Spirit Quest


Spirit Quest

Congratulations to Queen's University

for honouring a Muslim woman scholar

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

“I am not going to congratulate you,” I said to Alia Hogben who had just received the degree Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) from Queen’s University (May 11, 2011), “rather I congratulate Queen’s on their wisdom and courage in bestowing this degree on you.” She responded with a broad smile.

One might well wonder that Queen’s, born in 1841 as an institution for the training of ministers for the Presbyterian Church in what was then Upper Canada, was now honouring a Muslim and a woman with its highest distinction.

Certainly Geert Wilder, the leader of the Party of Freedom, the third largest party in the Netherlands government, visiting Canada at the same time, would more than question that choice. He addressed a gathering at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre where he warned against the Islamification of Canada. In Holland he has spoken out strongly against immigration from Muslim countries.

Strange that Canada would allow him in when it refused permission to George Galloway, a  former member of the Mother of All Parliaments, because of his views on the Middle East.

Indeed, there are lots of Muslims who would question the authenticity of Hogben’s faith. After all, she appeared on the convocation stage without hijab and in the company of men to whom she is not betrothed and spoke boldly.

“Alia Hogben has been a fierce, eloquent and courageous champion of the rights of women and, in particular, those of Muslim women.” So stated the citation read by Principal Jean Stairs of the Queen’s School of Religion.

Ms Hogben, now Dr. Hogben, was born in Burma, but raised primarily in India and other countries, as well as Canada. She was educated at Carleton University where she obtained a B.A. degree and University of Toronto where she was awarded the degree of Master of Social Work. “As a social worker she advocated on behalf of those who did not always have a voice to speak for themselves: women, children, immigrants, the poor, the mentally ill and those with developmental handicaps, to name a few,” so heard the new graduates, their parents and friends gathered for this annual event at the historic Grant Hall.”

She has been an active member of the executive of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women where she worked tirelessly to assist Muslim women and others to learn about Islam and its message of equality, plurality and inclusiveness.

This description of Islam may surprise many who have been taught (“misled” is probably the right term) to distrust Muslims. The very name conjures up turbaned men with long scraggly beards, dressed in dark gowns and a terrorist gleam in their eyes. And if we think of Muslim women it is usually that of totally covered figures with fear filled eyes peering from behind the veil. That certainly is not the picture that Alia Hagen presents.

She is no stranger to the speaker's platform and “has given much time and effort to counter ignorance and fear with facts, reality and research. She is an articulate proponent of a vision of Islam that is broad, inclusive and egalitarian, a vision that fits well in a pluralistic country such as Canada,” said Principal Stairs.  

Queen’s School of Religion, or Queen’s Theological College as it was called until last year, has over the years of its existence grown into an ecumenical school. Its staff consists of teachers not only from a variety of Christian denominations, but also from different religious persuasions as well as sexual orientations. It is truly an inclusive place of learning that will now become a school in the department of Arts and Science of Queen’s University.

As a graduate  (Master of Divinity, 1956) I can personally vouch for its progressive teachings. There have been those who have been critical of its liberal theology as a sell out to humanism and relativism.

I recall some of my classmates being shocked by what they heard in the lecture hall. I, on the other hand, who came out of a less traditional, dare I say “non-religious” background, often felt relieved to hear that I didn’t have to believe certain fundamentalist ideas in order to call myself a Christian.

There are times when I find it difficult, if not embarrassing to call myself a Christian because of what that term conjures up in many minds. Caricatures are very effective in communicating attitudes and ideas. Remember the past election and the cartoons used in destroying certain candidates. What passes for religion, be that Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, is often just that, a caricature, and a distortion of the true faith that was proclaimed by its founders.

The image of a god that has been popularly portrayed is that of an old, angry and despotic ruler rather than the spirit of love and justice that is basic to most religions. This demigod has been scheduled by some Christians to put an end to His creation in a ball of fire later on (6 P.M. May 21) in order to punish humanity for its misbehaviour and apostasy.

Dr.Hogben writes a monthly column for the Kingston Whig-Standard. In an article in that paper, three years ago, she gives expression to the following wishes:

“I wish that girls and women would be joyfully granted their full rights, and not be seen as appendages to any men — fathers, brothers or husbands.

"I wish that all Muslims would insist that the demands of family honour, or the control of men's own sexuality, are not laid on women as their burden and their responsibility. I want our men to actively help us women as we seek dignity and equality.

"I wish for the elimination of our often conflicted attitudes of gender segregation in many mosques and Islamic Centres. I would wish that women felt welcomed and not merely tolerated in these gatherings. I would want to enter through the main and only doors and see families of men, women and children praying and socializing together, rather than in segregated areas.

"I wish that our young would feel accepted and involved in our gatherings so that there are places where they feel they belong. I know that this would strengthen families and communities.

"I wish, no, I pray, that we, Muslims, can separate the wheat from the chaff, and instead of insisting on rigid interpretations and practices which belittle our religion, we can truly live the values of Islam — of tolerance, compassion, justice and equality.”

She concluded that article with this wish:

“And, oh yes, I wish that non-Muslim Canadians would see us as intrinsically part of the Canadian fabric and not ‘alien corn’. That is a concept used by Somerset Maugham in his short story in 1930 about the way non-Jewish Brits viewed their Jewish countrymen: as alien or "other" and not quite British — sadly similar to some people's views today in Canada about us Muslims.”

It has been my intention as author of Spirit Questto search for The Presence in all of life and to encourage my readers to look beyond narrow dogmatisms. I was therefore delighted by the choice of the Senate of Queen’s University to honour one who is unafraid to be a woman, an advocate for humanity and social justice, as well as a Muslim. In this I see the movement of the Spirit boldly and refreshingly alive.
The Spirit Lives! 

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