Redefining Citizenship

The Muslim-Canadian experience raises uncomfortable national questions

That Pesky Muslim Problem, Again” reads the headline of an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education blog on the day I sit down to write this review. It struck me that the headline aptly encapsulates the sentiment that the book Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada, edited by Jasmin Zine, is trying to counter: Muslims in Canada are not pesky or a problem, but provide an opportunity to expand notions of citizenship and the meaning of the multicultural nation.

Islam in the Hinterlands is a volume of essays written by self-identified Muslim scholars (only one of the authors is not Muslim) that is organized around four thematic lines of inquiry including gender, media, education and security. The volume is well conceived and written and is a considerate reflection on Muslims in Canada.

There are three main messages that emerge throughout the book that merit further discussion here: Muslim women in Canada are politically and socially engaged in their communities, Canadian media accounts on Islam are ill informed and deliberations on multiculturalism in Canada are commonly caught in a problematic “us versus them” binary. I will briefly look at each in turn, but focus particular attention on the question of multiculturalism in Canada.


The Engagement of Muslim Women

Islam in the Hinterlands makes a strong case that Muslim women are politically and socially engaged people. The volume argues that Muslim women are, on the whole, socially and politically involved in their communities, from working within the non-governmental sector to running for political office. It is a myth that ethnic minorities are less politically active than others, and the same is true for Muslims. Muslim women, while less likely to be working formally, focus their attention primarily on making change in informal sectors. Muslim women are “deeply engaged in informal-sector politics” and are “politically engaged with society via their involvement as activists in civil society.” As contributor Katherine Bullock states, more research is needed in order to assess the scope and effect of their involvement.

Muslim women are also working for social and political change in Canada by taking on and critiquing certain facets of Islam directly. In Chapter 5, “Marketing Islamic Reform: Dissidence and Dissonance in a Canadian Context,” Meena Sharify-Funk compares two books detailing personal perspectives on Muslim communities written by Muslim women. One book tries to reform Islamic interpretation and practice and the other challenges Islamic beliefs and doctrines. If we can separate the content of the books and Sharify-Funk’s perspective on them for one moment, it strikes me that the chapter demonstrates how two Muslim women are challenging their communities in a very direct, forthright manner. Their actions demonstrate both gumption and engagement and, even if we do not agree with their method or approach, this should be recognized. Their actions help show that it is incorrect to paint a general picture of Muslim women as meek and afraid to speak their minds. In fact, numerous studies in recent years suggest that quite the opposite is true of many Muslim women.1

Importantly, though, the initiative of these authors is not the central point of Sharify-Funk’s chapter. She argues persuasively that their approaches are ultimately unhelpful and unenlightened due to their lack of critical purchase. Their stories are personal and do not necessarily reflect the community experience as a whole. Individual and anecdotal accounts of life inside a faith community provide one important perspective in the comparative analysis, with the caveat that when such stories involve Muslims, these accounts are often taken as general fact and readily and uncritically accepted as “the way it is in Islam.”

An Ill-Informed Media

Popular media accounts about Islam are ill informed. “Muslims remain on the margins as demonic, abject, threatening, and invasive Others belonging to the mysterious, fanatical, premodern, and somewhat ruthless Islamic faith.” This is the conclusion drawn by Yasmin Jiwani after analyzing media coverage in two of Canada’s largest daily newspapers—The Globe and Mail and the National Post—in the week following September 11, 2001. By concentrating on the media coverage during that extraordinary week, this might be construed as a skewed picture. On the whole, however, the argument is convincingly advanced in this chapter (and in at least three others in the book) that the popular media uses a simplistic binary to situate Muslims into very specific roles. Depending on the topic, Muslims are cast as being anti-citizen, anti-nation or anti-woman. On reading these chapters, one gets the impression that we have not advanced very far into genuine multiculturalism if a Muslim scholar, writing about how Muslims are viewed in our society, must come to these conclusions.

But maybe we have come a little further. I would suggest, based on other material in this collection, that we have. In a subsequent chapter discussing the CBC television show Little Mosque on the Prairie, the reader is given a different view of how the popular media represents Muslims. On air since 2007, Little Mosque shows Muslims as complex, varied, empowered and funny people. The show breaks common stereotypes in every episode. Thus, Aliaa Dakroury argues, the CBC has, in a concerted way, tried to malign prevailing labels and stereotypes by confronting them head on, and is using sitcom humour as a medium. Perhaps, one may conclude, it is not the entire media world in Canada that portrays Muslims in a negative light … only the overwhelming majority of it.

The “Us versus Them” Double Standard

Deliberations on multiculturalism in Canada are caught in a problematic “us versus them” binary. Islam in the Hinterlands is also a work that highlights and navigates the flaws of Canadian multiculturalism, revealing in thoughtful ways the historical forces, conscientious policy decisions and unequal power relationships that are at the root of why Muslim Canadians continue to be treated and labelled as not-quite-Canadian, even though they are. Chapters 9 and 10, which take up the security discussions in Canada and resulting security laws in the wake of 9/11, make this abundantly clear. The title of Chapter 10 says it plainly: “The Anti-terrorism Act and National Security, Safeguarding the Nation against Uncivilized Muslims.” The point of the chapter is also apparent: in a post–9/11 world, the Muslim man was the enemy of security and threatened a vision of nationalism that allowed for inclusivity. According to the authors, multiculturalism and equal citizenship would have to outwait this era because the security of the country came first.

This is what is at the heart of the book’s critique: the way multiculturalism, its policy and actors is engaged and operates in Canada, excluding rather than including Muslims from realizing truly equal citizenship. Even when push does not come to shove, but especially when it does, Muslims are too often portrayed as “subaltern citizens.”

What is not clear to me is if this vision of multiculturalism allows for a national project that puts at its heart a meaningful definition of what it means to be Canadian. Statehood is, after all, the way we have chosen to organize and protect ourselves, so it would seem reasonable to ask all of a country’s inhabitants to commit to, in continuously contested and differentiated ways, a certain vision of citizenship. The tricky bit is, of course, how one balances and demonstrates respect for varied cultures while maintaining a strong national framework.

The issue that arises is that the word “meaningful” in this context might come awfully close to “contingent,” a concept advanced with a negative connotation in the introduction of the book: “Multiculturalism is a contingent form of politics that hinges on the ability of minoritized groups to render themselves ‘citizenship-worthy’ through the performance of dominant ideals, values, and practices.” The critique, as I understand it, is that citizenship has been littered with lofty norms to which all potential citizens must show allegiance—including, for example, a certain understanding of equality and liberty. These norms, when they are translated into practice, can (and do) become overly constrictive, creating more exclusions than inclusions. Add to that assumptions made about Muslim communities in particular—about the treatment of women, for example—and the situation becomes especially problematic. Exhibit one, according to the editors, is the new Canadian citizenship guide entitled “Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship.”

Revised in 2009 under the direction of then minister for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, the 65-page guide includes a section highlighting the equality of men and women in Canada. It states:

In Canada, men and women are equal under the law. Canada’s openness and generosity do not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, “honour killings,” female genital mutilation, forced marriage or other gender-based violence. Those guilty of these crimes are severely punished under Canada’s criminal laws.

This section of the guide is portrayed by the book’s editor as highly problematic on various fronts: “This statement disturbingly reinscribes the racist civilizational discourse of colonialism and social Darwinism that branded non-Western cultures as inherently ‘barbaric’.”

The wording is certainly unrefined at best and it is vexing that the government chooses to target certain cultural practices over others (practices not uniquely associated with Islam, it should be noted—six percent of Canadians are in situations of spousal abuse, according to the 2011 “Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile” produced by Statistics Canada). The point Jasmin Zine is making is that the type of language used in the guide reflects an “us versus them” binary that is carried through, and reflected onto, immigrants and citizens, ultimately rendering them less-than. Especially in times of emergency, this double standard becomes more stressed.

Hinterlands points to a concern that citizenship, particularly when it comes to Muslims, depends on a predefined set of ideas that people are reluctant to change, which are not recognized as having an import value—or bias for that matter—of their own, and that serve to exclude other citizens. In this way, Zine argues, citizenship is contingent.

On the one hand, having a predefined set of ideas that undergird the country is a good thing. A society based on human rights norms and forms of democratic action has increased resources on which to cooperatively negotiate the shared values that delimit our national character. From this perspective, contingency may be helpful in upholding and fostering a set of shared norms. On this score, perhaps Kenney might have looked up a page from our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms and taken a human rights stance on gender in the citizenship guide by simply stating that Canadians strive for all forms of equality, period.

On the other hand, if these predefined ideas become too rigid or serve as a discriminatory tool of exclusion, it might be time to rethink how we define and enact them; when citizenship becomes too narrow to realize its own evolution, we may wish to reconsider its meaning. Two problems with contingent citizenship, for example, are that it may be prone to ready political manipulation (as in the case of the citizenship guide) and that it borders on valuing certain people more highly than others.

The other point often forgotten in these debates is that once anyone accedes to Canadian citizenship, his or her concerns become our collective unease. While female genital mutilation may have been initially imported as a practice, it becomes ours once Canadian citizens are affected. This is how cultures change and norms are rejected and adopted in common parlance and practice. It happens all the time. After all, apart from our Native populations, what phenomenon or idea is not a cultural hybrid or imported? Multiculturalism certainly is, and maybe liberalism too.

Muslims in Canada are providing an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a citizen and Islam in the Hinterlands is giving us some clues as to how to do this. Could it be that the way we have thought about citizenship and multiculturalism needs significant change? Perhaps it is time to move toward a notion of citizenship where being Canadian can allow even Muslims to see themselves included at all times.

  1. See, for example, Najwa Raouda’s The Feminine Voice of Islam: Muslim Women in America (Victoria Press, 2008), Amina Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (Oneworld, 2006), Des filles comme les autres : au-delà du foulard by Alma Lévy and Lila Lévy (Éditions La Découverte, 2004) and Roxanne D. Marcotte’s “Muslim Women in Canada: Autonomy and Empowerment” in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs