Extremist scholar surprises, tones down rhetoric at Ryerson


TORONTO – Distilling 1,400 years of Islamic history down to just more than 20 hours is not an easy undertaking. However that’s exactly what Dr. Azzam Tamimi, British-Palestinian scholar and political activist has attempted to do with From Caliphs to Kings: The Fall and Rise of Muslim Ummah presented by the Al-Fauz Institute of Islamic Thought at the Ryerson Student Centre July 24-27.

The choice of Tamimi by the heads of the Al-Fauz Institute was controversial. This was Al-Fauz’s inaugural course, and having Dr. Tamimi as their speaker raised some hackles.

The Toronto Jewish community was rightly concerned to have Tamimi in town speaking to Toronto’s Muslims, given his history of making extremist comments praising the Taliban and the 9/11 killings, as well as the righteousness of Palestinian suicide bombers.

On the first evening of the seminar, attendees were greeted by a small protest outside the doors of the Student Centre, organized by the Jewish Defence League (JDL). About 20 people turned out to wave Israeli flags in protest against Al-Fauz’s choice of speaker.

Meir Weinstein, head of the JDL, was asked whether any other Canadian Jewish groups would be joining the JDL in protest against Tamimi.

“We are the only ones,” he said.

They needn’t have worried.

Tamimi clearly separated his personal political opinions from his teaching, at least in this case he did. From Caliphs to Kings was designed to fill in the blanks many Muslims have about their own history and correct many of the distortions of the religion that have led to the strife we endure today.

About 45 men and 20 or so women filled the lecture room at the Student Centre on Gould Street and sat on opposite sides of the room, according to Islamic custom. Prayer breaks were taken at mealtimes and at sunset each day.

One of the young women, when asked what brought her to Tamimi’s lecture, said it was because she’s a history buff. Other girls around her chimed in and said much the same.

“We’re taught about the Golden Age, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. That’s it. We’re missing a lot!”

While it is impossible to cover every aspect of Islamic history, Tamimi made it a point to discuss the corruption in many Arab societies (even calling the Saudi regime “crazy”) that created the closed and under-enlightened Islam that has come to the fore. Only by understanding where the mistakes were made, he feels, can Muslims correct them.

What was very glaring – and very welcome – was what was absent from the course. The Crusades, for example, and the 1947 granting of Israel to the Jews by the British. It kept rhetoric down to an acceptable level.

Instead, Tamimi took a strong stand for democracy in majority Muslim countries, pointing out that it is the only way diverse societies can coexist. At one point he was questioned by a young male convert in the crowd and pushed to explain why democracy in a globalized environment such as the one we live in is a better choice than an exclusively theocratic system. To which Tamimi replied, “You can’t force your beliefs on another! That is not Islam!”

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