Minority Report

Nalisha Asgarali 

Minority groups globally are considering their changing place in mainstream society as headlines and social media feeds are overwhelmed with highly contested viewpoints about them. The Muslim Question in Canada: A Story of Segmented Integration, Professor Abdie Kazemipur’s latest book on Muslim immigration and integration in Canada, seeks to shed light on the minority question. In 2015, it won the Canadian Sociological Association’s John Porter Prize for the most outstanding book in Canadian sociology. On February 8, 2017, Kazemipur presented his work to a University of Toronto audience and shared some of the most recent trends on Muslim minorities in Canada as part of the the Robert F. Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies.

While the Quebec mosque attack was the latest catalyst for conversation about Muslims, especially in the Canadian context, vehement debates about Muslims have been common in recent years, both locally and globally. Topics range widely, including theology, culture, female subjugation, immigration, integration or lack thereof, Islamophobia, refugees, settlement, terrorism, and radicalization. Kazemipur argues that these conversations are laden with assumptions: that Muslims tend not to integrate into host societies; that the lack of integration is a conscious decision; that Muslims are a monolithic group with no variation; that Islam is incompatible with Western society; and that without the abandonment of their religion, the “Muslim problem” will persist.

While the Quebec mosque attack was the latest catalyst for conversation about Muslims, especially in the Canadian context, vehement debates about Muslims have been common in recent years, both locally and globally.

Paying little attention to the specific local contexts and variations among Muslims, these assumptions have oversimplified the complex social, economic, and political realities of Muslims around the world. Rather than nesting the conversation in larger discourses about democracy, secularism, integration, global destabilization, and warfare, it centers primarily on Muslim exceptionalism, or the idea that there is something inherently different about Muslims related to their religious beliefs. This global paradigm, and the constant reproduction of these assumptions, offers a poor guide to policymakers attempting to address local issues pertaining to Muslim minorities.

Kazemipur argues that we should pay more attention to the “codes” embedded in our discourse. For example, replace “multiculturalism” with “Muslims,” and you might be surprised that those who oppose multicultural policies are really saying something about immigrants and, most recently, Muslim immigrants. The rapid increase of Muslim immigration to Canada over the last three decades has exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiments, particularly following the federal government’s 2015 decision to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees.

Based on national surveys, census data, and other quantitative analysis, Kazemipur argues that Muslims in Canada are currently in a paradoxical state of simultaneously being both satisfied and concerned about their place in Canadian society. Environics Institute’s Survey of Canadian Muslims, 2006 and follow-up survey in 2016 highlight this paradoxical state. An upward trend can be seen in the following categories: satisfaction with the direction of the country today, pride in being Canadian, and feeling a sense of belonging. Conversely, a downward trend is apparent in categories relating to the future of Muslims in Canada: concern about discrimination based on religion, and concern about economic integration in Canada.

More recently, another positive force has been Canada’s global image as charitable, tolerant, and non-discriminatory, especially with its continued commitment to Syrian refugee settlement and rejection of President Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Kazemipur argues that these trends are not surprising because there are negative and positive forces at work for Muslims in Canada. Negative forces include discrimination, high unemployment, and negative sentiments in society about immigrants. Conversely, he argues that there are no built-in institutional biases that prevent integration, and that Canadian media have often portrayed Muslims in a fairer light than in other countries. More recently, another positive force has been Canada’s global image as charitable, tolerant, and non-discriminatory, especially with its continued commitment to Syrian refugee settlement and rejection of President Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Kazemipur argues that while Canada is quite tolerant in comparison to other countries, we still have a lot work to do, especially in addressing discrimination. There is a disconnect between what Muslims assume mainstream Canadians think of them and what Canadians actually think. While Muslims perceive that there is a positive opinion of Islam, national surveys show a decline in the overall positive view of Muslims, with a large number of respondents holding the view that immigrants should set aside their cultural background and blend into Canadian culture. This view is particularly salient in Québec. In an effort to improve these trends, Kazemipur proposes increasing social interaction between Muslims and native-born Canadians. He argues that there is a causal link between the level of contact with Muslims and holding a favorable opinion of Muslims. Increasing social interaction, he says, also helps create allies who will reject discrimination against Muslims in Canada.

While Muslims perceive that there is a positive opinion of Islam, national surveys show a decline in the overall positive view of Muslims, with a large number of respondents holding the view that immigrants should set aside their cultural background and blend into Canadian culture.

While Kazemipur’s work offers valuable insight into Canadian Muslims, his sociological expertise informs his vision of a way to move forward. Increasing social interaction is difficult to operationalize in policy, especially when Canada is still struggling to meet the basic needs of the now 40,000 Syrian refugees. However, there needs to be a real recognition that aside from Syrian refugees, Muslims in Canada are as diverse as they are globally. More importantly, recognizing the many identities that Muslims embody can also move the discourse away from the pervasive idea of the singular Muslim identity.

Increasing social interaction needs to happen alongside a shift in globalized discourses about Muslims and the prevalent value-laden assumptions. The dominant paradigmatic environment cannot maintain its status quo and hope for better integration of Muslims in host societies. Rather than simply treating Muslims like an exception, seeing the issues they face as part of the complexity of the human condition could start a new conversation.

Nalisha Asgarali is a 2018 Master’s of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto in Political Science and International Relations. She also holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from York University (2012). Her policy interests include immigration and refugee settlement, diversity and equity policy, international affairs and intergovernmental relations.

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