Joy and pain

Heartwarming anecdotes help explore Islam's role in shaping the West


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Omar Mouallem is a Canadian-born Muslim in his mid-30s and a self-professed atheist.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2021 (537 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Omar Mouallem is a Canadian-born Muslim in his mid-30s and a self-professed atheist.

He admits that his recently published book Praying To the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, which traces the role Islam has played in shaping the Western world, was sparked by a quest to understand his own reluctance in embracing the religion which fashioned his Islamic heritage.

“I’d only come to appreciate those roots in my thirties, after accepting that Islam will always be a part of me, even if I didn’t practise it,” he writes.

Mouallem teaches freelance journalism at the University of Alberta, has written for the New Yorker and the Guardian and gained national recognition as co-author of Inside the Inferno, the acclaimed account of Fort MacMurray’s 2016 wildfire.

Comprised of 13 chapters, a number symbolically significant for Muslims and Christians alike, Praying To The West is the result of documented research and personal observations made during visits to 13 mosques in a variety of geographical locations.

This insightful and engaging history of Islam across the Americas recognizes the centuries-old influences of Muslims and the contemporary contributions they are making to Western societies, like Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, and his long, popular tenure.

Mouallem’s investigations reveal that Muslims currently living throughout North and South America are ordinary people who happen to participate in the Islamic faith. Like their sundry other religious counterparts, they only seek peaceful participation in the democratic societies where they live.

Unfortunately, as his mosque visits also reveal, legacies of Islamic extremism such as the Iranian hostage crisis, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the horrors of Islamic State-sponsored attacks in Europe have incited deadly acts of violence against law-abiding Muslims worldwide, including in Canada.

A Quebec City mosque was the site of a fear-inspired shooting spree, where six people died and 19 were wounded in January 2017, followed by the July 2021 vehicle-driven attack on a Muslim family of four, targeted because of their clothing style and killed while crossing a street in London, Ont.

Mouallem’s personal quest for identity offers a window from which to view the dilemna facing Muslims throughout Western societies, but his portrayal of Islam as a “Western religion” is sure to generate controversy fueled by recent Islamic-driven events in Afghanistan.

To support the book’s theme, Mouallem provides evidence showing that the Islamic faith was present during the development of Christian-based societies now dominating the Americas.

Trips to various mosques confirm Islam’s influence throughout the Western hemisphere. Some of the places he visits are thriving and inclusive of Islam’s various sects, others are more exclusive to followers of strict dogma, conjuring up dark corners where extremist Islam exists. But these, like extremist Christian evangelical sects, rarely pose terrorist threats.

In Chicago, a landmark temple still serves the broader African-American Muslim community affected by the lingering influence of Malcolm X, while a sojourn to the island of Trinidad and Tobago reveals why “an island of barely a million people became a bigger exporter of ISIS loyalists than possibly the United States and Canada combined.”

In Salvador, Brazil, he discovers why the 16th-century slave trade promoted and then interrupted Islamic faith, giving Catholicism the opportunity to dominate the country.

Even Inuvik in Canada’s extreme north is a featured stop, where a mosque, appropriately-named The Midnight Sun — built in Winnipeg and transported 4,000 kilometres — typifies the determination of peaceful community-serving Muslim congregations.

Mouallem’s use of lesser-known Arabic terms and phrases contextualized within heartwarming personal anecdotes helps create a writing style that informs and entertains while inviting serious contemplation.

It all helps in understanding why some in Western societies see a terrorist in every Muslim they meet, and how the irrational fear called Islamophobia can be overcome by simply recognizing that the vast majority within all religious faiths, including Islam, merely wish to co-exist.

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher.

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