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On presenting his new cabinet, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced, “This is the Canada we have been building.” Among others, the diverse cabinet included Jody Wilson-Raybould, an indigenous woman, Harjit Singh Sajjan of Sikh background and Maryam Monsef, a Muslim woman of Afghan origin. 

Through the formation of such a cabinet, Trudeau put into action his rallying sentiment “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”  

The new Prime Minister’s speeches and statements bode a positive outlook for the country, simultaneously upholding the values Canada has been known for abroad while reflecting the Canada of today, vibrant with diversity. This contrasts his predecessor’s narrow focus at home and disregard for our traditional stature among nations.

Trudeau’s reshaping of the government bought to mind the possibilities for change in other parts of the world. As a Canadian Imam, proud of my country’s commitment to pluralism, I couldn’t help but think what would happen if the Muslim world took cues from the country the PM is bringing back to life?

What would happen if Muslim leaders reshaped their policies and practices similarly?

I have no doubt doing so would align with the inherent ethics of Islam. In fact, our preachers, scholars, and leaders constantly speak of the high ideals of Islam: equity, social justice, compassion and tolerance for diversity, among others.

The problem is when we speak of these ideals, we’re often left resorting to referencing a distant past for a model.

In fact, it’s hard to find a model of Islamic societal ethics in action today.

I vividly remember a course I took while enrolled in a Ph.D. program at McGill University in the late seventies. During one of my presentations, as I proudly explained the Islamic concept of social justice, the professor interjected with a question that shook me, “these are lofty ideals, but where is the practical model?”

As people of faith, it is hard for us to recognize the discrepancy between the ideals taught in our books and the practices on the ground. Unless and until we face this paradox squarely and try to reconcile the two, we’ll never be able to change our condition for the better.

A hundred years ago, Muhammad Abduh, a pioneer of Islamic reform, came face to face with this stark reality while visiting Europe for the first time. Impressed by what he experienced there, he uttered these words, “In the West I saw a lot of Islam without Muslims; whereas, in the Arab world, I saw a lot of Muslims but not much Islam!” 

While speaking of Islam in this context, he was not speaking of the rituals of Islam, which many preach and broadcast ad nauseam. Rather, he was referring to the true social ethos of Islam. 

No student of Prophet Muhammad’s history would fail to recognize that his success was due in no small measure to his teachings emphasizing social justice and accountability, the rule of law, pluralism and other key institutions of faith.

Sad to say, one would be hard pressed to see any of these ideals practiced in the Muslim world today. One would be presented instead with a breakdown of law and order, corruption, discrimination and the absence of any sense of accountability.

Ironically, this irrational state has been taken for granted and accepted by some Muslim scholars as if it were an unchangeable norm dictated by God, and to question it would be regarded as akin to questioning God’s will.

It was Caliph Umar who said, “If a goat were to die on account of human neglect, I am afraid I will be accountable before God!” Today, we are not even concerned with the hundreds of people dying due to poor governance - foreign laborers in some gulf states come to mind. And yet our scholars rush to absolve these rulers of any responsibility by citing the ‘inscrutable will of God’.

It was again Caliph Umar who said, “When the rulers are unwilling to welcome criticism, and the people shy away from offering it, this would be the beginning of Muslim decline!”

It is precisely here that the Muslim world may do well to look to Canada.

Canada is a country that has reputably welcomed people from diverse backgrounds. People of all races and religions have settled in this country and have become citizens enjoying equal rights. While saying this, I am not denying the failures of certain individuals and officials in upholding these principles. However, a failure in the Canadian context to accommodate immigrants or minorities would not hold a candle to the plight of visitors to many Muslim countries. No matter how long a person lives, works and contributes in many of these countries, he’d still be treated as an alien, hardly enjoying any of the basic human rights taken for granted here in Canada.

It’s time to bridge the gap between Islamic ideals and actual practices in the Muslim world. Looking to Canada as a model might help. 

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