Presenting: Farzana Hassan - A Progressive Voice in Canadian Islam

Published: 16th June 2006
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The current controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed has ignited my interest to educate myself more about Islam as I realized that there is so much I don't know. Ignorance generally breeds suspicion, hate and resentment, and I cringe when I hear generalizing statements along the lines of "All Muslims are....". This kind of stereotyping doesn't help anyone and just puts up barriers between people of different backgrounds.

In my own business I work with two Muslim individuals and they are two of the nicest, kindest, most cultured human beings you could ever meet. So to broaden my understanding, I started searching for someone from the Muslim community to shed more light on Islam and the current tensions.

Farzana Hassan, a Pakistani-born Canadian citizen, has held many senior positions in a variety of Muslim and Interfaith organizations and she agreed to share her views on the current controversies and on Islam in general.

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background. Where did you
grow up, what is your family background.

I am originally from Lahore, Pakistan, a bustling city of teeming millions,
boasting of historic sites, reputable educational institutes and centers of
art and culture. I come from a family of civil servants, academicians and
educators. Education was always prized in our family and I attended the top
schools and colleges the city could offer. I later completed my Masters
from the University of Massachusetts. My father Dr. Riaz Hassan, has a
doctorate in Linguistics. My mother Parveen, his first cousin is also a very
highly educated lady with a Bar- at- law from Lincoln's Inn, London, an M
Litt. from Durham University England, and a PhD in Political Science from
Punjab University. We therefore have a long tradition of literary and
academic pursuits. My maternal great-grand father was an acclaimed
playwright, poet and scholar of Islam. My maternal aunt Dr. Riffat Hassan is
a well-known feminist theologian.

2. At a young age you came to North America. Please tell us about that and where you lived.

I came to North America at the tender age of thirteen and completed High
School from Fall River Massachusetts a few years later.. My parents had
divorced by then. I think there were cultural differences between the two in
spite of being closely related to each other. My father, who is half
British was brought up in a very Anglicized home environment. My mother was
from a more conservative and traditional background. She married my
step-father Dr. Shaukat Ali before we came to the States. Not only was he
an excellent father to me, we were also great friends. After completing
High School I went back to Lahore to complete my bachelors at the Kinnaird
College for Women.

3. Please tell us about your view of Islam. What does Islam mean to you?

Islam for me is a generic concept. It means "surrender to the will of
god". Whoever surrenders to the Will of God according to their own
particular understanding of God, for me qualifies as a "Muslim" in that
generic sense. This may also offend some people who do not profess Islam.
However, I have arrived at this understanding in order to satisfy an inner
urge prompting me to include all of humanity as being on the path to
salvation. I believe in a basic underlying unity of all faiths. The
different religions are only different expressions of the same message and
axiomatic truths. The Quran articulates what most people of the world
already believe in i.e Transcendence and universally recognized moral
values.

Islam is more rightly characterized as a "Deen" which conforms to the
natural propensities of man. It is a modern expression of man's natural
religion which recognizes the Ineffable and is imbued with an innate sense
of right and wrong common to all faiths.

4. Please talk to us about the fine distinctions between Islam as a
religion and Islamic cultural practices that are being observed today.

Islam spread in mostly patriarchal societies. Every culture interprets
religious precepts according to its own social mores. Islam too came to be
interpreted in a patriarchal way because of the patriarchal cultures where
it spread. These cultural practices have now come to be regarded as being
synonymous with Islam.

5. Please explain to us the term "Sharia Law" and how recent discussions
have led to some controversies. What is your viewpoint on this?

Shariah is the entire corpus of the public and private life of a Muslim.
"Shariah law" specifically is the codification of the juristic rulings of
the classical jurists of Islam. In the Canadian context the term was being
used for Muslim tribunals that would adjudicate cases pertaining to divorce
and alimony. I do not believe in bringing Shariah law to Canada. If Shariah
is seen merely as a personal moral code inspiring righteous action, then I
don't have a problem with it. It is the legalities embedded in Shariah
that bother me because they put women and religious minorities at a considerable
disadvantage.

6. Why in your opinion are so many Muslims so angry today? Please comment
on the historical context of this anger.

Muslims rage can be traced back to many events from the time of the
Muslim exodus from Spain. They came to be colonized by Western powers. The
Ottoman Empire was dismantled. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fuelled
Muslim anger. And recently the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have further
exacerbated the situation. The anger is directed mostly towards Israel and
the West. I feel that some of it is justified although Muslims are no less
to blame in the current conflicts. They have missed several opportunities
to establish a Palestinian state. Their own polities are dysfunctional in
more ways than one.

7. You were the Canadian President of an organization called "Muslims
against Terrorism". Please tell us more about that.

Muslims Against Terrorism was established in 1999 by Mr. Soharwrady. It
seeks to fight terrorism and violence at the ideological level. It has
fourteen chapters all over the US and Canada. I was the National President
until September 2005. Under my mandate, the group organized lectures and
seminars in an effort to correct Muslim and non Muslim understanding of
concepts such as Jihad, women's rights in Islam and interfaith issues. We
also sent many press releases condemning acts of terror and violence against
civilians.

8. You are now involved in the Muslim Canadian Congress. Please tell
us more about this organization and your work with them.

The Muslim Canadian Congress is a progressive Muslim organization which
supports gay rights, equality for women and separation of church and state.
I support the general platform of the organization although we often
encounter differences over how to best achieve our objectives-all of course
in the spirit of democracy. The Muslim Canadian Congress recently won the
battle against the introduction of Shariah tribunals with the help of other
groups such as the Canadian Council of Muslim Women of which I am a member
as well.

9. Another organization you are part of is the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims.

The Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims meets at Temple Emanuel once
a month. We discuss issues of mutual concern in a friendly and respectful
manner. The group also issues joint statements protecting the rights of
Muslims and Jews living as diasporic, minority communities in Canada. The
group recently issued a powerful statement against the offensive cartoons of
the prophet Mohammed published by the Danish journal Jyllands Posten.

10. You also work with the "Credit Valley Interfaith Coalition", please tell us more about that.

My interfaith work accords me membership in various other multi-faith
groups such as the Credit Valley Interfaith Coalition and the 905 Interfaith
groups. We share our beliefs and practices with each other, again in a
friendly and respectful manner. The idea is not to convince each other about
the" truth "of our particular faith group but to genuinely understand our
differences and develop respect for them.

11. How would you describe your world view today, as a Muslim woman living in Canada. How did you arrive at your insights?

I am a believer and a Muslim. However, I espouse a sort of a spiritual
humanism which is inclusive of all faiths, ethnic differences and
nationalities. I have come to abhor class differences or distinctions based
on religion or other things that divide people. We are all the same deep
down. The different faiths are basically expressions of the same general
philosophy common to all faiths and I see no reason why we cannot all live
in harmony and peace with each other. I see the differences as being very
superficial and the commonalities far greater.


12. You also hold lectures at different organizations. What topics do you
lecture about and at which institutions?

I have recently given talks on various topics such as women's rights in
Islam. I have spoken at Seneca College, the University of Vermont, at UTM,
the University of Rochester, UMass, and also at various churches and
synagogues on terrorism, jihad and women's rights in Islam.

13. You wrote a book called "Echos from the Abyss", please tell us more about that.

My book entitled "Echoes from the Abyss" is a fictional account of child
prostitution in India. As I said the characters are all fictional but the
story is based on a very ugly reality that affects eight and nine year old
girls trapped in the degradation of sex slavery. The story is set in India
but the problem is universal. It takes place right here in Canada. The book
can be purchased from amazon.ca. It is available in some bookstores in the
US. It is also available in the Toronto Women's bookstore.

14. You are also an accomplished musician, and you indicated that Islam
puts some limits on the type of music that is allowed. Please tell us more about that.

I should qualify that it is only orthodox Islam that puts limits on
music. As a matter of fact, Muslims have contributed tremendously to the
growth of music as an art form. Many instruments currently in vogue in the
Muslim world were invented in Muslim Spain such as the Oud. According to
some historical accounts, the current system of music notation is also
Muslim in origin.

I am a pianist and a vocalist. I have taught classical piano to students in
Canada for many years. I also perform Hindi and Urdu songs at informal
gatherings.

15. What message do you want to send to the world about Islam?

Islam is not a monolith. There are Muslims who are fighting for justice
harmony and tolerance such as some of the organizations I am member of.
Even conservative Muslims are peaceful people although I urge them to
challenge traditional interpretations of Islam. If, as they believe Islam is
universal, it cannot be practiced in a parochial, medieval or patriarchal
way.

16. What can we all do to restore and create a more positive climate between Muslims and other religions / cultures?

It is imperative for all peoples dedicated to restoring peace and harmony
to the world to examine their own religious precepts as well as those of
others in a dispassionate manner. There are many misconceptions floating
around about the religion of Islam in the West as there are about Jews among
Muslims or about the Americans in the Muslim world. All sides need to shed
their biases and prejudices. All religions exhort followers to tolerance
and love for all. There are many people working towards this cause. I would
like to see more of these messages covered in the media as well. The media
tends to exploit the differences and bigotry among people. It should focus
rather on the positive efforts being undertaken by many among all faith
traditions, including Islam.

Farana, thank you so much for taking your time to share your views and enlighten us. All of us need to come together to break down our barriers of ignorance and to open our hearts to get to know one another, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.

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