The Sunday Magazine

How 9/11 reshaped this writer's Muslim identity

Edmonton-based writer Omar Mouallem joins Piya Chattopadhyay to discuss his new book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas

'This continent is not as Christian as we think it is,' says Omar Mouallem

In his new book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, Edmonton-based writer Omar Mouallem tells little-known stories -- from the enslaved African Muslims who revolted against the Brazilian government, to the women who led the fight to preserve Canada's first purpose-built mosque as a heritage site -- as an antidote to anti-Muslim hate. (Aaron Pedersen)

Omar Mouallem was a teenager in High Prairie, Alta., when terrorists attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

That day set off a series of reactions -- internally and externally -- that would shape his life and identity as a Muslim Canadian.

To learn more about his faith and himself, he set out on a journey across North and South America, visiting dozens of historic and present-day mosques. The result is his new book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas.

In it, the Edmonton-based writer tells little-known stories -- from the journey Inuvik's mosque took across land and sea to be warmly embraced by the entire community, to the women who led the fight to preserve Canada's first purpose-built mosque as a heritage site. 

He spoke with The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay about the people he met on the journey, why he wrote the book and how he hopes it can be an antidote to anti-Muslim hate. 

Here is part of their conversation.

One of the people you write about is Rana Abbas Taylor. What does her experience on September 11th, 2001 tell us about how Muslims shaped the Americas, and maybe better put, how the events of that day have reshaped them? 

She was fresh out of college. She had just that week started her first professional communications job with The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. She walked in and the TVs were on. And one of the first things that she saw was that second plane splicing into one of the Twin Towers. 

And all these things are going through her head, as they were for everyone. But within moments, her phone started ringing, and it's a Fox News producer who wants to get her comment on the possibility that it is an "Arab terrorist" behind these attacks. 

And so she just never had the opportunity to process this tragedy as an American.

How much of a dividing line was that one event for the everyday lives of Muslims in Canada, the U.S. and the Americas in general? 

I think for one, universally for Western Muslims, it raised Muslim consciousness. Now how people respond to that consciousness can be different. I think for a lot of people … it pushed them more toward embracing their religious identity. And ultimately taking a lot more pride in it.

But then there's a lot of other people, and I count myself in this camp, who maybe were jolted in the other direction. And felt distanced from the religion. And I think there's a sense of internalized racism in that, there certainly was for me. This need to prove that I'm not like one of them. You can trust me. I belong here.

It's hard to avoid the fact that whether or not I identified as Muslim, people would see me that way.- Omar Mouallem

You have to remember, September 11th happened two days before my 16th birthday. So I truly was kind of coming of age, coming into adulthood in the early years of the War on Terror. And I did, I felt this need to perform this antipathy toward religion and toward Islam. 

How do you feel about [that reaction]? 

There is some shame and it's hard not to feel a little bit complicit in the very ugly Islamophobic rhetoric of the last few years.

It's hard to avoid the fact that whether or not I identified as Muslim, people would see me that way. That was something that I started to experience a lot in the last few years on the streets. I never experienced that kind of brazen racism being hurled, insults on the streets, even growing up in a small northern Alberta town, I don't remember anything that brazen happening. 

But around the time of the rise of Trump, there were three instances in one year where I experienced that. I was starting to get detained at airports more. 

And I think there was this need inside of me to take that thing that makes me a target and reclaim it as part of my identity, and not just for Islamophobic people, but also I think for the ultra religious Muslim people who would look at me, look at my lifestyle, look at decisions, decisions I've made in my life and say that I can't possibly be part of the Muslim community. 

The Midnight Sun Mosque in Inuvik, N.W.T., is one of 13 mosques Omar Mouallem profiles in his book, Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas (Omar Mouallem)

[The starting point for your journey of discovering your faith] is a slice of Hawaiian pizza… It kind of changed your life. So tell us that story. 

I was four years old, in daycare. There was a field trip to a pizzeria, which in High Prairie, [Alta.], the town I grew up in, that's what counted as a field trip, I guess. 

And when my mom came to pick me up, she asked me, How was my day? And very excitedly, I told her that I had Hawaiian pizza. Her response was just utter shock. And I think a sense of anger if I remember, because she said, "We don't eat pork. We are Muslim."

And I'm sure I'd heard the term or been told that before. But that was the first time I registered that I was something other than 99 per cent of the people around me. And that stuck with me. 

I think this is just the way that it usually is for second generation Muslim Canadians is you begin by defining yourself by what you don't do. You don't eat pork. You don't celebrate Christmas. You don't drink. Instead of what you do. 

I think that can sometimes lead to negative feelings of otherness ... Also, not having a mosque directly in our town, the closest one was was in hour away, not knowing a lot of Muslim people, my parents being extremely busy restaurant owners, they just never really had the opportunity to nurture it the way that they wanted to. 

So it became incumbent on myself and the media I consume. And I think that partly the media that I consumed started to cultivate more of a negative perception of it. And September 11th is probably when it started to accelerate. 

You write that 'Westerners treat Muslim communities as a new viral outbreak instead of an essential gene in modern America's DNA.' Why do you think that is? 

First of all, Islam is as old to the Americas as any non-Indigenous faith. One of the first people, an explorer that was with Christopher Columbus, to ever speak to the Indigenous people, actually spoke in Arabic. 

The first enslaved African rebellion is now thought to be possibly an Islamic rebellion of Muslim people who were sort of motivated by Islamic laws and rose up against their slave masters because of it. 

I think that when people start to understand that, they realize something very fundamental. First of all, this continent is not as Christian as we think it is. And second of all that, all that history, those millions of people's history, was lost or erased. And so when you realize that, you have to ask yourself why, why and how was it erased and by whom and what were they trying to do? 

And I think it was these designers of the new Christian world really wanted to stamp out Islamic culture because they feared it. They feared it as a competitor. It obviously weighed very heavily in the Christian psyche of that time. It's not that far removed from the Reconquista of Granada and the Moorish lands. 

I think that there's obviously this perception that Islam is a a new strain in the Americas that is relatively new, that it is only in the last century, but mostly in the last half century, and mostly mostly just since the 1970s and 80s. But, you know, Muslim history goes back so much further in in the West. If you go to Trinidad and you see mosques that are 170-years old, you start to really appreciate the religious diversity of of the West and just how important those first Muslim people were to shaping these countries. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.

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