Communities are built and sustained by selfless individuals who put the wellbeing of others before their own reputations. Rizwan Mohamed has spent most of his life engaging Canadian youth of diverse faiths and cultural backgrounds to help them question, learn, and act for the common good in their local communities. While working on his MA in Islamic Studies as a student of McGill University, Rizwan has crisscrossed the country for the past few years to work with Canadian youth in an effort to build resiliency in their communities. In the post-9/11 era, he has provided Muslims in the West with an apt example to follow.
Coming of age in the Greater Toronto Area, Rizwan was inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X in his early teens, prompting him to be trained in anti-racism work through the Students Together Against Racism (STAR) program (provided by his local board of education). He eventually served as the Coordinator of the Committee for Unity in Diversity of his school’s Student Council. This early experience forced him to lead and navigate students coming from all sorts of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Concurrently, Rizwan benefitted greatly from regular formal study of Islam with scholars based in Toronto (as well as those who frequented the city from outside the country). Rizwan’s intellectual pluralism and nuance has allowed him to occupy a unique perspective in today’s struggle to find a place for Muslim identity in a “secular West.” He has always tried to engage young people in a way that allows them to think critically about their place in the world. For him, it starts at the grassroots level and in local communities.
That’s why Rizwan has worked with more than 2,000 young Canadians in over 15 cities across Canada as the Coordinator of the Muslim Youth Canada Project (2009-2011), the Common Ground Project (2011-2013), and, most recently, as the Advisor to Project Communitas (2014-Present). These invaluable initiatives come from one of Canada’s leading national NGOs, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW), with financial support from the Government of Canada. All of these projects required Rizwan to work both independently and with diverse stakeholders in order to develop/deliver youth-led, inter-faith, and inter-cultural initiatives. He helped build these ideas into reality by identifying common values, negotiating difference, and pursuing social justice.
Aside from all that, Rizwan has led the effort to develop, along with a team of young Muslims from the Eastside of greater Toronto, a community initiative called “Beyond Belief.” The primary objective of “BB” is to seek the Truth and to connect hearts together in ways that get us beyond belief to knowledge and action. BB provides an alternative space to question and discover healthy understandings of Islam in Canadian society. The initiative tries to embody the idea of a community laboratory, or “Co-Lab.” Around 15-20 youth gather once a week in Ajax, Ontario to participate in a facilitated group discussion on a topic of social, political, and spiritual significance.
By thinking critically about these issues, BB allows young Muslims to rethink what it means to be who they are in the modern West with deeper understanding and comprehension.
Visual media is used to catalyze discussion. It’s not the lecture-followed-by-question-answer-period format, which has become so prevalent in today’s events. Dozens of local youth have showed up to discuss the state of their communities, the challenges they face, and how to overcome these challenges. Topics have included Muslim extremism and Islamophobia, prejudice and racism, sexism and misogyny, drugs and addiction, along with other topics thought to need critical scrutiny.
Rizwan’s work and activism represents the kind of critical perspective that Muslims in Canada would do well to observe closely. Beyond Belief provides a platform from which such perspectives can be applied to real issues that afflict the Muslim community. Through this kind of communal, grassroots awareness, solutions can be found to alleviate challenges. Rizwan reminds us that bigger, actionable solutions starts with awareness at the local level and between people who come together in good faith.