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.