Islam, Canada, and M-103
“Canadians don’t know Muslims; they don’t understand Islam. And that ignorance is fuelling a lot of fear. And the fear is just leading people to become more aggressive.” This is a small excerpt from this week’s important conversation on Islam, Canada, and the recent motion that was passed in Canada – M-103. We’re joined by Dr. Wesley A. Thiessen from Calgary, Alberta who has lived for many years in both North Africa and Jerusalem. It was during this time that God began to work in and through Dr. Thiessen’s life to help him learn the religion of Islam more in depth. This has led him to have many great relationships with Muslims, and great knowledge to help people like us who may not know how to respond to the influx of Muslims in Canada. We all have different ideas and opinions, so let’s talk. But first, listen to this conversation with Dr. Thiessen.
Dr. Wesley has a blog! He obviously writes about Islam. Check it out!
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Dr. Wesley A. Thiessen. He’s got his PhD in Islamic history, and he’s recently now back in Canada. Anyways, thanks for being on the show today with us.
Isaac, it’s great to be here. Thank you very much for having me.
Why don’t you just share a bit about who you are personally and what exactly you do. And also after that, how you came to know Jesus as well.
So, I live in Calgary, Alberta – I was born and raised here. When I was doing my graduate studies I spent some time overseas. I was in Jerusalem for a couple of years, and those were very life-changing years for me. It opened up my horizons of people in different cultures and I felt like during those times God gave me a very, very strong love for Arab peoples. And I knew that at some point in my life that I would go back and live in an Arab culture.
After that I got married, started having kids, and then an opportunity came for me to go and teach English in North Africa. So we went to Libya, we were there for six months. And then we spent, after that, fifteen years living in Tunisia in North Africa.
And in the middle of that time, or closer to the end of it, I actually came back to Canada to complete my PhD in Islamic history because of the time I had spent there and my desires to better understand the people I was living among and how Islamic law actually was formed. My focus is on the early, formative period of Islam.
And how did you come to know Jesus in all of that?
Well I was brought up, like I said, in Calgary – I was brought up in a Christian home. So I’ve been a church goer for most of my life, except when I moved to the Muslim world where it’s difficult sometimes to find a church. I made a decision when I was eight years old that I wanted to commit my life to Christ. There were various times throughout my teen years afterwards, being involved in summer camp and things like that, where I continued to grow in my relationship with God. And then at one point I just made a decision that I was going to commit my future to God as well and let Him decide where I was going to go.
And have you felt Christ working in and through the different decisions you’ve made, especially when it comes to studying Islamic history and all that? Have you felt the guiding of the Spirit in that?
You know, I would probably point back to a day when I was in Libya – we were only there for six months, but we lived in a city that was eight hundred kilometers south of the coast line, so you could say that it was in the middle of the Sahara Desert. A city of about a hundred thousand people. And I remember very specifically one day where I was doing something and I said to myself, “I am able to do this only because all of these other events in my personal history have taken place.”
I am a very strong believer in God using the events of our life and the decisions that we make for His purposes for us.
Well to jump right in here. Many Christians, and I have to be honest and include myself in this as well, don’t necessarily think too much about the religion of Islam. We hear it in the news here and there, we might hear about it in a World Religions class in college, but to give us an idea, how many people in Canada would identify as a Muslim?
Well, I checked some statistics out and in 2011 the census identified 1,092,000 people as Muslim, or those people identify themselves as Muslim. A local Imam (Muslim priest) here in Calgary says that that number is closer to 1.2 or 1.3 million. Somebody else that I spoke to on the phone earlier this morning says that that number is about 1.1 million.
So we’re looking at about 1,100,000 people who identify as Muslim in Canada.
Our population now according to the 2016 census is 36.4 million, and so that means more than 3% of Canada’s population would identify as Muslim. And if my figures are correct, just to give people a comparison, when I was teaching Canadian civilization in North Africa, we talked about indigenous affairs as well. And the statistic that I quoted was that less than 2% of Canada’s population is indigenous.
So now the Muslim population in Canada would appear to be greater than even our own indigenous population.
Now, across North America you have dozens and dozens of people calling themselves Christians (they go to church and so on), yet they have completely different beliefs amongst many. Now, in my general and basic knowledge of Islam, you have two major groups the Sunnis and Shias, and you obviously know more about this than I do, but, is this the same for Islam in the sense of, having all of these different kinds of Muslims?
So in Canada, would you have multiple different Muslims believing maybe radically different things?
There are different sects of Islam, that is true. And the greatest division is, as you pointed out, between Sunni and Shia. And many Muslims say that this is very similar to the difference between Catholics and Protestants.
In addition to that, there are other sects within these groups, and that’s why we see politically motivated groups now in the Middle East for example, or even further into Asia. There are even groups who are more mystical in their beliefs, like Sufi Muslims. Sufi Muslims can come from either Sunni or Shia backgrounds. But these people would have some different views. Even within those groups you might even get some groups that would say that other groups are not Muslim. Just as, for example, you might get some Christians who would say, “Well Mormons aren’t Christians,” or “Seventh Day Adventists are Christians.”
So, different groups will have different opinions about who should be able to classify themselves as a Muslim. And this has created a lot of tension in not only the modern times, but also in history – it’s been a big point of contention in regards to who can call themselves a Muslim and can we call other people not-Muslim.
So, when you think of the fact that there’s about a million people in Canada that call themselves Muslims, what would you say the majority would be – are they Sunnis or Shias? Or is it hard to say?
First of all, it’s hard to say, because I’ve even actually tried to discover how these Muslims in Canada classify themselves. In terms of world Muslim population, Sunni far outnumbers Shia. However, when we think about migration coming to Canada, I would think that we have a very large Shia influx into Canada in certain time periods. But now I think there are more coming from Sunni areas.
So it’s very difficult to determine how many are Sunni and how many are Shia within Canada itself.
So what would an average Muslim believe? So if I meet someone who says, “Hey, I’m Muslim,” or it comes out in conversation, you know, what can I expect them to believe?
The mainstream Muslims would all adhere to a group of beliefs and practices. And within Islam there are six main beliefs, and five main practices. And this is a very big generalization.
But for example, the first and most important belief that they’d have is the belief in God. And within Islam, we even classify this a little further when we talk about the idea of Tawhid. Tawhid is the word that means unity, or it means one. It’s in the sense that God is just a single unit. And this would be something that would classify Islam as a monotheistic religion. This is also quite complicated and when we talk about the Trinity within Christianity and compare those religious beliefs, it gets very complex.
The second most important belief would then be about angels, and then there is a belief in prophets, there is a belief in revelation – specifically the Qu’ran as being the last revelation of God. And then there is a belief in a day of judgment, or resurrection day.
And the last main belief is in the idea of God’s control over our future. Some people call this predestination. So those are the six main beliefs of Islam and almost every Muslim would adhere to those beliefs, even though those beliefs may not even change their every day practice. So that’s why we also talk about practices of Muslims.
And the practices of Muslims are five. The first on is the Shahada, and the Shahada is the creed of Islam or what Muslims believe. And if someone was interested for example in converting to Islam, all they would need to do is quote the Shahada with sincerity and they would be considered a Muslim.
So this is what’s actually written on the flag of Saudi Arabia, لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله, which means “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of god.” So this is the first practice. That we would actually say this. And when Muslims pray, this is also something that’s part of their prayer ritual.
Prayer is also one of their practices – so the Shahada prayer. Muslims are called to pray five times a day. They can do that in private, or they can do that in a group gathering.
A third basic practice is Zakat which is the giving of alms for the poor. Then there is the concept of fasting within Islam – people are obligated to fast for one month a year, during the month of Ramadan.
And the last practice is Hajj. Hajj is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims are obligated to do this if they have the financial ability at some point during their lifetime to be able to make this trip.
My mom used to work at the bank, and she worked with a gentleman there who was Muslim. He was telling her one day that he was really excited that he was going to be able to take his pilgrimage soon. It opens your eyes – that that is really a spiritual experience. So what would happen in that pilgrimage?
Well it’s a very complicated procedure, and it takes place over several days. One of them is, first when you arrive in Mecca you need to get in to a state of purity. So you’re going to remove most of your clothing and then there’s special clothing for men and special clothing for women to wear. And one of the reasons why they say we need these special clothes, is that everybody then is clothed the same way.
One of the main ideas within Islam is that we are all equal before God.
So when we go into this ritual purity, then we put on the same clothing and don’t see a distinction between the rich and poor. Now everyone’s the same.
And then there’s a certain amount of times that you’re to circle around the Kaaba, which is a building in Mecca that holds a stone in it which is believed to be the place where Abraham sacrificed his son many years ago. So it’s understood, it’s believed in Islam that this is the place of monotheistic worship of the one true god in history. It’s the time when Abraham was there.
Wesley, when it comes to thinking about Islam, especially among Millennials who are busy in their jobs and all that kind of stuff, what kind of presuppositions should we, especially as Christians, drop that aren’t healthy for us to think about when we consider our Muslim friends and neighbours?
I was thinking about this, and it was quite difficult for me now to actually put myself in the mind of a Canadian Millennial. I’ve been out of Canada for such a long time. So I just need to try and think about what I’ve heard maybe in the media, or what I overhear at the shopping mall or something like that.
For example, the idea that all Muslims are terrorists. So, this is a presupposition that you hear every once in a while, because every once in a while there’s a terrorist attack that takes place – like, for example, there was just something in a football team in Dortmund I think, that experienced some kind of that activity. Something happened in Norway, something happened in France. The Quebec mosque. There’s terrorism that’s happening all over the world.
And immediately when terrorism takes place, whether or not it’s religiously motivated, almost everyone goes to the idea, “Well it must have been a Muslim who did that.” And when you actually gather statistics of all the terrorist events that take place around the world throughout all time, it doesn’t stand to reason that this Muslim is the one who did this.
People who are involved in doing and committing terrorist offences, these people are extremists. Whether they’re white supremacists or they come from a Muslim orientation. But to group the entire group of people into that category of terrorism is ludicrous. It’s poor logic. So that would be the very first presupposition that I would wipe off the map.
Another one is that all Muslims are uneducated. You know, when I research, especially on Canadian Muslims, it’s amazing to see how many actually have a very high degree of education. And when you start looking into engineering faculties, you start looking in medical faculties, a number of the students who are registered there, from their name you can see that they come from Muslim majority countries. So there is a very high value placed on education within the Muslim community. And to say that Muslims are uneducated is unfounded.
Along with that is that all Muslims are uncivilized. This is not true. Or that Muslims are backward. You know, this is just bad logic that people are making assumptions based on unfounded information.
I think you already shared this, but would you say that most of the million Muslims in Canada be more sincere than nominal?
You know, I can’t answer that question Isaac. I would hesitate to do that, to think that I would know what’s in the mind of 1.1 million Muslims. However, that being said, I think anecdotally a lot of people when they move away from their homeland, especially if they’re migrants and they’ve left their family, if they come to a new place, sometimes in order for them to stabilize themselves they will go back to what their own personal identity is. And it’s not unusual for a new immigrant to Canada for example, who is from a Muslim background, if they were a nominal Muslim before they came to Canada, in order to try and keep something of their own identity in place, they would then become more religious than ever before.
But I do know that there are also many, many Muslims, not just here in Canada but all over the world, that we would consider nominal Muslims.
In the same way in Christianity, obviously.
Very, very much so.
Now, you’ve shared and our listeners have heard that you’ve lived over in North Africa, also Jerusalem, so you’ve definitely had experience living in primarily Muslims countries and places. When you were there, I know that you were teaching and stuff, but what were some ways that you were able to deem as effective in engaging Muslim people with the love of Christ, with the gospel?
Okay, well first I would want to say that Muslims are human beings, just like everybody else. They are no different than we are. They have desires to live lives of peace. Parents want to raise children in a peaceful place, and they actually will sacrifice many things in their own life in order to have a better life for their children.
Muslims have the same human needs that everybody else has. Needs of love, needs of acceptance, needs of connection.
God, in my opinion, from what I understand from Scripture and even my own personal experience, God created us for relationship. Not only with each other, but for relationship and connection with Him.
And as we, as individuals, try to create connection with Muslims, and as we try and understand them, because we want to sincerely know who they are and we want to sincerely understand what they’re thinking, what’s in their heart, what their needs are, and as we try and meet some of those needs, we build relationship with them that is heartfelt.
And this is what I practice in my own life too. When I talk with people and I want to share what God has done for me, it’s very important that I do that with sincerity. So I’m not just doing this because I have some agenda for them. But I do it because I care about them as an individual, because they are a creation of God, that God loves and God wants good things for.
And as we grow in our relationship, I actually gain from the relationship.
This isn’t about me thinking that I’m going to give something to somebody else. I’m actually receiving out of this relationship with my friends.
And have you seen in your own life, relationships with Muslim friends that have done just that? Mutually benefitting?
Definitely. A very strong example of this is the number of years we spent living in Tunisia. We were there for about fifteen years. We lived in a city with about a hundred thousand people. There were a very few Westerners who lived there. For a time, I was the only native speaker at the university where I was. And in that kind of situation, if you want to make friends, if you want to have social relationships, you have to do it with the people who are around you who might not have the same background that you got.
So in that circumstance, many of my social needs were met because of the relationships that I had with Tunisians. I’ve now come away from there feeling like I’ve left a part of myself behind, and I have very strong relationships with people there – we’re still very closely connected on Facebook. I made a trip there last Fall as well. We stay in touch with each other, we’re like brothers.
Now, as we finish up here Wes, recently there was a motion passed in Canada, M-103. It’s caused a little bit of “talk” you could say. First of all, for those who don’t know about it, can you help us explain what this motion is, why it was passed, and how it changes things (if it does)?
Okay, first of all you’ve called it rightly so – a motion. This is not a bill. So it’s not something that’s going to be law. But it’s to try and indicate maybe a direction that parliament could go in. So people shouldn’t start saying that now a new law has been passed! Because that’s not true. That’s unfounded.
There were three things that the motion was trying to do. Firstly, to recognize the need to reduce the public climate of hate and fear. Secondly, to condemn all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination including islamophobia. And thirdly, to request that there’d be a standing committee on Canadian heritage to undertake a study on what the government could do in order to combat some of this systemic hatred.
Was this primarily put in place because Muslims and others saw a “hate agenda” in Canada? Is this why it was motioned?
You know, there has been an increasing sense of hate towards Muslims. Between 2012 and 2014 according to Stats Canada data, there’s been a doubling of hate crimes in Canada towards Muslims. The next poll that’s expected out is for 2015, so we don’t know yet.
The Toronto police report that in 2016 there’d been an increase of aggressive activity and hate crime towards Muslims. Of course most of the Muslims in Canada live in urban centres, they don’t live out in the countryside. And the urban centres are where most of the hate crimes are being reported. The National Canadian Council of Muslims also put out an interactive map that indicates where hate crimes are being reported. They’re trying to encourage people to report those, because about two thirds of hate crimes aren’t reported at all. So, you know, there is an increase in crime.
When I was overseas and I was teaching in university, one of the things that I taught about was Canadian history. We talked about immigration, we talked about different groups and how they were received in Canada as they started to come. For example, the Chinese and then the Japanese and the Germans, Italians and that sort of thing. And as you see over Canada’s history we have often had a time period where new immigrants have come and there’s been a lot of fear about those immigrants. There’s been fear about what their beliefs are. There’s been fear about how those people are going to change our nation. And there’s even been a lot of injustice that’s been done against them. Just the same as how there was injustice done against the indigenous people by Europeans when they came to this land.
I think we’re basically seeing the same sort of thing happening now. Muslims are coming to Canada in greater numbers.
Canadians don’t know Muslims; they don’t understand Islam. And that ignorance is fuelling a lot of fear. And the fear is just leading people to become more aggressive.
You start hearing people shout out things like, “Muslims aren’t welcome here!” or “Go back to your own country!”
And when we understand a little bit more about what’s currently going on in the Middle East, many of the Muslims that are actually coming here, are coming here because they’re trying to escape violence in their own nations. Everybody knows now because of the 25,000 Syrian refugees that were accepted into Canada a couple of years ago that refugees are on their way here.
Last year at this time I was at a refugee camp in Turkey that was with Syrians. And I just wanted to get some stories of some people. I asked one of the guys in the camp, “So, what was it like for you? You were a Muslim living in a Muslim majority country, you’re now in Turkey, this is also a Muslim majority country. You’re a refugee. What are you doing here? Why are you here? What’s going on?”
And he said, “Well, you know, when you’re in your home and somebody comes into your house and tells you to get out of your house, basically forcing you to get out, and you don’t want to go and you basically tell them that this is your house and they should leave, and then a couple of minutes later you see your brother’s head rolling on the floor, you pack up your things, get your wife and your children, and you leave right away.”
Some of the people that are coming to Canada now as refugees have experienced such traumatic events, they don’t need Canadians saying to them, “Go back to your own country. You’re not welcome here.”
Now, I know that most of your listeners are probably from a Christian background, probably practicing Christians, and I would just say to them that we need to follow what the teachings of Jesus are.
We need to love our neighbour, we need to love the alien, we need to welcome them, we need to accept them.
And my experience has been, when you extend a hand of friendship and a hand of relationship with a Muslim, you will receive back much more than you’re giving out. And I would say to those Muslims who are here because they’re fleeing and even coming here because they’re looking for a better economic lifestyle, “You have something to contribute to Canadian society.” And I would say, “You are welcome.”
And I hope that M-103 as a motion will help people understand that all forms of hatred and racism are wrong. Those are the values of our Canadian charter of rights and freedoms. And many people are afraid because they think that this motion is the beginning of Sharia Law in Canada, that somehow this is going to take over what Canada stands for, but there’s no way the Supreme Court is ever going to put aside the charter of rights and freedoms. So anything that parliament does cannot disagree with our constitution and with our charter of rights and freedoms.
But beyond all of that political stuff is the question that we have to ask inside of ourselves in our heart and ask God before Him in all good conscious,
“What is our response to be?”
That’s so good. And you know, that’s a perfect place to end this. I just think you hit the nail on the head. I was actually impacted by something you said a while ago about Muslims immigrating over here, and how we, because we don’t know their beliefs, turn to fear.
We start hating instead, which is not right. We just need to befriend them and love them. And we need to have conversations like this, because this one conversation, personally for me, I needed to hear that. I needed you, as someone who had that knowledge, to tell me all this because it releases in me this motivation now to go and befriend my Muslim neighbours.
Do it Isaac. Go and introduce yourself to those in your neighbourhood and get to know them.
Wesley, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and share your knowledge. I hope to have you back on the show soon.
You’re most welcome Isaac, I look forward to hearing from you again.