Pan Canadian Essay Competition - First Prize Winner - Jasim Butt
Effective and Peaceful Ways to Counter Religious Discrimination in Canada: a Muslim Perspective
By Jasim Butt - Calgary AB
Since 9/11, incidents of religion-based hate crimes in Canada have experienced a significant upsurge (Ogan, 2013). Due to such occurrences, religious diversity has become a new and growing field of research that aims to identify the trends, problems, and concerns of individuals and groups that experience religious discrimination (www.ohrc.on.ca). A 2016 poll by Forum Research™ found that 28% of Canadians disliked Muslims, compared to 16% who disliked persons identifying as Indigenous. It was also found that on average, 4 out of 10 Canadian adults have ill-disposed feelings about other ethno-religious minorities (41%), and this is most common in Quebec (57%) and among Conservatives (57%) (Forum Research™, 2016).
Hate crimes with anti-Islamic motivations have been greatly exacerbated as a result of increased politicised tensions between the U.S. and Muslim-majority nation-states. According to the Pew Research Center, assaults against muslims in 2016 had surpassed annual numbers seen in 2001, with 50% of interviewed Muslims finding it comparitively more difficult to live in the U.S.: “In addition, half of the U.S. Muslim adults (50%) say that in recent years it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S., with 10% of this group attributing this to discrimination, racism and prejudice.” (Kishi, 2017)
Another contributing factor for rising rates of anti-Muslim hate crimes is the dramatic influx of Syrian refugees into the Western World since 2014, which has spawned an increase in discriminatory incidents against identifiable Muslims (Fleras, 2014, 224). The term ‘Islamophobia’ has been coined in recent years as a motivation for anti-Islamic sentiment in the western world, reflecting a growing problem that jeopardizes the human rights of Muslims worldwide, including the Charter-guaranteed right to religious freedom for Muslims in Canada. The increasing rates of religious discrimination provides the risk that hateful and xenophobic perspectives can permeate the systemic framework of Canada, much like anti-Indigenous perspectives once did; only within the past two decades were residential schools phased out, closing the chapter on Canada’s decades-long struggle to systematically convert and assimilate Indegenous youth into Christian-Canadian society (www.CBC.ca). Thus, ingrained animosity felt towards minorities seems to be a repetitive theme in Canadian history, media, politics, and culture, and efforts should be made to change this recurrent view. In this paper, I will explore the chronic problems minorities face in Canada as a result of religious discrimination, including the negative effects of discrimination on public/mental health, political representation of visible minorities, and perceived public image of ethno-religious minorities. There is a need for peaceful and effective measures that serve to educate and connect communities of individuals suffering from religious discrimination, and it is the responsibility of entire communities (and levels of government) to protect their fellow Canadians’ right to religious freedom.
Religious discrimination has been found to be a concerning factor for public and mental health in Western communities and populations. An Australian study in 2020 identified religious discrimination to be a significant cause of health issues among resettled refugees, with participants’ reflections indicating a significant negative impact on mental health in particular (Zierch et al. 2020). Another 2019 study conducted in Canada found that irrespective of religious affiliation, harm to the “self-rated mental health” of people experiencing religious discrimination is evident in Canada across all minority religious groups, and there is a need to separate non-Christian groups into distinct groups in studies to better understand the problems they face (Wu et al 2019, 17). The recent publication dates of these studies indicate that the rise of religious discrimination is a relatively new field for public health research and has the potential to grow with the rise of ethno-religious discrimination since 9/11. The inability of immigrants, refugees, or any individual to access healthcare facilities and receive physical and mental health treatment as a result of discrimination or any other reason leads to the inability to receive care in accordance with physical, spiritual, emotional, and financial needs. Solutions in the form of community, city-wide, and provincial health promotion programs engage, empower, and unite minority groups facing discrimination. The negative effects of religious discrimination on public health can be promoted in the form of programs with a focus on mental and physical health for specific ethno-religious groups, much like the Government of Canada’s ‘Rural Canadians’ health program (www.canada.ca). It would be recommended to create and fund additional programs that are inclusive of the many minority groups present in Canada, especially those with rising rates of health crises as a result of discrimination. Allowing such individuals better access to public healthcare allows for minority groups to be less severely affected by various epidemics such as the mental health crisis as a result.
Another problem faced as a result of religious discrimination, among other types of discrimination in Canada is the underrepresentation of visible ethno-religious minorities in politics at a municipal, provincial, and federal level. Despite being a multicultural society, political positions held by visible minorities are uncommon in Canadian elected and governing bodies; most notably in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Canada’s three most multicultural cities (Bird, 2005, 450). Without representation, ethno-religious minorities undergoing the process of integrating into Canadian society would find it difficult to access social programs or state support systems in a timely and efficient manner. Lack of representation also restricts minorities from acquiring the resources they typically need, such as religious and spiritual spaces, and thus allows minority groups to feel segregated from society and discriminated against. Without a “common denominator” between majority and minority groups in the form of leadership and representation in society, xenophobic and discriminatory behaviours can arise due to ethno-religious groups feeling as though they have no state-sponsored support to protect them or promote their interests. Like the aforementioned public health issues stemming from religious discrimination, promoting the representation of visible minority candidates in municipal, provincial, and federal political bodies would offer the chance for victims of religious discrimination to have their voice heard in an increasingly politicized country. For a country following a multicultural model, Canadian politics should be more accepting and encouraging of religious minorities (particularly those that are the subject to discrimination) in all branches of government. This solution offers the chance to have the needs and concerns of specific Canadian ethno-religious groups to be addressed, supported, and fulfilled.
Another widespread, persisting problem faced by religious minorities in Canada is the negative image of religious communities in the media and public. Every year since 9/11, the Muslim-North American identity continues to be demoralized and ridiculed in the media, and reactionary opinions as a result greatly contribute to hate crimes and cases of religious discrimination against Muslims. Personally, as a Canadian-born Muslim raised in Ontario, I found that in public school I would have to answer, counter, and debate claims about Islam made by classmates that were bias and uneducated about the religion, and thus my religious identity continually felt shrouded by the negative stigma pushed by the media at the time. Every year, me and my fellow Muslim-Canadian youths would be quizzed by classmates about sensitive, misunderstood buzzwords such as “sharia” and “jihad”, mixed with the antagonistic use of media-popularized terms such as “terrorist” or “taliban”. It comes as no surprise that a study of Muslim youths in Canadian schools named peer pressure, racism, and Islamophobia as the major challenges most commonly brought up by students being interviewed (Zine, 2001), and from my experience, it seems that not much has changed since. A solution to these challenges taken up by the children of Muslim-Canadians would be to explore more ways to target, engage, and educate Canadian youth about cultural differences and ethno-religious diversity, and for religious minorities and non-minorities alike to foster supportive and inclusive households with a specific aim to achieve a peaceful understanding and familiarity with the greater Canadian and North American population. Along with the aforementioned solutions and initiatives, uniting the communities of a city or province through programs and campaigns in public schools allows for subsequent generations of religious minorities to have a multicultural network that can support them before mass media or state-sponsored institutions will, and thus promotes a more collective and personal sense of belonging in a multicultural society.
In conclusion, solutions in the form of public/mental health promotion for religious minorities, representation of visible minorities in electoral and governing bodies, and promotion of religious inclusivity in public schools are all effective and easy to implement at a city-wide, provincial, or even national level. There is a moral imperative to promote the fact that it is not acceptable to ignore or accept discrimination of any kind, regardless of whether such incidents of discrimination are in violation of any law. Such solutions require the coordination, organization, and expression of ethno-religious minority groups in order to combat rising rates of religious discrimination in Canada and North America.
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