Opportunities, challenges for Canadian Muslims

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Muslims believe, as do most Canadians, that Canada is a welcoming, law-based country that cherishes freedom, democracy and the diversity of its people.

But these are troubled times, even for Canada and Canadian Muslims.

This year started with the killing of six worshippers and the wounding of 19 in a Quebec mosque. The perpetrator was a white supremacist who hated immigrants. Canadians rallied behind Muslims and affirmed that they valued Muslims as fellow citizens.

But in October the Quebec legislative assembly passed Bill 62 that bars services to women wearing face coverings. Observers believe the targets are niqabi-clad women though only a tiny minority wears niqab.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the federal government might challenge the law’s legality. Provincial premiers have denounced it. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims sought and obtained a court order from Quebec Superior Court to suspend Bill 62’s discriminating measures as being unconstitutional. The issue might drag on for years while its legality is debated.

More ominous for Canadian Muslims is the growth of Islamophobia nationally. Statistics Canada reported in 2003 that just 0.54 percent of Muslims reported being the victim of a hate crime. In 2016, 35 percent of Muslims reported suffering discrimination.

Police report that while hate crimes have decreased in Canada, they have increased against Muslims, now the second highest targeted group after Jews. In 2014, police reported 99 hate crimes against Muslims.

A 2016 Forum poll found that 28 percent of Canadians disliked Muslims, compared to 16 percent who dislike the Aboriginal people, whose land the European settlers took away. In 2017, the Angus Reid Institute and Faith in Canada 150 showed that 46 percent of Canadians asserted that Islam was damaging Canada while 13 percent said it was beneficial. The only other religious group distrusted in Canada is Sikhs. Canada Race Relations Foundation, the Association for Canadian Studies and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have all reported that greater numbers of Canadians are concerned about Muslims.

Several factors seem to be the cause. One is the behavior of some Muslims abroad – like Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) or Al-Qaeda or suicide bombers or killers who murder innocent people or those that they feel insulted Islam, while crying “Allahu Akbar”. While responsible Canadian leaders assert that Islam is a religion of peace and that Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism, some Canadian leaders, like former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seem to equate terrorism with Islam. Harper even avoided attending functions of mainstream Muslims, who serve Canada with dedication every day.

Major culprits are the Islamophobes. In the name of free speech they demonize Islam and Muslims and insist that Muslims are seeking to impose Shariah rule on all Canadians. This is absurd because Muslims, who probably number about one and a half million in a country of some 35 million, cannot possibly impose Shariah on others. Most Muslims in Canada are secular and obey Canadian laws. All polls suggest that Muslims love Canada as it is, and would not want to live anywhere else.

But Islamophobes stroke fears about Islam in the guise of freedom of speech. They are sometimes invited by extremist groups like the Jewish Defense League to promote hate. Sometimes authorities ban such speakers on the grounds that preaching hatred against identifiable groups is a crime. But that doesn’t deter the hate-mongers from trying, trying and trying again.

Clearly it is the responsibility of Muslims themselves to improve relations with their fellow Canadians and to improve the image of Islam. Polls also show that Canadians who have contacts with Muslims form a better impression of Muslims and Islam as a result.

But Muslims, like other Canadians, are concerned with meeting the challenges of daily life – making ends meet, raising productive children, earning livelihood and doing household chores. Several volunteer for community work, which may or may not include helping Muslim organizations and/or mosques.

As newcomers to Canada, Muslims wanted at first to ensure that their children retained their religion and culture while embracing the Canadian way of life. Now the number of Muslims has grown and the challenge has shifted to the need to help the vulnerable in the community – elderly, widows, mentally ill, youth being lured to crime, drugs and extremism, the handicapped, victims of Alzheimer’s and so on.

Some Muslims also develop interfaith relations with Canadians of other faiths and discuss their common values. But the need now is also to work together to promote human rights for all Canadians and to develop ties with human rights groups. Muslim groups are slow in making these adjustments. Their emphasis overwhelmingly is on building and maintaining mosques and not necessarily serving the community adequately and developing closer bonds with other Canadians. A new approach is required to meet both spiritual and temporal needs. Those changes are coming but slowly.

-Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.


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