Integration of Muslim minorities: is it about religion? There is a disconnect between public perception and empirical evidence.

Author:Reitz, Jeffrey G.

A backlash against Muslim minority communities has been very evident throughout the Western world since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. It has been reinforced by subsequent actual or threatened acts of violence where the perpetrators claim a global Islamic agenda--a fairly long list that includes bombings in Madrid and London, and most recently the attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015.

Canada has not been exempt, and in 2006 a group of 18 people plotting various attacks against targets in Canada were arrested in Toronto. More recently, in October 2014, two events grabbed headlines: one in which a car rammed Canadian soldiers in Quebec and killed one of them, and another in which an attacker killed a soldier guarding a war memorial in Ottawa and later attacked Parliament.

Responses to such attacks and threats of attacks, and the rhetoric supporting the resulting "war on terror," raise important questions about how Muslim minority communities are affected. While an obvious concern is the extent to which local Muslim minorities might feel a sense of kinship with the attackers, underlying this is a deeper concern about whether the attacks reveal that Islamic culture is alien, making it difficult to reconcile with--or actually hostile to--basic Western values of democracy, state religious neutrality and gender equity. Are these concerns well-founded? Are Muslim minorities not integrating into society as well as other immigrant groups, and do their growing numbers represent some kind of threat?

Evidence from social research clearly refutes such concerns. Muslim communities in Western countries represent a variety of cultural and national backgrounds. Each such community tends to reflect these different backgrounds as much as or more than a common Islamic identity. Moreover, Muslims' experience in the community or the workplace differs little from that of other religious minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs. Their main problems centre on employment opportunity, recognition of qualifications and discrimination--problems of visible-minority immigrants in general, not Muslims specifically.

Although research suggests that the processes of integration of Muslim populations into society are determined by ethnic and racial background, and not religion or religious attachments specifically, public opinion says otherwise. Accordingly, public discussion of immigrants has shifted from issues of race and ethnicity to religion. Immigrants to Canada from Pakistan, Iran and other Islamic countries are now referred to simply as "Muslim," and considered as such. The same has happened elsewhere. In France, immigrants once called Arabs or Turks are now just "Muslims." This focus on religion is not just wrongheaded - in many ways, it has actually been counterproductive, leading to policies attempting to repress religious expression, thereby erecting, not tearing down, barriers to integration.

Do Muslims adopt Canadian customs?

Canadian concern about Muslims as a group is clear in public opinion data. The 2010 Environics Focus Canada survey asked, "Do you think most Muslims coming to our country today want to adopt Canadian customs and way of life or do you think they want to be distinct from the larger Canadian society?" A majority of respondents (55 per cent) thought Muslims "want to be distinct." Far fewer (28 per cent) thought Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs. (1) And, of course, despite widespread support for multiculturalism, Canadians really want immigrants to "adopt Canadian customs" and blend in. Fully 80 per cent agreed that "ethnic groups should blend into Canadian society and not form separate communities," with 51 per cent agreeing "strongly." Two thirds (68 per cent) said that "there are too many immigrants coming into this country who are not adopting Canadian values," with 40 per cent "strongly" agreeing.

Characterizations of Muslims as preferring to be "distinct" are challenged by Muslims themselves, the vast majority of whom view their coreligionists as wanting to integrate into Canadian society. A 2006 Focus Canada survey (see figure 1) interviewed both mainstream and Muslim populations; 57 per cent of the mainstream respondents viewed Muslims as wanting to...

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