Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 66: Community Engagement in Muslim Communities — with Amal Ghazal

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Amal Ghazal


Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hola oyentes. Mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos, y esa es Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam. Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar our host Am Johal is joined by Amal Ghazal, who has been the director of the Center for Comparative Muslim studies since 2017. Amal is an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East and Africa. She received her BA in history at the American University of Beirut, and moved to Canada in 1996. To complete her MA and PhD at the University of Alberta. Am and Amal sit down to chat about her role as the director of the Center for Comparative Muslim studies, and her focus on community engagement in the Muslim community and beyond. Enjoy the episode.


Am Johal  1:05
Welcome to Below the Radar. We have Amal Gazelle with us today who's the director of the Center for Comparative Muslim Studies, and a professor of history at SFU. Welcome Amal. 

Amal Ghazal  1:17  
Thank you Am, thanks for having me. 

Am Johal  1:19  
Yeah, I saw based on my extensive research that I did that your daughter just left for Japan, you must be like...

Amal Ghazal  1:25  

Am Johal  1:26  
Yeah, sad.

Amal Ghazal  1:26  
Sad but excited I can wake up in the morning and not be bothered by anybody. I can do anything I want without being yelled at.

Am Johal  1:33  
She might be listening.

Amal Ghazal  1:36  
I know she's very far to hear that.

Am Johal  1:40  
Also, you've been at the Center for Comparative Muslim Studies for a few years now, I think. 

Amal Ghazal  1:44  
This is my third year now. 

Am Johal  1:45  
Third year. Yeah. And you were at Dalhousie before that? 

Amal Ghazal  1:48
Yeah, I was in the necessary department there as well. 

Am Johal  1:51  
Yeah. So maybe if you could just start by telling what the Center for Comparative Muslim Studies is, and kind of the history of it prior to your arrival. 

Amal Ghazal  2:00  
So it was kind of envisioned after 911. And the need to create a center at SFU that discusses issues related to Muslims more specifically. And the reason I'm saying Muslims is the emphasis is not on Islam as a religion, but more on communities and traditions and cultures. And you know, how people articulate their religious identity rather than how a religion should be articulated, which is a great vision, by the way. And when we do when we focus on Muslims, rather than Islam, we get it better this way. Because it's more about the experience, rather than the idea, or, you know, the theory. And the center, there were campaigns to respond for the center, very successful Vancouver communities came together and the center was established in 2007, or 2008, I think 2007. And it had a very strong academic program. 

Am Johal  2:55
So certainly, it started out of that particular political moment, post 911. And you coming into this position recently, I imagine there's a lot of thinking around, you know, how to articulate what you're doing, and the mission of the Center. And particularly, of course, centers are small at university. So it is inflected a lot by the people who move into these positions and roles and a question of, you know, how you think about inhabiting this role and where you want to take it. 

Amal Ghazal  3:24  
So when I started here, I decided to shift the focus on community engagement. I mean, first, this is so needed at centres that deal with Islam and Muslims in general, because the tone is always very academic, but you need to invest in the community, and you want to find the bridges between what you say academically and the communities and how they benefit from that, and how can they engage you on the academic side. And first, I noticed Vancouver is a very interesting place. I just moved here in the summer of 2017. There is a very active community, intellectually very stimulated and stimulating. And I thought, you know, maybe we can have a start there. And I started to learn more about SFU. And I could see the emphasis on community engagement like, well, that's a great opportunity. You have a community that invested in the center, and you have an institution that is for the community and working to do community engagement. So I aligned the center to SFU mission, but also because I'm Muslim myself, I know and I feel what's needed. We don't need more lectures, we need more kind of engagement in a way to create space, let's talk, let's have a dialogue. Let's, let's discuss issues we're having past present, whatever. And so this is how I started that, you know, the emphasis should be more on the community engagement, creating the space. We had a series of events and at some point, one lady came and said, you've provided us a space that we never had before. And this is like when it

Amal Ghazal  4:59  
Hit me in terms of what we're doing at the center, because I was talking about creating engagement. And I hadn't formulated a space yet. And then when she said that, like, yeah, that's what we're doing, especially for the Muslim community, they want a space where they can say anything they want, where they can come together, discuss things in a very kind, also progressive way. And we don't have as many open spaces as we need. And we took it from there, we decided that the center should be open for dialogue, which should be open to all topics that especially the Muslim community feels the members need to discuss. And we've initiated the conversation series around that idea. And what we did is also what we've been trying, what we've been avoiding doing is not to impose ideas. So you know, we have a team and we discuss things with community members and say, they say we need to discuss things related to being a black Muslim, so we say, okay, that's what we need to do. So we get the feedback from the community. And it's connected to that feedback that we formulate our programming. 

Am Johal  6:08  
I saw recently that you've been doing some work through the center in terms of connecting Muslim communities with Indigenous communities here in Canada. So talk a little bit more about that. 

Amal Ghazal  6:18  
And again, I was influenced by my move to BC. And I could see, let's say, there's a difference between how much we engage in these communities, it's a difference between BC and Nova Scotia, like, so I started to learn more about that. And also, as I said, because we go to the community and see what they need to do and what they need to talk about, there's so much need to discuss issues related to the Indigenous communities and the relationship between the Muslim community and the Indigenuos communities. So I said, okay, we're going to sponsor that aspect as well. And we started to connect to the Indigenous communities and do events together, and also started to listen, what concerns Muslims have, they would like to know more about the history of Indigenous communities, they would like to know more about reconciliation. I'd like to know more about, you know, how we approach each other, what kind of dialogue should develop between the Muslim communities and Indigenous communities. So we've been trying, and we're experimenting with that, in a sense. And that's something actually important to highlight, we don't have a history of that, right? Like, we're coming in new and we're doing all these things at some point I'm like I have no idea what I'm doing, this is something that should be done. And things start to develop by observing and by experimenting, and by again, listening and having a dialogue. So even this engagement, the Indigenous community, which we're very proud of where we're kind of slowly going through it, because we don't know, we don't know, because nobody did it at the level we're doing it before. 

Am Johal  7:49  
And now that you've been here for a few years, and you've experimented with programming, various engagement activities, public speakers coming in, academic talks, and otherwise, what are your observations so far in terms of being here, in terms of the kinds of conversations that you think need to happen here or perhaps are underdeveloped here are an opportunity to kind of expand on?

Amal Ghazal  8:10  
Certainly the aspect I just mentioned, which is this bridge between Muslim communities, Indigenous communities, we need to invest more in that. And we're looking at more resources and more ideas in terms of how to do that. Now, as I said, Vancouver struck me as an interesting place because let's say when I invite speakers, one thing I mentioned, as most of our audience, is the public audience, a very informed public audience. So we're very lucky at the center, that when people show up, they're not necessarily academics, actually, most of them are not. But they want a talk that's strong content. They're willing to engage. So I'm looking more in terms of, you know, how to bring that academic content to the larger public. And how do you invest in the larger public when they're engaging you along those lines? So for example, let's say if we bring a speaker and the topic is on, let's say, tolerance, religion and tolerance or such topics. I want them to go to the next step. So people come and say, so how do we practice that? And again, we're lucky because we do have an amazing audience in Vancouver that's willing to listen and act upon what they hear. So the main point for me is that being academic myself was like so we always talk about bridging academia to the community. And the experience has been okay, how do we do that? Especially how do we do it with the Muslim community and the emphasis has been on as I said, you create the space, you create the dialogue, what kind of programming do you need? Along those lines. And we came up with the idea of fellowship, the Muslim community fellowship, to foster that space and kind of to invest in the community whereby, let's say they apply with select fellows. And we see what their needs are. And the fellows we had they just graduated in December, kind of more on the mature side, most of them had to graduate from university. They are artists or writers, in healthcare, different interests. So I said, Okay, what do you need? And they said, let's say the Muslim community needs a lot of work in terms of mental health care. So we try to bring people to talk about that. And then we provide some funding for the fellow interested in that to do sessions with the Muslim community. Now, not everything is just about the Muslim community, but we're targeting needs within the community. A couple of fellows wanted to do a walk through nature and kind of reflect on issues related to the environment. A couple of fellows wanted to do projects on the Indigenous communities. So we start to give them knowledge through speakers we bring and give some funding to execute some projects. Now, that was the purpose. But in the process, we discovered that, again, we're creating a space that's so much needed, because let's say you have 14 fellows sitting around the table, they meet each other for the first time. They come from different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. And most importantly, they're all Muslims. But for each Islam means something else. You have people who are very religious, they practice and people who don't practice at all, but their identity is Muslim. So they're looking at each other. Okay, what do we talk about? And given that there is difference in how we see things, how do we hold that space of difference and nurture it? Because we always talk about what's in common. But what if we have something that's not income? What do we do with that? What do we do with our differences? Which are kind of fair enough, we all have them. 

Am Johal  12:00  
With the immigration patterns we have in Canada, there's a complex diaspora here, because people arrived during different times in 60s 70s 80s. And some are second generation. And of course, when you're talking about the Muslim community here, it's so diverse and international people from Indonesia and Bosnia, and all parts of the Middle East and elsewhere as well. And I'm wondering how you think through that kind of complexity of diaspora and generations where they came from in terms of what the needs of the community might be? Because obviously, it's complex and very layered. And also, I guess, this question of geopolitical events affect diasporas, you know, polarizing things, if you have Erwan in Turkey, like there's two Turkish film festivals that happened in Vancouver, there's, you know, there are these events that happen that polarize communities are not monolithic communities, they are complex within and amongst themselves, depending on where they're coming from, as well. And I imagine being situated in an academic institution, is how do you think through these things in terms of programming that builds community? But you're walking into a complex context.

Amal Ghazal  13:12  
It is a very complex context, but kind of, I'm empowered by the fact that I belong to an academic institution. And the center is also positioned within the mission and the identity of that institution. So let's say we endorse equity and diversity, right? So our programming is around those issues. So let's say if you have community members who don't believe in diversity of all kinds, then you know that they have difficulty engaging us, right, like, in a way, let's put it this way, we provide a very progressive space. And we're willing to discuss everything and endorse everybody who endorses the values we believe in, and that our institution also kind of fosters. So you know, I felt that once I set the parameters, then it's easier. So let's say we do not endorse ideas that do not believe in pluralism or in diversity, or in equity and like we talk about different gender issues. We're talking about ethnic ethnicity and sectarianism, and my line is acceptance and willingness to discuss and to have a dialogue, respect, you know, everything that we believe in, as you know, as an academic group, but also institutionally and we try to practice and this has kind of defined our identity that this is the place where you go to have a dialogue and not to go and let's say preach on rigid ideas, or rigid issues. And let's say we have issues related to being black and Muslim and we're willing to discuss those, and also, do programming for that community. Or, for example, we endorse the Muslim queer community, we try to provide a space for that community. So far, I've been finding it easy to navigate, because it's so complex. Once you set your terms, then, you know, kind of those who are willing to accept your terms will come to you. If not, then they won't come. And if they come, they have to, they have to engage in a conversation. 

Am Johal  15:35
You're also situated in the history department and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your own research as well? 

Amal Ghazal  15:42  
The current project there, I actually have two projects, the most kind of immenent one is about the Muslim minority in Algeria, because we know about the sunnis and about the shiites but there is this third sect among Muslims whether, it's called the body sect or the body Muslims. And there is a group in Nigeria, in the desert. I've been doing some research on the articulation of the sectarian, the minority identity and the colonial context, but also with the emergence of colonialism and nationalism and anti colonial movements. And, you know, how a minority situates itself. And my research has somehow also informed my vision for the center, because I do deal with, you know, minorities, and where people try to fit what they need to articulate and what difficulties they have to articulate their identity when they're only a minority. So even like, it's not just academic knowledge, like I visited a community like that I know how they feel when, you know, they are a minority surrounded by a majority and the way they maneuver to articulate themselves and to assert a certain identity. So the other research project I have is on the early 20th century, anti liberal thought, so even kind of that research informs or allows me to understand more the sources of some ideas we encountered while we're doing our programming, while we're engaging the broader community, especially when it comes to anti liberal ideas. What's the ground for that? Where this is coming from, for how long we've been saying these things, or encountering them, or counter arguing? 

Am Johal  17:23  
Now as part of your research, you're traveling quite a bit in the world. I mean, I'm just basing this on the Facebook posts of you being in Beirut, to Egypt to wherever and I want to hear a travel story, I heard a rumor that you were lost in the desert.

Amal Ghazal  17:37  
Kind of, or stranded. So I was visiting that community I do my research on and I wanted to go deeper, and it's on the northern edges of the Sahara in Nigeria, I wanted to go deeper. So I'm working with my host in Algeria, he has to coordinate all the details with the police. Because once you cross a certain line in the desert, they need to know who that person is and where they're going and everything. Anyway, they brought this big tree otter four wheel for what you pay for4WD. And I'm safe, because that's the common car they take into the desert. We cross to police stations, they have my name, they know where I'm going. And the driver was very excited to show me the desert and started to do some moves on the like in the Delta. But while telling me he changed the wheels, and they're not German wheels anymore, or Japanese wheels, it's a different brand. He said, "Don't worry, nothing is going to happen". So we're really far from the highway and he's on, you know, maneuvering on the dunes and we got stuck on one and he couldn't move the car. First, he said, "You know, don't worry, it happens all the time". After half an hour, he couldn't move the tires. And he was like, "I'm now concerned". And like I'm more concerned because I can't get a signal on my phone. There's no water or dates, or any food in the car. And I don't know what's going to happen. So I was like, what do you want to do? He said "Nothing. We'll just pray the car will move" like, okay. Now part of your saying, okay, the police know I'm somewhere here. They don't know exactly where. But maybe at the end of the day when I'm dying from thirst, they will know they will locate me. And I think 15 minutes later, the car moved.

Am Johal  19:20
That's great. Amal, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Amal Ghazal  19:26  
My pleasure. Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Fiorella Pinillos  19:31
Thanks again to Amal Ghazal for joining us on Below the Radar. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcast including Apple podcasts, SoundCloud, Overcast and Player FM. And please leave us a review. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together including myself Fiorella Pinillos, Paige Smith, Jackie Obungah, Kathy Feng and Melissa Roach. David Steele is the composer of our theme music. Thank you for listening and tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
August 05, 2020

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