Three years ago, as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, I was putting the final touches on my book, The Trouble with Islam Today.
One afternoon, I took a break to stretch my legs. Strolling past the debates room in the student centre, I saw mounds of shoes and realized it must be time for " jummah" prayers -- the communal worship in which devout Muslims participate every Friday. The place was packed with men, mostly young, many wearing logos of local sports teams.
Although I wondered where the women were (usually they could be spotted behind the male students), my attention quickly turned to the front of the room. The twenty-something prayer leader, was speaking into a microphone. His topic: holy war, and not just in Iraq.
"The jihad does not start there, brothers," he assured the faithful. "It starts here. But if you cannot contribute with yourselves and your sons, then contribute with your money." The brothers neither applauded nor grimaced. They quietly listened. I reported what I'd heard. Three weeks later, campus officials told me they'd raised the matter with Muslim student leaders who assured them that messages of violent jihad don't represent Islam.
Would the preacher be investigated? No. But at least other Muslims didn't take him too seriously.
If this was supposed to come as a relief, I missed that memo.
What I found most telling is that the imam incited his followers transparently in a public building at a busy time of day. No need for secret societies or code-talk. He and his sympathizers figured they could get away with shamelessness. Shamefully, they were right.
With the bust of a suspected terror plot in Toronto, amateur jihadists should expect more questions. For example, if they're so outraged by images of Muslim corpses in the dusty streets of Baghdad, where's their fury over black Muslims dying at the feet of Arab militias in Darfur? Or democracy activists being clubbed by Mubarak's riot police in Cairo?
In the past 50 years, more Muslims have been raped, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by other Muslims than by any foreign imperial power. Does that matter to the would-be jihadists? If not, aren't they doing exactly what they claim the West does -- demeaning Muslim victims of oppression?
The rest of us should expect questions, too. Ordinary Muslims have a duty to challenge any clerics and civic leaders who make excuses for Islamist terror. After last year's bombings in London, the Muslim Council of Britain insisted that the real culprit was economic discrimination. Soon after, I travelled to Leeds and Bradford -- home of the alleged bombers -- to speak with average Muslims. They told me that their leadership was dodging the truth, including the fact that moderate Muslim parents had refused to learn English and had abdicated their authority as moral guides. Enter the Internet, where drifting sons got their guidance from radical -- English-speaking -- preachers.
Similar messages of self-criticism came from young Muslims whom I engaged at a conference in Egypt two weeks ago. From Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian territories, student delegates asked: How can we Muslims allow our leaders to continue blaming the world for what we're doing to ourselves? In the coming weeks, Canada's Muslims may need to follow the lead of these youth.
Above all, non-Muslims in Canada should ask themselves a basic question: What makes so many of us afraid to ask about what's happening in the Muslim community? The easy answer is multiculturalism, according to which all cultures and religions are equal and off-limits to scrutiny.
But multiculturalism, like any belief system, becomes a stale orthodoxy if taken literally. By definition, orthodoxies anesthetize our brains, deny our consciences, suppress our voices and compel us to abandon the critical spirit that keeps any open society open. This past weekend, Canadians received a wake-up call. Let us all re-discover our spines -- and our minds.
Irshad Manji, a fellow at Yale University, is author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call For Honesty and Change.
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