Black Muslims in Ottawa upset over lack of diversity at Muslim conference

Some black Muslims in Ottawa are upset there are no people from their community speaking at a Muslim conference in the capital on Saturday.

Ottawa has large black Muslim community, but not reflected in speakers at I.Lead conference

Chelby Daigle, editor of Muslim Link, believes Ottawa's Muslim community is diverse and conferences like I.Lead should reflect that. (CBC)

Some black Muslims in Ottawa are upset there are no people from their community speaking at a Muslim conference in the capital on Saturday.

I.Lead is an annual conference put together with the help of various mosques in Ottawa. This year, there are seven speakers — five men and two women — who will address the conference's theme "With hardship comes ease."

However, none of them are black.

Jalil Marhnouj, who helped organize the conference, said several black Muslims were approached to speak but were unavailable. 

"Every year, we invite speakers from different backgrounds … and they have attended and sometimes they can't. And this year, some of them couldn't," he said.

Lots of experts to choose from

Chelby Daigle, editor of Muslim Link and the author of a recent report on anti-black racism in Ottawa, said part of the issue is the premise that there are only so many qualified black people available.

"People don't realize that that is a form of discrimination," she said. "It's not intentional, but it shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of the Muslim experience in the city."

Daigle believes there are all types of experts that could have been invited to speak from Ottawa's large black Muslim community and from across the country.

"Ottawa's poet laureate is a black Muslim. The poet laureate right now for Edmonton is a black Muslim. We have Ginella Massa, who's an anchor and who's also a black Muslim. We have CBC journalist Eman Bare who we profiled on Muslim Link, who's an award-winning journalist who also writes for Teen Vogue and helps to run Muslim Girl," Daigle said.

Amran Ali, a Somali-Canadian Muslim woman living in Ottawa, said she was also disappointed at the lack of diversity among speakers.

Although Ottawa has a large black Muslim population there are no black speakers at this year's I.Lead conference. (Facebook)
"I wasn't expecting to see such a limited list," she said.

"Ottawa's Muslim community is diverse. It's made up of different ethnic backgrounds and different socioeconomic backgrounds," Ali said. 

"Any event that purports to be an event for the large Muslim community — and in particular Muslim youth — must be a reflection."

Marhnouj said conference organizers are open to hearing suggestions and the conference will be a chance for people to voice their concerns.

"We will listen to them and we will take that into consideration, whatever they come up with, we will act accordingly," he said.

"We work so hard to bring unity to our community and to bring knowledge," he said. "And in the end it's always a human effort and with human efforts there will always be shortcomings."

Intersection of identities

Chelby Daigle thinks having greater diversity at conferences like I.Lead is important because intersecting identities shape people's experiences differently and that needs to be reflected.

"I'm still more likely to face a hate crime because I'm black," Daigle said. 

According to Statistics Canada, in 2015 hate crimes targeting blacks declined but they still made up the largest percentage of the total number reported. Meanwhile, the number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims jumped by 60 per cent. 

"If you're experiencing both anti-black racism and Islamophobia as a young person, that's probably having a serious impact on your mental health, your concept of identity [and] where you feel welcomed," Daigle said.

I.Lead isn't the first Muslim-centred conference in Canada that's received criticism from black Muslims.

​At the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto in December 2016, American Islamic scholar and president of Zaytuna College, Hamza Yusuf, made comments many participants found dismissed the struggles and work of anti-black racism advocates.

In particular, when asked if Muslim communities should be more supportive of movements like Black Lives Matter, Yusuf said, "There are twice as many whites being shot by police but nobody ever shows those videos. It's the assumption the police are racist and it's not always the case."

Amran Ali says she was disappointed at the lack of diversity at this year's I.Lead conference. (CBC)
Yusuf later apologized for his comments.

Promoting greater diversity and inclusion

Amran Ali believes the key to ensuring greater diversity is reaching out to a broad range of people.

"Because it's about Islam it means it has to be a big umbrella event where all Muslims — those who look like me, those who look like the organizers, those who look like Caucasian folk, Indigenous folks — should see themselves reflected," she said.

"If we're not reflected on the stage where people are talking or lecturing or teaching or inspiring and motivating, then frankly it feels isolating. It makes you feel you don't belong, It makes you feel that you are less than."

Daigle agrees and said diversity, from a business standpoint, makes sense because it attracts a greater number of people. "We often look at [diversity] as a chore. Or we look at it as if we're doing a favour to a community that's complaining. And we need to stop looking at it that way and say, 'no, this will make our event better.'"

Daigle points to Carleton University Muslim Students' Association as an example of a group that has committed to being diverse and inclusive.

"We're seeing more and more Muslim associations in the country creating equity advisory committees to make sure that it's actually an inclusive space. And it shows it's not hard to do but, again, it's something you have to choose to do."