Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of a Government of Alberta Graduate Student Scholarship. The Graduate Student Scholarship recognizes and rewards outstanding students in their second year of a full-time masters program in Alberta. Award recipients are selected based on all marks obtained in the first year of the student’s masters program. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to continue her studies after her defence is complete. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Moroccan Jews. 


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

What the F*** is “Chanookah”?

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I can understand your confusion. You’re in the midst of preparing for the Christmas season – Christmas shopping, Christmas parties, Christmas lights, Christmas goats – when out of the blue your friend tells you she’s Jewish. What do you mean you don’t want reindeer pyjamas? And what’s wrong with Christmas ham? Christmas is stressful enough without having to worry about whether people celebrate it or not.

Don’t worry, because I’m here to make it easy for you with some simple tips on how to accommodate your Jewish family and friends without sacrificing your own holiday celebrations.

Firstly, it’s important to recognize that…

Jews aren’t out to steal your Christmas fun. You might watch Human Planet and think the content is really inspiring and interesting, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out, buy a dog sled, and hunt the mighty Greenland shark. In the same vein, someone may respect and appreciate the holidays of others while still wanting to celebrate their own.There’s a difference between wanting something to stop and not participating in a practice that isn’t a part of your culture. So don’t feel threatened – you are still welcome to observe your Christmas traditions as usual, even as others celebrate differently. Most Jews will have no problem if they get invited to a Christmas party, or if someone wishes them a Merry Christmas – it’s just also nice to say “Happy Hanukkah” to someone celebrating Hanukkah. And along those same lines…

Inclusion doesn’t have to suck. So, yeah, Secret Santa might get a little awkward, and, yeah, an invitation to go caroling may be declined, but inclusion doesn’t mean celebrating nothing. It also doesn’t mean changing all the words to traditional Christmas activities in order to make them “secular.” No one wants to decorate a “holiday” tree, or set up a “yay-tivity” scene. There are lots of ways Jews and Christians can celebrate together without either group compromising, like by attending a group cooking class or wine tasting. You could volunteer together at a homeless shelter, or knit baby socks, or do a book exchange. Just don’t have a shrimp eating contest.

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Religion is about more than just crosses and crescents and stars.

  • Why can’t I give a Hanukkah present wrapped in reindeer-studded paper? Why doesn’t my Jewish colleague want to make tree ornaments?
  • Well, why don’t Christians eat latkes at their Christmas dinner?

Religion does not only include those things that you might see in a church or a synagogue. In fact, it does not have clearly definable limits. So even though you won’t find Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer in the Bible, that doesn’t mean he’s not a Christian character who is part of a Christian narrative.

So, if you are giving a gift for Hanukkah this year, take the opportunity to go to a store you’ve never been to, get some beautiful Hebrew-embossed wrapping paper, and buy something you’ve never heard of. Maybe you’ll learn some Yiddish. Who knows? Just remember: chances are that the Jews in your life know all the Christmas traditions, stories, and songs – it won’t kill you to spin the dreidel.

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Please note: Hanukkah is from December 24th to the 31st for 2016.


rachaelRachael Heffernan has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

The origins of “The Pact of ‘Umar” are unknown but have been attributed colloquially to ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Righteous Caliph. Scholars have suspected that it derives from a later period, possibly under Umar II, because the need for such a document would have been greater under rapid Ummayad expansion of the Islamic empire. Regardless of the original source, this text is often cited by historians as foundational for understanding pan-Islamic relations between Muslims and Christians. The implication is that its spirit was somehow transmitted across the known Ummah to inform interreligious dynamics everywhere Muslims went. It is included in the reader edited by Olivia Remie Constable (Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources) because of a similar presumption. Though this text is difficult to historically verify in terms of origin or influence, there are a number of ways it can be used to illuminate interreligious dynamics between Christians and Muslims in general. Ultimately, with regards to how it can be used in studying al-Andalus, I take the approach of Janina Safran in her book Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus. Her approach is not to assume that the text directly influenced relations there, but rather, to look at how jurists might have invoked boundary-drawing through legal opinions and practice enforcement in a similar spirit as the “Pact” itself.

If we accept the text’s assertion that it was written by Syrian Christians petitioning ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, certain points come to the fore. First, it would imply that the contents of the text were consensual, rather than a tool for subjugation of Christians by Muslim masters. This would make the enforcement of these rules among other Christians much easier because Christians had originally sought them. It would also imply a greater voice for Christians with the Caliph than one would first assume. Declaring that they “shall not teach the Qur’an to [their] children”[1] would seem more like an assertion of their religious freedom, rather than a stipulation from an Islamic authority dissuading them from conversion. Additionally, the forbiddance of engraving Arabic inscriptions on their seals would seem to be a linguistic-cultural rejection, in addition to the religious one. The points about differing from Muslims in terms of dress, burial of the dead and even house construction would also signify an anxiety among Christians about establishing demarcations between themselves and Muslims. It implies that, like other points in Christian history[2], Christians were well aware of some of the prerequisites of religious conversion (including economic, social custom and linguistic acquisition of a conquering group[3]) and the Pact of ‘Umar represents their attempts to stave off that influence as long as possible. This boldness is only slightly curtailed by the addendum of two additional stipulations by ‘Umar which might then be seen as a reassertion of Muslim dominance over this list of conditions.

If, however, this document is seen as a Muslim composition, then the boldness of the Christian petitioner falls away. It still remains that a Muslim author claiming its Christian origins would make subjugation of future conquered Christians much easier; however, this gives the document a tone of coercion or propagandas that highlights the dominance of the Muslims. In this case, the additional conditions tacked on by ‘Umar signify their ultimate authority over their dominated subjects. Perhaps one of the most interesting turn-arounds in meaning is the clause about forbidding the teaching of the Qur’an to Christian children. Seen as an act of religious self-preservation for Christians, this clause takes on a completely different meaning under a Muslim authority and raises all kinds of historical questions about why Muslims might have been trying to temper conversion rates (likely for taxation purposes or to avoid biddah). This complicates the narratives of Muslim religious coercion by force and, along with the stipulations about dress, other identifying markers and the selling of fermented drinks, signals a Muslim anxiety about mixing with Christian populations.

While thought experiments might be useful for showing how a different text can be viewed in terms of the memoryscape of the group it is ascribed to, it is difficult to historically corroborate its actual use in places in like al-Andalus. In her book’s introduction, Janina Safran notes that Maliki jurists of the ninth and tenth centuries “do not refer to the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, nor do they detail comparably specific terms of any other surrender treaty or contract of protection between Muslims, Christians and Jews.”[4] Rather, while jurists did address issues found in the ‘Pact of ‘Umar’, their engagement with these matters ought to be considered independently of its template because overemphasis of the Pact threatens to obfuscate the historical complexities particular to al-Andalus and specific time periods. While differentiating between Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects was of immediate concern to jurists, how this was conducted and negotiated was less straightforward than the Pact would have us believe. Finally, as we have seen, the difficulties of establishing basic facts about the text make such extrapolations speculation at best.

[1] “The Pact of ‘Umar” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2011, pp. 43-44.

[2] Markus, Robert. The End of Christianity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1990: pp. 27-43.

[3] Katznelson, Ira and Miri Rubin, “Introduction” in Religious Conversion: History, Experience and Meaning. Ashgate Publishing, Surrey England: 2014.; Rambo, Lewis R. and Charles E. Farhadian, “Converting: Stages of Religious Change” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies. Cassell: NYC. 1999.; David Baer, Mare. “History and Religious Conversion” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2014.

[4] Safran, Janina. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Cornell University, 2013: pp.15 – 17.