Finding Peace In The Village

Evening prayer at the Baitul Islam mosque in Maple. Photos by Omar Mosleh.

It’s 8:45 on an August night and the sidewalks of Ahmadiyya Avenue are illuminated with the vibrant colours of women and children in shalwar kameez. The unisex South-Asian cultural garb, traditionally worn in Pakistan, comes in an array of colours, though men generally wear white. While many nearby residents are getting their kids ready for bed, the members of this small community are just now emerging from their homes and advancing toward the local mosque to pray and break fast.

It is the holy month of Ramadan.

When dusk falls, the only audible sounds are the call to prayer, or azaan, mixed with occasional peals of children’s laughter. As the azaan plays quietly (it must abide with local noise bylaws), men, women and youth fill the streets. There’s not a car in sight.

Ahmadiyya Avenue is not in some far-off city. It is part of a subdivision in Vaughan.

This is Peace Village, a predominantly Muslim community in Maple. Just north of the artificial mountain of Canada’s Wonderland, the stainless steel dome and white minarets of the mosque are among the few other Vaughan constructs to pierce the sky.

A search for peace is what brought Ahmadiyya faithful to Canada from their homeland — primarily Pakistan — where they faced regular persecution by mainstream Muslims who consider their differing beliefs heretical. Peace Village was the culmination of a dream.

But then, shortly after it was constructed, 9-11 occurred. The destruction wrought on the U.S. by fundamentalist Muslim extremists would impact innocents in places far beyond the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia or the field near Shanksville, Pa., where the last of the passenger planes they had hijacked crashed.

The War on Terror swiftly followed, its tentacles reaching far beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq — all the way to Western societies.

Mass travel, particularly by air, became tightly controlled. Often, Western Muslims found themselves met with suspicion and their assemblies, especially in mosques, were severely scrutinized. Islam itself was placed under the microscope. There were stories of Muslims — and even those who resembled Muslims, such as Sikhs — being harassed everywhere from convenience stores to airports.

Lal Khan Malik, national president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada, at Peace Village off Jane Street north of Major Mackenzie Drive.

In the midst of it all, though, Vaughan Ahmadis found Peace Village to be a buffer from the storm.

“It’s like when you’re living in a house and next door there’s a fire: you get some smoke,” recalls Naseer Ahmad, the visionary and project manager behind both the mosque and Peace Village. “With what happened in the U.S., a bit of smoke came here, but we never had a house fire.”

Now, 10 years after 9-11, members of the Ahmadiyya community enjoy the freedom to live and worship as they please.

As one enters the house of worship, Muslims break their fast with one or two dates, in the tradition of the prophet Muhammad. Men cover their heads with a topi, and women wear a variety of fashionable headscarves, known as hijabs. All take off their shoes before entering, as a sign of modesty and cleanliness.

The entrance to the mosque is organized chaos.

“Canadians often ask me, ‘How do you find your shoes?’” says local village resident Abdul Khalifa with a grin, although he is completely serious. “I tell them it’s like finding your parking space in a big mall.”

Khalifa knows all too well what that is like, because the mosque is only minutes away from Vaughan Mills mall.

The Baitul Islam is one of the largest mosques in Canada and primarily serves Maple’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

The Ahmadiyya sect is not universally accepted by other Muslims, due to a differing belief on the death and promised return of Jesus, and the finality of the prophet Muhammad. They have faced persecution not only in Pakistan, but in other Muslim countries as well.

Shemael Ahmad, 9, cycles past the intersection of Ahmadiyya Avenue and Tahir Street in Peace Village. Streets in the Maple subdivision are named after Ahmadiyya spiritual leaders.

Aside from the luxury cars and minivans parked in the driveways of semi-detached houses, a drive through this neighbourhood may reveal scenes that do not look like what one would expect in Vaughan. But it is. In fact, the small subdivision on the west side of Jane Street, south of Teston Road, boasts some of the fastest-rising real estate prices in the city, Khalifa points out.

“When I bought my house it was $300,000,” Khalifa says as he drives past Tahir Street, the name of one of the community’s caliphs (the spiritual successors to the prophet). “Now it’s $600,000 plus.”

More than 10 years after its construction, and almost the same amount of time since 9-11, Peace Village lives up to its name. You won’t find much of a culture clash here. Parents seamlessly switch from dropping their children off at nearby Kiddy Place Childcare Centre in their Dodge Caravans to teaching them how to be pious and pray at the local mosque.

But it was not always this way.

Ahmad says the idea to build a mosque in predominantly Christian Maple in 1992 was not welcomed with open arms. Residents were concerned about how an ethnic enclave would affect property values.

“Outside of a Muslim country, this is perhaps the only example where you’re going to find a mosque with a Muslim subdivision built around it, in a western, predominantly Christian country,” he told Vaughan Today in an interview. “There were some apprehensions at the time from all angles, and rightly so: this kind of idea had never been tried before.”

The Ahmadiyya community raised $4.5 million in donations  to purchase a 50-acre tomato field off of Jane Street and to build the mosque. Ahmad decided he wanted a distinctly Canadian mosque — a fairly novel concept at the time.

The Baitul Islam Mosque.

“I wanted to build a Canadian mosque that did not look like any other mosque,” he said. “We decided to use absolutely nothing imported from anywhere — only Canadian materials.”

But Ahmad soon realized he had a problem: the Baitul Islam was underutilized, and consistently under-attended.

Thus, the idea to create a Muslim subdivision around it was conceived.

The land adjacent to the mosque had already been zoned for agricultural use, so Ahmad worked with the city to change the zoning to residential. Once he managed that, he contacted local developer Benny Marotta, of Solmar Development Corp., in regard to 50 acres of land he owned near the mosque.

While the builder was initially wary of building a residential community near a mosque, Ahmad convinced Marotta that collaboration for a planned Muslim subdivision would be successful. They agreed that the developer would pay for construction and it would be Ahmad’s responsibility to sell the homes.

Peace Village is not the first culture-specific community in Vaughan. In Thornhill, the Spring Farm development on Clark Street, between Hilda Avenue and Yonge Street, was centralized around the Beth Avraham Yoseph Synagogue, and attracted a large Jewish community.

But Peace Village takes the concept a step further. The community was planned with the acute knowledge that the mosque would be the central focus of the neighbourhood. Houses were planned so a maximum number of homes would have the mosque visible from the door or windows.

“As soon as you get out of the house and drive, the mosque is there right in front of you, reminding you 24-7 that God is among you,” Ahmad explains.

In addition, he worked with architects to address needs specific to the South-Asian and Muslim community. Kitchens have extra powerful fans and windows for increased circulation when aromatic foods are cooked, and separate living rooms were built so men and women could entertain guests separately in accordance with cultural traditions.

Construction of Peace Village began in 1999 and was completed by 2000. The purchasing contract has a clause that any property buyer must sign, acknowledging the mosque is a pre-existing part of the community. Even the streets are named after Ahmadiyya leaders, and are built to be wide but not long.

“We provided the maximum number of sidewalks, because we knew that we are creating a pedestrian community in an urban setting,” Ahmad said. “Now seniors and children can walk to different houses and the mosque without being dependent on someone to drive them.”

Today the community enjoys a space called Ahmadiyya Park and a local shopping square called Peace Plaza.

But the seemingly idyllic community of more than 300 homes has not been without its challenges. Vaughan was not known for its multiculturalism at the time, and many were worried that the city would be negatively affected, says Lal Khan Malik, national president of the Canadian Ahmadiyya Muslim community and one of the first Peace Village residents.

“This was pre-9-11,” he noted. “There’s a much more negative portrayal of Islam now, but even at that time people were apprehensive about introducing Muslims into a new community.”

The Ahmadis have worked to integrate into the greater community by holding various dinners and events, such as their annual Run for Vaughan, which to date has raised more than $250,000 for Vaughan’s future hospital.

But 9-11 changed everything.

“There’s a very deep impression in the minds of people about Muslims,” Malik said. “It was there, and 9-11 has emphasized it.”

He says that impression is one of barbaric, uncivilized, and violent people. Although they are working to change that perception, even today the mosque receives messages ranging from “Go back where you came from, dirty pigs” to “There’s no place in Canada for you.”

Fact is, the Ahmadiyya community has no other real home to return to. While most hail from Pakistan, that country does not accept their religion and has specific legislation preventing Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims.

Malik, originally a Sunni Muslim, converted to the Ahmadiyya faith in his teens. He experienced severe discrimination, from having all his possessions taken from his home before it was burned, to assassination attempts.

He fled in 1987, and has since called Canada his only true home.

“Ever since I have been in Canada, the contrast I find between these two lands is amazing,” he said.  “I was born in Pakistan, I have rights to that soil, but I was denied the very basic right of believing in what I found to be true.”

Ahmadis in Pakistan are not allowed to call their places of worship mosques, nor are they allowed to use the Muslim greeting “Peace be upon you”.

“If I say that, I will be behind bars for three years,” Malik remarks.

Ahmad said in order to ruin a man’s life in Pakistan all you have to do is say he is Ahmadi.

“We’re unwelcome there,” he said. “Our property is not safe, our education is not open to us (and) the employment is not stable.”

The hostility and suspicion Ahmadis face in Pakistan has carried over to Canada. But it’s not Christians, Jews or even atheists expressing unease about Ahmadis. It’s other Muslims.

“I can tell you that whenever I go to mosques of the other Muslims, and then they come to know that I am Ahmadiyya Muslim, they don’t feel good about it,” Malik commented. “Our members feel that although we have freedom in Canada we are not enjoying the same welcome attitude from fellow Muslims as we find from Christians and Jews.”

The Ahmadis are attempting to build bridges with Muslims in Canada, but have had little luck. After contacting 20 Toronto mosques to invite them for fellowship, they got only one response.

Despite the setback, the Ahmadiyya community is not taking this freedom for granted.

“My full connection is with Canada,” Malik said. “I remember Pakistan as a land where I was born, but I was deprived of all my rights.”

In a sense, the persecution has only strengthened their appreciation for Canada.

“We try to stress that this land has given us freedom, which is the dearest value,” he said. “We should be grateful to this land.

“Our faith demands that not only should we respect and obey the land we call home . . . but we should love this land.”

In many ways, Peace Village, and in turn the city of Vaughan, has provided the first real home for Ahmadiyya Muslims.

Ahmad notes that, when asked, his children do not say they are from Pakistan.

“If somebody asks them, they say my parents are from Pakistan,” he said. “But they are proud to call themselves Canadian-Ahmadiyya.”

http://www.vaughantoday.ca/blog/2011/09/12/finding-peace-in-the-village/

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