‘No empty words’: Muslim Canadians use Ramadan to urge Gaza action

Muslim groups say Canadian MPs won’t be allowed to speak to congregants this Ramadan unless they act to end Gaza war.

Muslim Canadians pray on the first night of Ramadan at the Anatolia Islamic Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, on March 10, 2024 [Mert Alper Dervış/Anadolu Agency]By Jillian Kestler-D’AmoursPublished On 11 Mar 202411 Mar 2024

Montreal, Canada – Ramadan is a time of self-reflection, family and joy for more than 1.8 billion Muslims around the world.

But with Israel’s war on Gaza dragging on, killing more than 31,000 Palestinians and plunging the tiny coastal enclave deeper into a humanitarian crisis, this year’s Islamic holy month – which began on Sunday night – has a different feeling.

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In Canada, the Muslim community’s pain over the situation in Gaza – and a widely held belief that Canadian politicians are not doing enough to stem the crisis – has spurred an unprecedented campaign this Ramadan.

“We’re seeing our brothers and sisters in Palestine die every single day. We’re seeing a number of horrific images flooding in,” said Fatema Abdalla, advocacy officer with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).

“So this Ramadan is definitely going to be much harder for everyone.”

NCCM is among more than 300 Muslim groups in the North American country that delivered an ultimatum to Canadian politicians: Act to end the war and defend Palestinian rights, or you will not get to speak to congregants during community gatherings this month.

The organisations, which include advocacy groups as well as mosques and cultural centres, demanded five things from lawmakers, from condemning Israeli war crimes to opposing Canada’s arms transfers to Israel and supporting an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“If MPs cannot publicly commit to all of these asks, then we can unfortunately not provide them a platform to address our congregations,” Abdalla said.

‘Very disappointed’

Like other countries around the world, Canada has for months seen major protests demanding an end to the Gaza war, which began in early October.

Israel’s attacks on the besieged Palestinian territory have caused widespread devastation and displacement, and the Israeli government also continues to block much-needed aid deliveries.

The United Nations has warned of widespread starvation and disease while the International Court of Justice ruled in late January that there is a plausible risk of genocide in the enclave — and ordered Israel to prevent genocidal acts from taking place.

“We’re very disappointed in the response of our elected officials [in Canada] to the catastrophic destruction in Gaza,” said Nawaz Tahir, a spokesperson for Hikma Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group for Muslims in and around the city of London, Ontario, which signed the letter.

“Historically, we have invited political officials to our events, to our mosques, to celebrate the concept of community during Ramadan. It’s hard to do that when there has been such a lack of response to really the mass murder of our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” he told Al Jazeera.

Canada has maintained close ties to Israel for decades, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government remains a staunch ally of the country.

For the first two months of the Gaza war, Ottawa resisted public pressure to call for a lasting ceasefire, instead backing a push for “humanitarian pauses”. In December, Canada changed course and backed a ceasefire motion at the UN General Assembly.

But Trudeau’s government faces continued calls to do more, including suspending the transfer of military goods to Israel over fears they could be used in rights abuses against Palestinians in Gaza.

The prime minister wished Muslim Canadians a happy Ramadan in a statement on Sunday, acknowledging that the holy month comes at a “particularly challenging time” due to the situation unfolding in Gaza. “Canada reaffirms our call for a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and the safe, unimpeded access to humanitarian relief for civilians,” he said.

Abd Alfatah Twakkal, a board member with the Canadian Council of Imams, a group that signed the Ramadan letter, stressed that Muslim Canadians want concrete action. “We don’t want tokenism. We don’t want empty words,” he told Al Jazeera.

Twakkal said the letter also goes beyond members of the Canadian government alone. “This is not a partisan issue. This is for any MP that sees the travesty and the catastrophe of what has unfolded and continues to unfold [in Gaza],” he said.

“We can’t just sit back and say nothing,” he added. “This is at the very least something that we need to do, to speak out and say, ‘Look, we have to take whatever steps within our means … to be able to put an end to the genocide that is taking place.’”

A man holds prayer beads as Muslim Canadians pray on the first night of Ramadan at the Anatolia Islamic Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, on March 10, 2024 [Mert Alper Dervış/Anadolu Agency]

Growing political power

Political analysts said the community’s letter reflects its growing political power.

According to the 2021 census, nearly 1.8 million people identified themselves as Muslim. The percentage of Muslims in the Canadian population more than doubled from 2001 to 2021 from 2 percent to 4.9 percent.

Muslims have been in Canada since the mid-1800s, but Naved Bakali, an assistant professor of anti-racism education at the University of Windsor in Ontario, explained that “the bulk of the immigration to Canada from Muslim-majority nations came in the ’60s and ’70s.”

As a result, Bakali said this “relatively young community” has typically been content with “performative and service-level engagement and basic representation”, such as visits by politicians to their places of worship.

While the community is home to a wide range of political views, Muslim Canadians have traditionally been supportive of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, according to Bakali.

The Liberals have long presented themselves as defenders of multiculturalism and immigration in Canada, and Trudeau came to power in 2015 in part by denouncing Conservative Party policies that critics said were Islamophobic.

Against that backdrop, Bakali told Al Jazeera that the Ramadan letter is a signal that “if the [Muslim] community doesn’t feel that it’s seen by a political party, I don’t think that that political party can rely on that unconditional support.”

He added: “There’s a lack of trust … and they don’t want to be used as a political piece in all of this. They want to feel that they’re heard and that they are being respected as a community.”

Demonstrators rally in Montreal, Canada, to demand a Gaza ceasefire on November 18, 2023 [File: Alexis Aubin/AFP]

‘Showing humanity’

That was echoed by Tahir. “There has been a political awakening in the Muslim community” in Canada as a result of the Gaza war, he said, “and I think that that is leading towards stronger engagement in politics by Muslims.”

Tahir explained that while some Canadian lawmakers immediately asked to sign on to the demands put forward in the Ramadan letter, others are taking time to consider the situation. But he said he believes MPs are taking note of the community’s position.

“We had one member of parliament tell us that their office received 10,000 letters about Palestine since October,” he told Al Jazeera.

Tahir also drew a connection between what is happening in the Gaza Strip and anti-Muslim hate incidents in Canada, which community groups said have increased sharply since the war began.

“We have seen the very real impact of Islamophobia in Canada,” Tahir said, pointing to a 2021 attack that killed four members of a Muslim family. Authorities described it as an act of anti-Muslim “terrorism”, and a judge recently sentenced the attacker to life in prison.

Ultimately, Tahir stressed that Canada’s elected officials need to act – both at home and abroad.

“We want them to be more conscious of taking action as opposed to coming to our mosques, getting a few pictures, sending out a few tweets. We’re past that now,” he said. “We want to see a true and sincere commitment to fighting Islamophobia and showing humanity in our foreign policy.”

Source: Al Jazeera