Politics·Analysis

Survey of Muslim Canadians rebuts lazy generalizations with hard data: Neil Macdonald

The recent Environics survey of Muslims in Canada is an important, data-based assessment of a community beset by myths and suspicions that, upon closer inspection, appears to have more similarities than differences with other Canadians, writes Neil Macdonald.

Findings of Environics Institute survey reveal a community that's not so different from other Canadians

The findings of a new survey of Muslims in Canada should dispel some of the myths and suspicions about the community, which, it turns out, is not that different from the majority of Canadians. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

The cover page of a new study on Muslims in Canada features six carefully chosen images: Justin Trudeau, cheek to cheek with a woman in a headscarf, in yet another grinning selfie, a bearded man in a skullcap shaking hands with a policeman, a child in tribal dress, a minaret, a handsome, barbered young guy in some sort of Canada-motif shirt who may or may not be Muslim, and a political demonstration somewhere.

The message seems to be that Muslims are a fully integrated, engaged strand in the warp and woof of Canada's social fabric, and that everything is peachy.

The report's contents are more clear-eyed.

"Muslims in this country," it states flatly, "do not enjoy the acceptance accorded to other religious minorities."

The study, produced by the Environics Institute, is an important, scholarly, data-based assessment of a community beset by myths and suspicions, and which, upon inspection, appears to have more commonalities than differences with other Canadians.​

It turns out the biggest issue most Muslim Canadians — 56 per cent — have with Canada is the climate. Thirty one per cent offer that complaint unprompted.

With the exception of the impossibly ruddy characters who celebrate at Mountain Equipment Co-op after a blizzard, who could argue with that?

Muslims resemble other religious Canadians

Canadian Muslims also, according to the Environics Institute survey, tend to identify strongly as Canadians but slightly more strongly as Muslims.

That might be seized upon by some as a reason to question their patriotism.

But really, it's a pretty Canadian answer. This country is, after all, the multi-culti community of communities.

I know Jews who think of themselves primarily as Jewish and religious Christians whose first allegiance is to Jesus Christ.

Many Muslims place importance on their faith, but so do other religious Canadians. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In fact, the survey found, on Page 15, that "non-Muslim Canadians affiliated with a religion … are also less apt to place strong importance on their Canadian identity."

Try to find a Canadian flag in Quebec, for example. That province's eight million residents are officially encouraged to think of themselves as Qué​bé​cois first and foremost, and really, whether they admit it or not, the subtext of Qué​bé​cois is still white and Catholic. (Remember, a crucifix hangs on the wall of the Quebec legislature).

I'm utterly non-religious, and not a Quebecker, and even I primarily identify as something other than Canadian. "Journalist," maybe, or "Western."

Canada is a good place to be born and to live, certainly, but Canadians are simply not as wired to civic nationalism as, say, Americans.

A large majority of Canadian Muslims feel a strong sense of belonging, according to the survey. (CBC)

Another way to put that is that Canadians aren't as jingoistic.

In many ways, that's a good thing. Why should Muslim Canadians be any different?

Well, because they are, or they are perceived to be, and that, according to the study, is what most concerns them.

English, too, is littered with religious references

The survey found that Muslim Canadians believe, and with good reason, that they are stereotyped and misunderstood.

That is almost wholly attributable to the fact that most religiously inspired extremism nowadays is committed in the name of Islam (something the survey says is at least, if not more, of a concern to Canadian Muslims as it is to the broader population).

And it is compounded by the fact that more than most other tongues, the primary language of Muslims — Arabic — is heavily laced with religiosity.

Even secular Muslims speaking English routinely use phrases like "alhamdulillah" and "inshallah," both of which reference Allah, and therefore inspire anxiety in some people, but actually translate as "Praise be to God" and "God willing" — in other words, in general usage, something like "thank goodness" and "hopefully."

Muslim Canadians who advertise their faith are often singled out and profiled by authorities, a reality reflected in the survey's findings. (CBC)

But it draws attention. So Muslims, especially those who advertise their faith, are singled out and profiled by authorities. They are constantly removed from security lines at airports, or pulled off flights, or grilled by customs agents, or taunted by idiots who consider themselves "real Canadians."

As for the constant presence of religion in the Arabic language, think about it a moment. English is littered with references to the Christian God. We just don't notice.

"Goodbye" derives from "God be with you." "OMG" has God in it. Christians will say "for heaven's sake" without any religious meaning. The American dollar has "God" written on it. And we don't sing "Allah Save the Queen."

Younger Muslims more purist

Christianity is also more cartoonized, for want of a better word, by bunnies and chickens and eggs at Easter, and ornamented evergreens and a flying elf with magic reindeer at Christmas.

Muslims are somewhat more purist.

In fact, the Environics Institute survey says younger Muslims are growing more devout. Young Muslim men are more likely to go to the mosque and pray, and young Muslim women more likely to wear a headscarf, or hijab. And both are more likely to identify mainly as Muslims.

From left to right: Laya Behbahani, Rahamatullah Siddique, Assya Moustaqim-Barrette and Arden Maaliq - some of the young Muslims interviewed by CBC about the survey. The Environics Institute survey found that young Muslims identified more with their faith than older Muslim Canadians. (Lori Miles/Sweet Pea Photography, Rahamatullah Siddique, Heather Buttrum Ciere, Arden Maaliq)

Canadian Muslims over 60, says the survey, are markedly less religious. In fact, they tend to identify primarily as Canadians.

Political scientist Kate Bullock, who helped assemble the survey, reckons that is an effort by young Muslims to distinguish themselves in a multicultural society.

Further, says Bullock's colleague, Keith Neuman, younger Muslims were probably born here, and have the same expectations and entitlements as other Canadians, and therefore feel discrimination more keenly. Older Muslims, on the other hand, probably immigrated, many of them from police states, and so more tightly embrace the Canadian identity, with its inherent freedoms and rights.

The best thing about this study, though, is that it exists. It is an attempt to scientifically gather data about the thinking of Canadian Muslims and is now on the record.

Which means it should serve as a bar to lazy generalization and stereotyping, at least for serious people who try to be guided by fact.

Those who want to lump all Muslims in with ISIS and make snarky jokes about 72 virgins, though, will keep right on doing it, even as they sing carols around the tree and take the kids to Easter egg rolls.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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