Breaking Faith

NOVEMBER 13, 2005

 

By Tom Sandborn-contributing writer – November 13, 2005

 

Imam Fode Drame

 

On a mild, damp evening in late October, the Muslim faithful are gathered in Vancouver’s Masjid ul-Haqq, an East Side mosque, for prayers celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. Upstairs in the converted Jehovah’s Witness church building on Welwyn Street, Muslim men and boys from around the world stand shoulder to shoulder in rows on the broad green and tan stripes of the room’s carpet. They face an alcove framed in marble facing, the only rich note in the room’s otherwise austere appearance. They kneel, prostrate themselves, touch the floor with their foreheads and stand reverently again as the ancient Koranic suras are chanted.

 

A young man in a striped, hooded robe leads the prayers tonight. His rich, resonant baritone rises and falls in the ancient liturgical music that has sounded for nearly 14 centuries wherever the faithful gather to pray. Occasionally, his voice falters for a beat, and a deep, quiet voice from among the worshippers takes up the verse and leads the young man through the passage.

 

The guiding voice comes from an imposing figure in long, flowing African robes. He is Imam Fode Drame, a Senegalese scholar and cleric, the mosque’s imam, or prayer leader, since January 2001.

 

Timeless and moving, even for a visiting journalist with no faith whatsoever, the serene tone of the Ramadan prayer service belies the fact that the worshipers and their imam are key figures in a storm of religious controversy. Continued from page 1

 

The week before the Courier visited Masjid ul-Haqq, Drame had been in B.C. Supreme Court successfully defending himself against an attempt by the B.C. Muslim Association, his employer, to evict him from the Welwyn Street mosque.

 

Attempts by members to discuss this matter at the Oct. 30 annual general meeting of the Association in Richmond were immediately silenced by its presiding officers, sources told the Courier. On Nov. 4, worshippers who arrived at the Welwyn Street mosque were greeted by uniformed security guards who tried to prevent worshippers from entering. The congregation had arrived that morning to celebrate Eid, the holy day that marks the end of Ramadan. Burly security guards wearing black jackets emblazoned with Genesis Security logos told the Courier they were sent by the B.C. Muslim Association, or BCMA, with orders to allow no one to enter the mosque. Eventually, the congregation broke through the line of security guards and flooded into the mosque, where they heard a sermon from Drame calling for unity and peace and urging the congregation to pray for all concerned, including the BCMA officers.

 

A few days later, on Nov. 8, representatives of the BCMA reportedly changed the locks on the mosque and posted announcements declaring Masjid ul-Haqq closed until further notice. Worshippers were directed to attend other approved BCMA mosques. At press time, negotiations were said to be under way to reopen the building for Friday prayers.

 

Why is Drame at the centre of all this controversy? Some supporters suggest he is being punished for his pioneering work in multi-faith dialogue, work that has seen him participating in mixed gatherings of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. Over the last year, Drame helped organize monthly interfaith meetings, sometimes at Masjid ul-Haqq, sometimes at non-Muslim houses of worship and community centres.

 

Others wonder whether the fact the prayer leader is the only black imam in B.C. might have something to do with his troubles. Still others suggest the trouble stems from his support for greater participation in worship and study by Muslim women.

 

Fode Drame is an unlikely figure to be at the centre of a legal firestorm. The quiet, soft-spoken cleric, son of a Senegalese imam, Drame came to Canada to pursue graduate work in linguistics at the Universite de Quebec in 1996. By the time he took up his studies in Canada, Drame, whose family has provided 10 generations of imams to Senegalese Islam, had already completed years of Koranic study in Senegal and Gambia, and could read and write 10 languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, English and classical Arabic. He taught himself Urdu after arriving in Vancouver.

 

Since 2001 Fode has been an employee of the BCMA, receiving free accommodations for his family at a residence on the mosque property and a monthly stipend of $1,200. A landed immigrant, he has lived behind the mosque for four years with his wife Khadija. Two grown children, a son and daughter, live on the North Shore.

 

Drame says he served as an imam in Montreal from 1996 until 1999 while he was a graduate student. Interest in interfaith dialogue, which began in Montreal, has been a signature element of his work in Vancouver. The monthly meetings he organized were “a new style of interfaith dialogue,” he told the Courier. “We discuss a passage from the Koran or the Bible or the Talmud and highlight the similarities amongst all these faiths. It is like a class or conference. Usually about 60 people attend.”

 

Drame said interfaith events are new to the Muslim community. “New things are always resisted out of ignorance. In 2004, after I had spoken at Beth Israel synagogue on Oak Street, the president of the BCMA came here on a Friday and spoke to the congregation in strong terms. He equated dialogue with the Jewish community with betrayal of the Palestinians, but I believe the idea of interfaith talks has gained support. As religions, Islam and Judaism are close. By going to the roots we see the close ties we share before politics. I am not a politician. Politics are not my area of concern.”

 

One area that is of concern to Drame is the fate of Vancouver’s homeless. For several months, he told the Courier, he has served a morning breakfast and evening dinner every Friday to groups of homeless people at the corner of Hastings and Main.

 

“I take down coffee and toast on Friday mornings, and in the evening I take down 200 meals of meat and rice that members of the mosque help me prepare,” he said.

 

David Mivisair, rabbi of the Vancouver’s Ahauat Olam, which describes itself as ” a progressive, unaffiliated synagogue,” praised Drame’s openness to dialogue.

 

Mivisair is one of the organizers of the Interspiritual Centre, a project based in Vancouver to create a common house of prayer and worship for the many religious groups expected to be present in the new development in Southeast False Creek.

 

“I wanted to do what I could to bridge the unnecessary and tragic gap between Jewish and Muslim communities,” he said in an October phone interview. “I called many prominent imams and got no answer. But when I called Masjid ul-Haqq, expecting more rejection, I was told, ‘The imam’s been waiting to hear from someone like you.’ Imam Fode was so gracious, so welcoming. He is a true brother in the spirit. I have so much respect for him.”

 

Seemie Ghazi, a lecturer in Classical Arabic in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at UBC, has prayed at Masjid ul-Haqq and attended the Drame’s Wednesday morning classes on the Koran. Like Mivisair and Drame, Ghazi is a supporter of the Interspiritual Centre project. She is also, as a scholar and Muslim, deeply impressed by the controversial prayer leader’s depth of learning and commitment to what she sees as the deepest and most profound elements of classical Islamic learning.

 

“Imam Fode is a man of immense erudition, wisdom and compassion,” she said. “He is a remarkable mentor for young Muslims. Many of my students pray at Masjid ul-Haqq and study with the imam, and he steers them toward knowledge and compassion, urging them to embrace their tradition while reaching out to others. Imam Fode is deeply traditional, deeply rooted in classical Islamic jurisprudence, philology and exegesis. At the same time he is very progressive in his courageous interfaith work. I only hope this trouble can be resolved soon without creating polarization,” she said.

 

The Courier asked Drame about his supporters’ speculation that his troubles stem from racism within the BCMA leadership or from unease about his encouragement of Muslim women to study and attend the mosque. Looking weary and sad, sipping mint tea in the modest stucco cottage behind Masjid ul-Haqq last week, Drame spoke carefully.

 

“I would not rule out racism as a contributing factor in this situation, but other factors, I think, supersede-factors like doctrinal differences,” he said. “The leadership of the BCMA is inclined toward Wahhabi teachings, and that is a major factor. The BCMA has received Saudi money in the past, and with that money comes pressure to support Wahhabi teachings.” (Wahhabi or Salafist Islam is a “back to basics” fundamentalist current within Islam based on the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, an Arab religious reformer from the 18th century.)

 

“Racism is not open in this situation, but it is present,” he added. “I have had Association leaders say to me that they would prefer that the imam be from Pakistan or India, and at least one leader in the Association, I am told, refuses to refer to me by name. He will only say ‘the black imam’ when he speaks of me.” Drame would not identify the Association leader who made the comment.

 

As for the suggestion that some of his troubles with his employer stem from his encouragement of Muslim women, Drame believes it is true.

 

“Our mosque is the only one in B.C. to encourage women to attend and to study the Koran. Islam gives a very important role to women. Unfortunately, this teaching has been stifled by some pre-Islamic traditions that have persisted. Muslim women, too often, have not been able to disengage from shackles put on them. They have not been allowed to be educated. You must have as many educated women as men.”

 

Drame said he had been urged by leaders of the BCMA to stop leading the adult classes in the Koran to which he welcomes both men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. He said BCMA officers suggested he place the women in a separate class led by another woman.

 

Drame’s legal trouble began Oct. 2 when the president of the B.C. Muslim Association, Daud Ismail, issued a letter terminating Drame’s employment and forbidding him from leading prayers at the Welwyn Street mosque.

 

The B.C. Muslim Association, according to its website (www.the BCMA.com) is a non-profit incorporated under the B.C. Societies Act in 1966 to represent the province’s Sunni Muslims, a population estimated on the website at 40,000.

 

The BCMA has refused to comment publicly on its efforts to fire Drame, describing the move in court documents as “without cause.” BCMA president Daud Ismail declined repeatedly to be interviewed for this story.

 

In court documents obtained by the Courier, the BCMA’s counsel, Adnan Habib, claims the dismissal has the support of the majority of the Masjid ul-Haqq congregation and implies Drame might “promote deviant teachings of Islam, disrupt the sacred space of the mosque, distribute leaflets and pamphlets that might promote hatred amongst Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims, advance political causes which would jeopardize BCMA’s charitable status or otherwise interfere with the BCMA’s ability to protect and operate its property.”

 

Habib’s argument to the B.C. Supreme Court, which was dismissed by Justice Romilly on Oct. 20 as “without evidentiary basis” and “speculative,” suggested that if the court did not extend its earlier injunction to keep Drame from leading prayers at Masjid ul-Haqq, the BCMA would suffer loss of attendance at the mosque, loss of revenue and charitable status, loss of insurance coverage and/or reduction in bank credit.

 

In an email to the Courier Nov. 4, Habib laid out more of his client’s position and why the BCMA tried to bar worshippers from entering the mosque.

 

“Every year the BCMA rents other facilities for the day of Eid for the congregational prayers,” Habib wrote. “Notice is issued days in advance to all the branches for the location of the various prayers because turnout is very high. This year as in past years Fraserview Hall was rented for these prayers and it is for that reason the mosque was closed for Eid prayers. It would then be reopened for the regular prayers unless of course something happened which would force the mosque to remain closed. Given recent events at the mosque the BCMA has been forced to engage a security company to protect its property and in this case to ensure that the mosque would not be converted from a place of worship to a place of protest. Given the events of this morning which includes the apparent failure of the Vancouver Police Department when called upon to assist the security guards (including one who was injured), it would appear that the place of worship has now become a place of protest.”

 

Drame’s lawyer, Kieran Siddall, pointed out that in past years, while larger venues had been opened at Eid, there had never been any effort to keep worshippers from praying in their own mosques. He said Habib’s reference to the mosque becoming a place of protest was “misguided.”

 

Dave Sukic, general manager of Genesis Security, said the “injury” suffered by one of his guards at the mosque was not serious.

 

“That was me,” Sukic told the Courier, “and it was no big deal, nothing like a fight or altercation. When people pressed through the line, it was like that kid’s game, Red Rover. My hand got caught on a garment for a moment and I got a little cut.”

 

Having lost in its attempt to get its injunction against Drame extended in court, the leadership of the BCMA faced a new challenge in the open air.

 

Sunday morning, Oct. 30, a crowd of over 200 Drame supporters rallied outside the Richmond mosque where the annual general meeting of the BCMA was being held. One supporter told the Courier that she and others who wanted to join the BCMA that day and attend the meeting were barred from entering the mosque, while angry exchanges between Drame’s supporters and backers of the current BCMA leadership broke out at the door.

 

“One man called me an animal and not a Muslim,” said Mariam Hagimayow in a phone interview with the Courier that Sunday night. Hagimayow is a Somali woman who assists Drame in teaching children’s classes at the mosque.

 

“Women who wanted to join were told they could only join the women’s chapter, which doesn’t meet with the general meeting, and even then, only if two men who were already members would say we were Muslims. Men who wanted to join were told they’d have to serve two months of probation before they could attend meetings,” she said.

 

“I hope the court intervenes and dismisses the whole Association. We need a new board that’s fair and diverse. The Association should be open to all Muslims-Shia, Sunni, and Ismaili, from all continents. These men on the Association board should go back where they came from if they want to treat women this way. This is Canada.”

 

Until the recent disputes about Drame, Kalendar Khan was the chairman of the Vancouver Branch of the B.C. Muslim Association. His status is now in dispute, Khan told the Courier. The BCMA insists it has collapsed the Vancouver branch and appointed trustees, but Khan says he is “going forward assuming I am still the chair.”

 

Khan supports the call for change in his organization. “I think the whole executive should be dissolved. We need an executive that will respect the constitution. Imam Fode is a nice, humble guy. I think some people object to him as a black man, but I think he is a top notch preacher.”

 

Hanif Karim, a young Muslim activist, says that opponents of Fode are motivated by opposition to more equal treatment of women and openness to Muslims of all traditions.

 

“This is the politics of patriarchy writ large,” Karim told the Courier in a phone interview Oct. 25. “The problems of the BCMA are the problems of all patriarchal structures. Imam Fode’s openness is his most important trait, not just intellectual openness, but openness of the heart. He has wide support and is worth defending.” (Full disclosure: Karim and Mivisair have been friends of the author for years.)

 

Mohammad Shafiqe, former general secretary of the B.C. Muslim Association, objects to what he saw as abuse of the BCMA’s own constitution in its attempts to dismiss Drame. In an affidavit filed with the B.C. Supreme Court, Shafiqe claims the BCMA council meeting held Oct. 15 to ratify the decisions to dismiss Drame and to proceed against him in court was marked by serious irregularities.

 

Shafiqe’s affidavit notes only 12 of 26 voting members of the council were present during the crucial meeting, and that at least six other voting members were locked out of the building in which the meeting was held. Shafiqe said he left the council meeting midway in its proceedings to protest what he saw as unconstitutional process.

 

“I have since been removed by the president as BCMA general secretary,” Shafiqe said.

 

Meanwhile, a local Muslim newspaper has joined the chorus of criticism levelled at the leadership of the BCMA. Nusrat Hussain, editor of Delta-based The Miracle, wrote a scathing editorial critique of the Association leadership’s conduct in the paper’s Oct. 28 edition. “Leaders of the BCMA have the courage to furnish unreasonable speculation in the Supreme Court Of B.C.,” he wrote. “It has tarnished the image of the local Muslim community. They owe us an explanation or an apology.”

 

Mr. Hussain told the Courier the BCMA responded to the editorial by banning his newspaper from distribution at local mosques.

 

November darkness has closed around the locked and embattled house of worship on Welwyn Street, and the struggles between the Masjid ul-Haqq congregation and the B.C. Muslim Association seem far from resolved as this story goes to press. This perplexing local battle is playing itself out against a grim backdrop of international news, featuring bloody trouble between the wrathful followers of various faiths on killing grounds around the world. The tragedy around the world might be why many of Drame’s supporters consider his work so important.

 

Even before the BCMA changed the locks on the mosque, the future for Drame and his congregation seemed uncertain. But sipping tea while cross-legged in a sparely appointed room in his residence last week, Drame reflected on what motivates him.

 

“God has blessed me with some light,” he said. “It is my duty to help my fellow human beings as much as I can. That’s what gives meaning to my existence. I am in the footsteps of my ancestors, who have always been engaged in the mission of spreading the word of God by peaceful means. That is why interfaith work is so important.”

 

published on 11/13/2005

Qawsain Knowledge House

 

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