Skip to main content

Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie and author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque.

If I were a bigot, the only Muslim I'd love is a dead one. So supporting a Muslim cemetery should have been a no-brainer.

But like all things associated with Islam these days, dead Muslims are as controversial as live ones.

Residents of the tiny Quebec town of Saint-Apollinaire, population 6,000 (no Muslims), voted this week against allowing a new cemetery in a wooded area on the edge of town. The mayor of Saint-Apollinaire, Bernard Ouellet, who was in favour of the cemetery, is convinced that the No vote, which won out by a tiny margin of 19 to 16, was fuelled by fear. Opponents of the cemetery had gone door-to-door to gather signatures in the spring to force a referendum on the zoning bylaw change by those who lived next to the site.

Read more: Quebec City Muslim community vows to continue fighting for rejected cemetery

I get it. If I were a white person who lived in a tiny town, who suddenly had a group of scary brown people wanting to be buried in the woods nearby, I would be frightened too. After all, when it comes to haunting people, Muslims already have the sartorial edge, robes and all.

Some say this is a racist decision. Ironically, this started when six Muslim men were shot in Quebec City's Islamic Cultural Centre in January, which forced the community to look for a cemetery close to home. And as usual, these days for Muslims, what is normally a non-issue became a lightning rod for controversy.

On Little Mosque on the Prairie, we did an episode where the Muslim community becomes obsessed about wanting its own cemetery. After finding a suitable area, the congregants lay on their right sides facing Mecca, testing out their future plots, only to find themselves gazing out at a saloon in the distance. Baber, the local zealot, angrily walks into the saloon and demands it be shut down. Dead Muslims don't want to spend eternity being watched by non-Muslims drinking alcohol. The saloon-goers are equally appalled. They don't want to be drinking alcohol while being watched by dead, disapproving Muslims.

These days, no one is worried about being watched by dead Muslims as much as they, according to some opponents, are worried that a Muslim-only cemetery could become a gateway to more Muslims, mosques and the biggest threat to Western civilization currently: veiled Muslim women.

As a woman who wears the hijab, I don't need to destroy Western civilization by moving next to a cemetery. I can do it just as easily in the suburbs. Personally, I want to be buried with my neighbours. I lived with them above ground and I want to hang with them below ground as well.

But I get why some in my community want a Muslim-only cemetery. When my father-in-law died a few years ago, we couldn't get him buried right away because it was a long weekend and cemetery staff weren't working. Muslims, like Jews, must be buried immediately. It freaks us out if we are forced to wait. The cemetery kindly informed us that if we had let them know ahead of time, they could have accommodated us.

Every year, the endless Muslim cemetery debate gets dug up. If we had a Muslim-only cemetery, we could get our dead into the ground before they get cold. But they're also expensive to maintain and the money could be used for the living. Where we get buried is an emotional debate for Muslims, as well as for non-Muslims.

The argument that the good citizens of Saint-Apollinaire suddenly grew very concerned about helping Muslims participate in a multicultural world of inclusion, even if it's only underground, coming from a town with no real history of multiculturalism and inclusion, is suspicious at best. As is the suggestion that Muslims asking for a Muslim-only cemetery is special treatment, given the number of Christian and Jewish cemeteries that have existed without controversy for centuries. Some Christians want to be buried in a Christian-only cemetery, not because they're racist, but because it's tradition. While other Christians, just like Muslims, have no issue with being buried with all and sundry.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in Canada and the United States, translating into both physical threats and symbolic ones. This is all part of a larger struggle for Muslims to be accepted. Building houses of worship or burying our dead used to be a lot easier, but now we face rarely used regulatory hurdles that suddenly emerge out of the woodwork.

But in heartening cemetery news, when vandals damaged a Jewish cemetery last March, Muslims came together to raise over $100,000 (U.S.) to help repair it. Both communities are acutely aware of how anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are hurting our respective groups. Sometimes cemeteries drive people apart and sometimes they bring them together. I hope that interfaith co-operation both above and below the ground will win the day.