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Nazia Quazi case encourages Canadian Muslims to speak out

Long quiet on political issues, Canadian Muslims are speaking out in a rare display of public activism to help Nazia Quazi, who has been detained in Saudi Arabia since 2007 due to a controversial family law.

By Heba AlyCorrespondent / May 7, 2010



Ottawa, Canada

It is Saturday morning in a downtown restaurant, and Shahla Khan Salter sits with three other local Muslims. They’ve been brought together by a 24-year-old Indo-Canadian who has been trapped in Saudi Arabia since 2007 due to a practice that requires women to have a male guardian's permission to travel. Ms. Khan Salter has assembled the group to brainstorm ways to help the young woman, Nazia Quazi, return to Canada.

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While Ms. Quazi’s case is unusual, what it may reflect about changes within Western Muslim communities is equally noteworthy. Historically, Western Muslims have been apathetic when it comes to civic engagement, but increasingly Islamic communities in the West, like those helping Quazi, are beginning to buck this trend.

“I definitely think that there is increased civic engagement,” says Nadia Roumani, director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, which helps Muslim leaders and non-profit organizations develop the skills to get involved in anything from politics and education to interfaith work. “It’s not pervasive, but there is a critical mass.”

A history of silence

For years, the Muslim community has remained silent about many political issues. In 2003, for example, when Maher Arar, a Muslim-Canadian, revealed his story of rendition and torture in Syria, Canadians were outraged. They watched his press conference by the millions, the media wrote about his case almost daily, and the government eventually awarded him $10 million in compensation for his suffering. But the Muslim community’s response throughout his ordeal was mostly muted.

The explanations for this lack of civic involvement are varied. In 2001, 72 percent of Canada’s 580,000 Muslims were immigrants, many coming from repressive countries where speaking out can be a ticket to jail or even a death sentence.

Regardless of the country of origin, newcomers are often most concerned with the challenges of immigrating to a new country, fitting in, and giving their children a better life. Muslim organizations that might get involved in these types of issues are still young and sometimes lack institutional capacity.

“I have found that it is the fear of exposing ‘dirty laundry’ in a context of a potentially Islamophobic and certainly Orientalist-inflected media environment that inhibits Muslims from speaking out publicly for social justice issues. They talk about it privately,” adds Kathy Bullock, a political science lecturer at the University of Toronto and a convert to Islam.

On sensitive topics like family matters and Saudi Arabia’s austere Wahhabi version of Islam, the stakes are even higher – especially in a Muslim community where, as Ms. Roumani puts it, “there’s very little space for intellectual discourse.”

Quazi case draws out Muslim voices

Yet Quazi’s case reflects what seems to be an increased willingness to speak out.

She is stuck in Saudi Arabia under a local system that requires every woman, no matter how old, to have a male guardian – a brother, father, husband, or son – who decides whether she can travel, marry, go to school, work, or access certain medical services. The male guardianship system has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of women’s rights.

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