In the wake of the horrific slaughter in Paris, what steps do we take? Some believe the best antidote is punitive strikes meant to deter, if not destroy, those who would contemplate further murder of non-combatants. Others, such as Canadian author Nancy Huston, point to the macabre scales of death: The killing of innocents abroad by Western countries begets the killing of innocents at home. Either way, we are caught in a vicious cycle of "an eye for an eye." A policy, which Gandhi observed, that makes the whole world go blind.
The backlash against Muslims has begun. As if, somehow, they are responsible for the heinous actions of mass murderers. As if the faith they profess is one and same with the twisted ideology of militant extremists. After issuing statements condemning the attacks, attending vigils for the victims and sending messages of condolence, Muslims gird themselves for the suspicion, vandalism and hateful comments that inevitably follow. Yet, our Canadian fabric is resilient, as demonstrated by the good people of Peterborough, Ont., who rallied around the Muslim community after its mosque was torched on Saturday (a crowdfunding campaign to pay for repairs has exceeded its goal of $80,000).
Between the feelings of empathy and fear, there is another path for Muslims: a critical look at the narrative of their faith that is taking shape. In her excellent CBC documentary The Struggle Over Jihad, journalist Naheed Mustafa explores the rich history of jihad and its recent devolution into a licence for murder and torture. But it is not only jihad that has been bastardized. There is a bifurcation in parts of the Muslim world about the practice of Islam itself. How it is defined. Who owns the narrative. Who propagates the message.
Here in the West, Muslims have the unique luxury – if not the duty – to examine such critical questions, and take ownership of their own narrative. If they don't, others will do it for them. Do Muslims in the West want to define Islam as a faith rooted in compassion, generosity and pluralism? Or will it be defined as a religion of fear, terror and subjugation, as advocated by extremists? While the choice may be obvious, it requires forceful authentication through repeated words and actions.
Own the message, and declare it with conviction: Islam forbids terrorism, murder and mayhem. Extremists who murder innocent civilians, as retribution for Muslims killed by the West, do not speak for me. I will fight injustice with people of justice, using non-violent means. I will fight to protect my fellow human beings from harm, because my faith demands it. I will look after my neighbour and help to make this country a better place. I will follow on the footsteps of Prophet Mohammed, who was sent as a mercy to mankind.
Such a principled path includes fighting for the rights of innocents abroad through legitimate means. It includes standing up to Islamophobia and engaging in the wider struggle against xenophobia.
It also encompasses the duty to work with law enforcement to ensure the safety of all Canadians. This is evident in the number of plots thwarted by Muslim tips and informants. In a 2007 Environics poll, the overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslims believed it was their responsibility to "report on potentially violent extremists they might encounter in their mosques and communities."
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Muslims organized grassroots demonstrations in Ottawa, Toronto, Kingston and London, Ont., reiterating the commitment to our shared humanity, while welcoming all Canadians to join in the call. Such efforts are shaping a Canadian narrative of Islam and should be repeated. Grassroots efforts that have spawned interfaith, cultural, charitable and civic initiatives are also moulding an indigenous form of Islam, rooted in a Canadian ethos.
Finally, owning the narrative means purposeful use of language. Those who know the true nature of the Islamic State refer to it by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, which has a derogatory meaning. They certainly don't label Daesh members as jihadi. Islamic law defines the terror perpetrated by extremists as hiraba, which is diametrically opposed to jihad. They seek legitimization under the moniker of jihad. Let's not give into that. Call them for what they are: hirabi. In the propaganda war, language means everything.