Are Muslims discriminated against in Canada Since September 2001 ?

Conflicts around places of worship

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4.4. Conflicts around places of worship


The request for a space of Muslim worship was not the subject of conflict during the 1970-80's when many places of worship were opened by Muslim immigrants arriving from the Middle East and Asia. In contrast, during the 1990's, conflicts appeared in Toronto and Montreal and some are still unresolved. In Toronto, a highly publicized conflict took place around the opening of a place for worship in East York in 1995 and, in 1998-99, the construction of a dome above a Pakistani mosque provoked debates and disputes (Isin and Siemiatycki, 2002). To illustrate these conflicts, particular cases in Montreal are presentend.

Since 1995, an insiduous conflict has taken place in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, a well-to-do English-speaking former municipality in the residential areas West of the island. The municipality was and is still particularly hostile to the opening of a mosque. The Azzahra International Foundation, a multiethnic Shiite organization, wanted to build a mosque and a cultural centre in 1995. In spite of the favourable opinion of the city's Planning Service, the City Council changed the zoning in 1997 in order to prevent its construction. The project was finally abandoned in 1998. In 1999, the same organization bought a vacant synagogue in the city and opened a cultural and religious centre. It did not obtain a licence from the municipality even though the site is zoned for religious worship and the municipality was aware of the center's existence and activities (Daher, 2002). In 2001, because of the financial difficulties resulting from mostly people's fears about donating to Muslim organizations following the September 2001 attacks, the Azzahra International Foundation sold the building to a Sunnite organization, the Canadian Islamic Center. The new center has still not received legal authorization to operate from the municipal ty.

The conflict has been more abrupt in the case of the creation of an Ismaeli cultural and religious centre (Jamat Khana). With a capacity to host from 800 to 1000 worshippers, this space would have been built on a piece of land in the center of the former municipality of Brossard (south of Montreal Island). The project was blocked in August 2002 under pressure from 506 residents. They signed a petition opposing a zoning change proposal and asking for the creation of a public park. The zoning change meant that taxes on 40 percent of the land would be imposed. The zoning in effect for the past 40 years has never been modified and allowed for 100% tax exemption. Here are some of the arguments and counter-arguments that were put forward {La Presse, Forum, Monday August 12, 2002) : "I do not like to live with different people. That does not make me a monster, nor a cretinous : only a different person" ; "I oppose this mosque project : the site does not lend itself to it. In my opinion, its commercial value is too high to be used for religious purposes, whether the religion is Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, etc." ; "According to opponents, the land must have a neutral projection and must not be used for religious purposes. Why ? Could it be because of the image such a center would give to Brossard which is nevertheless a largely multiethnic city ? The argument does not make any sense". Because of the misunderstanding between residents and the City Council on the technicalities of zoning changes and the harsh public debate that took place, the Council issued a three-month moratorium on the question. The purchase option of the land by the Muslim association expired before the end of the moratorium, and the seller refused to extend it. The association abandoned the project. There was no follow-up on the idea of building a public park. Let us recall that the Ismaili association has established religious centers in other municipalities, without opposition for twenty years (Mount-Royal, Laval, Sherbrooke, Granby, Quebec) during the 1990's.

Additionally, although an extension project submitted in 1999 by Makka Al Mukarramah was approved by the advisory City Planning Council in Pierrefonds, it has not yet received the permit by the City Council which now argues about traffic problems caused by the arrival of some more 250 worshippers. Another extension project, that of the mosque Al-Islam in the city of St. Lawrence, is under way but since it was conceived in 1988, it was authorized several years ago. These cases show a new opposition to the opening of Muslim places of worship since the mid 1990's but not obviously related to the September 11 2001 events. This trend remains to be examined in the cases of other Canadian cities.

5. The Foundation

of negative stereotypes


Several dynamics explain the predominance of anti-Muslim stereotypes in Canada including three that are specific to this country. The first one is similar in other countries. It emerges from the negative images spread in the West about Islam, which are obvious in Canadian media, in cases of conflicts about religious accommodations and in opinion polls, that is the assimilation of Islam to terrorism, the view of Islam as an intolerant, even violent, religion that is a source of conflicts and women oppression. In this respect, Canadian media coverage of Islam remains deficient and no progress is perceptible since the 1990s if we take into consideration the studies conducted by B. Abu-Laban and K.Karim.

Karim (2000) described how Canadian media reporting of terrorist actions carried out by Muslims during the years 1980-90 reinforced negative stereotypes, and Abu-Laban and Abu-Laban (1991) concluded the same about the coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. A second dynamic results from the history of the Muslim population, which is very different from that of people of European origin and other important immigrant minorities in Canada. The recent arrival of the majority of Muslims during the 1990s explains their quasi-absence from the political arena and among the media personnel as well as their weak political pressure. These are facts that allow the development of a stereotype of Canadian Muslims as being insular, poor, indifferent to Canadian society and more concerned with life in their country of origin. Ethnic, national and religious fragmentation combined with the absence of federal programmes to support Muslim associations during the 1990s also explain the weak community structure and political mobilization. These deficiencies prevent this population from benefiting, as a community, from favourable dispositions to religious minorities, such as the legal obligation of reasonable accommodations, the permanent invocation of the merits of multiculturalism policy by the political authorities and the recourse to tribunals in cases of discrimination. Another peculiar dynamic characterizes Quebec society where more than a fourth of Muslims are concentrated. Public debates on Islam are more present because of several factors that feed frictions.

A militant secular movement adheres to the anti-religious French interpretation of laïcité and considers religiosity as an archaic cultural trait. Thus, the principle of laïcité 17 was recently invoked to justify the refusal to grant a prayer room for Muslim students at École de Technologie Supérieure (, March 11, 2003). An ethno-nationalist movement sees in Islam and any marked minority difference a threat to Quebec national identity rooted in the Christian religion. There are also influential feminist movements which are hostile to Islam. In 1997, Law 118 proposed courses of "culture of the religions of the world" beginning at the elementary level. The Catholic Movement and evangelical groups strongly mobilized against this proposal under the guise of the need to teach pupils "their religion", that is to say the Christian religion, before presenting other religions to them. They won their battle to some extent : the courses will be offered only at high school level IV in September 2005. Besides, let us not forget that despite the secularization of the school boards in 1997, the Law on Public Education continues to make provisions for teaching Catholic and Protestant religions in public schools.

Furthermore, public opinion in Quebec generally recognizes Palestinians' right to a State and three populations concerned with the debate on Islam are strongly present : Arabs, including people from the Maghreb, Pakistanis and Jews 18. The tensions between activists from these groups are high and led to confrontations in the premises of Concordia University 19 about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result of these facts or traits, the debate on the Middle East situation and Islam is more present in the public sphere in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. In English Canada, the debate on Islam has rather given free reign to proponents of the reduction of the number of immigrants and refugees' control. Also, polemics surrounding Islam put face to face journalists, media owners and members of the Jewish community. The latter have for instance blamed the CBC, the national television network, for calling the members of Hamas as extremist militants and not as terrorists and also for ignoring the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in Canada and elsewhere in the West (Schlesinger, 2002 ; The Gazette, 2003 ; Block, 2002 ; Spector, 2003).

The majority of the Jewish community views the Palestinian struggle as a deadly threat to Israel and equate Islam with terrorism. Also, for the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Jewish identity and the State of Israel are one.

Finally, a fourth dynamic, a crucial one in our view, is the geographical proximity of the United States, the number one political, military and economic ally 20. On the one hand, the US is the source for much Canadian media, in particular the anglophone media (Karim, 1996, 2000), of news on the events in the Middle East and the fight against terrorism (Maybee, 1980 ; Karim, 2000 : 14). On the other hand, since September 2001, the United States has exerted pressure on Canada so that its policies regarding immigration control, political asylum and security, as well as international positions, fall in line with American ones. They particularly insist on border control, the surveillance of asylum seekers, refugees and the Muslim population. They accuse Canada of not doing enough in this regard. Besides, the federal government tends to remain silent on any issue related to this population. The importance of not stigmatizing Muslims was publicly declared by politicians of all levels of government shortly after the attacks of September 2001 but since then there has been little out-reach by the federal government towards associations representing Canadians of Muslim heritage and the government has paid little attention to the disclosure of the discrimination against Muslims. The Prime Minister of Canada visited an Ottawa mosque on September 21st 2001 "to reaffirm that Islam has nothing to do with the massacre prepared and executed by the terrorists", and on November 15th, 2001, he declared in Parliament that it was necessary to devote effort to fighting discrimination as much as, if not more than, terrorism. Since then, like other members of the government, he has remained silent on this question, except for raising a controversy in the fall of 2002 by declaring that the policies of humiliating Arab countries could be the cause of the terrorist attacks in September 2001.

The 296 respondents in a CAIR-CAN survey during the summer of 2002 expressed their appreciation of the Prime Minister's messages as well as the similar ones by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and Secretary of State, but they also criticized the Prime Minister for "his lack of clear actions against the wave of Anti-Muslim hate." About three quarters rated his interaction with the Muslim community as poor or below average (Press release CAIR-CAN, September 5, 2002). Examples of indifference by public authorities were described by the R. Khouri president of the Canadian-Arab Federation :

Why did the Justice department, after agreeing to work with us on 11 specific concerns, then walk away ? Why did the solicitor-general, after expressing empathy with our plight, then refuse to help us monitor abuses of the Anti -Terrorism Act by law enforcement agencies ? Why did the minister of foreign affairs lift the travel advisory to the U.S. when Arab and Muslim Canadians traveling there continue to face humiliation and are subjected to treatment normally reserved for charged criminals ? Why did the Ontario public safety minister condone the racial profiling taking place at the U.S. border against his own citizens ? Why is it that the mayor of Canada's largest city, whose logo is "Diversity is Our Strength," never spoke out against the victimization of Arabs and Muslims post-Sept. 11 ? (Khouri at the Conference "Policing In A Multicultural Society", Ottawa, 2003).

Khouri then concluded :

By and large, Arab and Muslim Canadians were left on their own, having to explain themselves and prove their loyalty ; defend their religion and demonstrate its goodness ; and at times hide their ethnicity and deny their heritage in a bid to escape scrutiny.



During the weeks following September 11, 2001, hate crimes against Muslims increased in Canada to subside in 2002 and after, as in any other Western country except the United States. Hate crimes took mostly the form of insults and violent attacks against persons were rare in Canada, contrary to other Western countries. Then, ethnic profiling by police and intelligence authorities, negative cover by some of the influential anglophone media, and negative attitudes by 30% to 45% of the Canadian population (depending on the questions raised by the polls) result in a high level of harm and fear for the Muslim population. And unfavourable conditions of access to the labor market add their effects in the case of Muslim newcomers to Canada. Positive facts must also be pointed. The passing of the Anti-terrorist Act gave way to a public debate, measures aimed at establishing or reactivating bonds between the Muslim communities and municipal authorities were adopted in a number of cities, and the majority of Canadians did not share negative stereotypes of Muslims. Moreover, no Canadian political party called for the ostracism of Muslims, nor demanded, contrary to a segment of public opinion, a limit to immigration from Muslim countries, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) took issue with discrimination against Muslims, in particular federal MPs Joe Comartin (Windsor) and Svend Robinson (Burnaby-Douglas).

But, if these facts were reassuring, they were not tangible enough to counter the strong disillusionment which has settled among people of Muslim heritage regarding their status within the Canadian society since September 2001. For example, 61% of the respondents to CAIR-CAN 2002 survey said "they experienced kindness or support from friends or colleagues of other faiths" and 60% said "they experienced bias or discrimination since the 9/11 terrorist attacks". But 33% said that their lives changed for the worst, felt disliked by fellow Canadians and were concerned about the safety of themselves and of their families (CAIR-CAN release, September 5, 2002). In another poll in the spring of 2002, 41% of the 253 respondents of Arab origin indicated that Canadians "do not like Muslims" and that 84.6% that Canadians think Muslims are violent (Canadian Arab Federation, 2002 : 11).

These findings call into question the Canadian principle of respect and promotion of cultural pluralism. If an ethno-cultural group becomes the clear target of discriminatory practices and relatively widespread hostile attitudes and these policies prove ineffective in reducing these discriminatory acts, then what is the reality of this message and its goal of equity and equality for all, especially in a country said to be the heardcore of multiculturalism ? These findings also raise questions about the way discrimination is treated by public organizations. If no public policy can erase racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia, it could mitigate their effects not only by strong symbolics gestures but also by empowering the victimized groups and persons, helping them to defend themselves, to organize coalitions, to learn about their rights and access to judicial bodies, and by building relationships with their representative organizations. None of this has been done extensively in the case of the Muslim population since 2001. The government could also pay attention to the ignorance of Islam and of other minority religions as to the extent of negative stereotypes of Muslims among Canadians. During the 1980's, through the Multiculturalism program, it launched numerous initiatives to educate the Canadian population about the new cultural diversity created by immigration from non-European countries, several of which were directed towards the media personel. It also launched multiple researches on specific cultural communities. No initiative of such an importance has been launched in the case of Islam despite the increase of the Muslim population in Canada.



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