Are Our Muslims Like Their Muslims?

After a misinterpretation by Elections Canada officials of federal election laws passed this spring allowed Muslim women to vote in three Quebec by-elections without removing their veils for identification purposes, the federal government has tabled new legislation requiring all voters to reveal their faces before being allowed to vote. It is expected that the new legislation will be supported by all parties. The Quebec provincial government is expected to follow suit within the next few days.

While the incidents of the Quebec by-elections were minor and certainly had no effect on the ultimate results, they did highlight a potential future problem which Canada must be prepared to face. Are we required to accommodate religious and cultural beliefs of immigrant groups and if so, to what extent?

The 750,000 Muslims in Canada, slightly over 2% of the total population, present the country with a situation which it has never been forced to acknowledge before. Previous influxes of immigrant groups have been essentially from secular countries. Muslims, of which over 90% are first generation Canadians, come largely from religion based, although not necessarily theocratic, societies. Malaysia, for example, has a Muslim population that represents 52% of the total, although officially a secular state – a legacy of 150 years of British domination.

A SES poll conducted this past September and reported in the Oct. 22nd issue of Maclean’s Magazine is summarized as follows:
“…. by significant majorities in Canada as a whole, and by overwhelming majorities in Quebec, Canadians and Quebecers declare limits to reasonable accommodation. When asked whether it was reasonable to accommodate religious and cultural minorities or whether immigrants should fully adapt to culture in Canada, only 18.0 percent of respondents said reasonable accommodation best reflected their personal views, as opposed to 53.1 percent who thought immigrants should fully adapt, and 21.3 percent who agreed with neither statement.”

Also, as reported in Maclean’s, there is considerable concern in this country about European Muslims, particularly those of the Netherlands – that “our Muslims are like their Muslims.” However, an examination of the origins and circumstances of the Dutch experience indicates that current conditions in the two countries are not at all similar. That is not to say that Canada could not inherit some of the same problems in the future should government not approach immigrant policy in a rational and intelligent manner.

The roots of the Dutch situation can be traced back to the 1960’s when thousands of unskilled immigrants came to the country as part of a “guest worker” program for jobs in the textile, ship building and mining industries. Initially from Italy and Spain and later from Turkey and Morocco, they were expected to stay a few years and then return home. Many did indeed leave, but many more did not. Government policy at the time was essentially one of liberal multiculturalism and encouraged people to be educated in their own language and culture. Continuing to turn a blind eye to reality, it was assumed that these workers would assimilate and seek relationships among the existing Dutch population. They didn’t, and were then allowed to sponsor relatives and potential spouses from their own countries.

As the needs of industry evolved from unskilled labour to a high tech workforce Holland found itself divided into essentially two societies – a highly skilled affluent group and an unskilled, impoverished, mostly Muslim underclass with little motive to assimilate.

The 1990’s saw a further influx of immigrants as refugees from countries such as Somalia. Today, Muslims constitute 5.5% of the total population of the Netherlands.

Large, mainly Muslim ghettoes developed in major cities. Satellite television antennae sprouted from the rooftops of state housing projects tuned, not to programs supporting Western values, but to programs from their homeland often featuring inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric of extremist clerics.

In her autobiography “Infidel” Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes the existing situation. “As I went on doing research, it became painfully apparent that of all non-Western immigrants in Holland, the least integrated are Muslims. Among immigrants, unemployment is highest for Moroccans and Turks, the largest Muslim groups, although their average level of skills is roughly the same as all the other immigrant populations. Taken as a whole, Muslims in Holland make disproportionately heavy claims on social welfare and disability benefits and are disproportionately involved in crime.”

The murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a young, alienated jihadist served to alarm the country to the danger inherent in many Muslim populations - the existence of an Islamic extremist element. Although some factions continue to call for a continuance of liberal policies, strong efforts are being made to curb immigration from Islamic countries as well as to reform internal educational and cultural policy. Unfortunately, these efforts may have come too late.

The life of Muslims in Canada bears little resemblance to that of Dutch Muslims, with the exception of their faith.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada accepts applications for potential immigrants in two basic categories – Skilled Workers and Professionals and Investors, Entrepreneurs, and Self-Employed Persons, both of which have very stringent standards based on education, skills, language ability and financial viability. Applicants can also be nominated by individual provinces again providing they qualify. All applicants must pass health, security and criminal record checks. There are additional requirements to sponsor family members by permanent residents. There is no “guest worker” program. As a result of these standards Canadian Muslims, having qualified for immigration to Canada, begin their new life with a substantial investment in achieving success.

On average, Canadian Muslims are younger and more educated, and are not ghettoized, as are their European counterparts. However, as the newest ethnic group they suffer a higher rate of unemployment compared to other groups while those with employment initially tend to be in jobs in which their skills are not fully utilized such as Sales and Services. Some see this as a result of discrimination and there is no doubt some truth in this. It must be added that better Canadian jobs often require a year or two of Canadian experience which can sometimes only be gained in these relatively low-skill areas.

As a rule, Canadian society is comparatively more tolerant and there have not been serious confrontations between the Muslims and the rest of the society and the government. Nonetheless, most Muslims in Canada have no doubt experienced at least some form of racism or “Islamophobia”. Historically, all new cultures have had initial negative reaction from a minority of biased “native” Canadians – the Italians after WWII, East Indians and currently, the Chinese, although racism against the latter is declining rapidly as they assimilate. In time Muslims will receive similar acceptance depending, of course, on their willingness to adapt to their new environment.

Officially designated as a “multicultural” society in 1971, over the years Canada has developed a singularly Canadian culture which is recognized and respected world wide. While remaining sympathetic as far as possible to the needs of its diverse population, Canada remains firmly entrenched in Western Enlightenment values – respect for the individual, freedom, democracy, rationalism and British Common Law. In the past, there have been challenges to these values by various ethnic groups usually based on religious grounds – the failed effort in 2004 to have Sharia law accepted by Ontario family courts and more recently, an equally unsuccessful attempt to initiate public funding for faith-based schools. Nonetheless, where it is in their interests, accommodation is being made voluntarily by a number of organizations, public and private, for Islamic religious practice during work hours.

Canada has the opportunity to avoid the social and political problems currently being experienced by the Dutch. However, to do so, we must remain vigilant lest our liberal policies be used against us by those who may neither understand nor accept the values from which these policies have emerged. To “over-accommodate” would be a serious mistake.

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