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13 November 2011

How welcome are Muslims in Canada?

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By Ayman Oweida

Besides the call for revolution, one common slogan in the recent Middle East uprisings is "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is the greatest." Add to these chants the recent declaration by the Libyan national transition council that Libya will abide by Islamic law, and most recently the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, and you can understand why many in the West are alarmed about the rise of Islam. Is this alarm a legitimate concern, or is it Islamophobia?

In a recent survey by Léger Marketing for the Association of Canadian Studies in Montreal, Canadians were asked how positive they feel about different groups. Muslims received the lowest ranking. The results echoed the findings of a previous survey for the association, this one marking 10 years since 9/11, which found that a majority of Canadians believe that conflicts between Western nations and the Muslim world are "irreconcilable."

Muslims continue to struggle to integrate safely and openly into Canadian society. Even Canadian-born Muslims find it difficult to be Muslim; growing up as a Muslim here isn't always easy. Most kids and teenagers are afraid of expressing their Islamic identity, and thus end up living a kind of doublestandard life filled with psychological dilemmas and religious and moral sacrifices.

Whether it's a girl wearing a hijab, a guy praying during lunch hour at school, or simply having a name such as Osama or Jihad, Muslims are often intimidated about expressing themselves and the values they cherish. I remember as a student having to pray at the bottom end of stairwells during lunch hour, since the school wouldn't provide space for this purpose for a few minutes, even when all the classrooms were free.

Intolerant attitudes don't end when one becomes an adult. I was sitting in a public park in Montreal over the summer with my wife and two children, which was enough to attract the attention of a passerby who held a cellphone and pretended to speak to someone about the contamination of the park with Muslims. He spoke loudly enough that we could hear him. Finally, the language became so foul that we left.

In the last few years, Canadians have been exposed to a wide range of negativity about Islam. There was a proposal to bar public services being made available to anyone who wore a niqab in Quebec, bans on girls wearing the hijab while playing sports, and most notably, the passing of a "code of conduct" by the municipality of Hérouxville that prohibited the stoning of women! More recently, Ontario schools were under fire for allowing Muslims to pray at school.

Islamophobia is harmful to all Canadians, irrespective of their faith. Muslims form an integral and constructive part of Canadian society. Take a close look at your daily dealings and see how often they include interactions with Muslims: your visit to the hospital, meeting a professor at university or classmates in school, your ride in a taxicab, your order from the shawarma restaurant, or passing a local mosque as you're driving.

Islam carries deeply rooted respect, understanding and love for others regardless of their faith or ideology. The Quran clearly states: "There's no compulsion in religion." Islam also makes it clear that "the best of people are those who are most beneficial to others."

The rise of Islamophobia means immediate steps need to be taken to educate people about Islam and Muslims in Canada.

The causes of Islamophobia must be addressed, and clear guidelines formulated to identify and put an end to Islamophobic actions. Only when this happens will the fears and concerns that we manufacture fade away, replaced with the respect and freedom that we hope for.

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