Losing our religion: How anti-Muslim sentiment threatens religious freedom

Some Muslim women in our circles are now seeking religious edicts that deem it acceptable to remove the head scarf in order to feel safe.

By Amira Elghwaby and Asma Maryam Ali
Toronto Star | July 21, 2017

Through disproportionate negative media portrayals, along with the despicable rise of terrorism, the Islamic faith is constantly under scrutiny; it is everyone’s to inspect, analyze, and judge.

This has led to the unfortunate reality that ordinary citizens seem to believe Muslims in Canada should not have the same rights as everyone else. The most recent, disturbing example, is the decision by a small group of residents in a Quebec community who voted by a small margin to prevent the local Muslim community from establishing their own cemetery to bury their loved ones.

Although the contexts are vastly different, it is nonetheless instructive to go back in history to understand how such trends can negatively impact on the ability religious communities to practice their faith.

The 13th to 19th century Spanish Inquisition represents a disturbing chapter that illustrates why it is so critical to protect religious freedom, even for populations whose traditions may be unpopular. During that time, the Spanish monarchy and Christian Church adopted a gradual policy of ethnic cleansing of Spanish Muslims (the majority religion) and of Jews.

They forced these populations to convert, or expelled, or killed them. People were made to wear identification badges, subjugated, and humiliated or compelled to adopt an outward practice of Christianity in order to survive. For 500 years, there were no Muslim cemeteries.

Canada represents an altogether different reality, and is generally considered a bastion of multiculturalism, pluralism, and peace — despite its dismal and unresolved treatment of Indigenous communities (which included religious discrimination). And while there are no signs of forced conversions or even so-called Muslim bans on travel, the freedom to practice Islam in Canada is under pressure.

The pressure emerges not only from those who hold anti-Muslim views, but can emerge from the state itself. Whether it is the right to establish cemeteries, build mosques and centres, wear head scarves or face veils, or pray in schools, Muslim religious practice is frequently at the centre of contentious debates about the place of faith in a secular society. This impacts all faith communities.

Statements from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders, including the Premiers of Ontario and Alberta, have gone a long way to assure minorities that their human rights will be respected, and that Islamophobia and hatred are unwelcome in our communities.

It is also reassuring to recognize that hundreds of municipalities, unions, institutions, and members of the public, have endorsed a Charter of Inclusive Communities to reinforce our collective commitments to these principles.

And yet, news of emerging anti-Muslim militias, the significant rise of hate crimes and hate incidents and apparent lack of consequences, the proliferation of xenophobic, and bigoted groups online, the tacit acceptance of discriminatory policies by some municipalities, and even occasional political rhetoric targeting Muslim communities, threaten to undermine all that is positive.

Some Muslim women in our circles are now seeking religious edicts that deem it acceptable to remove the head scarf in order to feel safe. In a striking parallel, Muslims in 15th century Spain sought a similar edict from the Mufti of Wahran to allow them to alter what many deem an Islamic compulsory act so that they could be less visible.

Canadian Muslims at work and school are also now debating whether to worship at the appointed times or to delay it in order to avoid tension. In June, anti-Muslim protesters gathered to protest in front of a secondary school in Toronto as students were heading home.

A 2016 study out of San Francisco State University highlighted how American Muslim children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old are internalizing this zeitgeist. According to the findings, one in three children did not want to tell anyone they are Muslim, 1-in-2 did not know whether they could be both American and Muslim, and 1-in6 would pretend not to be Muslim.

This process, called “dissimulation” by the late French scholar Jean Baudrillard, is deeply concerning because it signifies a gradual deterioration of cultural and religious identity.

Where does this leave us? With a faith and identity that’s constantly in question, and inevitably in flux. We must collectively address these worrying trends in order to promote healthy, cohesive communities where everyone is encouraged to fulfil their potential and be true to their varied and diverse identities.

Let’s not allow these values to be relegated to Canada’s own history books.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). Asma Maryam Ali is a registered psychotherapist working in Toronto.