America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

A Mosaic of Different Cultures

2014 Unofficial Ambassador Suraiya Jinah volunteered in Indonesia at Dian Interfidei, a non-profit focused on building religious tolerance. She discusses some of the differences between practicing Islam in Canada and Indonesia and shares her own personal experiences.

By Suraiya Jinah

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When describing Canada, the first adjective that comes to mind is diversity. Canada is often portrayed as a stained glass window; even though every piece if unique, the different fragments come together to create a beautiful image. There is a safe space for the mosaic of people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds to live in perfect harmony and to practice their beliefs without fear of being persecuted. While walking down the street, it is common to see a Mosque opposite of a Church.

In my opinion, Muslims have worked out their differences in Canada because they have dealt with similar hardships, such as civil wars, persecution, and other forms of civil and ethnic strife, which caused them to migrate. According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of conscience and religious expression, Canadian Muslims face no official discrimination in the workplace or anywhere else based on religion. Individuals have the right of freedom assembly whereas in Indonesia this right is not enforceable. On the contrary, “religious intolerance and discrimination is effectively condoned under Law No 1/1965 on the Prevention of Religious Abuse and Blasphemy.” The state is allowed to prosecute people deemed to commit blasphemous acts which, “principally have the character of being at enmity with, abusing or staining a religion adhered to in Indonesia.” Many human rights organizations have highlighted the violent attacks against minority religious groups and their places of worship.

Over the course of this internship, I have realized that I am lucky because I have had it pretty easy compared to the Shia Muslims in Indonesia. I have definitely endured snide remarks that usually go along the lines of, “you are not a real Muslim because real Muslims do not believe that Ali was appointed as the Imam,” but I have never been the subject of any religious attacks, nor have I have been severely persecuted for my beliefs. For the most part, except for those ignorant few, I have grown up in peace among other Muslims – both Shia and Sunni. Two of my closest friends are Shia; Shogla is an Afghan Ismaili, and Leila is an Iranian Ithna Asheri. My mother’s best friend, Masuma, is Bohra. This is to show that there is so much diversity even within the larger sect of Shi’ism. My relationship with these individuals has never faltered because of religion; we have always lived in peace and harmony.

Growing up as a Shia Ismaili, my faith has taught me to treat everyone with equal amounts of respect, regardless of their beliefs. Our spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, is a leading, “proponent of pluralism.” He has expressed the importance of pluralism on numerous accounts; he ensures that minority groups can participate fully in society while maintaining their cultural differences. In the Indonesian context this would mean that Shia’s should be given a stronger voice in society; the voice of the silent needs to become louder. Recently, in March 2014, the Aga Khan addressed a joint session of parliament in Canada. His vision of pluralism is much more than, “just the protection of minority rights, more than diversity of language – it is a culture, a habit of mind, a set of practices that celebrates difference, is curious about the unfamiliar and actively embraces the other.” In my opinion, this view has a greater impact because it requires conscious effort on the part of every individual to keep an open mind. The focus on active pluralism can also be seen in the construction of the Global Center for Pluralism in Ottawa. The center serves as a safe environment for interfaith discussion. It is a source of knowledge about fostering pluralistic values, policies and practices. The purpose of the center is to, “advance respect for diversity worldwide, believing that openness and understanding toward the cultures, social structures, values and faiths of other peoples are essential to the survival of an interdependent world.” Another example of active pluralism is the Aga Khan Museum, which has recently opened in Toronto; the museum is dedicated to the preservation of Islamic arts and culture. Both the Global Center for Pluralism and the Aga Khan museum serve to educate individuals about the values of Islam, by dispelling any negative stereotypes of Islam as a religion of terror.



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