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Imam Fode Drame sits contentedly next to whiteboards filled with Arabic text in the Zawiyah Foundation’s new meeting place.

Unorthodox Muslim group ends six-year search for Vancouver home

A religious group that was publicly ousted six years ago by the BC Muslim Association has finally ended their search…

By Jennifer Giesbrecht , in City Immigration , on October 20, 2011 Tags: , , ,

A religious group that was publicly ousted six years ago by the BC Muslim Association has finally ended their search for a suitable meeting place.

Led by the controversial Imam Fode Drame, the Zawiyah Foundation has recently moved into a commercial property off Southeast Marine Drive in Vancouver.

Imam Fode Drame: The whiteboards filled with Arabic text from his lessons.

In 2005, The BC Muslim Association fired Drame from a prominent East Vancouver mosque. The highly educated and multilingual Islamic scholar from Senegal believes he was dismissed to his inclusion of women in Qur’an classes and his efforts at interfaith dialogue.

The BCMA did not comment on the reason for the decision.

Shortly after his dismissal, Drame and his followers established their own organization.

As the new Zawiyah Foundation spent the past half-decade attempting to plant roots in Vancouver, they moved among many temporary and borrowed locations in the Fraser Street area.

Drame says many other Muslim groups in the city are facing similar challenges.

As of the 2006 census, Vancouver was home to 72,000 Muslims. Statistics Canada projects that immigration will triple Vancouver’s Muslim population in the next 20 years, reaching over 230,000 by 2031.

One option for newcomers is to blend into Vancouver’s major Muslim associations. The other is to find real estate in Canada’s most expensive city.

Prayers from behind the Quiznos

After six years of struggling with terminated leases, environmental damage and unsuccessful bids to purchase, the Zawiyah Foundation has now leased on a commercial space off Southeast Marine Drive near the Knight Street Bridge.

From the exterior, it appears to be nothing more than a delivery door behind a Quiznos restaurant. Inside is a busy place of worship.

[pullquote]It’s the same Islam but people have different takes on it.[/pullquote]A tall shoe shelf stands by the front door and prayer rugs lie neatly on the worn industrial carpet. Plastic clocks hang all over the room, some ticking away with the actual time, the rest silently displaying the daily times for prayer.

The walls are painted entirely black, a remnant from the previous occupants. “We found it here!” Drame says of the colour. He says he would have preferred green, the symbolic colour of Islam, but there will be time to paint later.

Many members conveniently work in the nearby industrial parks. “Their jobs are here,” says Drame. “They are happy that this place is here. It is easy for them to come from work, pray and go back to work.”

Technically, the space cannot be called a “mosque” until it is a permanent establishment. For now, they call it a centre.

Drame’s goal is still to eventually buy a property in Vancouver, a city where the price of an average home currently exceeds $750,000. He hopes to raise the funds over the next few years.

Common ground

Derryl MacLean does not foresee an increase in splinter groups or religious conflicts, even amidst the cultural and ethnic variations in Vancouver’s growing Muslim community.

The new meeting place of the Zawiyah Foundation: An inconspicuous door behind Quiznos.

MacLean is the Director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.

He identifies a particular tendency for Vancouver’s major Muslim groups to embrace Canada’s ethos of multiculturalism and “look for commonality” among the many cultures represented.

MacLean says Muslim newcomers to Vancouver will encounter a religious culture that focuses on “shared experiences of Islam” rather than “ethnic or localized interpretations.”

“When conflicts do arise,” says MacLean, “they often coalesce around individuals rather than interpretations, although they may subsequently be framed in ‘Islamic’ terms.”

Where two lines meet

Despite his controversial exit from the BCMA, Drame has many supporters in the city.

One is Mohammed Naseer Pirzada, managing editor of Miracle, a Surrey-based Muslim community newspaper. “I respect him a lot and his vision,” said Pirzada.

Drame descends from the Jakhanke tribe in West Africa, a group known internationally to produce exceptional Islamic scholars. According to him, African cultures will often have a less regulated, more spiritual approach to the faith.

He blames “narrow views” on the part of the BCMA for his dismissal but holds no grudge. “It’s the same Islam but people have different takes on it,” he says simply.

Drame says he chose to call his group a foundation because it represents solidness, or “something that has roots.” The word Zawiyah is a Maghrebi term that he says literally translates to “corner,” or more philosophically, “where two lines meet.”