Karim (right) and his kid
The Muslim travel ban. The murders at a Quebec mosque. Increased conversations in my world on Islamophobia in general. These are things that have made me feel the need to do something – anything – to explore various topics: being Muslim, the concept of “othering”, racial bias, what it means to be Canadian, current political environment, how we talk and don’t necessarily listen.
So this is the first in a series (and when I say series, I mean more than one) of interviews I’m doing with different people I know. What do I hope to achieve here? Number 1: learn; number 2: share. I hope that you get something out of this series and that it’s helpful to you personally, but ultimately, that it somehow contributes to dispelling some of the fear I’ve observed happening around me.
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Meet Karim Kanji. Karim and I met when he was running his digital consulting business out of the shared space at ING DIRECT (now Tangerine), where I used to work. I saw him around a lot and we traveled in similar circles. Now we’re both members of an industry networking group.
Karim’s parents are Ugandan refugees. In 1972, then president, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of 50,000 Asians with British passports. That’s how Karim came to be born in England. Shortly after he was born, his family moved to Canada. At that time, Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s dad) was the Prime Minister and a close friend of the Aga Khan, current Imam of Nizari Ismailism, a branch of Islam.
In case you don’t already know (like I did not), Islam is the name of the religion that is practised by Muslims. I also didn’t know that Islam is not a monolith and that there are different sects – like how in Christianity there are different branches like Catholicism, Protestantism, etc. Even culture and geography come in to play in how the Muslim faith is observed and practised.
The Kanji family first lived in Pickering, Ajax, then moved to North York, close to Fairview Mall. At Forest Manor Public School, where Karim went to primary school, the student population was very diverse. His mom used to babysit 2 Greek kids, Frank and Joe. In Karim’s memory, ethnicity was never a thing for him growing up; he doesn’t remember noticing any difference in people. As with most Canadian public schools at the time, the school day started with the singing of O Canada and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. For everyone. No issues there.
Karim grew up going to mosque – or Jama’at Khana – almost everyday. Jama’at Khana roughly translates to “gathering place” or “community home”, according to Karim. Back then, it was held in the cafeteria at Vanier Highschool. With the tables and chairs cleared away, carpets were rolled out and everyone – men, women, children – all worshiped in the same area, but separated by gender. Why?
“I don’t know. I never wondered. While everyone was in the same hall, I remember an invisible line where women sat on one side and men on the other side. When I was a kid and visited Pakistan, there was an actual wall separating genders. I was mature enough to understand that different cultures do things differently. Like, in Pakistan, men hold hands with each other. That’s just what they do.” There was never anything in the teaching he had that specified differences between men and women. “In fact, we’ve been taught by our spiritual leaders that if you have both a boy and a girl, you prioritize the girls for education because traditionally, it’s the women who teach the kids in the family. Our community has built schools for girls.”
So what does being Muslim mean to Karim? “For me, it’s a way you behave. How you conduct yourself both at home and at work, when you go to the grocery store. It’s how you conduct yourself on a daily basis. It’s less about how many times you pray and what you wear…for me anyway. It’s more about the ethics of brotherhood, unity, charity, and giving back. Helping people in need.”
How about Islamophobia? I was uncomfortable asking this question because to ask it is to acknowledge that it exists. It would be like someone asking me, “So what’s up with people hating the Chinese?” But Karim was undeterred by my query. It was like he’d thought about it before or something.
“It’s happened because of how people understand. It’s easier for someone to read a headline or see a 30-second news clip and say OK, I think I know what I need to know. It’s easier to do that because most people, generally, don’t travel. So if you stay in your own neighbourhood – and your neighbourhood can be a small town or your own “ghetto”, where you hang around the same types of people and you don’t know there’s other people and other ways of doing things – when that gets introduced to you, you may not take the time to investigate or study or learn, so you just take what you see and form your opinions. First impressions count. So when there’s a non-Muslim majority, Muslims in Canada don’t have the opportunity to make that impression.”
So does the media play a role in this then? “Yes, but when I say media, I mean how we’re communicated to. I’m not referring to specific channels. Small towns are not necessarily as progressive as larger ones. Larger towns are a magnet for lots of people. Diversity. But if you put yourself in a ghetto in a large city, you’re still isolated.”
I was curious, as I am with everyone, about Karim’s experience with being “othered”, a new term for me that I’ve come to recognize as meaning being discriminated against for whatever characteristics you possess that are different from the majority at that time and place. Simply put, had he ever been teased about how he looked when he was a kid? After thinking about it for a while, Karim told me that “In Grade 7 or 8, in gym class, someone called me a “Paki”. The teacher came and sat down in between me and the guy and sent the guy to the office. I felt a little scared because after that, I started getting taunted more by that kid.”
I wondered if the role religion played in Karim’s life varied at all the older he got. I could recall times in church-going friends’ lives when they were able to get out of their Sunday duties once they became a teenager. “Actually, in my teen years, I would go to Jama’at Khana more. We would all meet there to go clubbing afterwards. We would meet there to play hockey in the halls. It was a very social place, as well as a place where you congregated for prayer.”
Now that he’s got a family of his own, he goes to mosque less. “Life is much busier for us than it ever was for our parents,” he says. “There was none of this take your work home. I don’t remember being in so many activities after school as my kid is. Because of this, we go less, but we go regularly.”
How about his kid? How does he explain things that are happening to his young son? “My kid listens to everything we listen to; he watches what we watch. Metro Morning on the CBC. My wife and I don’t hide anything from him. We talk about everything: sports, music, social issues. He’ll get angry that Trump is the president and thinks that there’s going to be World War 4 and 5.”
Once again, a difficult question for me to ask: what would you say to people who are afraid of Muslims?
Karim: I’d ask why.
Me: Well, what if they said, all Muslims are terrorists?
Karim: I’d say, are you afraid of me?
“I think that more people need to listen to more people. I think we don’t generally listen enough. I think we take our personal biases too serious and we don’t seek to understand. This also includes views that we don’t necessarily agree with. I think it’s too simple and too lazy to say that I don’t like people who vote differently than I vote. I think that’s just ignorance. But on the flip side, it’s a different kettle of fish when you have someone who ignores all rules of good conduct. Someone who bans people just because of where they’re from. That’s someone who, in my opinion, is evil. I don’t mind someone who votes Republican, but voting for Trump is voting for someone who is evil. If you came to me and said knowing what you know now, you would still vote for him, I would have a problem with you. It’s hard to learn. For people who are not First Nations, who are not black, it’s very hard to understand how these people feel if you are not literally in their shoes. Literally.”
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I learned a few things from doing this interview about history and religion, but more impactfully, I learned that I really never knew Karim at all before we chatted. One can argue that you can never really know someone, but it hit me at some point during our talk how little I knew about Karim. I mean, there was the surface stuff – he wears loud socks, he has an online radio show, he’s a Scout leader – but it hit me that we have all these people in our lives, peripheral relations, and how taking just a bit of time to learn about them just a little more can be intensely eye-opening and enriching.
I think there’s something here about getting to know more people on an individual basis, on a deeper level, one-on-one, especially those outside your regular social circle, and how that can help us to better connect with each other to foster empathy and understanding and get us beyond the rhetoric.
Next in the series, I’ll be talking to my kid’s former piano teacher, a Canadian woman who converted to Islam, and her husband, currently living in the States.