Strengthening Community by Embracing Diversity

The summer edition of our blog is by Dr. Mona Rahman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. In this piece, Mona describes her experience of growing up in Kingston and the resiliency of the community that surrounds her.

My father once said, “Ignorance leads to fear, suspicion and mistrust, which leads to prejudice and hate.” Thus, in order to combat prejudice and hate, the first step is to educate ourselves and others. The basis for this comes from our faith as Muslims, as it states in the Qur’an (49:13) “O humanity, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another….”

My relationship with Queen’s University began when I was born — my father had been a graduate student who later migrated across the causeway to teach at RMC — and continued as I grew to become an official student, then returning after my first post-doctoral fellowship. The Muslim community in Kingston has had a long-standing and strong relationship with campus. Throughout my childhood and youth, many of our events revolved around campus, as we did not yet have a place of our own, and most of the community were either students or faculty. Our parents’ generation were also quite involved in the Queen’s and local community, being members of the Multicultural Breakfast Forum at the Board of Education, helping in the establishment of the Human Rights (now Equity) office, amongst other spheres. They enveloped us with a supportive network which worked together with different faith and cultural groups to foster understanding and community. I was raised to be proud of every aspect of my identity – Muslim, Canadian, of Bangladeshi heritage – and also to gain an appreciation and understanding of other faiths and cultures

The bridges that were built during these early years served to strengthen the community as a whole, but the most amazing consequence of these long-standing relationships came after 9/11. Just across the border, in the US, we heard stories of Muslims being targeted in hate crimes to the extent that women were taking off their hijabs and/or afraid to leave their homes. In Kingston, the Police Force, Queen’s administration and the Board of Education were proactive in taking immediate measures to ensure the Muslim community was safe. When the Islamic Centre of Kingston decided to hold an Open House to invite the community, as many mosques were doing at that time to foster understanding, the line of people extended into the parking lot before the doors were even open. The support we received from the community-at-large was overwhelming. One woman even called to offer assistance to anyone afraid to go grocery shopping; a gesture which, thankfully, was not needed.

Despite the many positive experiences, however, I cannot be so naïve as to state that it is perfect. Through the decades there have been incidents targeting Muslims both on and off campus but these were always seen as the acts of ignorant individuals. Unfortunately, in recent years, there seems to have been an increase in Islamophobia, even here. Perhaps it is due, in part, to the increase in the speed and breadth by which misinformation travels, especially with the presence of social media. We seem to be constantly hearing of attacks on places of worship and Muslims, as well, as other minorities here in North America. Last year, the Islamic Centre of Kingston was victim to vandalism for the first time, an act which was discovered the morning of our Annual International Bazaar. However, what was heart-warming was the response of our community-at-large, who came in record numbers to provide support for the Muslim community. Just recently, a woman came up to me and my children with a look of concern on her face to tell me “Don’t listen to Donald Trump. He doesn’t speak for us normal people.” I smiled and said “I know,” because I know my community. What I didn’t anticipate, however, is the effect this had on my youngest son. The next day, he said to me with a huge grin on his face, “Mommy, I can’t stop thinking of what that lady said.” That small act of reaching out had a profound effect on a little heart. No matter how much we reassure our children and remind them that the views they may hear on TV do not represent the majority of people, no matter how loved and supported they are at home, school, and in the community, the things they see in the media, no matter how limited they may be, do have an impact. The words of a stranger who randomly came up to us in the store, had a profound effect to alleviate his concerns. These are the connections which strengthen a community.

The diversity in our communities is what enriches us and should not be means by which to divide. This is also evident in the Qur’an (30:22) “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed, in that are signs for those of knowledge.” Since we all have different origins of the different aspects of our individual identities, there is so much that we can learn from each other. We do not have to agree on everything, but in learning about each other, we can gain different perspectives which can help us come to mutual understandings and create a stronger community.

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