Note: Originally written for the ISNA publication Islamic Horizons; here is the published, edited version.
In Canada, Muslims often seem to be grappling with the question of their identity in a multicultural land. It has been hashed over in so many living rooms, mosques and television studios that many wonder why we ever talk about it. However, it comes up every now and then, sneaking out from veils in Quebec or arising when trying to understand why horrific ‘honor’ killings take place.
The examples mentioned above illustrate why establishing a Canadian Muslim identity can seem to be such a difficult, thorny issue. But Dr. Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic Studies, challenges Muslims to shrug off questions about identity and re-imagine themselves as citizens first, discarding the ‘troubled victim’ narrative.
At the recent launch of Emmanuel College’s new prayer room, Dr. Mattson pointed out that identity is a relatively recent topic in Muslim discourse. It is only over the last few decades that the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis has gained popularity, and that a number of factors have reduced Muslim identity to politics. She mentioned that Muslims are often perceived to have political stances that clash with those in the West, yet those conflicts are primarily due to injustice, not identity.
For example, many Pakistanis dislike Western foreign policy mostly because it has supported most of the dictators in the country’s short history, not due to some irrational hatred. Many people conflate anti-Americanism with mainstream Muslim opinion, but antipathy of Western hegemony is hardly limited to Muslims.
Dr. Mattson suggested, Islam seems to be particularly good at rallying people against injustice – and then wondered aloud why Muslims seem to focus only on the injustice that is done upon them, and not that which they are guilty of. After all, remarked Dr. Mattson, ‘justice is not just about identity, but also ethics’.
Muslims have to escape a siege mentality and resist those who seek, both from outside and within the community, to make them feel like victims. The marginalizing effects of attacks on Islam in the mainstream media may actually be amplified by the complaints made about Islamophobia. This is not to deny that discrimination and bias exist, but the stories we tell ourselves, and especially to our children, are critical.
Muslim youth are indeed under pressure as it is; by repeatedly warning them of the dangers they face, Imams, teachers and parents may discourage them from feeling secure enough to achieve their potential. As Dr. Mattson mentioned, they are already faced with temptations and distractions – we can choose to free them from an additional burden and help them feel empowered to take action and fulfill the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh).
The immediate opportunity for Muslims, and youth in particular, to engage as full citizens is in the communities where they reside. The Ummah is more than just the global community of Muslims, said Dr. Mattson; it can also be seen as the intersection of politics, religion and place. Thus we should not forget the value of place-based community and citizenship that is tolerant of multiple religions.
Dr. Mattson proposed that one approach to tackle the question of ‘Muslim Canadian identity’ is to rally to Canadian causes as ‘Muslim’ issues. Religious leaders can support the rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, or tackle the complex issue of environmental change.
Dr. Mattson’s message would have resonated with all who have witnessed the frustration and divisive results of framing Muslims on the basis of received identity. If we wish to be part of Canadian society, we have to think of ourselves as part of it and internalize ‘Canadian’ issues as ‘our’ issues. There are examples in other faith communities as well, such as the Seva Food Bank, which is supported by the Sikh community to serve low-income residents in Peel with the Sikh values of seva (service) and sarbat da bhalla (well being of all) at heart.
The good news is that by and large, the Muslim community is engaged and pluralistic. Initiatives such as CivicMuslims, which identifies itself as ‘a Canadian grassroots initiative promoting volunteerism and civic engagement’, are indications of a promising future. The Tessellate Institute, which co-sponsored Dr. Ingrid Mattson’s talk, seeks to contribute to civic engagement in Canada through its research and programs.
Compartmentalizing the everyday injustice faced by Canadians and focusing only on that which affects primarily Muslims does a disservice to the message of Islam, playing into a false ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy. Solidarity, noted Dr. Mattson, does not need to arise in opposition to a mutual enemy; it can flower in a community of mutual respect.
The discourse of victim-hood can be dangerously dis-empowering. Perhaps the best way of dealing with it is to highlight and assert the strong civic role that Muslims play in communities across Canada.