The Star-REGINA—Zarqa Nawaz lets her hijab drape gracefully around her shoulders as she looks out her front window, where the prairie sun beats down on an empty suburban street.
“I wonder what they think of us?” she muses, gazing at her neighbours’ quiet stucco houses.
With four children, Nawaz, creator of the CBC hit Little Mosque on the Prairie, has a busy household. It’s even busier next door, where her husband’s parents live and where her brothers-in-law and their families are staying temporarily. There are a half-dozen cars in front of the two houses.
The freelance filmmaker and TV comedy writer worries when the extended family comes home about the “way things look.” Two houses full of hijab-wearing women, bearded men and lots of little children. She even frets if the grass gets too long around the mosque they attend.
“No matter how smart, how assimilated you are,” she says, “you are part of the other that is dangerous. . .
“You can’t make a mistake — you will be judged.”
Ten years after terrorists flew into the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, tensions between Westerners and Muslims remain high, new studies show. While both groups share a fear of extremism, a Pew Global Attitudes survey of 14 countries released in July reported that relations are “generally bad, with both sides holding negative stereotypes of the other.
“Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical and violent. . . Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy — as well as violent and fanatical.”
On a more positive note, a Gallup poll released last week found most Muslim Americans declare loyalty to their country — even though they are more likely than people of other religions to say they have recently been discriminated against.
As for Muslims in Canada, life is not perfect, says Abdul-Basit Khan, a Toronto lawyer and past chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Canada. But, adds Khan, if you look at the experience of co-religionists in Europe and some parts of the U.S., “there isn’t a better country in which to be a Muslim.”
Nawaz says 9/11 forced Muslims, and other religious minorities, out of their “bubble” world and to engage the greater community as never before. In charity work, for example, they moved beyond supporting only Muslim causes.
Her two daughters, Maysa, 17, and Inaya, 15, both volunteer at the Regina food bank and are tutors at school, among other things.
“Never was there a time in history when it was so important to be active and prove to the world that we care,” says Nawaz.
But she also pays tribute to Canadian tolerance. “I believe that Little Mosque on the Prairie could not have been made in any other country,” says Nawaz, 43. “Living in Canada allowed me to be fully Canadian and still practise my faith as I wanted, so I grew up as a moderate, assimilated Muslim.”
Sept. 11 also thrust religion into the forefront of public discourse. It made clear, as New York priest and physicist Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete has written, that the 20th century was not so secular after all. “What was often held to be secularism was really another form of religion; it was religion without real transcendence.” Religion became less a private pursuit than one to be understood in a political context.
At the University of Toronto, enrollment in religion classes has doubled to around 2,800 in the past 10 years, and the study of religion is now often linked to the study of politics. The number of students choosing religion as a major, minor or specialty has increased from around 300 to 700.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Nawaz’s family situation is similar to that of a decade ago. Then, as now, her in-laws’ house was full of visiting families.
Then, three women, including Nawaz, had given birth the previous year. Her two sisters-in-law were staying with their parents so their mother could help with the newborns.
One of them was getting ready to rejoin her husband in California and had rented a van for the trip home. It was white and unmarked.
And that prompted a neighbour to call the RCMP and suggest the Muslim families living on Birch Cres. might be linked to 9/11 terrorism and should be investigated. The Mounties visited Nawaz’s father-in-law at work while he was seeing patients. Dr. Anwarul Haque is an ear, nose and throat specialist who had lived in Regina for 40 years.
“I was really, really upset,” Nawaz recalls. “But he was okay. He was from an older generation. If things look odd, you just explain.
“But I said, ‘This is Regina, Saskatchewan.’ The fact that there was that much paranoia and worry and stress about having a Muslim neighbour who had been part of this community for so long, that you could change overnight. And we would never be the same again. We struggled about what to do. It was a horrible feeling to live in a neighbourhood and wonder: was it you who did that?”
She and husband Dr. Samiul Haque, a child psychiatrist, had moved to the street weeks before 9/11. They built a house next to her in-laws, who had recently built a new house but had lived a block or so away for decades.
After 9/11, the families held an open house and invited 30 neighbours, to introduce themselves and dispel worries. They never found out who called the RCMP.
“It changed the relationship with the people I live with,” Nawaz says. “What goes through their minds when they see us?”
Nawaz, who was born in Liverpool and moved to Toronto at the age of 5, downplays the racist epithets and occasional beatings she got from school bullies — enough that her parents sent their daughter and two sons to karate lessons to learn self-defence. Her brother is now a world champion kick-boxer.
The problem was racism, not religion, she says. Bullies grow up. It ended.
“You could defend yourself physically,” Nawaz reflects. “But (now) how do you defend yourself against the stereotypes of your community, that you are a threat?”
Her older son, chatty Rashad, 12, volunteered to one of his coaches at school: “I am not a terrorist. I’m not one of those people.” His mother notes that he was 3 at 9/11.
Nawaz, who started out as a journalist at CBC’s Morningside, made her first film in the mid-1990s. The short comedy BBQ Muslims is about a couple of brothers who are suspected of being Middle Eastern terrorists when their backyard barbecue blows up. It was fresh and funny enough to land a coveted spot at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival.
She used her brothers and neighbours in the film, and even asked local police if she could film in their jail. They all agreed. “We could do things like that then,” Nawaz recalls. “Those were the days of innocence, when you could do comedy about terrorism and the police could let you use their jail.”
The way the family prays has changed since 9/11. At home for his midday break, Haque recalls that they were “very comfortable praying anywhere. On an airplane, at a rest stop by the side of road, a patch of grass beside McDonald’s.”
He no longer does that.
It was common for young Muslims travelling Canada to use the local mosque as a place to stay for a few nights. It was very open, he says. Now, the community is more cautious, taking visitors’ names and contact numbers. He is more careful when asked to make donations to individual causes, for fear the government might somehow link a donation to terrorism.
He recognizes that his wife and older daughter, who both wear hijab (their 15-year-old does not), are more visible as Muslims.
Nawaz has grappled with the idea of giving up the hijab. “What if I stop wearing hijab and just disappear? Will things change if I assimilate?”
Most of her close friends have given up the practice. “Why don’t I? I struggle with it constantly. I believe I wear it because it identifies me specifically with this embattled group, people who are going through a difficult time.”
She wants to use her success — Nawaz has sold four sit-com pilots to the U.S. in the past four years, and Little Mosque is seen in 60 countries — to help Canadian Muslims. “I feel this is the time to wear it because the community needs it so badly and I do it more out of a sense of duty than a sense of faith.”
In fact, she has taken to tying her hijab in artful ways, following new styles on websites such as mytrendyhijab.com.
Eldest daughter Maysa, a studious girl who will graduate from high school next year, was taken aside while changing flights at Minneapolis airport last summer while en route to a Muslim summer camp in Michigan. “I was the only Muslim on the flight and the only person they took into a little room.”
Maysa was questioned and asked to remove her hijab. She refused. She says if the official had been polite, she would have agreed.
It was a frightening experience. “I didn’t really think they could do anything to me,” she says. “I’m a Canadian citizen. Then I thought about Maher Arar.”
She describes how she tries to present the most positive image of a young Muslim that she can. She says thank you to the bus driver. She is “really nice” to everyone she encounters, as if she carries the burden of how people think about all Muslims.
Normally someone who keeps her feelings in check, she lifts her glasses to wipe her eyes. She is surprised at her emotion.
“I wonder what it would have been like if 9/11 hadn’t happened,” Maysa says quietly. “I imagine it would have been a lot different and better if it hadn’t.”