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One hell of a Canadian story

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An architect in French Polynesia wants to build a mosque on an oil platform. A lawyer in Toronto wants to build a mosque every year for 30 years in Ontario. A city in Sweden wants a mosque for its 20,000 Muslims, most of whom are Iraqi refugees who have no place to worship.

These and other stories about communities that want to build Islamic places of worship were inspired by the little mosque that was built in Winnipeg and is now wending its way to Inuvik on the Arctic Ocean.

Hussain Guisti of the Zubaidah Tallab Foundation in Winnipeg, which is funding the mosque, has been receiving phone calls from around the world from people who want "to make Islamic history" the way Canada's northernmost mosque has been doing.

Many of the callers want Guisti to raise money for their projects, while some merely want to praise the Tallab Foundation for the inspiration it has provided.

The unlikely story of shipping a trailer-size wooden mosque 4,000 kilometres by road and barge to one of the globe's most remote locations has caught the world's imagination. Several TV networks, including the Saudi-based Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, plan to broadcast live from Inuvik when the mosque opens, probably on Nov. 7, Guisti said in an interview.

Al-Arabiya, in an article on its English-language website, has even given the mosque a name: "The Mosque at the End of World."

In fact, Guisti said, no name has been selected, but some of the contenders include Arctic Mosque, Mosque on the Tundra and Eskimo Mosque.

Technically speaking, a mosque in Norilsk, Russia, is the world's northernmost mosque by one degree, but Inuvik is closer to the ice, Guisti said. With only one degree blocking our claim to the title, however, perhaps it's time for geographers to re-examine their calculations.

Guisti has many explanations for all the attention -- the difficult and long journey, the remote location, the near disasters and the endless references to the TV show, Little Mosque on the Prairie.

These are, no doubt, important reasons for the public's fascination, but for Guisti it's really the story of Canada.

"In all of this, there has not been one single example of negative feedback. People have really cared about the mosque and were upset when it seemed it might not make it."

He said the universally positive response "shows that Canada is truly welcoming and multicultural... we are a good people."

"Compare this," he added, "to what's going on in the United States."

The controversy over a plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City has challenged Americans to defend the rights that they claim are under attack by Islamic extremists, but they are doing a good job of undermining their principles without any outside help.

Some 60 per cent of Americans are opposed to building a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some of them claim the site is sacred ground, but opinion polls have found that a large number of religious Americans are opposed to mosques even in their own communities.

Some of the hostility can be understood as the natural resentment of the enemy that occurs in wartime, even though American leaders repeatedly assert they are not at war with Islam. After the Second World War, moreover, Germans were welcomed into Canada and the United States at a much higher rate and with more tolerance and understanding than were Jews or Japanese. The Germans, after all, looked like us and worshipped in the same churches.

So is this a tale of two mosques, one a symbol of a tolerant and loving nation, the other a victim of prejudice and ignorance?

It is probably unfair to compare the American story with our northern epic, particularly since the Canadian mosque is not intruding on anyone's backyard or upsetting the neighbourhood.

American patriotism sometimes looks like an admirable virtue, but it too often has a habit of turning ugly, as in the case of the reaction to the New York mosque.

Canadian patriotism, on the other hand, sometimes looks too anemic, although we occasionally rise to the occasion. It might be a stretch to describe our northern mosque as a source of Canadian pride, but it certainly fits comfortably with our national myths of pluralism and multiculturalism.

Most of all, it's one hell of a good story of a struggle against the odds in difficult circumstances and hostile terrain, which is as Canadian as it gets.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2010 A12

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