Islamic History Month: Listening to the voices of Muslim Canadians
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, there are just over one million people in Canada who identify as Muslim, or about 3.2 per cent of the population1. This makes Islam the second largest religion in the country after Christianity. But what do non-Muslim Canadians know about their fellow Muslim citizens?
What all Canadians should know is that Islam – just like Christianity and Judaism – Is an astonishingly diverse religion. It encompasses a range of spiritual traditions and includes people from many cultural backgrounds, both here in Canada and around the world.
Canadian Muslims frequently face stereotypes and misunderstandings, and their diversity is often not recognized. Last year, a Quebec Human Rights Commission survey of 1,500 Quebecers found 49 per cent of respondents were uncomfortable with the hijab, a head scarf that some Muslim women choose to wear2. In Ontario, a study released just this summer found that three-quarters of Ontarians polled said they felt that Muslim immigrants have fundamentally different values than other Canadians3.
Sometimes fear and hostility towards Islam has translated into violent action. Canadian mosques have been vandalized and set on fire as recently as September 2016 while Canadian Muslims, especially women, have been publicly targeted due to their religion and have faced verbal abuse as well as assault. Most Canadians do not support such hateful actions – in fact, this past summer six Canadian cities endorsed a charter vowing to eliminate anti-Muslim hate crimes4.
Canada marks Islamic History Month each October, with events taking place across the country. The aim of the month is to provide an opportunity to share information about Muslim heritage and contributions. At the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, we decided to speak to seven Canadian Muslims about what it means to be a Muslim in Canada today, with a particular focus on human rights. Throughout the month of October, we shared these interviews on our blog and on social media.
While seven people could never fully represent all of Canadian Islam, the seven individuals I interviewed are definitely a diverse group. They hail from five different provinces and can trace their roots back to three different continents. They are athletes, entrepreneurs, performers, filmmakers, academics and politicians – and many of them have pursued more than one career in their lifetime.
What became clear to me in these interviews is that everyone’s experience of being Muslim is different. Jamaal Jackson Rogers, a spoken word poet and hip hop artist from Ottawa, told me that his experience of growing up as a Black Muslim man was very different from that of non-Black Muslims. Dr. Ingrid Mattson’s experience is also unique – she is a white woman who converted to Islam in her twenties after reading the Qur’an. Then there’s the experience of Palestinian-Canadian comedian Eman El-Husseini, who embraces her Muslim identity while being married to a Jewish Canadian woman.
Along with the differences, I also noticed common themes throughout the interviews. Everyone I talked to seems to be busy building bridges between different communities. Many of the seven were working closely with other faith communities, such as Christians and Jews, and at least one – Regina-based writer and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz – was also working with her local Indigenous community. All of the interviewees are committed to making the world a better place. Winnipeg entrepreneur and former pro football player Ibrahim “Obby” Khan has involved himself heavily in numerous charities, while Montréal activist and blogger Dalila Awada is active combatting racism and discrimination in all its forms. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Zarqa Nawaz and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi all spoke to me about their work to speak out for women’s rights.
Many of these individuals also expressed pride in Canada – particularly the fact that they live in a country that embraces diversity and pluralism. In his interview, Naheed Nenshi went as far as to say that “It is one of those cases where it is true that the world needs more Canada.” No one felt that Canadians should be complacent, however. Dalila Awada expressed frustration at the slow pace of change, and both she and Jamaal Jackson Rogers challenged us to look beyond the concept of “tolerance” – a word they felt implied grudging obligation, rather than a willing commitment to truly understand and embrace fellow Canadians.
After finishing all of the interviews, I was struck by how valuable it is to listen to the individual voices of Canadians. It’s so tempting to lump people into groups – by race, gender, religion or a thousand other categories. It’s an easy thing to do, to decide that “those people” are all the same. It puts the world into neat little boxes. But, when you actually speak with people, you learn that they don’t fit into neat little boxes. You learn about all their beautiful complexities and contradictions – and it becomes impossible to see them as nothing but a stereotype.
I was also struck by how important it is for each one of us, in our own way, to take action for human rights. That doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – it can start by simply getting to know your neighbour. Obby Khan said to me that his father always told him charity could be as simple as opening a door or giving a smile. He said his father’s legacy has been the life lesson that he should “…always be kind, always try to do the right thing, always make a difference.”
I hope these interviews start some conversations about inclusion and diversity – and about rejecting stereotypes. If we as a nation are going to eliminate hatred and learn to treat all people with dignity and respect, it has to happen on an individual level – one conversation at a time. Naheed Nenshi summed up our individual responsibility this way: “Every single one of us has a role to play in protecting and upholding human rights,” he said. “I always say that real change in our community comes when everyday people use their everyday hands and everyday voices to advocate for real change. So every one of us has a role to play.”
1 “NHS Profile, Canada, 2011,” Statistics Canada (accessed October 25, 2016).
2 “Quebecers are deeply divided when it comes to religion: survey,” Montreal Gazette, January 15, 2016 (accessed October 25, 2016).
3 “Ontario facing ‘epidemic of Islamophobia’ survey finds” Toronto Star, July 4, 2016 (accessed October 25, 2016).
4 “Calgary among 6 Canadian cities to sign charter against Islamophobia,” CBC News Calgary, July 4, 2016 (accessed October 25, 2016).