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It's a $50-million, 10-acre complex – a brand new home for Fort McMurray's Muslim community, breaking ground this spring. As Colin Freeze reports, it's also an experiment in multicultural Islam on an unprecedented scale

Islamic women celebrate World Hijab Day in Fort McMurray on Feb. 1, 2015 with a group photo. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

It’s Friday at noon, and a balmy minus 5 – pretty good for Fort McMurray in late November. Crowds are streaming in on foot, and cars are lined up for blocks. Everyone’s heading to the downtown mosque, the Markaz ul Islam, trying to make it in time for afternoon prayers.

A man from West Africa comes in with one from Pakistan, walking past an SUV whose licence plate sits in a frame marked “Dubai.” Somali cab drivers are parking, taking a break from their shifts. Most of the faithful are wearing parkas, some with a shalwar kameez underneath. Others arrive in bright yellow construction vests, on their way back from the oil sands. Fort McMurray is home to one of Canada’s fastest-growing Muslim communities.

The old mosque – opened in 1990, before oil money started pouring into this Northern Alberta city – is showing its age. In the slush-stained foyer where the men remove their shoes, a well-used light switch is held together by masking tape. On Fridays, demand is so high that they need to split the traditional communal prayer into three shifts, a couple hundred worshippers at a time.

Outsiders can see Islam as a monolith, but the religion incorporates more than a billion people worldwide, hailing from dozens of countries and speaking even more languages. Larger Canadian cities don’t have a single Muslim community so much as many different ones, each with its own mosques, support networks and social centres.

Not so in Fort McMurray. Due to the nature of Canada’s immigration patterns and to explosive growth in the Alberta oil industry, every sect, every ethnicity, has sent envoys to this boom town. Thrown together in a small space over a short span of time, Fort McMurray’s Muslims are engaging in an inadvertent social experiment, striving for a goal that eludes much of the Islamic world today: unity.

This spring, if all goes according to plan, an enormous Islamic centre will start to rise across town, its minaret an exclamation point in city’s skyline. The $50-million, 150,000-square-foot complex will include a K-12 school, a rec centre and a swimming pool. Far more than just a house of prayer, it will be a one-stop shop for families interested in worship, school and sport, and will be capable of accommodating more people for Friday prayers than can fit in the junior hockey arena for the games of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.

Fort McMurray's Muslim community has outgrown its existing mosque and has been working for years to establish a new space. The new Islamic centre will have prayer halls, a school and a recreation centre, including a pool. Click the red dots to see renderings of the new building, which will be built in four phases.


The new complex aims to be a tactile expression of a greater goal: the creation of an inclusive community for generations to come. Canada has never seen anything quite like it.

The dream isn’t coming cheap. Residents have collected $10-million for the complex locally, and are trying to raise more, even in the face of plummeting crude prices and uncertainty about the future of the oil sands. They are also looking to find donors in other countries. “Inshallah,” – God willing – “mid-April, early May, we are going to start the project,” one of the mosque’s fundraisers told the crowd at another prayer meeting, in December. “Inshallah, we’ll get lots of help. From Kuwait. From Qatar. From Canada. From the USA. From everywhere.”

Administrators of the mosque are quick to say that no foreign money has come just yet, and insist they would never let any donor shape their doctrine. “We don’t accept any conditions. Even if it takes 1,000 years to build it, let it be,” says Abdulsalam Abdo, the mosque’s president. “We don’t want to take orders from somewhere else.” Ensuring that the mosque remains a big tent for all Muslims will be essential to its success.

Amber Razak gives her a daughter, ten-year-old Wassi Haider, a push down a hill near their home in Fort McMurray. Wassi Haider, who loves tobogganing, is enrolled in a French immersion school in the city and studies the Koran at home via Skype from a teacher in Pakistan. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

Northern light

Fort McMurray is a lot farther north than most cities. Summer days can stretch for what feels like eons. This can make the month-long dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan exceptionally difficult, even for the most devout. For a full month of the lunar calendar, observant Muslims cannot eat or drink anything as long as the sun is in the sky.

“You probably heard the sun comes up at 3:30 in the morning?” says Aidrus Ahmed, a 28-year-old transplanted Torontonian whose family comes from Somalia. He found that his ability to suppress his appetite would not outlast such long summer days. “I couldn’t do it.”

Attempting to rediscover his religious roots, Mr. Ahmed learned that 18 consecutive hours of privation is not easy. Especially if you are trying to hold down an office job in financial services. “My manager at the time was telling me, ‘I have never seen you like this.’ I was pale. I had to meet 10 to 15 clients a day … a lot of talking, and imagine not drinking.”

Some Muslims speak enviously of towns in the Arctic, where the sun never sets during the summer, and whose residents can get a sort of religious dispensation to align their Ramadan with more southern time zones. Fort McMurray still sees nightfall, and Muslims must therefore keep their long fast, making it one of the toughest places in the world to practise a basic article of their faith.

The old-timers who have lived through earlier rounds of summertime Ramadan say it was even tougher in their day: Back then, there was no one to even commiserate with. “I came here and I thought I would never see another Arab,” recalls Hani Al-Ahmad, one of the first Muslims to arrive in the city. Originally a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, in the 1970s he had found a job as a mechanic for the Toronto Police. Then he heard that oil companies needed fleet workers out West, and decided to take a chance. Many months later, Mr. Al-Ahmad was overjoyed when he finally heard Arabic spoken by someone else in the Syncrude lunch room. He and the other man became fast friends; over time, the process repeated itself, like a chain reaction.

By the 1980s, several dozen Muslim families had moved to town. Some were Pakistani immigrants. Others were of Lebanese heritage, including some whose ancestors migrated from the Bekaa Valley to start farms in Alberta a century earlier. Edmonton claims to have built Canada’s first mosque in 1938. A half-century later, Fort McMurray Muslims still didn’t have one.

The Fort McMurray Islamic centre and mosque. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

So they started getting together in each others’ apartments and basements. Lacking professional preachers, the amateurs tried their hands at leading prayers. “I educated myself. I bought books,” recalls Mr. Al-Ahmad. “We used to do turns.”

The boom times hadn’t arrived yet, but pooling the $86,000 needed to buy and clear two residential lots downtown was relatively easy. The harder part was raising $320,000 for the structure itself. Word went out in Edmonton, in Toronto, even as far away as Dubai.

When the dome was finally finished, and painted green, the Muslims who gathered inside the two-storey structure found they had too much elbow room at prayers. Their sense of accomplishment was tinged with bemusement. Why on earth did they build so big?

Rendering of the new mosque, school and recreation centre Fort McMurray's Muslim community is working to build. (Courtesy studio senbel, architecture + design)

'It makes you feel more proud'

Over the years, as the oil-sands projects ramped up, waves of migrants from inside and outside Canada headed north up Alberta’s Highway 63. The Islamic substream started slowly, in the 1980s, with Arabs, mostly from Lebanon, and Pakistanis coming to find jobs. It gathered real momentum in the 2000s as the industry spawned services work, enticing Somali war refugees to come to town as cab drivers. By the time oil reached $100 a barrel, it seemed as if fragments of the whole world had beaten a trail to the oil sands. “It makes you feel more proud,” says Mr. Abdo. “In Lebanon you only see Lebanese. You don’t see anyone else.” Here, “You think, ‘This is Islam.’”

Describing his own religious awakening, the mechanical engineer explains that he now sees himself a part of a truly global faith. “When you come here, you see the Pakistanis, the Indians, the British, the Chinese all doing the same thing … The Chinese don’t speak Arabic, but they learn it to pray.”

He only wishes the city had a permanent place big enough for all its Muslims to gather. “We are like refugees in our own country,” he says. “We have no home. That’s very tough, actually.”

The 25-year-old downtown mosque cannot contain the growing community. The new Islamic centre – also to be called Markaz ul Islam – being planned on the outskirts of the city would sprawl over nearly 10 acres and be built in four phases. At one end would be a minaret and two prayer halls: enough to fit 1,200 men and, separately, up to 800 women. At the other end, a kindergarten-to-Grade-12 Islamic school would teach up to 1,000 children the province’s core curriculum alongside the Koran. An existing version of this school already shares space with a public school. (One YouTube video of a recent graduation ceremony features a musical backdrop of children singing to the tune of Yankee Doodle. “We believe in only one God, and his name is Allah. He created us to worship him, and say Inshallah.”)

Between the two wings would be a cavernous multipurpose hall – a home for future Eid celebrations. The rest of the year it would serve as a two-basketball-court gym.

Rendering of the swimming pool in the new mosque, school and recreation centre Fort McMurray's Muslim community is working to build. (Courtesy studio senbel, architecture + design)

The real novelty, though, is the finishing-touch fourth phase: a six-lane swimming pool that builders hope to complete should they raise enough money. Renderings show a pool completely surrounded by walls, with skylights channelling the sun. It’s a significant part of the complex, because many Muslims will not swim in the lavish new municipal recreation centre: It’s designed as a big fishbowl that any gawker can freely peer into, which offends Islamic rules about modesty.

Sharif Senbel, the Vancouver-based architect who drafted the blueprints, has built other mosques in Western Canada, but nothing as big as this. “If every single Muslim man, woman and child in Fort McMurray wanted to come,” he says, “they could be accommodated.”

And that is no small number of Muslims. A rapidly growing boom town until very recently, Fort McMurray has a population that sits at about 65,000, according to census data, with thousands more in transient worker camps. Those same data put the percentage of Muslims close to the national average of 3 per cent, but the community itself figures they are closer to 10 per cent.

Kiran Malik-Khan near her home in Fort McMurray in January. She is the organizer of World Hijab Day in the city. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

New home, renewed faith

It is mid-December and the city’s Pakistani Muslims filter into the Golden Years Society’s building for a hastily arranged vigil. Shuffleboard patterns crisscross the floor. There are boxes of Timbits on a table, and a big Christmas wreath speaks to impending celebrations. But the seniors’ rec centre is devoid of mirth. Men sit at the front of the room. At the back, little girls wear white hijabs; their mothers, black ones. Everyone is in shock. They hold candles. In Pakistan, the Taliban has just massacred more than 130 schoolchildren, a horrifying attack that capped a year of global violence by extremists.

Kiran Malik-Khan. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)


At a vigil held the day after Taliban gunmen killed more than 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar, members of Fort McMurray’s Pakistani community gather to express their feelings. Speaking is Kiran Malik-Khan, who is raising two boys in the boomtown.

A woman wearing a red leopard-print head scarf is at the microphone. “I had to talk to my sons this morning. They are 10 and 14,” says Kiran Malik-Khan. “I had to explain to them again – again – Islam is not about terrorism. Islam does not say, ‘Go out and kill children,’ ‘Go out and kill people.’ Islam does not say, ‘Go out and take lives.’”

“Again,” because a day earlier she had spoken to her sons about a deadly hostage-taking in Australia. Such actions, she tells them, are the handiwork of thugs, criminals and the mentally ill – never of a religion.

No one at the vigil can explain the carnage in their homeland, or even tries to. But what they do know is that they are grateful to be far from the violent sectarianism that has led to so much death and chaos. “Muslims are peace-loving people,” says Ms. Malik-Khan. “If there’s anything you take away today, please make it just that. We will not be defeated. We will not be broken. We will heal and teach our children – Islam is all about peace.”

Many Muslims here say that since moving to Fort McMurray – where they see Muslims from so many other parts of the world – they have experienced religious awakenings of their own. Ms. Malik-Khan distinctly remembers the day she decided to wear the hijab for good. It was November, 2010, and she was boarding a flight to Mecca for the hajj.

But while her outward transformation coincided with that journey, her internal one had begun a decade before. That’s when she arrived in Fort McMurray (she was born in Pakistan and raised in New Jersey) and discovered a perspective she could never have found anywhere else. She remembers her first impression: It was January; she and her husband were bringing a newborn baby to a town where they knew no one, in subzero weather. “It felt bleak. I’ll be honest.”

Over time, though, she grew to appreciate that the city is a blank slate, where people, especially immigrants, catch a can-do attitude and reinvent themselves. “If you don’t find something here that you want to do,” she says, “then you create it.” Ms. Malik-Khan was the lead organizer earlier this month for the city’s celebration of World Hijab Day at the Peter Pond Mall.

She says she is not afraid to get in people’s faces – if they presume to tell her not to wear the head scarf. “You’re entitled to your opinion, but your opinion ends where my jugular begins,” she says. And she seethes at a question she was once asked in Fort McMurray: “Why do you want to go back to the Stone Age?”

To teach her two sons Islam, she frequently gets them volunteering. Ms. Malik-Khan works at the local United Way and stresses that zakat (charity) is a pillar of Islam – even if she has to remind some of her fellow Muslims of this. “I love it when people say, ‘Oh, I volunteer for the mosque only.’ I say, ‘Okay. But what about for the community at large?’”

Fort McMurray's imam, Abdurrahmann Murad, leads Friday prayers which are sometimes held at the Holy Trinity Catholic High School because the city's mosque is too small to accommodate everyone. (Colin Freeze / The Globe and Mail)

A few days after the vigil for the Peshawar schoolchildren, Friday prayers are being held at Holy Trinity Catholic High School. The building is stamped with a red crucifix, but Muslims rent space eagerly – after all, 1,000 people can cram into the gym, and they need every inch of it.

Mohamad Abou Shhadi. (Colin Freeze / The Globe and Mail)


At Friday prayers in December, fundraiser Mohamad Abou Shhadi, asks the congregation to help raise $300,000 for building permits, so that construction can begin this spring.

High-school gyms, when they can be arranged, are the preferred venue for Friday prayers. That’s because the old mosque downtown is so small that women are told to stay home. (Prayer is traditionally considered an obligation for men in Islam, but not for women.)

In early December, the khutba (sermon) was about how solidarity can be a check against secular temptations. Now, two weeks later, it is about how solidarity can be a check against the scourge of extremism. “We can form a network, or a protective barrier, from the ignorance that causes so much damage to our community,” the prayer leader says.

Next up is Mohamad Abou Shhadi – a professional jeweller originally from Lebanon, and one of the mosque’s main fundraisers. He suggests the protective barrier is about to take form, if, that is, everyone would just dig a little bit deeper into their pockets.

“You know why this is a blessed community? We are one united family,” he says. “This is your project. Your children’s project. This is your jihad … your real jihad is to establish this project.” No one in the gym thinks for a second that he is talking about “holy war.” For the purposes of this gathering, jihad translates to “religious struggle”; Mr. Abou Shhadi has just learned that the building permits for the new complex will cost $300,000.

Fort McMurray's lone mosque was built back in 1989 to accommodate just 250 worshippers — which means Friday prayers are sometimes held at Holy Trinity Catholic School. (Ian Willms for The Globe and Mail)

The imam

Fort McMurray’s imam, Abdurrahmann Murad, has come full circle: Born in Surrey, B.C., he left Canada at 19 to study at a university in Riyadh. “It’s one of the most prestigious institutions that teaches sharia,” he explains of the Saudi Arabian school. Then, a few years ago, he came back to Canada to spread the word.

The imam is also one of 21 global instructors for the AlKauthar Institute, a coterie of mostly young, English-speaking orthodox Sunni scholars who tap into an online audience far greater than any of them could reach at his local mosque. In some of his video lectures, he wears a leather jacket as he holds forth on such topics as whether a beard is religiously mandated. Young Muslims post questions asking him whether they can use skin cream with alcohol in it.

His goal, he says, is “a sense of unity.”

On his personal website, the imam has posted links to provocative essays, authored by other Saudi-educated scholars, which he has translated into English. One such essay, The Rules on How to Interact with Non-Muslims, starts out with an analysis of Sura 5, Verse 51 of the Koran – “Take not the Jews and Christians for Friends.” It goes on to explore how Muslims are to deal with a kafir (infidel), a munafiq (hypocrite) or an apostate in times of peace and war. Another is titled Every Religious Innovation is a Means of Misguidance.

Asked about such essays, the imam says he should be judged by his own words and actions, and not what he has translated in the past. He says that “you go through phases in life” and adds that he wouldn’t do such translations now. These days, he uses Facebook and Twitter to broadcast more mainstream Islamic messaging. And he points out that in Fort McMurray he took his congregation through a detailed debunking of propaganda of the so-called Islamic State movement after a prayer session.

Since arriving in Fort McMurray just over a year ago, the imam has also given every Mountie in town a crash course in Islam – outreach that the RCMP unit commander later told me was very much appreciated.

The imam says he has changed a lot since moving back to Canada. In Fort McMurray, he explains, everyone overlooks small doctrinal differences in the broader interests of the community. “The Shiites will pray with their hands by their sides; we pray with our hands at our chests,” he says, by way of example. But no one is apt to point out Sunni-Shia schisms at prayers. “It’s not the time or the place. We’re all living in Fort McMurray. We don’t touch any buttons.”

Algerian-born butcher, Reda Zouaovi, prepares a lamb for a customer. He opened the first Halal butcher shop in Fort McMurray 10-years-ago when he moved from Vancouver.

The matter of money

There’s an Islamic proverb that says God builds a house in paradise for whoever builds a mosque on Earth, even if it is the size of a bird’s nest. That Fort McMurray’s Muslims are thinking so much bigger reflects their faith in God – and the oil economy. At almost every communal gathering, they pass a hat – or rather, big clear-plastic boxes. Mosque administrators say that they can collect $1-million to $2-million each year from Eid celebrations alone.

Inflated by well-paying oil jobs, at its peak the average family income in Fort McMurray ballooned to nearly $200,000. That was before the crash. Now, tanking crude prices are forcing Alberta’s politicians and CEOs to reconsider how much money they pump into schools, hospitals and future oil projects. Workers, too, are bracing for tougher times.

Even so, the city’s Muslims are being urged to think of a future that extends far beyond the current economic cycle. “Many brothers are complaining that their business is slow, that they are not making any money,” says the fundraiser, Mr. Abou Shhadi, as he chastises the congregation at Friday prayers. But that’s just all the more reason to give – doesn’t God reward those who struggle through adversity? “Brothers, you want Allah to open doors for you?” Mr. Abou Shhadi asks. “Donate to this project!”

On Feb. 13, the mosque administration sent its “national fundraising team” to Ontario to drum up donations in Mississauga. Fort McMurray Muslims, meanwhile, are being asked to prevail on people they know in mosques across North America. “Please contact them and ask for support,” reads the latest newsletter.

The efforts extend even further, to find donors in Kuwait and Qatar, although no money has materialized yet, according to mosque administrators.

Mr. Senbel, the architect who designed the Fort McMurray centre, has built a half-dozen similar projects across Western Canada. “Every mosque was built with local money … from the ones I’ve been involved in,” he says. “ They’ve raised every penny. Sometimes, they have to go to other parts of Canada – and it’s painful.”

Sundas Shamshad explains to Ferne Wynnyk how to wear a hijab during World Hijab Day at the Peter Pond Mall in Fort McMurray. (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

Foreign affairs

But in Ottawa, concern is growing about foreign influence in the country’s mosques.

On Feb. 2, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence heard from two witnesses, Canadians with roots in the Islamic world, who urged a crackdown on financing from the Arabian Gulf. “With money pouring in from Saudi Arabia, Iran and other states, and with mullahs and imams being imported to Canada, the result is very obvious,” testified Homa Arjomand, an anti-sharia activist of Iranian heritage. “The state has paved the path for more segregation, isolation and discrimination.”

Syed Soharwardy, a Pakistan-born imam based in Calgary, made the same point. “Control your ally Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states,” he told the Canadian politicians. “Stop that money which is secretly coming.”

“The money comes in different ways, in secret ways,” Mr. Soharwardy continued. He complained about Saudi-influenced global-outreach groups “brainwashing” university students. One that he mentioned: the AlKauthar Institute, the group of Internet-savvy scholars that includes Fort McMurray’s current imam.

Many of Fort McMurray’s Muslim leaders dispute this point of view.

To them, a renewed focus on the fundamentals of Islam is a boon for everyone. They are convinced that the secret to Islamic unity lies in seeking the common denominators laid out at the time of the religion’s seventh-century origins. Back then, says community leader Mr. Abdo, there were no divisions in Islam – “just the Prophet Mohammed, the Koran and the tradition of the Prophet.”

Muhammad Ahmad, 15, (left) plays video games with his brother Muhammad Khan, 11, (standing) in their shared room along with Khan's two friends Danial Chaudhary, 10, and Bilal Ahmad, 11 (right) . (John Lehmann / The Globe and Mail)

One community, many voices

Some outside observers say that the story of Islam in Fort McMurray sounds a lot like the story of Islam in other small Canadian cities. “Many young Muslim communities, they commonly make a universal mistake – they want to impose one narrative of Islam,” says Hussein Hamdani, an Ontario lawyer who advises the federal government on Islamic issues.

“They misdefine the word ‘unity’ to mean ‘uniformity,’” he explains. “So, in other words, we have to eat the same, dress the same, talk the same, look the same, speak the same, pray the same … but that’s not the way the Muslim world is.”

Threads of doctrinal discord are woven into the fabric of Islam, as they are in any long-standing religion, and some of the seams in Fort McMurray are starting to show.

A couple of years ago, the city’s Shia Muslims formed the Al-Mahdi Islamic Society, and have been holding occasional gatherings and maintaining an intermittent online presence. This is an echo of a much wider rift – Shia are the dominant sect in Iran and Iraq, but a minority of Islam’s global population, which is predominantly Sunni. The divide traces back 14 centuries, and lies at the root of many Middle East wars today.

A few years ago, the city’s Muslims of Pakistan heritage started to hold their own celebration – Mawlid, which marks the Prophet’s birthday. Such traditions can be common on the subcontinent but are often frowned upon in the Arab world as bida (innovation). The Pakistanis broke away to rent a school where they could sing songs for the occasion, and even posted a YouTube video about it.

These are the sorts of fault lines that routinely erupt in the Muslim world, and that tend to grow larger over time.

Rendering of the new mosque Muslims in Fort McMurray are working to build. (Courtesy studio senbel, architecture + design)

Many communities, one voice

Long before there was fitna (discord) there was Abraham.

The father of all monotheistic religions is revered in Christianity, Judaism and Islam for making the ultimate submission to the will of God. He is said to have obeyed God’s order to sacrifice his son, before God gave him a last-minute stay of execution.

The new Markaz ul Islam will be built in a Fort McMurray subdivision called Abraham’s Land. The name is meant to remind people that there is much more that unifies the faithful than that divides them. Two new Christian churches will flank the new mosque. Given the demographics at play, they won’t get built as quickly, they won’t be quite as full, but the planners say they are coming.

All this is happening now because, more than a decade ago, the city’s Muslims, Catholics and Protestants discovered that they had a common enemy standing in the way of their houses of worship: bureaucratic intransigence. So they incorporated a business, and named it after the Old Testament prophet, to put collective pressure on the government to cough up some land.

“I think I first suggested the name Abraham because I looked around the room and said, ‘That’s a man we all have an affinity for, eh?,’” recalls Pastor Glen Forsberg of the McMurray Gospel Assembly.

Over a decade’s worth of planning, Christian and Muslims have kicked off each development meeting with a communal prayer. They don’t share doctrine. But they did find a way to praise God together. Sometimes, they even cracked jokes about which faith is the true one.

The pastor recalls a conversation with a Markaz ul Islam administrator: “I said ‘Mohamad, how do you feel about us being so close to you. Is that a problem?’ He said, ‘Oh no! We’re just going to make all of you Muslims.’ I said, ‘We want all of you guys to become Christians – so we’re all on the same page.’”