In Canada I belong to many "minority" groups based on – for example — gender (male), age (over 60), family ties (married, father of four), profession (academic, teacher, researcher), birthplace (Egypt), religion (Islam), politics (left of centre), as well as more than a dozen other groups that are demographically classed as minorities.
Here in Canada each of my affiliated minority groups suffers from various degrees of stereotyping, but some are more seriously affected than others.
Because stereotypes often lead to discrimination and marginalization, Canadians must seek useful information to counteract these negative effects. And this is one area in which individuals can be agents for positive change.
Contemporary post-9/11 politics have caused one of my primary minority groups – Canadian Muslims — to suffer a disproportionate degree of negative stereotyping.
But imagine the impact, if each adult Muslim in this country could reach out to just 10 non-Muslim Canadians every year; within a decade the stereotyping of Muslims would be history.
I believe most Muslims have what it takes to do this — hospitality, generosity and a genuine concern for the public good. But what they (and perhaps most Canadians) lack is intercultural communication skills.
How can a Muslim today express his / her belief system without offending people of other faiths or perhaps of no faith at all? Can Canadian Muslims become fully engaged in political or social discourse without being identified as Muslims? In other words, can they become "invisible" as a minority? Can religion in Canada become as blind to belief differences as it is becoming — slowly but surely – blind to those of gender or color?
Over time, dominant powerful minorities consciously or unconsciously develop communication systems that require marginalized groups to interact in ways that no longer fit their life experiences.
Canadian media, for example, are generally anti-Aboriginal and anti-Muslim. They use chopped logic to bash two groups in undeservedly negative terms.
They often blame these victimized groups for events and situations that are beyond their control.
The effects of power are also revealed in the use of labels, with more influential groups labeling those with less power. Canadian Muslims are the most labeled group in the country today; they are called Moderate, Progressive, Extremist, Secular, Islamist, Fundamentalist, Liberal, etc. by those who have little understanding of what these terms really mean.
Canada has two official languages, but it seems that we have a third language used only for speaking of Muslims, and this has to change.
This language problem is certainly exacerbated by the rise of a neo-con war mongering ideology in Canada, modeled after the failed and morally corrupt Bush ideology. Yet there is also good news in the results of a recent BBC poll that found religion and culture are not to blame for tensions between Muslims and the West.
According to a recent BBC World Service poll across 27 countries, the general public believes that tensions between Muslims and the West arise from political conflicts, not from differences of religion and culture.
The poll breaks down as follows: While three in ten (29%) believe religious or cultural differences are the cause of tension, just over half (52%) say tensions are due to conflicting interests.
And well over half (58%) say intolerant minorities are causing the conflict — with most of these (39% of the full sample) saying that the intolerant minorities are on both sides.
The idea that violent conflict is inevitable between Islam and the West is mainly rejected by Muslims, non-Muslims and Westerners alike. While more than a quarter of all respondents (28%) think that violent conflict is inevitable, twice as many (56%) believe that "common ground can be found."
Discrimination may be personal, collective, or institutional. In recent years, post 9/11 Canadian Muslims have fallen victim to all of them. Personal racism has become more subtle and indirect, while institutionalized or collective discrimination has also been justified against Canadian Muslims. But all types of discrimination lead to personal tragedies where individuals are denied their rights in both informal and formal ways.
In 1998 researchers who investigated the systematic discrimination of African Americans on the highways found that Blacks are much more likely to be stopped than non-Blacks, in spite of evidence from the National Institute of Drug Abuse indicating that African Americans are no more likely than Whites to possess or sell drugs.
Muslims have now replaced Blacks as the group most likely to suffer from discrimination, racial profiling, or stereotyping.
Yes, it would take a lot of work for Canadian Muslims to become "invisible" – and invisibility isn’t the real answer. Instead, they need encouragement and empowerment to build alliances, to stand together against hate and war mongering, and expose the false ideologies that cause negative stereotyping. The struggle for equality and justice among the human family is a long and arduous one, but I believe that victory is possible (perhaps just over the horizon) and that the effort is well worth it.