I think I’ll keep my mixed up, multicultural (this is not a bad word), bastardized, poly-religious, integrated and even miscegenated American identity, thank you anyway.

— Palestinian-American writer Suheir Hammad

Interfaith Grand River, which brings together people from different religious traditions in Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario, has grappled on an ongoing basis over the last few years with questions of religion, identity, culture and society. Inroads managing editor Bob Chodos, himself an Interfaith Grand River member, invited six of his colleagues – Karis Burkowski (Neopagan), Carol McMullen (Jewish), Elizabeth McNair (Mennonite), Sandy Milne (Catholic), Idrisa Pandit (Muslim) and Jessica Rodela (Unitarian) – to stay after the organization’s regular monthly meeting on September 16 to record a conversation on some of these questions. Ginny Freeman MacOwan and Craig MacOwan provided invaluable technical assistance. In the style of the old CBC television program Fighting Words, the participants were presented with a series of quotations and asked to respond to each one in turn. Some of the highlights are presented here.

Carol McMullen: As far as my own identity is concerned, with a last name of McMullen, and coming from Irish immigrants, and then deciding to convert to Judaism, as far as who I am and where I sit in different parts of society, a white woman, from an “educated” background, but wanting to relate to many different parts of society, I see many of those pieces as being helpful in relating to certain parts of society and I see many of those pieces as being obstacles in relating to other parts of society.

Karis Burkowski: I really liked that quote. I thought it was a powerful way of saying, “I am more than any one piece of me.” I like to think of myself as a human being first, a female second, Neopagan, Canadian, Franco-Germanic – there are so many levels. And yet none of them is a definition. So I love the fact that she sees herself as a composite of many things. It’s like seeing herself as part of a cultural mosaic just within herself. And I think that’s a healthy way to look at one another, at all times.

Jessica Rodela: It is the story of Hispanics in the United States that we are definitely of mixed identity as part of our identity, so for myself, I was born of Anglo parents, raised in Central America, born in South America, spent much of my time in the United States in Spanish-speaking areas, although I do not speak Spanish – also common among Hispanics. Hispanics within a North American context are identified by that big label Hispanic whereas within ourselves we differentiate many many areas. And now I’ve moved to Canada. So mixed identity for me is something that is part of who I am and it’s not confusing. I’m not any one thing.

Elizabeth McNair: I really liked this as well, and I feel really comfortable that that’s what we are. I really feel good about being part of a Mennonite community, and Mennonites have community. My husband used to say, “Mennonites are so groupy,” in a negative way, and I said, “Yes, I love it, it’s important to me.” But I was also reading yesterday in one of our church papers about Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford, whose pastor’s name is April Yamasaki, and they have intentionally developed a multicultural church. And I thought “Yes, if I move there, I would like to be part of that.” So I like having my own identity in my own community, but I like being part of a broader community that is very multicultural. I don’t like the melting pot idea that everybody has to be the same. I think the richness of our community in Canada is that people express who they are.

Sandy Milne: So far everybody has talked about the quote with respect to the individual. I’m interested in how it says something about our community, as opposed to me personally. Our community is mixed up, multicultural, bastardized, poly-religious, miscegenated – bastardized and miscegenated have negative connotations for the most part; I’m not sure what she meant by them and I’m not claiming them for anything in particular. But like Elizabeth I value diversity, and I think that value of diversity has grown in me from when I was little. I remember going into high school and discovering that not everybody was Roman Catholic like me, and then discovering that not everybody had two parents living together at home like me. And then going to university and discovering that many people didn’t speak English first like me was again revelation. And coming to this awareness has been for me a source of growth and a good thing.

But I also see many people who are afraid of growing. So I appreciate the quote and I think it’s important that those of us who value difference say so. And that’s where I find the hard part for me still.

Idrisa Pandit: I don’t know how to define my personal identity. That really is something that I never had to think much about. My life has been multiple experiences, growing up in Kashmir, a community that was very homogeneous in some ways and heterogeneous in other ways. We never felt the tensions of the differences that you typically feel in a community of people having different faiths. Culturally all were the same, faith-based you had many different communities living together, and where we lived there were many different languages spoken. The place where I lived attracted people from all over the world. I grew up with Germans, Austrians, Americans, Canadians all living in my neighbourhood, and I went to a school that was run by the Church of England, and so I had English teachers, and I studied Christianity as one of my subjects. It was all part of who I was as an individual growing up and of course it shaped my outlook.

The word integrated really strikes me in this quote. I think most of the problems emerge when people are not able to make the distinction between integration and assimilation. Elizabeth, I heard you say, “I don’t want the melting pot.” The melting pot, for me, means you want everyone to look like you, speak like you, behave like you, dress like you, believe like you. Integration is important for any society to function, because if you choose to live in Canada you have to adapt to the Canadian way of life to the degree that you are not imposing your way of life on anybody else. Assimilation? No thank you.

Here is something I have learned the hard way, but which a lot of well-meaning people in the West have a hard time accepting: All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not. A culture that celebrates femininity and considers women to be the masters of their own lives is better than a culture that mutilates girls’ genitals and confines them behind walls and veils or flogs and stones them for falling in love … The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.

 — Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad, 2010

Sandy Milne: I take some exception to the notion that you can say “better” or “worse” about the whole thing. I think there are some aspects of Western culture which are better than some aspects of another culture, but I would hesitate to take the whole thing in one gulp. And I would certainly question whether any culture in the world celebrates femininity holistically. I think there are pieces of Western culture that do, but there’s lots which puts women down in many ways. I think that women as masters of their own lives is in itself a questionable way of phrasing things.

Culture is not fixed. Culture is always in transition, and that’s one of the struggles that I continue to have. I have to keep telling myself that all the time. Culture is not a given. It is not something that is handed down from on high as normative. Culture is always, from a Christian point of view, in need of redemption, in need of improvement. I think Enlightenment, unfortunately, is the damnedest, wrongest word to describe Western culture, because it has a connotation of good, and I’m not at all sure that the Enlightenment was a good thing – from the perspective of now. Certainly not all good.

Jessica Rodela: As a woman I’m both amused and incredibly offended by this statement on pretty much every possible level. I don’t recognize this rosy version of the Western Enlightenment that somehow has prevented me from being oppressed as a woman. What news after 47 years! And this statement calls down the most extreme parts of one subset of people who oppress women in a particular way. There are also equal and just as heinous subcultures in the Western world that oppress women in a different way. So I have a hard time dealing with the quote seriously because I find it a fairly racist statement and not very useful.

Karis Burkowski: I also think it’s a bit simplistic. It doesn’t take into account the whole spectrum, and she’s taking little bits of both sides. Within my lifetime, here in Canada, you could beat your wife – it was in the law that a man had the legal right to discipline his wife. Also within my lifetime, women didn’t get a fair share of anything. There have been so many changes just within my lifetime that to say that this culture is that much farther along the spectrum of equality and respect for women – yes, we’ve made huge gains, but we still have a very long way to go. And the fact that some parts of some cultures haven’t even started on that road yet – that may be true, but that’s not all of that culture. That’s pieces of that culture. We have extremes here too. We have people out in British Columbia who are marrying girls who are young enough to be their granddaughters, and multiple of them, and somehow we let that go by. That’s not showing respect for these people. And even if they say they are willing, how willing are they if they’re uneducated and have no knowledge of their alternatives? I hear where she wants to be coming from, but it’s too simplistic to take really seriously.

Carol McMullen: Old Order Mennonites and Amish shun people. Maybe they’re not flogging or stoning people, but people who don’t fit into the norms and values are shunned. And certainly within strains of Judaism, if you marry the wrong person, the parents are told to mourn as if the person is dead. These kinds of things are psychological levels of shunning.

Am I deeply concerned about some of the issues that are raised here? Absolutely. The question I struggle with is: should I support people who go into countries trying to change the values of cultures that do these things that I find so offensive? Is that our role, to go into these cultures and send, certainly not missionaries, but any kind of emissaries trying to educate and change this? Part of me emotionally feels for the victims that this is something we should do, but another part of me says that this is imperialist, this is taking our values and saying that we are better and that we somehow have a right to go in and criticize when there are major problems with how we treat our own Aboriginal people.

When I was asked to participate in the forum on wearing hijab and niqab, I looked up some things on the Internet, and it struck me that where we are saying that some Muslim women may be oppressed because they need to cover, the sites were asking, “Who’s oppressed? Are we the ones in fact whose young women go out scantily dressed and the attention that they are attracting is of a physical kind, when Muslim women cover up and say, ‘Don’t look at my body when you are judging me, you judge me for my mind, for my thoughts, for what I have to say, not for how I look’?” That was very moving to me.

Karis Burkowski: Could I comment on one of the things you said? You talked about going into other countries and educating them. I think, instead, that we need to be really careful about the immigrants coming into our country. They need to be educated about our laws and their rights as part of coming in to the country. I have a friend who’s a head nurse at a hospital, and she has had to do the surgeries where they cut open these young girls who have been stitched up, because they get married and then they’re bruised and battered because nothing works, and they have to go to the hospital and get this awful thing sliced open. She said that had appalled her, but what appalled her more was hearing that it’s still happening, that families are saying, “Oh you’re going to go back to Somalia to visit Grandma,” and they come back and it’s been done to them, but they’re Canadian girls. We may dislike what happens in other countries, but there is not a lot we can do to control that. However, if it happens here or happens to our citizens, especially when it breaks our laws, we have a duty to put a stop to it, protect the victims and punish the perpetrators. The fact that they say it’s their “custom” should have no bearing.

Carol McMullen: But are you saying that you feel it is our mandate to go in and try to change that because we disagree with it?

Karis Burkowski: We have laws against this stuff. If they send them over there and bring them back here again, they should be tried.

Carol McMullen: I struggle.

Elizabeth McNair: I read some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, and I felt really uncomfortable with this idea, partially because I know there’s much in our society that we’re not thrilled with, much abuse that happens in our society. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how Canada treats what we call honour killings, having read the information about that young girl in Mississauga. It’s really kind of scary, but I don’t think that happens just in her particular family. I think it can happen in different ways among ordinary families, and when you go into a mental health institution, almost every person who’s in there has a history of abuse, especially in the addiction programs. So we have lots of things that we don’t do well. But I guess again it’s the whole thing about individuals or small groups versus the whole culture, identifying problems in a whole culture based on what some people do. We can say the exact same thing about our culture – we’re not very civilized at all if we look at all the things that some people do.

Karis Burkowski: I actually find it rather refreshing that the papers have stopped referring to it as honour killing. They just describe who got killed and what happened to them. And they’ve taken that word honour out of it, because what is honourable about that? And I rather like that. I thought, good, that takes less of a stand in blaming a culture, focuses it on the extremists who did that. And it’s also a little refreshing to see that crazy guy who was going to burn the Qur’an, because we get to see that we have crazies over here too. And you can’t judge a whole culture by the crazies. So it was kind of refreshing for people to say, “You know what, let’s stop looking at just the crazies on the other side.”

Jessica Rodela: Well, let’s call on the media to stop giving it that much attention. The guy in Florida with 50 members out of his trailer, a church that he himself named with no denominational affiliation gets front-page news. Let’s not judge the Western Enlightenment based on the actions of Terry Jones in Florida.

Idrisa Pandit: I could say many harsh things about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but speaking to her work, I think you have to recognize her personal story and know a little bit about that and where she’s coming from when she is writing this in an Islamophobic world where she is promoted and presented as a spokesperson for Islam. People know what her agenda is, who is promoting her, why she is writing what she is writing.

Having said that, honour killings, female genital mutilation, all of the other things that might be cultural practices in cultures that have Christianity, Islam, many different faiths in that geographic region, why do they get attributed to a certain faith and not to that particular region? Now, as you said, we have to be careful about immigrants. When you move to a country, the basic thing you do is that you choose to abide by the laws of that country. Female genital mutilation is illegal in Canada. Period. There is no discussion there. Now if it is a cultural practice in certain communities – which by the way have zero to do with any faith or at least with the Islamic faith – then it needs to be stated that way.

So if the Western Enlightenment means Orientalism, where this is all coming from, if it means imperialism, if it means oppression, absolute no-no. I don’t want that kind of enlightenment. If Western Enlightenment means better education, equal access and opportunity for men and women, if it means living with dignity with one another and being an example for the rest of the world, to show that in Canada people from many different cultures and faiths can live together in harmony, yes to that kind of enlightenment.

Muslims immigrated to Canada for economic reasons. They are highly skilled professional people seeking a better life for themselves. Give them time to integrate, and let them learn to develop their interaction with others in Canada. But in the process you have to change, I have to change, Sandy has to change, everybody has to change, because my child is going to go to school with a child whose face is completely unknown to him. That level of interaction takes time. That’s multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is not a policy that you draft and you put it on paper and you impose it on people. Multiculturalism means you learn to change, adapt, accept, inform, be aware and live with the other so that we can live in harmony. If it’s an imposition one way or the other, it’s all going to be a farce. If I come here and I impose, this is my way, it’s not going to work.

Sandy Milne: What you just said about culture, about multiculturalism, about needing to learn to live together – I don’t know for sure, but most of the people around this table are married, and if you’re not married you know people who are married. Isn’t that exactly what you have to do in order to be married, and to stay married – to become multicultural?

Carol McMullen: And yet while we’re being exposed and exposing ourselves and our children to other influences, there is a value in not becoming assimilated, and that isn’t what the goal is: it isn’t that people become so understanding and so open that they lose who they are, or in some way devalue the specialness of who they are. And I think that balance is one that many of us struggle with.

Jessica Rodela: It’s that very shaping of culture and cultures that is fuelling, for example, the Hispanic migration and now the paranoia in the border towns in the United States. The proposal is to actually build some magical wall across the boundary to prevent the hordes of Hispanics from coming in. In the border towns Anglos are no longer the majority. Hispanics are still considered a “minority,” but in many many areas and school districts, actually, they are the dominant culture, and that is terrifying to the status quo. And because Hispanics in the last two generations have been so successful at both maintaining parts of their culture and integrating through politics, school systems, every possible walk of life, and intermarriage, now all of a sudden it’s what my husband and I used to call, joyfully, the “brownification of America.” Soon everyone will look like us.

Idrisa Pandit: It is very important to know where these debates are emerging from. I came across a report by the RAND Corporation, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation, called Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies. This was done in 2003. You know why we are having debates about niqab and hijab? It’s there. It tells the media which stories to cover – no wonder I have no success getting Kashmir in the news – which stories not to cover, and how to cover them. That is really the key. How do you cover them? Get people like Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, all of the others, and give people like this space to speak. Develop them into specialists on Islam. Put them up there as the spokespeople for Islam. Discredit anyone else who might be truly speaking from their faith. With these kinds of guidelines that our wonderful media follow, where do we go? So I think it is important for us not to stay at the superficial level but really to look at where this is coming from.

Where our “multicultural” society works, it works because people from different ethnic groups live, work and socialise together, and because they fall in love, marry and produce brown Britons. Where it doesn’t work is where individual cultures cut themselves off from their neighbours, and insist on interacting only with their own. It’s in these cultures that people learn to be suspicious of everything that’s different. And it isn’t a long journey from suspicion to hate to attack.

 — Christina Patterson, The Independent, London, August 4, 2010

Carol McMullen: Not among Old Order Mennonites and Amish. Not physical attack. Elizabeth, can you speak to that? They certainly don’t go out and arm themselves and are noted as a peaceable society and, boy, there’s nothing more reclusive than those groups, as I see it. What do you think about that?

Elizabeth McNair: Within the faith, there is an indication of nonviolence. But that doesn’t mean there’s not violence within the community – nonviolence has a specific meaning. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily one or the other – that you either totally integrate or assimilate, or if you’re separate then you cut yourself from everybody.

Sandy Milne: I don’t think she is suggesting that we all become brown. Because then it’s all homogeneous again, and certainly from my point of view, it’s not our goal as human beings to become cookie cutters. Everybody the same colour? That’s not it! The notion is that people are valued as individuals in community and these communities are a set of intersecting circles, and some of them overlap and some of them are quite independent. My background being Roman Catholic, we have monasteries, we have women and men who cut themselves off entirely from the rest of the world – except that’s not true at all. Those people are very, very, very connected to what’s going on in the world. They live out their lives in a different way. Should they all come out and have three kids like I did? No! Should I go into the monastery? No!

Karis Burkowski: I don’t see that the Mennonites keep themselves that far out either. We have tree cutters who come that are Old Order Mennonites. If you want something built there are Mennonites that you can go to. You see them in the market – they integrate, they talk to you, they’re very friendly, you can talk to them, down the road they have little stands where they’re selling things. It’s not that they cut themselves off from having anything to do with us. It’s just that they want to live their lives their own way. That’s a little different from a ghettoized culture, whether it’s ghettoized from the inside or ghettoized from the outside, where they really are cut off, and you’re not allowed to mix with them.

Carol McMullen: But they don’t socialize. This is business you’re talking about, not socializing.

Sandy Milne: But they do live in the same neighbourhoods, and they do work together. Two out of three isn’t bad in that list.

Elizabeth McNair: They’re a very small group among Mennonites. In the worldwide community, the largest Mennonite churches are in Africa. More than 50 per cent of Mennonites live below the Equator. So we’re talking about a very small group within a much larger group. So we have that same problem. There are small groups of people who keep themselves together, and that can be family culture too. Just in reading the information about that young girl in Mississauga, it seemed to me that that particular father was so concerned and so fearful that he limited the activities of his children – all of them. The married boys were all living at home. And so it’s an example of a family culture, not necessarily reflective of all the people who come from Pakistan.

Sandy Milne: That’s what happens when you’re cut off from your neighbours, and that’s another piece of this quote – cutting yourself off from your neighbours. Geography has something to do with it. The folks who live next door share the same street with you. You have a responsibility to your neighbours. The closer they are physically, the more responsibility you have.

Idrisa Pandit: I think ghettoization is a two-way street. You can participate and be nice to your neighbours if you find some reciprocity there. Many people withdraw and stay in their little family or community ghetto because they don’t encounter that reciprocal involvement. And I do take responsibility to a large degree. In the Muslim community, where there are many many different cultures, they all feel comfortable with people who speak their language or who do things their way, so they form their little clubs. This is a very unhealthy thing that I have fought against in my own community.

When I moved here I found it extremely awkward going to the Waterloo Mosque. I would say hello to everybody, because that’s the way I’ve been when I meet anybody in a place of worship. And someone came up to me and said, “You know that person? You’ve only been here so many months.” And I said, “I don’t really know them, but I said hello to them.” “Well, we’ve lived here twenty-some years and we don’t know these people who sit in the front row.” These were the people who sit in the corner, and I couldn’t believe how they had built walls.

Another time, I had eight people from eight different countries in my house. And one woman was going on and on, insulting a certain culture, to which I had some affiliation. And this was a person who was all about assimilation. I always wear different kinds of clothes. “In Canada you’re not allowed to wear something like this. You should wear what everybody else wears.” I was in absolute shock. And my daughter said, “What is wrong with this person?” Then finally when she left she said, “I was better off with my own people.” That says it all.

So people want to stay with their own people because they can continue the garbage within that little ghetto. That is self-imposed ghettoization. But look at the other side. There are ghettos, for example the ghettos of France, that are a whole different story. They don’t choose to live in the ghettos. They are put in the ghettos. There is a certain section of the society where the Muslim community can live, nowhere else. There is no interaction. They are kept where they are.

I don’t like what the person was saying, because I don’t want anyone telling me that all our kids should be brown. If my daughter falls in love with a jet-black person, I’m more than happy for her. That’s what she has chosen. But should I enforce it: you really need to go and meet somebody who’s from this colour or this community or this culture? No. If Mennonites want to stay Mennonite and live in their communities, as long as they’re not harming any non-Mennonites, there’s nothing wrong with that. Forced adaptation and acculturation – it just doesn’t work.

Elizabeth McNair: I hate to tell you, Idrisa, but when it comes to your kids, you don’t get to choose.

Idrisa Pandit: I’ll remember that.

Jessica Rodela: There is the human comfort level of being among our own kind. When I was in Chicago, for the first time I was living and working only among Anglos, and I was so relieved when I found the Hispanic side of town, and I understood the cultural cues, and all of a sudden I could just mingle around these families and hear accents that were familiar to me. It reminded me, “Oh yes, this is a piece of me that I don’t necessarily actively miss, but these are the sounds of my childhood.” This is part of who I am, and I start missing it without realizing that there’s a vacuum, so I actively seek out that balance. And just a little comment: in two years of my immigration process, so far no one has sent me the Canadian dress code, so I eagerly await it.

Elizabeth McNair: For some people it includes tattoos and piercing.