Troubled in Toronto?

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Did the Middle Ages just appear on the streets of Toronto?

Last week, Muslims around the world observed the day (“Yom”) of Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. For most members of Islam’s second-largest group, the Party of Ali (or “Shiat Ali”—which gives us “Shia” Islam), this is a day of deep mourning. For on this day, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, the son of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, was slain with most of his family and followers at the Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.

This grandson, Husayn (also transliterated “Hussein” and “Hussain”), Shiites take to have been the rightful governor of Islam at the time as he was the leading male descendant of the Prophet. The majority of Muslims (“Sunni”), however, have not recognized patrilineal leadership but instead maintain the tradition of each caliph (or, later, the believing community) appointing a capable successor. These traditions—Sunnis make up almost 90 per cent of global Islam, while the Shia dominate in Iran and are otherwise a minority constituting almost all of the remaining 10 per cent worldwide—have rivalled each other ever since.

Ashura is thus a day of deep mourning for Shiite Muslims (and some Sunni). Most other Muslims celebrate it as, coincidentally, the day that Noah left the Ark, Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh at the Red Sea, and Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina to begin the eventual global spread of Islam. (Islam is rife with such coincident dates that show the beautiful symmetry of divine providence.)

The customary sad songs and sermons of Ashura have sometimes, however, been accompanied by the self-flagellation of those longing both to identify with the suffering of Husayn and, according to some traditions, atone for their sins. “One tear for Husayn on Ashura takes away a hundred sins,” according to one proverb. This was the scene this year in Toronto as dozens of men took off their shirts, struck themselves repeatedly on their chests, and cried “Ya Husayn” in the company of other believers.

This sight apparently disturbed some Torontonians, enough that the Toronto Sun ran an alarmed story about it and sought assurances from Toronto mayoral hopefuls that such demonstrations would be outlawed on the grounds that they are so clearly…un-Canadian. The only candidate who directly answered was the provocative Faith Goldy, who is reported as replying, “The roots of this cultural practice have no connection to Canada while the spectacle itself is profoundly incongruent with Canadian Values [sic]. Mass demonstrations wherein shirtless men self-flagellate have no place on our shared publicly funded streets.”

A little historical and cultural investigation tells us that rituals of self-inflicted suffering show up around the globe, from the Sun Dance of Plains First Nations to the rigours of Hindu yogis to the lurid processions in Latin Christianity that can look remarkably like Ashura rites. But are Goldy and the Sun correct that these are all un-Canadian?

Public displays of religiously motivated violence are not that far in our past, in fact. But in Canadian history they have tended to take the form of mob action of one religion against another. Orange Order Protestants, from Newfoundland to Manitoba, attacked Catholics throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Catholics attacked Protestant missionaries in Quebec well into the 1950s. And governments in western Canada attacked Doukhobors until the middle of the last century.

Well, one might reply, perhaps all that is a regrettable part of Canada’s past: intolerant religious people acting up the way they do. But surely a post-Christian liberal Canada doesn’t produce such public displays of violence…except it does when it comes to something we take to be of ultimate concern: hockey.

Yes, from the 1955 riot in Montreal over the NHL suspension of Maurice “Rocket” Richard to the stunning riot in Vancouver when the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in 2011, Canada has indeed been home to violent forms of public emotion over things that matter to us.

Christians, we might pause to note, worship the Man on the Cross, the God who suffers for others. According to the New Testament, there is no need for someone to make atonement for himself or herself. Yet there is suffering expected of Christians, too: not self-flagellation for one’s own sins, but self-sacrifice for the needs of others. (Interestingly, many Shiite Muslims substitute blood donations nowadays on Ashura in place of the bloody extremes of medieval mourning.)

How Canadian is that tradition of suffering for others, one might ask? Canadians do give substantially through our taxes to the needy here at home and around the world. But when it comes to individual initiative, no one is going to call the Toronto Sunto object to our extravagance: the median donation to charity in Canada is less than $150 per year, which is less than one latte per week.

No wonder some of us gawp at fervent Muslims loudly identifying with the suffering of their ancient leader. With whose suffering do we identify today? Certainly not our country’s poor.

But back to those crazy, disquieting immigrants! Let’s get another round of expensive sugary coffee drinks and complain some more about them, eh?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).