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Diversity lessons from the hajj for Maxime Bernier and Canada


Muslims worldwide just marked the conclusion of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj.

Through the hajj rites, Muslims connect to the Qur'an's ultimate monotheist, prophet Abraham. Hajj is hard work. It is a form of worship that requires physical exertion, financial resources and time.

Most of all, it demands a state of mind that places the attainment and propagation of peace as the ultimate goal of the pilgrim: peace with God, peace with oneself and peace with everyone else.

The religious and spiritual aspects of the hajj are very significant. However, hajj is an experience that offers lessons beyond those of religion and spirituality.

Like the hajj, living in a diverse society is hard work.

On my pilgrimage, I was part of an organized group of Canadian Muslims which was ethnically and culturally very diverse. From day one, we had to learn to get along, under not insignificant amount of stress sometimes: flight delays and cancellations, unexpected overnighting in Europe, long wait times to get processed by Saudi authorities, and the inevitable confusion of visiting a limited geography with two million other people coming from every conceivable part of the globe.

Muslim pilgrims gather for prayers at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, ahead of the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Attending the six-day hajj, which began on Aug. 19, is one of the five pillars of Islam, an act all able-bodied Muslims must perform at least once if they have the means to travel to Saudi Arabia. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
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Stories circulate how some pilgrims come to hajj from very impoverished conditions, to the point where they have never seen water flow from a tap. Other pilgrims cannot part with their "developed" comforts even at this time of spiritual emphasis and pay tens of thousands of dollars to enjoy a deluxe hajj experience.

Experiencing this diversity can be challenging, thrilling and can sometimes, quite frankly, lead to comic relief!

Despite the diversity and differences, the hajj places a strong emphasis on unity by requiring that pilgrims perform many of the rites at the same time. One is circulating the kaabah shrine in a mammoth human wave of hundreds of thousands. All two million spend the ninth day of the hajj on the barren hill of Arafah asking for God's forgiveness, and all two million spend that night in the open in the plain of Muzdalifah. All two million, diverse and united at the same time.

Diversity and unity
So in light of our national conversation about diversity and unity, there could be some lessons for us in the potent symbolism of the experience of hajj. After all, two countries could literally be at war with each other and their pilgrims could still perform the hajj side by side.

This is possible in part, because centuries ago, in the formative period of the Muslim community, Islamic orthodoxy settled the question of "who is a Muslim." Basically, if someone professed to believe in One God and in the prophet Muhammad, then they were considered Muslim.

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How they lived their life still mattered, but their fundamental membership in the faith community was not questioned. That statement of faith was like a "certificate of citizenship" that could not be revoked by others. In other words, a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim (sounds cheesy, I know). This was the fundamental "value test" and everything was secondary to that.

As Canadians, could we aspire to a central tenet of our membership in this country that could keep us united, and not become, as Mr. Bernier fears, "little tribes that have less and less in common" except as government clients in what Mr. Bernier describes as a "cult of diversity." Mr. Bernier further states that "having people live among us who reject basic Western values such as freedom, equality, tolerance … people who refuse to integrate into our society and want to live apart in their ghetto don't make our society strong".

So it seems if we follow Mr. Bernier's line of thinking, the central tenet of our citizenship should be a "Western values." I am all for freedom, equality and tolerance (in fact, I may have just prayed for them when I went to hajj, in addition to long list of other things), but what about other Western values which justify selling weapons to oppressive regimes, unchecked corporate greed and moving the planet to the verge of environmental disaster? If I am against those, am I being un-Canadian? Would Mr. Bernier consider Hutterite colonies separate ghettos? Or could he be dreaming of an old-stock Canada that is one giant, hmm, white ghetto?

Like the hajj, living in a diverse society is hard work. Making a diverse society work will certainly not be helped by attacking the idea of diversity, nor will politicians wearing "ethnic" outfits and celebrating as many holidays as there are calendar days be enough.

Living in a diverse society means that there are things that will make us uncomfortable. It means that my neighbour could harbour deep Islamophobic ideas, but as long as they afford me the respect due to any other citizen I have to accept their presence in my neighbourhood, and vice versa. It means that we commit to the hard work of uplifting every member of this family, whether their heritage in Canada goes back centuries or days.

As for a central idea that could unite a diverse mosaic, how about the following for our times: If someone is hungry, afraid, persecuted and fearing for their life knocks on our door, we take them in, offer them a warm meal and say, "we'll figure out the rest together." That's a Canada I can aspire to.

I suggest Mr. Bernier and all of our politicians involved in this debate read the autobiography of Malcolm X, who performed the hajj in 1964. From Mecca, Malcolm X wrote the following: "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

Maybe Mr. Bernier et al. need to go to hajj!


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