Canada's Muslims embrace their country – even when it doesn't embrace back

Muslims are increasingly taking their place in Canadian society, and are some of the country's most patriotic citizens. But many struggle with the need to 'prove' their loyalty. Last month's shooting at a Quebec City mosque was particularly shocking.

Courtesy of MAX Gala
The audience at the inaugural MAX Gala at The Ritz-Carlton in Toronto on March 24, 2016.

There were all the trappings of an awards ceremony – tearful winners, breathless speeches, messages from dignitaries that ran a little too long. 

Even so, the first annual MAX Gala, held at Toronto’s lush Ritz-Carlton Hotel last March, was a singular event. It was the first-ever awards ceremony reserved for Muslim Canadians, an evening that saw a steady parade of business people, doctors, and community activists take the stage to be recognized for their contribution to society. It was also a bittersweet moment for many in the crowd.  

“It was a huge honor to be recognized by members of your own community for your contributions,” says Danyaal Raza, a family physician who won a prize for his work in promoting better access to health care for vulnerable populations. 

“At the same time, it saddens me that this is something Canadian Muslims need to do. It’s a shame that if you are Muslim in Canada or the United States, you have to go out of your way to prove you are a good citizen.” 

Like Canadians of all faiths, Dr. Raza is struggling to come to terms with the lone-wolf terrorist attack on a Quebec City mosque late last month, which killed six people and injured 19. It was the most violent display yet of anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada, and an event that some feel underscores the need for initiatives such as the MAX Gala awards. 

“The awards are important because they normalize Muslim Canadians,” says Raza. “They show that just like any group in Canada, they’re business owners, they’re doctors, they’re artists, they’re doing their work just like their neighbors are.” 

Proud Canadians

Muslims are increasingly taking their place in Canadian society. The latest national census data shows they now make up about 3 percent of the Canadian population. They are the largest religious minority group in Canada and, according to a recent survey of Muslims by the research company Environics Institute, among the most patriotic. More than 80 percent of those surveyed told researchers they were proud to be Canadian, a higher percentage than non-Muslim Canadians. Roughly the same percentage say they turned out to vote in the last national election. 

MAX Gala founder Aazar Zafar says most Canadians accept his faith as part of the diverse multiculturalism the country is recognized for. Born in Canada to Pakistani and Indian immigrants, Mr. Zafar went to Catholic school and attended church on Fridays but learned the principles of Islam at home. He embraced Islam in Grade 11, when he went to public school and met another Muslim for the first time.

Now a portfolio manager for a downtown Toronto pension fund, Zafar observes his faith by attending a downtown mosque on Fridays, praying five times a day, fasting for Ramadan, and “being a good person.” 

Like hundreds of others in the city, his employer has set aside a prayer room to accommodate Zafar and his Muslim colleagues. Religion rarely comes up, but when it does Zafar says his explanations are met with curiosity and acceptance.

“In Canada, I think we’re fortunate,” he says. “There’s an embracing of all ways of life.” 

Even so, Zafar is alarmed by what he sees as an undercurrent of suspicion and negative stereotyping of Muslims in the post 9/11 era. 

“The narrative in the media is very often negative,” he says. “People brand Muslims as terrorists. There’s also a portrayal of Muslim women as repressed.”

'There's a constant questioning'

Although Zafar has not experienced discrimination because of his religion or ethnicity, about one-third of Canadian Muslims told researchers for the Environics survey that they have. Hate crimes directed against Muslims have also increased, according to the most recent available police data, from 2014. 

“We tend to think of ourselves as very diverse and very accepting. But there’s a constant questioning of whether Muslims fit in Canadian society,” says Ruba Ali al-Hassani, an Iraqi Canadian PhD student at Toronto’s York University and co-founder of the Canadian Association of Muslim Women and Law, an advocacy and networking group. 

She says those questions sometimes manifest themselves in discrimination. She and a fellow student at York University set up their law association after her colleague was asked to leave the university’s law library because she was wearing a hijab. 

In many other instances, she says, they have devolved into outright Islamophobia, especially apparent under the leadership of ex-Prime Minister and Conservative Party of Canada leader Stephen Harper. 

The Harper government implemented a series of laws considered by many to be anti-immigrant and especially anti-Muslim. They include the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which toughened laws around forced marriages and added polygamy to the Criminal Code, as well as attempts by the Harper government to ban women from taking the oath of Canadian citizenship while wearing a face-covering veil such as a burqa. Kellie Leitch, a leading contender in upcoming elections to replace Mr. Harper as leader of the Conservative Party, has made implementing a test of Canadian values for immigrants a key part of her platform. 

Like most young Muslims in Canada, Ms. Hassani says her religious observance and sense of spirituality has strengthened over the years, in good part as a reaction to the constant focus on radical Islam since 9/11 and attempts to outlaw practices such as wearing a veil. 

Although she does not attend a mosque regularly, Hassani wears a hijab and pray five times a day. The head covering has become more important to her identity than ever before, both as a spiritual practice and a political statement. 

“I would definitely say I wear the hijab to privatize my body,” she says. “This is who we are and this is our lifestyle and our bodies are not up for debate.” 

Emphasizing Muslims' achievements

Hassani is working toward her third university degree — she also holds degrees in sociology and criminology — a pursuit she also views as part of her Muslim faith.

“The prophet Muhammad and his progeny constantly emphasized the importance of curiosity and education for both men and women equally, so I would like to think I’m following Islamic teachings,” she says.

It was also a belief in education and science that inspired Zafar to establish the MAX Gala awards. He says that in the torrent of negative messages about Islam, many Muslims are also unaware of the value of their own achievements. As well as improving how non-Muslim Canadians view Muslims, he wants to encourage Muslims to excel. 

“My father always taught me [Islam] is not just about ritual. It’s about being a good person and excelling at your profession,” he says. 

Just one year in, the idea is catching on. This year, Zafar has moved the awards ceremony from the Ritz-Carlton to one of Toronto’s largest concert halls, where organizers plan to welcome more than 1,000 people.

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