the executioner.

As the tradition of journalism emerged and matured in Western Europe and the United States in the mid to late 19th century, newspapers gradually drifted away from caricatures and adopted what is known today as political cartooning. Cartoons resemble caricatures but they aim to specifically crystallize a point of social protest or sway public opinion. It is not all that surprising therefore that cartoonists are regarded as journalists in today’s mass media.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is regarded as the “founding father” of modern day political cartooning. His legacy includes the GOP Elephant, a standard symbol of the Republican Party in the United States, and an unrelenting attack against the corruption of William Marcy Tweed and the infamous Tammany Hall corruption ring in 1860s New York City.

Tweed despised Nast because Nast’s cartoons mobilized people who demanded the smashing of the Tammany Ring and the removal of Tweed from power. Tweed was eventually brought to trial and found guilty of 104 counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He appealed the decision and while awaiting re-trial fled the country.

Tweed was later arrested in Spain because someone recognized him from a Nast cartoon. Before he died in prison a pauper, Tweed is reported to have said: “I don’t care what they print about me, most of my constituents can’t read anyway—but them damn pictures.”

From its genesis in the carnival, offensive humour has always been a blunt instrument in the hands of the common man to be used against the powerful. The Jyllands-Posten caricatures came from the intellectual elites that represent the dominant culture and targeted a harmless and marginal religious minority in Danish society. This is not what the tradition of satire was meant for.

A relatively intelligent person knows that humour, offensive or not, is culturally determined. What is funny to some may very well be an insult to others. Albert Brooks went carnival o f  caricatures Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and nearly ended up sparking off nuclear Armageddon between India and Pakistan. That’s hardly amusing, goofy yes, perhaps even stupid, but not necessarily offensive, unless you are an Indian or a Pakistani who doesn’t like to be characterised as trigger-happy. Some comedians, even Muslim ones, straddle the fence that divides humour from offensive humour. When they like something they use humour and when they don’t they use irony.

A Muslim will never accept that humour can be at the expense of a person’s beliefs or ideals, whether the Muslim believes they are valid or not. A person who fails to laugh at a crude or racist joke might say “I don’t share your sense of humour.” That’s what a lot of Muslims should have said instead of torching Danish flags, storming embassies or banning Danish products.

Humour—the kind that defuses hatred, anger, resentment and fanaticism—is a virtue in both western and Islamic philosophy. While it is not one of the four main virtues identified in Islamic thought, it is impossible to be humorous without him or wisdom. When humour is present it leads to a balanced temperament. The ability to laugh appropriately, even at oneself, neither too much nor too little, at the right time and place, for the right things, is a sign of courage, good health and well being. This is the Sunni of the Messenger of God.

Humour, like all other virtues, is subject to the Aristotelian “golden mean.” Humour is a balance between two extremes; it arises neither from sense nor nonsense, but rather in the vacillation from one to the other. In other words, it occurs when meaning changes from absurd to meaningful or from serious to frivolous. Humour reveals the frivolousness in all things serious and the seriousness in all things frivolous. When it takes itself too serious it reverts to irony and if too frivolous, buffoonery.

According to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is the greatest desire of the rational mind. Without it a person might sink into anger, wallow forever in the misery of sadness. Ahmad Ibn-Muhammad Miskawayh in his Tahdhib al-Akhlaq explains that inner happiness must be given an outlet and that’s what humour is. In the Qur’an the word for happiness is sa‘ada.

Syed Naqib Al-Attas says that to understand what sa‘ada means one must ponder on its opposite—shiqawa. Shiqawa, explains Al-Attas, is the condition of a person so mired in disobedience to God that his heart is perpetually in a state of anxiety, anguish, fear, grief, misery, and regret. The sum total of these symptoms is not merely a state of sadness, but one of “tragedy.” Shiqawa is a result of hubris, haughty pride, that prevents submission to the Creator.

In Imam Al-Ghazali’s philosophical schema, shiqawa is a characteristic of a person who is so overwhelmed by the seductions of this world that it costs him the pleasures of the next. Sa‘ada, on the other hand, arises out of obedience to God for His pleasure alone.

A person may laugh or “play the fool,” watch endless hours of Comedy Central, yet deep in his soul there is a shiqawa that no amount of laughter can erase. On the other hand, a person of sa‘ada may laugh little and weep much—a Prophetic ideal—yet deep in his soul the torch of happiness is flaming red. In other words, laughter alone proves (and provides) nothing.

Our blessed Messenger was the most balanced in all affairs. One of his names is ad-Dahhak, the Smiling One. He smiled because he embodied happiness. When he smiled, those who knew him tell us, there was no mistaking the radiant joy he created when he entered a room.

He used to say “I joke but I always tell the truth.” His wife‘A’isha is reported to have said “the Messenger was always making us laugh at home.” He also said “Those who sin while laughing will enter hell crying.” It is a sin in Islam to lie, deliberately insult, mock, ridicule, or revile others. An old woman came to the Messenger to ask him a vitally important question: “Will I go to paradise?” The Prophet said, “no, old people don’t go to paradise.” Dejected, the woman looked up at the face of the Messenger and saw him smiling and quickly realized that what he told her was in jest. He then comforted her, “God will restore your youth before you enter paradise.”

The humour of the Messenger of God was contagious. He was once sitting with two Bedouin women who had raised their voices in the presence of the Messenger demanding spoils of war when ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab passed by and overheard them. He knocked on the door of the Prophet’s home and was asked to identify himself after which he was given permission to enter. He saw the Prophet sitting alone and asked who was with him. At which point the Prophet identified the two women who had gone into hiding. ‘Umar chided them: “Do you hide from ‘Umar and you raise your voice in the presence of the Messenger?” The women responded: “Yes, indeed, because you are rough O ‘Umar and the Messenger of God is gentle.” The Prophet laughed. He had to break this standoff between ‘Umar’s poignant observation and the women’s reasonable fear of ‘Umar. He said: “Indeed ‘Umar, even if Satan was coming down a road and encountered you, he would take another path.”

One of the central comedic characters in the time of the Prophet was the companion Al-Nu‘ayman ibn ‘Amr. To put things in perspective, Nu‘ayman fought with the Muslims during the battles at Badr, Uhud and Khandaq. Nu‘ayman had an infectious laughter. He once convinced a merchant to send honey on his behalf to the home of the Messenger. When the merchant demanded payment from Nu‘ayman he directed him to the Prophet. The Prophet was surprised that the merchant was asking for payment since he was told that Nu‘ayman had sent him the honey as a gift. Nu‘ayman showed up to explain himself and insisted that since the Prophet had eaten the honey he should pay for it. Laughing at Nu‘ayman’s prank the Prophet paid the merchant. Nu’ayman later said that he had done two good deeds: he got the Prophet to eat his favourite food and he made him laugh.

There are many legendary Nu‘ayman pranks. Nu‘ayman played a significant role in Medina. There is no record of the Prophet forbidding him to cease his pranks even though some of them were slapstick. This indicates that Nu‘ayman had Prophetic sanction. It is reported that he only stopped laughing and playing pranks when the Muslim community was rocked with internal dissent during the reign of Mu‘awiya.

If Nu‘ayman didn’t exist Muslims would have had to invent him. Any culture where humour does not exist lacks the virtues of humility, generosity and mercy. Scratch the veneer of seriousness and you will find extremism and fanaticism. Humour peels away at self-deception and the glum satisfaction that the pious-looking bearded and turbaned brother is better than the one without.

Nu‘aymaniyya became the springboard for a flourishing tradition of humour among Muslims. Today Muslim parents and teachers narrate the tales of Mulla Nasruddin in order to establish simple truths with their children. Humour, because it can only laugh at what it loves or respects, is a useful tool that should be used to teach others about our tradition.

Muslims have to stop making rage their first instinctive reaction to an offence. Members of Quraysh poked fun at the Prophet by making reference to him as “Mudammam” (a play on Muhammad) which means ugly. This offensive humour, irony if you wish, was done at the expense of the real name of the Prophet and so it was exceptionally painful to his companions. Muhammad was a unique name in Mecca at that time and it means “the one who is praised.” It is the most popular name in the world today. The companions complained to the Prophet with tears in their eyes. His response was that they should ignore the mocking laughter associated with “Mudammam” because his name is Muhammad and “Mudammam” can only be someone other than Muhammad. He defused the irony, neutralized it, pulled the rug out from under it, with gentleness, wit, and humility. Muslims too could have looked at the offensive depiction and simply said: “That’s not our Prophet.”

Published in Q-News and Islamica Magazine

Controversy over a Shaykh

The lifeline of Muslim communities in Canada and the United States has been Islamic conferences, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s. Conferences in turn gave rise to a cadre of jet-setting Muslim scholars. No one in government ever batted an eye at these speakers in the years before Sept. 11, 2001. But since then, this loose assortment of charismatic speakers have come under intense scrutiny by intelligence organizations and lobby groups in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The squeaky clean Yusuf Islam was put on a U.S. no-fly list and denied entry into the United States. It appears the United States has reversed its position on him, but has not accorded the same to Professor Tarek Ramadan or Dr. Zaki Badawi when the latter was alive. These two were invited by respected universities and organizations in the United States, but Washington crossed their names off the guest lists.

The situation is so tense that in the last five years many speakers have wisely declined invitations to speak in the United States out of fear that they may be arrested or worse, end up in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the post-9/11 years, Canadian authorities have been relatively easy going, allowing into the country a variety of speakers from Tarek Suwaidan to Tarek Ramadan. That all changed when the popular British Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul-Haq was invited to speak at Islamic conferences in Montreal and Toronto in late June.  Riyadh ul-Haq never made it across the Atlantic.

Riyadh ul-Haq has visited Canada and the U.S. many times before and there have hardly been any substantial complaints either about his lectures or his religio-political views. In the world of Muslim bloggers, he was lightly flogged, after speaking in Toronto last December, for objecting to clapping as a form of applause as well as the playing of anasheeds (Islamic songs) before or after his lectures. Although his objections may come from a strict application of Islamic legal rulings, they are hardly grounds for Ottawa to bar him from entering the country.

The trouble for Riyadh ul-Haq started when Judeoscope, a Canadian website ( that describes itself as being “dedicated to shedding light on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and militant Islam in Canada,” published audio excerpts from a few of his hundreds of lectures.

It is difficult to verify the authenticity of the excerpts and Riyadh ul-Haq himself has tried to explain three of the 11 in a lengthy interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

In the first excerpt, he appears to be extolling the virtues of martyrdom (shahadah) and calling for the liberation of Masjid Al-Aqsa. In another he bemoans the fact that Muslims are forbidden from using the “J” word and anyone who supports Muslims who engage in jihad, “their blood is made halal.” In a few of the clips there is no mistaking Riyadh ul-Haq’s admiration for the Taliban and his disdain for homosexuals.

In an excerpt, Riyadh ul-Haq cites a verse of the Qur’an that says “the most intense in their hatred and enmity toward the believers are (al yahoud wa-al-ladhina ashraku) the Jews and the idolaters.”  There is no doubt that Riyadh ul-Haq is well aware of the social context in which the verse was revealed. Apparently ignoring that context, something the vast majority of traditional scholars will never do, he says “the chief idolaters in our times are none other than the Hindus.” Excerpts by their nature are misleading — whoever selects them gets to decide what conclusions they lead a person to make.

Riyadh ul-Haq’s most questionable comments are reserved for Jews. He seems to repeat conspiracy theories found in the imaginary “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” In another quote, he prays that Allah “expose the Jews for what they truly are and give all Muslims the understanding and the sense to see through their propaganda, their lies, and deceit and to view them as they really are and thus treat them accordingly.”

Perhaps in the actual lecture from which this excerpt is taken, he goes on to explain what he means by “treat them accordingly,” but since he hasn’t in the excerpt, people are left to imagine the worst. The excerpts on Judeoscope of Riyadh ul-Haq’s talks are certainly controversial, even inflammatory.
If these are the worst things he has said — and one has to assume they are since the person who put them together is not interested in making him look good in the public eye — Riyadh ul-Haq is not inciting violence or hatred. If he was, that might have been sufficient grounds for Ottawa to deny him entry, even though his British citizenship does not require him to obtain a visa.

Newspapers quickly jumped all over Riyadh ul-Haq basing their reports on information obtained from Judeoscope. A coalition of Hindu, Jewish, and a “moderate” Muslim organization led by Tarek Fatah aggressively lobbied Ottawa to deny Riyadh ul-Haq entry to Canada on grounds that his views were unCanadian and detrimental to the mental health of Canada’s Muslim youth. Canadians were already tuned into the affairs of Muslim Canadians because 17 young Muslim men in Toronto had been arrested in June on terrorism related charges.

All of a sudden, leaders in the fairly large and influential Indo-Pakistani Canadian Muslim community, which admires Riyadh ul-Haq, went into damage control and made a desperate attempt to quell the storm that was starting to brew.

The Montreal conference organizers cancelled Riyadh ul-Haq’s invitation to speak. A university in Ontario cancelled his speaking event as well citing a scheduling conflict. But the Islamic Foundation in Toronto stuck by its invitation. A prominent member of the federal parliament in the mosque’s district had endorsed Riyadh ul-Haq’s invitation and the mosque administration believed that it stood on a solid foundation.

Three days before his arrival, Air Canada allegedly issued an internal memo requesting that Riyadh ul-Haq obtain clearance from the Canadian High Commission in London before being allowed to board any of its flights to Canada. Riyadh ul-Haq, to his credit, met with officials at the High Commission in London, but details of their discussions have not been made public.

By this time it was evident that Riyadh ul-Haq was not going to attempt to enter Canada, although he did speak at the Toronto conference via a video-Internet hook-up.

I have met with my share of preachers who have incited hate and violence over the last several years. They range from the strident Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza to the crafty Sheikh Omar Bakri and the not-so-subtle Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, a Jamaican with a violent streak and once a teenage acquaintance of mine. El-Faisal is serving an eight-year sentence in the U.K. for preaching hate and inciting to violence. Two of the London suicide bombers last year were said to have been inspired by El-Faisal’s message of hate.

If any of these men ever tried to visit Canada, even so much as to pick strawberries, I could understand why Canadians would be alarmed. But Riyadh ul-Haq is not in their league. He is not a preacher of hate and certainly not a scholar who incites to violence. If so, he would have run afoul of his country’s judiciary a long time ago.

In December 2001, I, like hundreds of other worshipers, crammed into the prayer hall at the Birmingham Central Mosque to listen to Riyadh ul-Haq deliver his Friday sermon. It was to be my first meeting with him. I was doing a radio documentary on “Divided Loyalities” — how British Muslims were attempting to reconcile their allegiance to faith with their obligations to citizenship. I wanted to interview Riyadh ul-Haq because I had heard he was openly condemning his country’s role in the “war on terror,” labeling it instead a “war on Muslims.”

I asked Riyadh ul-Haq to explain why he believed that the “war on terror” was a “war on Muslims.” Riyadh ul-Haq answered by referring to what he described as “the premeditated murder of Muslims in Srebrenica, a U.N. safe haven.” He listed a litany of grievances of Muslims at the hands of their enemies. “Terror,” he said, “is being practiced by Israel against the Palestinians, by India in Kashmir, by Russia in Chechnya, and now by America in Afghanistan.”

But clearly, I found myself saying, the United States was aggressed against when the USS Cole was attacked, when two American embassies in Africa were bombed, and with the attacks of 9/11, all of which were committed by people who took their orders from leaders residing in Afghanistan. He didn’t let me finish. “There is no evidence of this,” he said. “More evidence is required to prosecute a shoplifter than what has been offered by the Americans to start a war against the Taliban.” He said, “the Taliban acted honorably and yet the U.S. is bombing a Muslim country whose guilt is yet to be proven.”

It was clear to me that, despite the fact that he lived in the U.K. and evidently seemed comfortable at the time, Riyadh ul-Haq’s allegiance was with Mullah Omar and the Taliban, not with Tony Blair or the people who voted his Labor government into power. I pressed on. Is it a jihad in Afghanistan? I asked. “We totally agree with the Taliban that this is a jihad,” Riyadh ul-Haq said.

What obligation does this place on Muslims living in the United Kingdom, I asked. Riyadh ul-Haq said that even if an aggression was happening elsewhere, Muslims in the U.K. are obliged to stand up for truth and justice. “It is a principle of their faith (iman) to feel the pain and suffering of their brothers ‘as if they are a single body.’ ”  He made it sound as if this was a legal principle, when in reality it is a spiritual state.

I prefaced my next question by telling him I had heard that many young British Muslims were going off to fight for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda against American and British troops in Afghanistan. I asked him whether he advocates this course of action.

“Muslims,” he said, “are allowed to protest, lobby, campaign, but they should not do anything that would endanger the lives of innocent people in Britain, nor should they do anything to create anarchy. They should act within the confines of the law.” He didn’t answer my question but his answer was important because he had made a clear distinction between what he considered to be “jihads” in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, or Gaza, and the limits of resistance at home in the U.K., and I assume, by extension, Canada and the United States.

This is a very important distinction and one that unfortunately gets lost in translation especially among Muslims who are born and raised in the West and who, it appears, are more determined now than ever to latch on to a foreign cause.

The experience of Riyadh ul-Haq is significant and it should be discussed. Words shape outlooks and inform the decisions people make in life and ultimately their actions. Those who are put in the privileged position of addressing Muslims must first recognize that they have been given an amanah (trust), and by taking it on, they should strike a fair balance between an already existing and instinctive allegiance to the cause of Muslims abroad, and the overriding obligations all Muslims have to citizenship at home.

Published in Islamica Magazine