Islam in Cascadia

A report from British Columbia on Pacific Northwest Muslims and how they view life in the West.
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A report from British Columbia on Pacific Northwest Muslims and how they view life in the West.

With the arrival of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, religion and values reporter Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun has a couple of interesting stories about the state of Islam in Europe and Canada. He reviews the concept of Eurabia, the idea that Europe is slowly becoming colonized as a Muslim region.

This puts me in mind of an old Andalusian farmer I met in the Sierra Nevada mountains of southern Spain in 1978. We were high up in the hills on ancient terraces that dated back to Roman times. Gazing across the hazy Mediterranean, he pointed to North Africa and told me that one day, "los moros" — the Moors — would return. I thought he was nuts.

But many are taking that notion more seriously today as Europe's immigrant population grows and demographics change. Those fearing Eurabia say that Muslims could make up 40 percent of the continent's population by 2020; other experts say that's way overstated and that 6 percent is a more realistic number. One reason: fertility rates drop in industrialized countries.

Todd points out that even as Muslims move into Europe, it is not only Europe that's changing, but the immigrants who tend to become more secular and more open to Western ways. While Canada has a very small Muslim population (2 percent), Todd sees the effects of living in the West on the young BC Muslims he's talked to:

I have talked to many devout Metro Vancouver Muslims, including young people. The teenagers I met are, like many Muslims, left-wing about economic issues, but morally conservative about sex outside marriage, homosexuality, and drinking. They both celebrate and criticize North America's libertarian culture. I was glad they attended public universities and public high schools (even though many others attend separate Muslim schools, which raises legitimate questions).

The Muslim teenagers I met interacted with Canadians from all ethnicities and walks of life. They did so especially through sports teams. Perhaps most important of all, the Muslim teens deeply appreciated the freedom they have in Canada. Most said either they or their parents come from countries in the Middle East and Asia where free speech and association is not at all a given. They were grateful to be in a democratic country.

Unless I was blind to how the seemingly wholesome Canadian teenagers secretly belonged to a "sleeper cell" of Muslim extremists bent on dominating the West, they gave no hint they would ever want to impose Muslim teachings on all Canadians — because that would contravene the human rights they so cherish.

As immigrants from Muslim countries assimilate, will they be in any way influenced by the specific culture of Cascadia? On religious and some cultural issues, maybe not. The Northwest is highly secular and generally gay-friendly, for example.

But what about other core values, like ecology and sustainability? One doesn't connect, say, the Middle East, with environmentalism. Todd also reports on a recent two-day Islamic Cultural Expo held in Vancouver, where a thousand local Muslims gathered for public prayer downtown. He quotes Imam Ali Meheri who helped organize the event as saying "Being allowed to pray in the heart of downtown...shows we are accepted in the West, as long as we follow the rules of the land." Todd reports he also urged Muslims to "not listen to extremists" who teach that Muslims are locked in unavoidable conflict with the West. The event featured a number of information booths, including one on Islam and the environment:

The ecology booth, which was devoted to explaining Islamic approaches to the natural environment, said the Koran teaches that suffering of animals should always be minimized, natural resources should not be wasted, recycling should be supported, the gap between the rich and poor should be narrow, and Allah's natural creation should not be exploited for selfish ends.

Both Christian greens and dominion-theology types use the Bible to justify opposite claims on whether the good book is a fount of wisdom on environmental stewardship, or provides an excuse for putting human resource extraction at the head of the line. I've also heard Mercer Island Rabbi Daniel Lapin claim Biblical support for unhindered free markets, and his suggestion that God punishes heathens with environmental catastrophes like floods an hurricanes. So my guess is that there might be a few different interpretations of the Koran too.

But it's interesting to hear Cascadian values discussed in an Islamic context, which is all part of the process of getting to know one another in this particular region at this particular time. The "clash" between East and West might be less like a war and more like the slow shaping of the landscape as tectonic plates meet and rub against one another. Over time, that can shake things up, but it's also what produces much of our beauty too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.