I had my first experience being part of a smiling jihad when I volunteered as an usher at a community meal put on by members of an east-Toronto mosque over the Easter weekend.
Don't worry, a young volunteer reassured me when he noticed my startled look at the mention of "jihad" during the training session for volunteers before the doors opened to the public.
"You can have a jihad to quit smoking, or a jihad to smile and be friendly when you're nervous that the people you're about to greet will be nervous about you," he said.
"With a smile, you don't need to say much," operations coordinator Firaaz Azeez wraps up his pep talk to the ushers, greeters and hosts, reminding everyone to "struggle" to remain inviting and put guests at ease if anyone looks worried about their customs or intentions. "If someone eats and runs, we haven't done our job," he says.
I struggle to learn my first lesson of the day in cross-cultural communication.
The jihad worked like a charm. The "hot soup day," as it's called, is directed to needy people across the city and to the mosque's neighbours in Scarborough's Malvern neighbourhood, commonly referred to as an at-risk area because it faces problems of poverty, isolation and gangs. It's called a hot soup day so no one will think of it as a soup kitchen.
The cafeteria here at the Nugget Avenue mosque is decked out like a restaurant, complete with hosts, tablecloths, menu choices and waiters. About 800 people are served over the course of the day, but the pace is slow and easy. "It's the best I've ever been treated," says Randy, who bicycled here from halfway across town after hearing about the offering at the meal program at his church. "If the whole world was run like this, we'd never have wars."
There's a whole lot of multiculturalism going on here. One level is between Muslim hosts and the largely non-Muslim guests. Another is among the Muslim hosts.
I count about 30 nationalities among my fellow ushers, hosts and waiters, a legacy of the trade winds that blew seasonally along the East African coast and Arabian peninsula across to the Indian Subcontinent, then to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Sumatra, trade winds that linked Islam to the highest achievements in astronomy, mathematics and science centuries before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.
"It's our job to be the custodian of the community," says Pakistan-born Salman Hasan, director of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, which is sponsoring the event. But that didn't always mean that Toronto's many mosques worked together on social issues like poverty or hunger, or looked to the Islamic Foundation to coordinate social efforts.
It's an ill tsunami that bears no good, and the giant wave that destroyed so many lives across southern Asia at Christmastime - striking Muslim populations in Indonesia and Sri Lanka most fiercely - unified Toronto's 350,000-strong Muslim community, the largest in North America, as few events could have done. On one day, six banquets raised over $1 million.
The tsunami was a stark reminder to do good and serve the poor and needy. But it also brought this injunction home, says Waris Malik, who chaired the team that put on the soup day. "If we can do this for an overseas project, why can't we do it for our own neighbourhood?" he remembers thinking. "Toronto's multiculturalism is so enriching, I wanted to enrich that, not just be part of it," he says.
David Suzuki, Canada's green folk hero, gave members of the Islamic Foundation their opportunity when they led and hosted a multi-faith dinner and public meeting at their mosque on the spirituality of environmentalism for 700 people in January. The mosque became "Allah's house, not our house, and everyone was welcome," says Azeez, a pillar of inter-faith activities in the Malvern area.
The Suzuki event created both good will and a cause for doing something at home, says Arshia Alam, a teacher at the mosque school and another coordinator of the hot soup day. "I was on board right away," she says, having helped at food banks and soup kitchens during her student days at University of Toronto. A person who denies God is also a person who doesn't see the need to feed the needy, it says in the Quran.
The hot soup day didn't only coincide with Easter weekend. Earlier in the same week, Toronto's Community Social Planning Council released its report on inclusive cities, calling on governments to become proactive in preventing the hardening of gender, ethno-racial and poverty divisions that have become more ominous after 15 years of government cutbacks.
This urgent need for cohesion can be partly served, as it were, by the dishing up of common meals in a city where quiet, hidden hunger lurks. Strangely, it's not planning professionals but pre-professionalized groups such as churches that have been at the forefront of naming the undernourishment of the needy as an urgent policy issue.
And it may be why Muslim mosques, whose members endure an unemployment rate twice the Canadian average despite educational levels far higher than the norm, used an Easter weekend and the seasonal hope of renewed life to make their offering - and draw the human circle just a little tighter.