An Unorthodox Message: Up close and political with Imam Zijad Delic

By Lisa Gregoire

Imam Zijad Delic, who serves the South Nepean Muslim Community, has served a number of Muslim organizations here and in Vancouver, but Ottawans likely know best him as the guy who got snubbed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Photography by Dwayne Brown,

It’s 8 o’clock on a sweltering Saturday night in July and 90 minutes into a Voices of Muslim Youth town hall meeting at Ben Franklin Place in Nepean when Imam Zijad Delic arrives in a charcoal grey shirt and slacks, speaking notes in hand. This is his third and final obligation for the day — the first was to buy a kitten for his daughter’s birthday; the second, a two-hour lecture at the University of Ottawa about honouring Ramadan in contemporary life. Weary and slightly rumpled, he sits among the 80 or so Muslims gathered to discuss social problems emerging within Ottawa’s burgeoning Muslim community — family violence, youth crime, poverty, cultural isolation. The audience is mostly African-Canadian and two-thirds are women.

In a few moments, Delic will join retired refugee judge, former newspaperman, and Order of Canada recipient Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan onstage for a panel discussion about Canadian citizenship, but he can’t wait. He commandeers an audience microphone to weigh in on the topic of heedless leaders and unresponsive mosques. “Muslims have to take responsibility. We can’t blame anyone else if we fail,” he says, shifting markedly from the moral indignation of previous speakers. Though Muslims constitute nearly 10 percent of Ottawa’s population — an estimated 80,000 — too few volunteer to improve the conditions of their vulnerable brethren, he says. “Pointing fingers at others and not doing your job is not fair. We need social workers, foster parents, and imams able to juggle the past and present.” Applause is immediate and sustained.

This is classic Delic: earnest and frequently contentious. Delic is the former executive director of Ottawa’s downtown Islamic Care Centre (ICC) and recently appointed imam of the South Nepean Muslim Community, home to about 8,000 Muslims. With a bachelor’s degree in Islamic and Arabic studies from the International Islamic University of Islamabad, Pakistan, a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Delic, 46, has served a number of Muslim organizations here and in Vancouver, but Ottawans likely know best him as the guy who got snubbed by Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Last October, just days before Delic was scheduled to commemorate Islamic History Month Canada with a speech at Department of National Defence headquarters, MacKay abruptly cancelled the engagement, saying the Canadian Islamic Congress, of which Delic was then executive director, had espoused extremist views. The views MacKay was referring to were those of the Congress’s former president, Mohamed Elmasry. In 2004, when asked by conservative commentator Michael Coren, “So anyone and everyone in Israel, irrespective of gender, over the age of 18 is a valid [military] target?” he had answered “Yes,” because of their army service. (Elmasry would later apologize and claim his words were taken out of context.)

It didn’t matter that Delic denounced the former president’s remarks or that he had a history of collaborating with rabbis and Jewish organizations. It didn’t even matter that his planned speech, which focused on Muslim history in Canada and the compatibility of Islam with Canadian law and human rights traditions, might have enlightened a department embroiled in the Afghan war. What mattered — what always matters in Ottawa — was politics.

“I was not naive. I was just too honest,” he says. “You try for 15 years, speak the same language, send the same consistent message, and all of a sudden, my minister, who invited me, tells me, ‘You’re off.’ I wanted to depart Canada right there. Then I thought, no, I will become much more wiser.” He quit the Congress this past spring and soon afterward declared he was through with politics. That seems unlikely. The simple act of speaking publicly about Hamas or Sharia law is political. Making friends with Jews is political. Delic has done all three. In the decade since 9/11 — despite efforts by some Muslims to wrestle the spotlight away from the extremists and return reasoned debate to the issues — Islam has remained political. Which means Delic, an outspoken Muslim leader in the nation’s capital, may never be free of the politics that dog him.

Zijad Delic, a no-nonsense man who was born in Bosnia, can fix you with dark, creased eyes and answer your questions directly, but more often he’s smiling and oblique, responding with anecdotes or proverbs. “Example,” he’ll declare before launching into a tangential story or “In Bosnia, we have saying … .” He has wavy brown hair to his chin, which he tucks behind his ears and covers with a traditional Bosnian imams’ cap when leading prayers. He usually has a two-day stubble, but not the shaggy beard typical of traditional imams. He’s a writer, public speaker, community organizer, philosopher, soccer dad, sentimental Bryan Adams fan, youth mentor, daily runner, and one-time karate and tae kwon do champion.

But don’t mistake his contemporary style for lack of devotion. He delivered his first knee-knocking khutbah, or sermon, as a teenager in Sarajevo and has been preaching Islam’s message ever since. That message goes beyond the five pillars of faith, which compel Muslims to submit to Allah, pray, fast, give to charity, and make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Indeed, for Delic, devotion has involved letting go of the old country and embracing the duties and rewards of life in Canada.

In fact, that letting go was the subject of his khutbah during crowded prayers at the ICC one Friday in mid-January. More than 150 men sat stoically listening, knee to knee, or stood in the front entrance when floor space ran out — a multicultural mixture of 30-something students and office workers. “I know for sure the majority of us who came here, we said, ‘Three years, I’ll get my passport and I’m out of here.’ Then three years passed, 10 years passed,” he told the congregation. “We should consider Canada our Medina, where we have settled forever.” Zijad Delic is well aware of how competing loyalties can destroy a nation — he saw it happen first-hand in Yugoslavia.

Born in 1965 in the small city of Kakanj, about 30 kilometres outside Sarajevo, Delic lived an unstructured Sunni life as the eldest of five children. His mother, Hamida, was equally committed to family and God, praying at the stove, if necessary, where she could often be found cooking for her children and husband Camil, a lumberman. As a teen, Delic divided his time between martial arts and Islam, an odd pair of pursuits equally steeped in discipline.

In 1983, at the age of 18, he was earning a salary as a junior imam when he donned a uniform, filled his pockets with cans of halal fish, and went to what is now Serbia for a mandatory year of service in the Yugoslav army. Less than a decade later, while Delic was studying in Pakistan, the binding ties of communism finally unravelled and Yugoslavia succumbed to the widespread ethnic conflict and bloodshed of the 1990s. He returned to Bosnia during that time to serve with the Muslim aid agency Merhamet.

We’re sitting at a plywood table, talking about the wars, in the cramped basement office of the ICC, a mosque and social service agency located in a crumbling circa-1930s brick house perched awkwardly on Lisgar Street between an under-construction condominium and the Venus Envy sex shop. Delic shakes his head, and you can almost feel the memories uncoiling. “I have seen such things that I cannot believe humans can do to one another — girl, eight years old, raped,” he says. “I had been counselling many of those who came out of concentration camps from Serbia. I cannot imagine these things.”

He left for Canada on February 2, 1995, with his high-school sweetheart, Sanada, now a Ph.D. student in public policy at Carleton University, and their daughter, Lejla. (His second daughter, Emina, was born in Vancouver.) After 10 years as a Muslim school vice-principal and imam in Vancouver, he moved to Ottawa and bought a house on the aptly named Mystic Private.

The call to prayers interrupts our conversation. Delic unfolds himself to within inches of the six-foot ceiling, dons a ceremonial robe, and heads upstairs to address a smattering of mid-week faithful. I survey books on Islam in multiple languages and various items for sale in the office: Arabic Berenstain Bears DVDs, hijabs, kufis, Qu’rans, perfume, and Ask me about Islam T-shirts. Upstairs, alternating between Arabic and English, Delic is talking about forgiveness: those who forgive are honoured by Allah, he says, because they defeat ego to make peace. The history of war and conflict is fraught with the inability to forgive, he tells me later. People get stuck and neither party can go forward. He has made a career of trying to get those people unstuck, with varying success.

Seven years ago, when Delic was imam of Vancouver’s largest Sunni mosque, he attempted to repair a rift between Jews and Muslims by inviting progressive rabbi David Mivasair to Friday-noon prayers. Delic publicly welcomed Mivasair and his Israeli colleague and encouraged his followers to do the same. But the two men’s hopes for healing were short-lived: soon afterward, Mivasair got an email from the British Columbia Muslim Association (BCMA), who paid Delic’s salary, saying that although they saw the merit in what he was trying to do, they felt their community was not ready for it. “The leadership of the BCMA was very concerned about maintaining solidarity among the many members of their community and not taking a stand or doing anything that some members would find disturbing or offensive,” Mivasair says. “Imam Delic is a rare kind of Muslim leader, clear-minded and courageous.”

But sometimes his efforts bear fruit. Ottawa’s dynamic and well-established Jewish Family Services (JFS) has been col-laborating with Delic for months to help the ICC and the South Nepean Muslim Community create and deliver culturally sensitive services to Ottawa Muslims. Perhaps unique among partnerships between social agencies, this one began with an ideological declaration: individuals from both parties expressed at the outset their support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Once that mutual ground was staked, they could begin the arduous process of applying for grants and building overdue capacity for local Muslims. If it works, the community has Delic — and JFS — to thank, says Aryeh Stegenga, former JFS director of planning and development. “He’s sincere, warm-hearted, intelligent, and creative. He’s got a strong religious purpose. Those values define him. He’s collaborative — he wants to find ways to work together,” says Stegenga. “He’s been treated unfairly in the past. Why? Because he is not afraid to speak his mind, speak truth to power.”

It’s true Delic likes to speak his mind, and that is why, for all his protestations, he will likely never be free of politics. Take his views on Hamas, for example. The organization’s stated goal of destroying Israel is unrealistic and worthy of the terrorist designation assigned to it, he says, but Hamas is currently the governing party in Palestine, and as such, it represents the Palestinian people. Better, then, to engage Hamas in peace negotiations, he says, than to banish it as Canada has done.

Then there’s Sharia law, which some Muslims claim would greatly undermine women’s rights and which others avoid entirely lest they be labelled regressive. Delic says because Sharia law is already being practised informally in Canada, leaders should discuss publicly how Islamic tribunals could work with Canadian law and what areas of family arbitration might be adjudicated. But so far, meaningful debate has been impossible, he says. Why? Because the topic is too political.

So Delic often sounds fearless. But he says he’s not. Fear grips him by the stomach every time he stands before a congregation, worried that his message will be perceived as trivial or, worse, irrelevant. When he reveals this, I initially peg it as false modesty, then reconsider. That fear of irrelevance is probably what keeps him from becoming so.