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Progressive Muslim MeetUps

2005-12-14 10:18:00

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Progressive Muslim MeetUps
CBC News Viewpoint | December 13, 2005 | More from Natasha Fatah

Natasha Fatah Natasha Fatah is a producer for CBC Radio's Current Affairs Show "As It Happens." Prior to that, she was a television and radio reporter in Windsor, Ontario. She has degrees in Journalism from Ryerson University and in Political Science from the University of Toronto. She has lectured on anti-racism, politics and media studies at elementary and secondary schools around the Greater Toronto Area. In 1996, she was the host of 'News from the Muslim World' on Vision TV.

How do you define a family? Well, groups of Muslims around the world are creating new families for themselves, partly around their faith, but also around a desire for a more inclusive Muslim identity. So, on a Saturday afternoon in December, I joined 20 Toronto Muslims meeting at the Butler's Pantry restaurant for the Progressive Muslim MeetUp.

Muslim MeetUp in Toronto
Every month, the group gathers at the trendy downtown eatery, secures a few tables in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant and settles in for the fun. It's an opportunity for those who consider themselves liberal, secular or non-traditionalist, to gather together.

The boisterous group is infectious, and a couple of latecomers to the meeting jump right into a lively discussion about the federal election before they've even had the chance to take off their coats or order their coffees. The contentious nomination of Liberal candidate Michael Ignatieff is the topic of choice.

"They parachuted that guy in," says one person. "This is classic bullying in the Liberal party," retorts another. And on it goes.

"This is exactly why I come here," says author Raheel Raza, an anti-racism activist and author of Their Jihad, not my Jihad. She has been coming to the MeetUps since their inception last year. "I come because it's inspiring, liberating. How many times do you see a group of Muslims together in a café on a Saturday to talk about upcoming elections? To talk about current events? We don't have to agree with each other, and that's the base of our spiritual growth."

The base of the Progressive Muslim MeetUp growth started in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many Muslims were looking for answers and for a sense of community. But, when they turned to the mosques they received conservative rhetoric, so in early 2004 a small group started meeting informally every month at cafés.

Dega Muna is the Progressive Muslim MeetUp organizer in New York and she says most MeetUp members felt alienated from the mosque setting.

"The segregation between men and women, that's the topic that comes up a lot, the treatment of women. They [young Muslims] feel like the mosque is not really a sense of community, it's not a place to feel connected – we want a place to discuss and gather, and we want more than to just pray, and that's what the MeetUps provide for us."

There are now over a dozen MeetUps around the world. Toronto has the most regular MeetUps with the most politically active group. Two Toronto MeetUp members are candidates in the federal election. Gary Dale, in Scarborough East and Ali Naqvi in Etobicoke North; both showed up to spend three hours with their friends in the middle of the election.

I sit for a while with Nadia Awad, a York University student, who tells me that she's concerned that Muslims are perceived as a threat to North American culture, but before she can finish the thought, our conversation is interrupted by one of the MeetUp members pronouncing, "People should not kiss on the cheeks when greeting one another. It's inappropriate. Why do Muslims do these things? It's not part of Pakistani culture, Indian culture, Bangladeshi culture … I don't think Muslims should kiss when they greet each other."

Awad can't hold back. "But we do", she said. "Palestinians and Lebanese always kiss on the cheek when they greet a loved one."

"That's because you think you're French," the man retorts with a chuckle, and the whole group breaks into laughter.

This group is as diverse as the list of specialties on the menu. There is a Palestinian film student sitting next to a Bangladeshi business consultant. An Anglo-Saxon political candidate with a Tanzanian lawyer. An Iranian refugee with a Pakistani author.

As I float around the restaurant, Niaz Salimi, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, a major voice in the progressive Muslim movement, introduces me to her guest. Sitting across from her is wide-eyed, 23-year-old Saeed Pasandideh, who came to Toronto in August as a refugee from Iran. His English is weak, so Salimi explains why she brought him today. "It's important for him to realize that he can be a part of something without having to compromise his beliefs, the way he did in Iran," she says. "Here he can meet people with a similar background but the meeting is not based around one issue."

I'm listening to Salimi but can't help noticing the other patrons at the restaurant. They're staring, trying to figure out the story behind this Muslim motley crew.

I ask Butler's Pantry owner, Atique Azad, if he worries the rowdy bunch scares away other customers. He sighs, "Sometimes the discussions get quite heated, but what can I do … they have become part of my family. And let me put it this way, I'd be more worried if it was a group of mullahs at my restaurant."

He says the Progressive Muslim MeetUps have helped the larger Muslim community by fundraising for last year's tsunami and the South Asian earthquake relief. "I am not complaining. In fact, the more the merrier," he says.

I think about Pasandideh, trying to build a new life in Canada, and he chooses this place to start. I ask him if he feels this MeetUp is his new family. "Of course … I have no one else in Canada," he says, measuring his words.


Natasha Fatah's piece came like a breath of fresh air. Muslim meetings of late have become serious, solemn and joyless. Even weddings have become dull and full of religious rituals.

Thank God for this 'Muslim Motley Crew' at the Muslim MeetUp in Toronto. Envious in Ottawa.

—Saleem Sherwani | Ottawa


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