Her voice trembling, an Iranian social worker asked from the audience: "Do you believe that a woman needs to be sentenced to death because of having a sexual relationship out of marriage?" It was hardly the sort of question we normally expect to hear raised in the Glenn Gould Studio in the CBC's Toronto Broadcasting Centre, but these are not normal times. The social worker, who said that she was sentenced to death before she escaped from Iran, was taking part in a CBC public forum, "Understanding Ummah: Toronto's Muslims After September 11," ummah being an Arabic word for community.
Andy Barrie led a discussion among six Muslim panellists, all of them articulate representatives of the community, and also took questions from the audience. The result was a riveting and unpredictable mix of pomposity, rage, pathos, and theological spin control. It was a snapshot of a community in crisis, with all its ambivalence showing. It was heard live for 90 minutes Wednesday night on CBC Radio in southern Ontario and on the Internet; a one-hour national version will run on Tapestry, at 2:05 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday.
The answer to the question about adultery came from Shabir Ally, president of the Islamic Information Centre. It turned out to be typical of this strange, unsettling evening. Mr. Ally said that, first, he doesn't think women should be discriminated against. Historically the Koran enhanced the status of women, who in pre-Islamic times, he said, were merely property. As for putting a woman to death for adultery, that was definitely not in keeping with Islamic law.
"The Koranic injunction," he explained, "is flogging in such a case, but never putting to death."
Mr. Barrie, sounding a little astonished, asked: "Would you favour a flogging?"
"No," Mr. Ally said, "I would say, look at the historical context in which the Koran was revealed." He then unfurled a rich panoply of bafflegab, impossible to decode even on second hearing. The most confident and most verbose of the panellists, he also delivered the fewest clear answers. Mr. Ally summarized his views in these words: "So, altogether, Islam, really, if it is understood properly, is a tolerant religion and the grounds for understanding it is the historic context in which it was first made available."
The panellists' "discourse" (a word used relentlessly) had a dreamy, surreal quality. They described an Islamic world that most people would find hard to recognize, perhaps a secret Islam known only to them, where everyone is peaceful and good-hearted. They showed little interest in the life of actual humans alive today in Islamic countries such as Egypt, Iran, or Indonesia, and they were even less interested in the origins of the Sept. 11 suicide killers or their motivations. The panellists deplored Osama bin Laden and had nothing but disdain for the Taliban, but not one of them said a kind word for the American attempt to abolish these evils.
They reflected a sharp ambivalence that may be characteristic of many Muslims living in the West. Whenever condemning terrorism, they also felt called upon to attack American policy in the Gulf, the Middle East, etc. And as the rhetoric rolled, it grew angrier at the Americans than at the terrorists.
They were obviously sick of being asked about Islam. Maliha Chisti, a panellist from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said she often feels backed into a corner. "Why is there this general misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about our religion?" she asked. She felt Canadians don't have adequate multicultural understanding. Canadians should "do some critical reflections as to why, you know, dominant narratives have prevailed, marginalizing the in-puts and the voices of a truly multicultural global society."
Andy Barrie, a sensitive man, didn't raise the question of violence in the Koran without first mentioning the Inquisition, the 17th-century crimes of Oliver Cromwell, and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel. This generous inclusiveness was repaid by nothing but stonewalling. A panellist explained to him that if the Koran says you should kill your enemies, you have to remember that a defensive war was being fought at the time.
No matter what question was raised, the panellists explained again that we had to consider Islamic history in context, ideally at great length. At times it all seemed like a colossal case of missing the point. But because the panel was so boring, the intercessions from the audience seemed all the more dramatic. It was like a placid university seminar on ecumenism, interrupted now and then by someone running into the room and screaming at the participants.
Speaking from the floor, a Muslim journalist said: "I can't help thinking we are in some way responsible, even accountable for this, by tolerating inflammatory rhetoric. What role do we as Muslims have in cleansing ourselves of this?" He was applauded, but Jasmine Zine, a panellist who is also a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said only that "We are opening up a lot more dialogue around these issues."
A non-Muslim woman in the audience asked what responsibility Muslims feel to condemn terrorism and root it out, but there was little response; over the radio you could almost hear the six panellists ducking under the table.
Aside from accusations about executions and torture in Iran, the most distressing speech was also the most carefully reasoned. A Muslim man spoke from the audience: "If we feel so distraught by what happened on Sept. 11, how come we, as a community, have not condemned this action in a very, very uncertain manner? How come we have never come out and said: This is wrong and should not be accepted under any circumstances?"
The panel's answer was a quick assertion that every Muslim organization in North America has condemned Sept. 11. The questioner refused to let it go. "We have given lip service when the media was around," he said. "We have gone into multi-faith prayers when the media was around. When the media turns its back, we go back to our old rhetoric in our mosques." Well, said Saleha Khan, co-ordinator at the Canadian Association for Islamic Relations, her organization frequently condemns Sept. 11. The panellists acted as if the word "mosques" had not been spoken.
Mr. Barrie asked Shabir Ally about intemperate voices in the mosques: "Do these people exist and are they being confronted within your own community?" Mr. Ally poured out a stream of generalities, all of them off the point. Kind, earnest Mr. Barrie was driven to say, "I don't think I've had an answer to my question."
It was a remarkable occasion in many ways. You could sense people being shaken, and in the distance you could hear the sound of minds changing. It didn't, however, impress the CBC Radio news editors. The evening was rich in surprises, but the next morning's news broadcast reported nothing except Jasmin Zine on "Islamophobia," the evils of racial profiling and the fact that two schoolmates (who were subsequently threatened with expulsion) made insulting remarks to her son, Osama.