Young Muslim voters matter more than ever

A young and growing Muslim population stands to exert considerable influence in Canadian politics.

'We're all coming of age,' says organizer of recent candidates' debate in Toronto

Around the dinner table at Umair Ali's home in Brampton, Ont., talking politics usually means talking about Pakistan. But unlike his parents, the 26-year-old young professional isn't so concerned with the happenings "back home."

"When it comes to politics, they tend to care more about where they're from versus where they're living," says Ali of his parents' generation. For him though, what matters is what's happening right here in Canada.

It's a sentiment many Muslim youth, either born or raised in Canada, share.

And this election year, their political engagement is significantly more visible — with grassroots campaigns around the country mobilizing to make sure young Muslims' concerns are heard and that they have a good seat at the political bargaining table.

The youth-led group Canadian Muslim Vote emerged this year with a campaign that saw imams at over 20 Toronto-area mosques touting the importance of Muslims casting their ballots. 

In addition, a first-of-its-kind election debate — bringing together 25 Canadian Muslim organizations focused on issues of direct importance to youth — was held Friday at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum and livestreamed to viewing parties in seven major cities. The campaigns hold in common a single goal: to break a cycle of low voter turnout among Canadian Muslims.

New Democrat Andrew Cash, Liberal John McCallum, Green Adnan Shahbaz and Conservative Karim Jivraj square off in Friday's Toronto debate targeted at Muslim youth. (Shanifa Nasser/CBC)

Young Muslims make up a fast-growing segment of Canada's voting population. In 2011, slightly over 1 million individuals identified as Muslim, representing 3.2 per cent of the country's population, according to Statistics Canada. Their median age was 28.9.

Add to that StatsCan's estimate that 1 in 10 Canadians will identify as Muslim by 2030, and Muslims stand to become one of the country's largest voting bases.

"We're all coming of age," says 26-year-old Sanaa Ali-Mohammed, a Mississauga non-profit worker and one of a team of young Muslims who helped organize Friday's debate.

This year is different

For many young Muslims, like Ali-Mohammed and her team, something about this year's election feels different.

Hashim, 37

"I've been voting for four years but it's the first time I've ever really cared about an election," says 22-year-old Basma Ahmed of Hamilton.

"I don't know if it's a buildup of anger or optimism. The issues that matter to me have become so clear, things like youth unemployment that keep coming up in my life and I can't avoid them anymore."

Another reason for young Muslims' increased political engagement is what many perceive as a rise in Islamophobia since the Sept. 11 attacks. "You can't really ignore it, whether it's something someone says at work or a look you get in class," Ahmed says.

Binish Ahmed, a 30-year-old Toronto-area doctoral student, says young Muslims are sometimes reluctant to make their views known. "They're walking on eggshells," he says. 

But as a result of recent changes to Canada — from the controversial anti-terror law Bill C-51 to Bill C-24, criticized as the Conservatives' "two-tiered" citizenship law, to the government's fight to ban the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies — many other young Muslims feel that now more than ever their voices need to be heard.

For 26-year-old student Hussein Hashi, the fear of discrimination goes further than suspicious looks.

"What's difficult on top of this is having a different name than the average person; when applying to jobs, if I get denied without even getting an opportunity for an interview, and not knowing why."

On top of that, Ali-Mohammed says Muslim youth are frequently portrayed as lost or alienated in the media. "There's been a whole discourse about us but no one is really talking to us," she says, which was in part what drove her to help organize Friday's debate.

Only home they've ever known

Yet for many Canadian Muslim youth, this country is the only home they have ever known.

Unlike many of their parents, who migrated to the country in the '70s and '80s, more than one in four Muslims in Canada were born here, according to a report published earlier this year by Ottawa-based researcher Daood Hamdani for The Canadian Dawn Foundation.

"Both my feet are planted here. There is no 'back home' for me," says 37-year-old Mohammed Hashim of Mississauga, Ont.

I want Canada to go back to what it was.—Umair Ali, 26

That's a sentiment that the older generation doesn't always share, Ali-Mohammed says. "For my parents, I think it's more of a transactional relationship. They'll be good citizens but there's always this undertone of 'we don't really belong here.'"

Islamic Institute of Toronto president Fareed Amin is a first-generation immigrant to Canada and has seen this sentiment among his age group first-hand. "Many of them come from countries where whether you participate or not doesn't make a difference, so sometimes there's that skepticism to participate in the political process ."

Some new Canadians also carry with them the view that political involvement is potentially dangerous because of the tenuous political climates they left behind.

"I don't think our young people have the same baggage that some of the first-generation immigrants have," Amin says. "They're born-and-bred Canadians."

Back in Brampton, Ali says part of being Canadian is the freedom to be whoever you are. "My parents chose to come here because you can't always be that in Pakistan."

His hope for the election? "I want Canada to go back to what it was; the country my parents came to."


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