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Diversity and Corruption

June 7, 2012

I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less human societies were able to communicate with each other and therefore to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity.

—Claude Levi-Strauss, from Tristes Tropiques 

Faun says:

I have recently re-blogged a post I wrote last year for an organization called the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada. While it is a bit long (and I find myself wanting to re-write it and fix all of the diction, as it always is with old writing) I think it’s worth a skim. Few of us in Canada are familiar with our colonial history and the atrocities that occurred over the last few centuries. I cannot pretend to be an expert on Aboriginal history, but I think it’s important that we make an effort as Canadian citizens to educate ourselves about our country’s past without white-washing it if we want to understand the inequalities that still plague Canada today. There has been a recent report commissioned by the Native Women’s Association of Canada that documents “the impacts of inter-generational residential school linked trauma on criminalized Aboriginal women and girls”:

“NWAC’s ‘Gender Matters; building strength in reconciliation’ report notes that the criminal justice system in Canada is tied to colonization and the lens through which First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls are sentenced and criminalized remains tainted by historically unjust relationships. Some of the first women prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary were Aboriginal women resisting the forced Sterilization Act.”

I’m working on getting a copy of the whole report; it is not available online. The point of its research, though, is to reinforce that regardless of how long ago systems like the residential schools were in place (and it really wasn’t that long ago) the effects are still being felt. ‘Inter-generational’ is a key phrase that people forget the significance of.

When Miriam sent me her choice for this month’s quote, it was the phrase ‘wealth and significance of their diversity’ that leapt out at me. In Canada, to a large extent, we still fail to fulfill that second half of Levi-Strauss’ ‘circle’. Many people take the attitude that what is history is history, that people of Aboriginal heritage should just stop complaining and accept the opportunities offered to them. I find this view extremely alarming, especially as it sounds so similar to this statement by a 1920s government official (D.C. Scott):

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

Miriam says:

It interests me greatly that Faun talked about her work with Aboriginal history, because I have met many individuals in the Muslim community that are fascinated with the story of the Aboriginals. I have met a significant number of young people from the Muslim community who are currently taking Aboriginal studies.  Although I have not confirmed this with any of the people I have met who are in this line of study, my guess is that the reason the story of the Aboriginals attracts Muslims is that it is a parallel narrative to Western history, which Muslims have largely fought against since the emergence of the two separate histories.

What many people in the West fail to realize is that the West has been ripping off the Islamic world for centuries.  During the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ in Europe, the Islamic Golden Age flourished, adding vast amounts of knowledge to philosophy, science, and mathematics, and creating incredible works of art.  The fact that the West continually ignores this vast period of history is not a trivial matter.  For many Muslims, it is a symbol of the continued injustices that the West has dealt out over the centuries since the thirteenth century.  You need only look at the Crusades, the countless battles against the Ottoman Empire, the post-World-War-colonization, all the way up to the gross injustice that was the Iraq war, and the continued presence in Afghanistan. I find it very easy to understand why so many in Arabic countries, countries that still remember a proud and independent history, feel so much anger towards our oppressive civilization.

So, in the previous paragraph, I discussed the negative side of these two great societies coming in contact with each other. Now I would like to discuss the possible positives. Many Muslims living in North America today come from war-torn countries, where faith is sometimes all there is to hold on to.  Although many of these immigrants and refugees are experiencing great loss of both their culture and homeland, it is undeniable that here in North America, there are many opportunities afforded to both them, and particularly, to their children.

I’d like to make it clear that I don’t mean to trivialize the sorrow that I know immigrants and refugees often experience from living in a foreign land. But on the other hand, through my work with the youth in the Muslim community here in Edmonton, I see that generation accomplishing amazing things, and often integrating in a wonderful and unique way into mainstream Canadian society. Besides the examples I see set by many wonderful individuals, I would also like to mention a talk I heard by a prominent Muslim thinker about the blessings of pluralism.  This man, for me, brought things full circle.  His point was that in order to integrate into North American society, Muslims need to regain the ‘cultural authority’ that they once so strongly held during the Islamic Golden Age.

So there you have it. Through contact with each other, there has been corruption of culture of society.  But through the inevitable continued contact, perhaps recognition of diversity can bring healing and hope. Muslim immigrants and refugees have incredible gifts to offer Canadian and American society, here in their new home.  And perhaps we Westerners can graciously accept these gifts and celebrate the incredible richness that these cultures bring, and turn down the volume on the media telling us to fear anyone in a hijab.

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