Canadian and Muslim

by Daniel Aldana Cohen

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Shakil Choudhury, a filmmaker and community educator, immigrated to Canada from Pakistan when he was 5 years old. He spent his adolescence crisscrossing Ontario with his family, following the fortunes of his father, a family doctor. It was not always easy. Once, when his father took over a practice from a retiring doctor, two-thirds of the patients left: They preferred doctors with more familiar names. Displays of racism — some subtle, some less so — were so commonplace that by the time Mr. Choudhury became an adult, studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies, he realized he had internalized it.

He returned to Pakistan for an extended visit, a research trip for a book project, but also, more important, to build his cultural and personal pride. In 2000, not long after he returned to Toronto, Mr. Choudhury published “the brown book,” a collection of stories about South Asian Muslims in Toronto and Lahore. He has since used the book as an educational tool in antiracism workshops in cities around the world.

Shakil Choudhury is one of more than 750,000 Canadian Muslims, a diverse mix of South Asians, Arabs and North Africans, who defy generalization. The majority of Canada’s Muslims live in the province of Ontario (with the greatest concentration in the Toronto area), though there are also communities in Calgary, Edmonton, Montréal and Vancouver.

Officially, the Canadian government is committed to multiculturalism, which it enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1971.

Rather than fostering a cultural melting pot, Canada embraced cultural and ethnic pluralism. In theory, one’s linguistic or ethnic heritage would have no bearing on “Canadian-ness.”

The reality of the immigration experience for Mr. Choudhury and others, however, has been difficult. And after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, Canadian Muslims came under increased, often hostile, scrutiny.

Some of the harassment has been official: In 2003, more than 20 young Muslims were arrested on terrorism charges, and when these charges collapsed they were deported for petty immigration violations. But mostly, it is the barbs and incivility from their fellow citizens that have drawn the most complaints. The negative attention prompted the Canadian Arab Federation to assert that Canadian Muslims were being subjected to “psychological internment.”

Mr. Choudhury is part of a new generation of Canadian Muslims who are trying to bring their country closer to its multicultural ideals. Others include Salima Bhimani, who chronicles the experiences of Muslim women, and Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui.

They challenge stereotypes with nuanced portraits of their own communities, while engaging non-Muslim Canadian society as equal partners. They are also asking their own communities to resist self-segregation. By striving toward multiculturalism, they are also transforming it.

Census documents from the late 19th century first record the presence of “Mohametans” in Canada. By the early 1900’s, unskilled Muslim workers had trickled into the country to work the railways and mines. In 1938, the first Canadian mosque was built in Edmonton. At the time, there were only about 700 Muslims in the country.

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Tags: Muslim Islam Multiculturalism Assimilation Diversity