Decolonizing the Mosque I: Colonial “Canadian-ness” among Muslims

Muslims who live in Turtle Island, better known as North America, are mostly settlers. We are first, second, third or whatever generation “_______”. Our families, for the most part, are not the original inhibitors of these lands and have no legitimate right to them. We likely did not ask the righteous nations of these lands for permission to settle/immigrate/seek refuge. Instead, we went to a government office and applied to travel to Canada or the US, paid some fees, signed some papers and swore loyalty to the queen through an oath, in the Canadian case. These countries are “Nation-States” that have been occupied for centuries, and where Indigenous communities have fought the occupation and colonization of their lands non-stop.

Unless you are Indigenous from Turtle Island or the descendant of the black peoples brought here through the slave trade, as  people of colour and as Muslims we are settlers.

For years it is has been mind-blowing for me that many Muslims in Canada are close to the Palestinian cause, but neglect to look around them. We declare our “Canadian-ness” without questioning that the very nature of Canada’s national identity is the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the stealing of land and the implementation of some of the most racist policies in the world. Canada, for example, remains the only country with an official policy and management system dedicated solely to the control of Indigenous peoples. The Indian Act determines “Indian-ness” as well as different “rights” as per status, sex, place of residence, etc. Also, Canada’s reserve system was the model used to create South Africa’s apartheid system.

In the Canadian case some Muslims tend to think that Canada is an extension of the U.K… white, Christian and “developed” in its own right. All this forgetting the inter-connectedness of the colonial project. For instance, the fact that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are three separate countries today or that North Africa and the Arabian Gulf were made into nation-states with arbitrary borders (through a lot of erasure of Bedouins, Berber, Kabyle, and other Indigenous groups) is partly because of the colonial and imperial experiences that  Britain and France had over the previous hundreds of years in Turtle Island.

Muslims forget that Canada’s first mosque lays on Treaty 6 nations’ territory, an area where Indigenous peoples where starved to death and where buffalo were hunted to almost the point of extermination by European settlers. They are often ignorant to the fact that North American’s first madrasa stands on the land of the Mohawk people in Akwesasne. In addition, few know that the two most Northern mosques are located in the Inuit Nunangat, the traditional territories of the Inuit and in zones where forceful resource extraction by settlers is very high. And that the largest populations of Muslims concentrated in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal live in the unceded and unsurrendered lands of the Anishinnabe, Missassauga, Mohawk and Abenaki, among others.


Settler-bison hunt in the US and Canada. 1870s.

In my years as a convert, I have heard numerous Muslims telling me that “colonization was a hundred years ago,” that “this is the way it is,”  that “they pay taxes and Aboriginals don’t,” that they have “as much right,” etc. The attitudes are common, particularly among Muslims who came to Canada during the Liberal era of the 60s; who immigrated after the reform of Canada’s immigration system, which worked around racial categorizations (that is right, Canada prevented many non-whites, non-Christian, LGBTQ, ill people, HIV/AIDS positive people and others from immigrating). For them, the system works. Thus, they often make Indigenous communities to be winy and backwards groups of people abusing the welfare system.

For many Muslims, Canada represents a land of opportunity. And while it is great that things worked out well for some of these Muslim communities, it is important to recognize that the massive immigration allowed by the Canadian government from the 60s until the 90s was not only driven primarily by the needs of Canadian capitalism, but was also only possible through the displacement, removal and violation of Indigenous nations.

Let’s be clear, Indigenous communities never consented to their own starvation, abuse and death. The treaties and agreements they negotiated, and through which many try to hold the government accountable right now, were made under the threat of extermination. That threat has never disappeared. To this date, the government defines identity, the education of Indigenous kids, their removal from their households and communities, their right (or lack thereof) to life, their access (or lack thereof) to resources, etc. Canadian taxes at the federal and provincial levels, pay for good roads and stuff, but they also pay for an apartheid system that deems Indigenous lives unworthy of sovereignty, recognition and rights.

When Muslims say they do not owe anything to Indigenous communities they are not only wrong (if you buy someone else’s stolen land knowingly, you are also accountable), but they become active participants in the oppression and erasure of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Why is this important? Because as a Muslim, if one has experienced racism, sexism, Islamophobia and the alike, one needs to realize that all of these oppressions are inter-connected. One cannot cry Islamophobia, but look the other way when Indigenous communities talk about the colonial experience. Islamophobia and racism are a result of colonialism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.

Many Indigenous activists understand that. That is why some Indigenous communities have mobilized around issues that affect Muslims heavily. They have supported Palestinian activists on two grounds, first as fellow Indigenous sisters and brothers whose land is occupied, but also as Muslims and refugees. They stood against the occupation of Afghanistan. They have supported Muslim women’s right to wear hijab and niqab when governments have tried to ban the garments like in Quebec. And they have been fighting Canadian extractive companies working both in Canada and in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, etc. The assumption here is that you cannot dismantle a system that is so heavily embedded by just fighting a piece of it… therefore, the call for decolonization.

Decolonization is a stand for resistance, a movement building around the dismantling of settler-colonial structures and systems that have oppressed peoples for centuries. The most obvious expression of this system is the state, but it is not the only one. Decolonization entails the reimagining of mutual relationships beyond the myth of the nation-state. And while we know that the state is not going to disappear tomorrow, there is a commitment to working at the grassroots level, and beyond the academy and onlinectivism, to reclaim Indigenous knowledge, culture, land, etc. That is why this is a project. The work entails challenging the official discourses of the state around identity, multiculturalism, rights, etc. It requires educating ourselves and helping others find resources. It needs relationship-building and ally-ship in spaces free of Islamophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-immigration attitudes and white-privilege. And it requires listening to Indigenous peoples.

In the settler context, to be an ally goes beyond solidarity since it entails being responsible and accountable. As Harsha Walia says, “Being responsible for decolonization can require us to locate ourselves within the context of colonization in complicated ways, often as simultaneously oppressed and complicit.”

But decolonization is necessary not only for the sake of Indigenous nations. What Muslims in Canada need to recognize is that, as much as they may benefit from the system, as many of us settlers do (if you have a place to live and food on the table every day, you benefit), the Canadian state was designed around the blood of Indigenous and black communities, and continues to feed from these oppressions. Simply put, Islamophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia will continue to exist as long as the colonial project continues to be the basis of our dear and beloved settler-nation-state.

9 thoughts on “Decolonizing the Mosque I: Colonial “Canadian-ness” among Muslims

  1. rosalindawijks says:

    “Muslims who live in Turtle Island, better known as North America, are mostly settlers…Unless you are Indigenous from Turtle Island or the descendant of the black peoples brought here through the slave trade, as people of colour and as Muslims we are settlers.”

    Well, the largest single ethnic Muslim group in the U.S. ARE African-American Muslims. (44%)

  2. Mast Qalander says:

    This is such an important post. I am based in the U.S. and consistently see mainstream organizations promote and fuel pro-nationalist and pro-assimilationist political narratives that completely work to erase indigenous communities. The response to Islamophobia from these groups have been overwhelmingly about showing how “American” we are “just like everyone else” (which is obviously code for white people), and how Islamic principles are totally similar to what the “founding fathers” believed in. Just because Thomas Jefferson owned a Qur’an means we ignore the fact he was a slave owner and perpetuated genocide against indigenous peoples?

    Unfortunately, mainstream responses to Islamophobia are more concerned about making white non-Muslims comfortable than addressing and challenging white supremacy, settler colonialism, imperialism, heteropatriarchy — as well as being conscious and holding ourselves accountable, as you discussed in your post.

  3. jahiz999 says:

    This is a good piece but it needs to go further and recognise that Muslimness that it takes for granted and glorifies is itself a colonial project – not European colonisation but Arab colonisation. How else do we explain that Egypt speak Arabic today and that people with south Asian descent have Arabic names? Attempts to decolonise should not stop at decolonising European power structures but also power structures laid by earlier colonisations as well. In the very least, these should be acknowledged to avoid ‘holier than thou attitude’ this piece has.

    • Eren Cervantes-Altamirano says:

      Thanks for this. Yes, and elsewhere in my writings this is questioned, particularly in the setting of Latin American and Muslim identity, where we tend to erase Arab/Muslim colonial history. The Arab colonization of Spain, for instance, was a huge driver of the colonial project in Turtle Island even in terms of language. There is not enough written about this.

      • wombynator says:

        “The Arab colonization of Spain, for instance, was a huge driver of the colonial project in Turtle Island…” seriously? Shifting the blame from the Inquisition to the tolerant Muslim rule of Spain??

      • Eren Cervantes-Altamirano says:

        What do you mean by that? The “tolerant rule” of Islam? For real? Didn’t the Arab Muslims invaded places where they were not welcome? didn’t the take over lands that weren’t theirs? Didn’t they created government structures according to their principles that did not necessarily accommodate not only Christians and Jewish people, but those that were considered “pagans”? The Inquisition came later and it was a direct response to the Muslim rule, that as much as it is romanticized by Muslims, was a period that was very difficult for those under their colonial rule.

  4. rosalindawijks says:

    Full agreement with the writer and with Mast Qalandar.

    As a black Muslim woman, I detest immigrant Muslim sucking up to mainstream, middle class christian society at the extent of their black and indigenous brothers and sisters, then turning their back and appropriating Malcolm X, tokenizing Bilal (may God bless them both) and tweeting “All lives Matter” and “Muslim lives Matter”(Meaning, non-black Muslim lives)

    It’s a toxic mix of anti-black racism, classism, the model minority myth and a complete erasure of black people’s struggles and the black history of Islam in the U.S.

    Enough is enough.

  5. rosalindawijks says:

    Oh,and while we’re at it, let’s stop Arab supremacy in Islam, too! Allah never said that there is so such thing as a “chosen people”, God and the Prophet forbade racism, yet Muslim communities worldwide are steeped in it. Just because someone is Arab, or knows Arabic doesn’t mean he/she is a good Muslim, or even a Muslim at all. I chose to study Arabic myself, and I love the Arab language, but I love & respect all languages.

    Especially Sranan Tongo, Dutch, English (Queens English & African American Vernacular English), Spanish and French are dear to my heart.

    Quranic Arabic is a sacred, liturgical language (just like Latin in Roman Catholicism, Sanskrit in Hinduism, Kromanti in winti, etc.) It was&is NEVER spoken by ordinary folks in their day-to-day lives. Even in the Prophets days, it was the language of poets, NOT the vernacular people spoke in their day-to-day life. No one in the world speaks Quranic Arabic as a mother tongue. People speak all kinds of vernacular Arabic, but that is NOT the language of the Quran.

    We need to stop privileging all stuff which is(considered) Arabic above everything else. Yes, I love the Arabic language, music and Oriental dance. But I also love hiphop, R&B, flamenco, fado, morna, merengue, qawwali, kawina, kaseko, bigi poku, Italian opera – get the picture?

    So, it’s time to end Arab supremacy in Islam. Period.

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