Raheel Raza is a one of a kind activist: A Canadian-based Muslim woman who has gained global notoriety for putting forth the most positive face of Islam while taking her co-religionists to task for certain behaviors.
Raza heads the Council of Muslims Facing Tomorrow. She was interviewed in Jerusalem by The Media Line’s Felice Friedson while in Israel for the Presidential Conference.
Raheel, how would you characterize the image of Islam to the Western world? What stereotypes are fair and which are hurtful?
That all Muslims are alike is the first stereotype. Even in Canada, where I live, there are Muslims from sixty parts of the world. We are diverse like every other community. I don’t speak for the entire Muslim world. I speak for myself and a group of progressive, liberal, freedom-loving Muslims who are part of my organization. Our thinking is perhaps different from the mainstream or the majority, but we are growing in number.
To what do you attribute your ideals in terms of how Islam is practiced and perceived?
I believe we are at a point where we need reform in the way we understand, practice and interpret their faith. I believe the spiritual message of Islam has been hijacked and politicized to such an extent that what is being presented is a twisted ideology that comes out of Saudi Arabia; Wahabism; Salafism; and it’s not the message that we learn from the Qu’ran.
When you grew up, did you see the fundamentalism of Islam around you? Was your home different than the perception of most North Americans vis-à-vis Islam?
I grew up in a very different atmosphere, in a pluralistic society where all these differences were not there within Islam; where gender equality was not so much of an issue. As the politicization of Islam grows, the spiritual message and spiritual practice are undermined more and more. Unfortunately, a large part of the Western world doesn’t see the spiritualness. In some ways I don’t blame them because the voices of the fanatics – the extremists and the minority – are always louder than those from the silent majority.
How do you define your mission?
I’m an activist for women’s rights and I believe that women being more than 50% of the world’s population, once they are empowered politically, economically and socially, they will be changed because they are the ones that bring up young men. They are the mothers, the teachers. It’s extremely important. In my tradition we say that if you educate a boy, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate a family, a village, a nation and the whole world.
Women played a key role in what the world called “the Arab Spring.” Did this surprise you?
It’s absolutely correct that women were front-and-center in the “Arab Spring.” They were very harshly silenced and “Arab Spring” soon turned into what I call the “Winter of Discontent” because these women were shut out. There are women who are bringing about change. They need to be socially, economically and politically empowered.
If you had to define one thing that you feel is missing in terms of women’s know-how, that could really exacerbate some of these issues—what could it be? What should be done?
Education. I come from a country where almost 75% of the population can’t write their names, so the level of literacy is very low. And among that 75% that are educated, women are not given that priority. When there is education then there is liberation of the mind. It can’t happen without social and economic empowerment as well. I’m talking about countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan where women are so concerned about three meals a day, about roofs over their heads, about infant mortality, about their health issues, that they can’t go out and be activists. So I have to be activists for those women as well and be a voice for the women who are voiceless.
In Canada, you have had significant involvement with the Jewish community. How did that come about and how do you work with the Jewish community?
In another part of my life, I’ve always been an interfaith advocate. So for 25 years I have believed that dialogue and discussion with members of other faith communities brings about a lot of understanding. Since we came to Canada as a minority, I felt it was very important that people know about us and that we know about them. I have supported the right of Israel to exist as a country and that has befriended me with many people who are Jewish. Islam is "Judaism light."
There have been recent issues in Israel regarding women and religious observance. You were the first woman to introduce mixed-gender services in Canada on Fridays. What did you do in order to make that happen?
It was an interesting task because it was something new, different and out-of-the-box. For almost 1,400 years, men have had control of the prayer services, the mosques. But I was asked by a small community of progressive Muslims to lead them in prayers. I don’t believe that it is forbidden in Islam or in the Quran for a woman to lead prayers because there is that gender-equality embedded in the faith. It is only because of practice and culture and patriarchal concepts that this hasn’t happened before I knew it would be a challenging step, but with support from my husband and sons, I decided to take that step. I decided to give a message to the mosques that it’s not a men’s club and women need equal space, and to the younger generation, “You have to have the freedom to practice your faith in free will. It should not be something that’s forced on you.” And so I did that and it was very controversial globally – including my siblings – who weren’t particularly supportive, but I had a lot of support from young women.
You have taken on issues, in particular the building of the mosque at Ground Zero in New York. You were among those opposed it. Why?
From the beginning, I didn’t feel comfortable about it and didn’t think it was the right spot and the right move. There was something political about it. A mosque is supposed to be community and the community in Manhattan where this has happened at Ground Zero was not in favor of having a mosque there. It’s not the mosque they were against – just the idea of having it on that spot. If they wanted to build a mosque 10 miles away, that’s OK. I went back to the time of the Prophet and I remember that there was a story about when a mosque was built and the community there did not want it. The Prophet said, “This is not right thing to do.” Taking that example, I felt this, too, was not the right thing to do. It would have been a knife in the side of those people who had died there. It was not a compassionate act. It was financial and political and more importantly, where were the financials coming from? Later, it was discovered that there were some shady dealings and there were all sorts of murky things attached to the people who were going to build the mosque. I still don’t think it’s the right spot for a mosque.
I’m speaking to you in Jerusalem. Why are you here in Israel?
Well, I’ve learned to love this country. When I came here four years ago, I came to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque and while I was there I prayed I would come back again because I hadn’t had enough time to absorb what was here. And lo and behold, this is my fourth visit. I’m here and I love Jerusalem: it’s my favorite city in the world.
Globally, the anti-Israel boycott movement is growing. Yet, as a Muslim woman, you stand in stark contrast to that train of thought. What do you say to non-Muslim men and women who encourage the boycott of Israel?
I don’t believe in a boycott. I think it’s wrong. It doesn’t solve a problem. If one has issues, there are other ways of dealing with it. Israel is still the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East. One has to look and see what is happening and the changes that are being made here. A boycott is not fruitful. If we want to talk about human rights violations, we have to then have to talk about human rights violations in other countries as well. It seems to be very one sided.
In Canada, your home country, and in the United States, many have blamed Muslims for violence in the Middle East and on the streets of Canadian and American cities. What do you say to people who disparage Muslims living in North America?
The first and most important thing is to explain the difference between Islam and political Islam – which we call “Islamism,” differentiating between the spiritual message of the faith, giving my own example, saying that, “I’m an observant practicing Muslim;” and explaining how I am different than the Islamists and the extremists It’s because I believe in the separation of church and state – rather, mosque and state in our case. We need to have dialogue. We have to help people understand not to look at the whole Muslim world as monolithic. We have to be honest about our own shortcomings.
Article written by Felice Friedson
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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