Calgary imam walks for peace between faiths

By Lloyd Mackey

Syed Soharwardy, a Muslim imam from Calgary, has completed a six-month walk across Canada, in which he enlisted a fair number of Muslims and Christians to wage a "jihad" against violence.

And he said he received his inspiration to reorganize his working and financial arrangements, from a video entitled The Imam and the Pastor.

That video tells the story of a Pentecostal minister and Muslim imam in Nigeria who, in the words of its promotion material, moved from "vengeance and killing to healing and friendship." It was distributed across Canada last year through Initiatives of Change and several groups representing a number of Christian and Muslim interests.

Soharwardy's walk began April 20 in Newfoundland and ended October 27 at Mile Zero of the Trans-Canada Highway, when he dipped his feet into the waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait, below the cliffs fronting Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.

Interviewed by CC.com on the American election day, November 4, Soharwardy was careful to explain his "jihad" comments by noting that violence is an evil that is, as he understands it, condemned in the scriptures of both Islam and Christianity.

He noted that since first floating the idea of the anti-violence walk over two years ago, he has formed friendships with many Christian and Jewish people and leaders across Canada. Among them are the Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry, and Michael Ward, the senior minister of Central United Church, an evangelically-leaning congregation, also in his home city.

Soharwardy's anti-violence stance has been fairly well-known in his home town. But he first came to national prominence last year, when he filed a human rights complaint against Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant. The complaint concerned the Standard's re-publishing of Danish cartoons considered by Muslim leaders to be blasphemous of the prophet Mohammed.

The Calgary imam later withdrew his complaint, maintaining that he had, after wide consultation with religious and civil rights leaders, concluded that human rights commissions were not appropriate bodies to hear such plaints.

Asked about the dicey issue of Muslim and Christian competition for converts in some African and Asian nations, Soharwardy allowed that "Muslim conversion has always been a difficulty -- and it will continue to be. There are several reasons . . . related to tight control the lack of freedom." These conditions, he said, are created at some times by religious fanatics and, at others, by corrupt or dictatorial leaders.

That is why, he said, he took inspiration from The Imam and the Pastor. It portrayed a coming together of two faith leaders who would continue to maintain that their own faith was the one they would proclaim, while committing themselves to eschew violence against the other's leadership and beliefs.

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Soharwardy explained that he is of the Sufi form of Islam, which practices a mystical form of contemplation and worship. It is part of the Sunni branch of the religion.

He leads the Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre, which usually attracts about 1,500 to its Friday prayers, and is home to at least 5,000 on special holy occasions, like Id.

The process of taking on the walk involved some careful thought, he said. He does not draw income from his role as an imam, but rather, earns his living as an IT consultant.

In arranging his financial affairs, he re-mortgaged his house, so he would have income during the walk. And he is grateful, he said, for the support of his family, wife Shaheen and their two young adult children.

At times, he has received a fair amount of flack from other Muslim leaders, but the twin factors of fanaticism and secularism help to fan such opposition, he said. If people in his faith would return to the root of The Prophet's teachings, rather than trying to interpret in either a violent direction on one hand, or a secular bent on the other, Islam would be better understood.

Some of his critics, he said, accuse him of "getting too cozy to Christians."

While he appreciated the support he has received from many Christian leaders, Soharwardy allowed that there is more building work to do. At one point during the walk, he said, he met some Mennonites who held, within their faith, to many of the same ideas with respect to peace and non-violence that he sees to be a part of his own outlook.

Where does the imam go from here?

"Now we want to concentrate on getting churches and faith groups in every town and city going, to stay engaged, and try for annual days of walk against violence in those places," he said.

"They will be multi-faith, walking together, trying to change people's hearts.

"Through this walk, what I tried to achieve was by the grace of God. There is no place on earth where one can walk 6,500 kilometres, through different areas, among conservatives and liberals, and no one said, 'I don't like you because of who you are.'"

November 6/2008