The Silk Road Institute: Strengthening Muslim-Canadian Culture

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What does it mean to be a Muslim-Canadian? Can we sum up the diversity of the Muslim Canadian experience in a few sentences, or even a few paragraphs? Who defines the Muslim Canadian experience? These, and many related questions, were the focus of a discussion I co-moderated for the Silk Road Institute earlier this year in Montréal. The large and diverse audience present debated, discussed, and shared personal experiences — and even though the conversation extended beyond its originally-allotted two hours — many in attendance felt that we ended it prematurely and that there was much more left to be said.

Many Muslim-Canadians see their identity as a combination of factors. They, and particularly the younger generation, view themselves as bearers of multiple identities. This should come as no surprise. Like that of most of Canada’s diverse communities, the Muslim-Canadian experience reflects and is defined by a broad, collective spectrum of demographic, cultural, and spiritual backgrounds.

Creating a cultural space

Since the Silk Road Institute was founded two years ago, it has become clear that there is a need for spaces where the Muslim community can make its voice heard on the cultural front by exploring and strengthening Muslim-Canadian culture, as well as participating in the broader Canadian cultural discourse. The Silk Road Institute uses the tools of cultural representation — like the arts, literature, and the free flow of ideas — to encourage the exploration of identity and create a platform for cross-cultural exchange.

Since then we have hosted speakers to address a wide range of issues. In our inaugural panel discussion on Quebec, minorities, and human rights, we hosted the National Council of Canadian Muslim’s (NCCM’s) Executive Director Ihsaan Gardee, and Shirley Sarna of the Quebec Human Rights Commission. In early 2014, indigenous rights activist Ellen Gabriel shared her insights on the relationship between indigenous rights and universal rights. In February of this year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, Imam Yasin Dwyer — a Silk Road Institute Board member — inspired the audience as he shared Malcolm X’s legacy and contributions to the Muslim experience in North America. To mark the Silk Road Institute’s second anniversary in May, we welcomed Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC comedy series Little Mosque on the Prairie, and author of Laughing all the Way to the Mosque.

The Silk Road Institute’s interest in literature has spawned regular book clubs, during the course of which we have hosted Globe and Mail columnist, and Silk Road Institute Board member Sheema Khan, author ofOf Hockey and Hijab. Last year, we organized the Montreal book launch of the English translation of Monia Mazigh’s novel, Mirrors and Mirages.

Active promotion of the arts and cross-cultural artistic exchange form a cornerstone of our work. The Silk Road Institute has hosted a wide range of performing artists through its ‘Viva Voce’ artistic series. Jason ‘Blackbird’ Selman and Kaie Kellough bought their unique spoken word voice to our first event. Suad Bushnaq, Didem Basar, and Ali El-Farouk, entertained a full house with their Levantine inspired music. Recently, we hosted an event showcasing the artistic talents of emerging local artists. At the organization’s second anniversary, Tounkara-Lavoie entertained audience members with their own compositions as well as the traditional music of Mali.

We also lend our support to local and emerging artists. Through our Viva Voce Studio Sessions, the Silk Road Institute has produced two musical video productions, showcasing the music and directorial work of the artists involved. Additionally, we staged a seven-part photography workshop designed to inspire a new generation of photographers. This Ramadan, we joined with with the National Council of Canadian Muslimsand the Tessallate Institute to run a national photo contest to mark the fasting month.

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