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Some Notes on Muslims in Canada and the US
Social Issues
M. Darrol Bryant


I. The Religious Situation in Canada and the USA

Although the Christian population has been dominant in North America since the 1700s, there have always been significant religious minorities. Of course, the indigenous peoples who met the European explorers from 1492 onwards were the original dominant presence. But their numbers were decimated by the new diseases brought by Europeans and, especially in the USA, by warfare that continued down to the end of the 19th century – and even into the 20th century in New Mexico and Arizona. The Christians in North America were initially Spanish Catholic Christians in the South (now Mexico and southwestern USA) and French Catholic Christians in the North (now Canada) and English and European Protestant Christians along the Atlantic Coast from Massachusetts to Georgia. The Protestant Christian presence came to dominate English Canada and the USA from the 1700s down to the mid-20th century. In the 1980s, the majority of Canadian Christians became Roman Catholic (47%, Bibby) with the Protestant percentage declining to 41%. In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the majority became Roman Catholic in the 1970s as it did in the USA. Today we have a Canadian population of c.30 million and a population in the USA of c. 280 million.1

Although only 7% of the Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada, identifies itself as having ‘no religion’, the percentage of Canadians attending church services either weekly or monthly has decreased dramatically in recent decades. The Canadian Institute of Public Opinion reports nearly a 50% decline among the Roman Catholics and over 50% among the Protestants between 1945 and 1985.2 The decline of attendance has not been quite so dramatic in the USA, but nearly so. The curious phenomenon, at least in Canada, is that more than 90% of the population still identifies itself as having some religion. And 90% of those identify that religion as Christianity. In Canada, a decade ago (1985) Statistics Canada reported that the non-Christian population was small, less than 7%. Members of the Jewish faith were the largest non-Christian group and they constituted only 1% of the population (in the USA, the number is c. 5%) and ‘others’ an additional 4%. Those ‘others’ included Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc. There has been a Jewish population in Canada since the 1700s. The Buddhist population in Canada came, initially, with the importing of Chinese laborers to work on the building of the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s. The Sikh population came to British Columbia at the turn of the century and the Hindu population is largely of more recent decades. Significant Muslim population begins in Canada in the 1970s mainly through emigration. For example, many East African/Indian Muslims came to Canada from Uganda in the early and mid-1970s.

II. Muslims in North America: A Growing Presence

The first census year in which Muslims in Canada were specially included was 1981 and they then numbered c. 100,000.3 By 1991 the number had grown to more than 250,000. It is now estimated that there are 5 to 7 million Muslims in the USA. Unlike Canada, a significant number of American Muslims are converts. (A Canadian informant and herself a convert to Islam told me she only knew of six converts out of 4000 Muslims in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Southern Ontario where she lives). Farīd Nu‘mān estimates that there are 135,000 Americans converting to Islam per year and nearly 50% of those are African Americans, nearly 25% are South Asians, only 1.6% are white Americans.4 E. Grant reports that the Muslim population in Canada is due to immigration. And that immigrant population is about equally divided between Middle Eastern Muslims from Egypt to Turkey and South Asians from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, though there are significant numbers from Africa and the Caribbean. Press reports in 1997 estimate the Muslim population to be nearing 500,000 in Canada which is a very significant growth over the past 15 years.

Ontario is the home of nearly three-fifths of Canada’s Muslims, while Quebec has one-fifth, virtually all in and around Montreal. Ontario’s Muslim population is concentrated in the Greater Toronto area. American Muslims are also centered in the urban areas of California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey. In Canadian newspapers, it is now common to have articles on the beginning of Ramadān and the observance of Eid.

Some of these general comments concerning the growing Muslim presence in Canada can be made a bit more concrete by focusing on the area of Canada I know best. I live in the Kitchener-Waterloo areas. Kitchener and Waterloo are twin cities with a combined population of over 265,000 in southern Ontario, and hour and a half from Toronto. It is home to two universities: Wilfred Laurier University (3,000) and the University of Waterloo (16,000). I originally came to this area in 1967. At that time there was no visible or noticeable Muslim presence. Now there are an estimated 4000 Muslims in the area with a thriving mosque in Waterloo headed by an Egyptian Professor from the University of Waterloo. There are two mosques, one Shi’ite and one Ismā‘īlī in Kitchener. There is a Muslim Student Association at the University of Waterloo, with many members being foreign students currently studying in Canada. And Muslims in their distinctive dress are now commonplace in and around Kitchener-Waterloo. In addition to the Sunnī mosque in Waterloo also attended by some Shi’ite Muslims, there are groups of Ismā‘īlī that meet in people’s homes. My local informant tells me that every mosque she has visited here in K-W is packed for Friday prayers and during Ramadān for evening prayers. More space is needed. There are heritage language programmes in Arabic in the K-W schools on Saturdays. There are also plans for an Islamic Centre in Waterloo geared towards young people. I am aware of increasing numbers of stores and shops owned and run by Muslims and note that one convenience store has even refused, on the basis of religious conviction, to sell tobacco. And there is a thriving Egyptian Muslims restaurant and a fine Indian restaurant run by a Muslim from Bangladesh. There have been Muslim voices raised in the current debate about ‘religion in the public schools’ and the ‘teaching of religion’. Muslims in the K-W area have become a real and visible presence.

III. Muslim Institutes in Canada

Eleanor Grant reported to me that a handbook of mosques in Canada published by the Muslim World League lists 55 mosques in Canada, almost all established since 1995. They also include five Islamic schools. Mosques are to be found in nine of the ten Canadian provinces (Prince Edward Island is the exception). Most are in major Canadian cities, but some are in smaller centres like Red Deer, Alberta, Cornwall and Ontario, which also has a full-time Muslim school. Farīd Nu‘mān reports that there are more than 1000 masajid in the USA and 108 full-time Islamic schools. Attempts to organize Canadian Muslims are still in their early stages. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) do have Canadian branches located in Toronto. ISNA supports such ventures as the Toronto Housing Cooperative and a registry of Halāl meant sources. ICNA has started to publish a monthly magazine called The Message. In its recent editorial, we read that ‘many Muslims see the reawakening as a reassertion of their identity and a return to their roots, an alternative to secular materialism. The West perceives it as a threat – the so-called threat.’5 There is a nationwide Canadian Council of Muslim Women that works on issues such as employment equity and family violence.

Some Muslims are beginning to emerge in more prominent positions in the media and in politics. A Muslim woman, Fātimah Houda-Pepin, was elected to the Quebec National Assembly in 1994, and now sits as the Liberal Opposition’s critic on Culture. Azhar ‘Alī Khān and Hārūn Siddīqī have served as editors of two major newspapers, the Ottawa Citizen and the Torono Star. (But in 1995, a Liberal candidate for the provincial legislature in Ontario, who was a Muslim, had his party status revoked because of remarks about Christians and homosexuals in a small book he had written). Canada’s multi-faith television channel, Vision TV, regularly has two half-hour weekly programmes hosted by Sadī‘ah Zamān. There are many distinguished Muslims in the field of higher education including the University of Waterloo’s Prof. Elmasry in Electrical/Computer Engineering Department.

IV. Muslims in Canadian Life: Perception and Problems

How do Muslims find their life in Canada? Ahmad Yousuf studied the Muslim Community in the Ottawa region and found that their ‘comfort level was fairly high; most reported that they liked Canada as a place to live. When asked about the ‘life-style’ issues they found most troubling, they listed three: the media, the acceptability of premarital sex and the difficulty of finding a suitable marriage partner in Canada. When the media issue was probed, the respondents indicated that it was not only negative portrayals of Muslims in the media, it was also the alcohol commercials and the casual sex depicted on TV. In the early 1970s, there was considerable stereotyping of ‘Pakis’ or immigrants from Pakistan. But as Prof. Sheila McDunough of Concordia University in Montreal reports the overriding concern for Muslims in Canada is the ‘unfair or inaccurate stereotyping of their culture’.6 In Montreal, in 1994, a Muslim girl was expelled from a private school for wearing a ‘headscarf’ or Hijāb. She appealed to the Human Rights Commission and won. But there remains a problem here.

Canada unlike the American ‘melting pot’, thinks of itself as a ‘cultural mosaic’. But this view is often challenged by English Canadians as well as French Canadians who want it ‘their way or no way’. Many newspapers will have letters to the editors complaining about recent immigrants who don’t conform to the writers’ version of ‘being Canadian’. But Canada is, on the whole, a rather tolerant society – or at least one that is more suspicious of the ‘melting pot’ mentality – where, Eleanor Grant reports, that Muslims seldom experience overt hostility. The problems of cross-religious and cross-cultural harmony are nonetheless real but often more subtle.

A less subtle issue is racism, especially in recent years in relation to Somali Muslims. But here the issue is race rather than religion. This is also an issue that Muslims are facing within their community. One writer wrote in The Message that intra-Muslim brother and sisterhood broke down when it came to interracial marriage in the Muslim community. Some issues arise from contact with other movements/currents in Canadian life. For example the women’s movement. Eleanor Grant observes that ‘it is an unfortunate and inescapable fact, that Muslim communities in Canada are doing a poor job of dealing with inter-ethnic tensions, parent-youth tensions and the frustrations of women’.

In the province of Manitoba, ‘Abdu’l-Wahīd Mustafā has contended that Muslim students encounter problems in the public school system arising from faulty images of Islam and textbooks that assume Christianity a normative. In other places one hears that Muslims are often confused by what they see as a ‘Christian’ society that is so lax morally and seemingly approving of destructive trends – alcohol consumption and the free mixing of boys and girls – in society.

V. Muslim-Christian Relations in Canada

Like other countries, the relations between Muslims and Christians are many and varied. Some Christians regard all people of other faiths with great suspicion and the only proper relation to them is to convert them. But this is not the only view you find among Christians. Within the Canadian Council of Churches, representing most of the major Protestant denominations, there is a Christian-Muslim Dialogue group. Within the Canadian Conference of Bishops there is also an interfaith division. Both strive to promote positive Muslim-Christian relations. There are also ‘multi-faith groups’ in several of the large Canadian cities – Edmonton, Vancouver, Saskatoon, etc. – that promote interfaith dialogue and understanding. I have also recently discovered that the chaplains of Ontario have begun to develop a multi-faith awareness in relation to their work with persons in hospitals. And there is a Muslim component to this. But the general exchange between Muslims and Christians in Canada is infrequent at best, non-existent in most places. Yet increasingly Muslims are in the work force and the everyday life of Canadian society.

What should be the level of exchange between Muslims and Christians? Should there just be a kind of benign tolerance of each other? As a teacher of religious studies, I am often disturbed to discover the lack of knowledge we have about other faiths and the unconscious stereotypes and prejudices we carry. In 1998, I published, together with Dr. S.A Ali of Hamdard University in New Delhi, Muslim Christian Dialogue: Promise and Problems?7 Thus I very much support:

1. Local interfaith groups (including Muslims and Christians) that meet to promote mutual understanding and, where possible, cooperation on issues facing the community. This as well as ‘official dialogue’ is crucial.

2. A multi-faith approach to the teaching of religion in the public schools. Canada does not have the same obstacles to the teaching of religion in the public schools that we find in the United States with its constitutional separation of ‘church and state’. Yet most teaching of religion in schools in Canada has been limited to the Christian religion, where there has been any teaching at all. There are now some high school courses in ‘world religions’. This should be, in my view, expanded.

3. We also need more teaching about the many religious traditions in colleges and universities. Scholars perhaps have a special role to play in relation to rewriting and revising materials that carry inaccurate portrayals of Islam and Muslim people. We need more public education.

Seen within the context of an increasingly multi-religious and multi-cultural Canadian society, Muslims face a positive future. Muslims, like Christians, will have to confront a dominant culture that is increasingly secularised despite its partial origins in the Christian traditions. That dominant cultural is materialistic, hostile to transcendence, and relativistic in values. There will continue to be a significant gap between Canadian commitments to multi-culturalism and the actuality of day to day life. Muslims will also have to deal creatively with issues of technology, life-styles, sexuality and marriage within their own communities as they strive to preserve and deepen their religious identity within a Canadian content.

Courtesy: The Hamdard Islamicus, Jan-March 2001

1. Reginald Bibby, Fragmented Gods, The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada, Toronto: Irwin Publishing 1987. It is the source of much information on religion in Canada.

2. See Bibby, p. 17.

3. I wish to acknowledge the work of Eleanor Grant, a student at the University of Waterloo and a convert to Islam, who gathered some of the information of Muslims in Canada found in these notes. The unpublished paper she gave me is entitled ‘Some Observations regarding Muslims in Canada in 1995’ and I cite her throughout. I am grateful to her.

4. Farīd Nu‘mān, American Muslims, Fall/Winter 1994, p. 26. For a discussion of conversion, including conversion in the Muslim context, see Christopher Lamb and M. Darrol Bryant, eds., Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies, London: Cassell, 1999.

5. The Message, March 1995, p. 13.

6. As quoted in Eleanor Grant, p. 4.

7. See M. Darrol Bryant and S.A. Ali, Muslim- Christian Dialogue: Promise  and Problems, St. Paul, MN:Paragon Press, 1998.

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