Statistics Canada just made it official: Islam is the fastest growing religion in the country. Although this is a “fact,” the reality is quite different.é Yes, we are the fastest growing non-Christian religious population, but we are not the fastest growing community.
Through serving this community — my community — for more than thirty years, I came to believe that we were perhaps a community-under-construction. But then an earthquake called 9/11 virtually destroyed what little we had.
Today, more than fifty dividing lines are working internally to hinder efforts at building and rebuilding our community. Some of these lines are religiously based, some are related to culture and ethnicity, and others are influenced by prevailing Canadian social, political and economic factors.
The trouble is, Canadian Muslims still subscribe to a “branch-plant” mentality. Most of their national groups are branches of foreign parent organizations, be they American, Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, etc.
Not surprisingly then, most Canadian Muslims are still paying more attention to overseas issues than to Canadian national ones. The occupation of Iraq, for example, is far more important to many than the dire situations of child poverty or homelessness here in Canada. Furthermore, most of us are not members of any political party, nor do we ever vote in elections at any level of government.
Why does this embarassing situation exist? It is largely because so many Canadian Muslims hold dear the specific ethnic and religious cultures of their countries of origin, while giving little attention to their basic religious roots, from which a truly holistic Canadian Muslim community could grow.
Instead, in the aftermath of 9/11, we Canadian Muslims have become a sorry example of what it means to belong to a community. We are targeted by the worst anti-civil liberty laws in this country’s history and have scarcely responded. We do not know who among us are involved in criminal activities that could compromise not only our own safety, but that of other fellow Canadians, because no one is willing to tell us — and we are not insisting proactively enough to get answers.
Under what is euphemistically called a “security certificate,” our politicians now have the power to vote extra-judicially on whether a Muslim should be shipped back to his or her country (if an immigrant) or stripped of citizenship (if he or she is already a citizen). Because these certificates are not issued under the authority of Canadian criminal law, our elected politicians do not even need to prove if the person under suspicion is in fact a national security risk. While the evidence can be heard by a judge behind closed doors, even the suspect’s lawyer has no access to it.
How this racially driven miscarriage of justice and constitutional rights will affect our community — or what is left of it — in the short or long run, God only knows. How the identity of our children will be affected is another unknown, and to date there have been no significant attempts by Canadian mental health or family counselling specialists to find out.
Indeed, if questions about identity and self-definition still occupy a prominent place in the minds of Canadians, the same issues pose an even greater challenge to Canada’s Muslims, especially after 9/11.
While Muslims comprise a wide variety of immigrants from some forty different national, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds, more than half of them are Canadian-born. Not surprisingly, Muslim identity in Canada has been influenced both by this country and by the self-perceptions of its Muslim immigrants.
A Muslim in the U.S. is usually identified as a Black Muslim; in France, Muslims are usually North African; in Britain, they will likely be East Indian or Pakistani; and in Germany, most are Turkish. But not in Canada. Here, where we are still in a unique and dynamically challenging environment, the Canadian Muslim is just that — a Canadian Muslim.
Whether they form a minority or majority segment of society, Muslims historically have been able to create an Islamic culture suitable for their region. This has resulted over time in distinct Islamic communities developing among Arabs, Africans, Persians, East Indians, Malays, Chinese, Russians and Turks. But in Canada, Islam has not yet developed a truly national form of social and religious culture.
On the Indian subcontinent, for example, Muslims total a minority of some 300 million. That’s a very large minority, but still a minority. Yet despite that minority status, they created one of the world’s greatest cultures, symbolized by such architectural monuments as the world-famous Taj Mahal.
The challenge today for Canadians of all faiths is that we live in a society that is largely indifferent to religion, any religion. Such an environment makes it all the more difficult for families to fully practice their faith and for parents to pass it on to their children.
Furthermore, Canadian Muslims also suffer from an experience not shared by other religious minorities. The Holocaust, for example, created a favorable Western environment for Jews, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism are considered non-threatening to Christian doctrine. But the case of Islam is different. It is not considered an “exotic” religion. Moreover, it is perceived — especially after September 11 — as promoting a world view and ideology that are incompatible with Western values, regardless of Islam’s positive and significant influence on European civilization.
Until Canadians fully understand that their Muslim neighbours are mirror opposites to the fanatical images portrayed by mass media, the entertainment industry, hate-mongering groups, or right-wing evangelist preachers, those distorted stereotypes of Islam and Muslims will continue to prevail.
Muslims themselves can do much to build their community; to assert and affirm their cultural, social and political membership in the larger Canadian community, so that others will ultimately recognize them as far more than marginal actors in the unfolding drama of Western civilization.
This will not be accomplished by creating “comfort zones” called Islam. In fact, the building of ghettos — physically, culturally or socially — is Islamically unacceptable. Not only does it contradict the teachings of the Qur’an, but it also goes against the practices of our Prophet Muhammed himself and of hundreds of years of Islamic history. Withdrawal into sheltered enclaves gives only a false and passive sense of security, while other Canadians move on ahead to capture the political, moral and cultural high ground.
Then, and only then, will we fulfill our true potential as the fastest growing community in Canada.
Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.