Edmonton imam thanks supporters after being released from Saudi jail

News Agencies – November 1, 2011

A Canadian imam who was arrested by religious police while on a pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Medina thanked the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Canadian media and his supporters across the country for their efforts in ensuring his release. Edmonton-based imam Usama Al-Atar said he felt “deeply relieved” and “very grateful” to be reunited with his friends after spending 36 hours in a Medina city jail, according to a statement he issued on behalf of the IHRC, a U.K.-based organization that spearheaded an urgent appeal effort that brought international attention to his case.

He said the detainment facility he stayed in was “horrid” but didn’t elaborate on the specific conditions. He said that because he was staying in Saudi Arabia for two more weeks to complete his pilgrimage, it would not be “sensible nor wise” of him to speak to the media about his experience with Saudi authorities.

Al-Atar, a prominent Islamic scholar and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta chemistry department, was leading 10 pilgrims in prayer at a religious burial site in Medina when a group of Saudi religious police began to harass the group, according to witnesses, including Hayward. The religious police first asked Al-Atar to lower his voice and then asked the group to leave the cemetery, witnesses said. The police then accused Al-Atar of being a thief before restraining him, Hayward said Sunday. Eventually one of the religious police officers pushed Al-Atar into a small kiosk area where he reportedly struggled to breathe.

Edmonton imam to keep low profile to end of pilgrimage

News Agencies – October 31, 2011

A Canadian Muslim cleric will have to keep a low profile and stay quiet about being arrested, bruised, bloodied and shackled in a holding cell while he completes a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.  Usama Al-Atar, a well-known Edmonton Shia spiritual leader, was arrested after a clash with Saudi religious police who noticed his group performing supplications at the Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard near the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.  “I was falsely arrested and held by Saudi authorities for the best part of the previous 36 hours in what can only be described as horrid conditions,” Dr. Al-Atar said in a statement.

The cemetery has long been a place of tension between Shia pilgrims and the religious police, who uphold a strict application of Wahhabist Islam at odds with other Muslim schools of thought. A friend travelling with Dr. Al-Attar said that the Saudi religious police had warned them twice the previous day that they were being too loud. Dr. Al-Atar, a post-doctoral chemistry researcher at the University of Alberta, is familiar to many Shia because he has given lectures around the world. The Edmonton cleric has denounced human-rights violations in Saudi Arabia and in neighbouring Bahrain.

Mahmood Mavani, president of the Islamic Shia Ithna-Asheri Association of Edmonton, a southeast city mosque where Dr. Al-Atar served as an imam, praised the work of the federal government and the local MP, Mike Lake, in pressing for his friend’s release.

Canadian Sheema Khan responds to possible French burqa ban

Following last month’s call by the Muslim Canadian Congress to ban the face-covering niqab, or buraa, about 30 Muslim groups across Canada denounced the proposal. Their basis: The state has no business dictating what a woman should wear, nor infringing on individual freedoms. Sheema Khan acknowledges, however, how legalities aside, many Canadians feel uncomfortable seeing the face-veil here. It represents a physical barrier, which has no precedent in our culture. It has also become a misogynous icon, due to the Taliban, and Saudi “religious” police. Security is an added concern. Finally, many assume veiled women are coerced into wearing “that thing.”

Yet, Khan highlights that the intentions of these women are diverse. For some, it is an act of faith to get closer to God. Some incur the disapproval of family, friends and community for taking this step; others are forced to do so by family members. Youthful defiance may play a role. As for security, veiled women readily comply with identification protocols when required.

Muslim moral police roam Oslo streets (Norwegian)

In a series of articles, Aftenposten (an independent conservative publication) has debated moral and social control exercised by Muslim men in the neighborhood of Grønland in Norway’s capitol, Oslo.

Described as Oslo’s multicultural and “hip” neighborhood, but also where you find most “minarets and khatbuls”, Grønland is said to have developed into a “Muslim neighborhood”. Muslim women in western clothes are reported to be harassed by Muslim men on the street and told to cover up. Last autumn two gay men walking through Grønland holding hands were attacked, and non-Muslim women say they hesitate to visit the cafe’s and restaurants in Grønland.

Imam and chairman of Norway’s Islamic Council (Islamisk Råd), Senaid Koblicia, acknowledges the problem and encourages mosque representatives to acknowledge and work on the problem. “Social control is to be left to the police, and God alone knows who’s a good Muslim or not”, he says.

Najaham Farhan, spokesperson for Islamic Cultural Center in Grønland, responds to Imam Koblicia’s request and says that it’s a question of common manners and that people may become more attentive to the problem if it is to be addressed in the mosques.

Columnist Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, finally, calls for a more nuanced debate and accuses Norwegian media of focusing on Muslim stereotypes and conservative Muslims. Grønland’s Muslim population is just as diverse as any, she says, but the media focuses on women in burqas more than they do on secular Muslim women in western clothes.