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n our increasingly secular society we still place a huge value on freedom of religion. But are we paying enough attention to freedom from religion? (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
n our increasingly secular society we still place a huge value on freedom of religion. But are we paying enough attention to freedom from religion? (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

The new Islam comes with a reluctance to label orthodoxy Add to ...

Aisha Raja is rarely hassled on the University of Toronto's downtown campus or at home in diverse Markham, Ont. It's the space in-between - she takes a subway, light rail, and bus to and from school - that is troublesome. When she commutes, she's not a political science student, a campus activist or a tea store employee. She is reduced to a young woman in a hijab.

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"I've had random people yell really rude things sometimes, like, 'Oh, you bloody Muslims!' and you obviously can't engage with those kind of people in that time," said Ms. Raja, the 20-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants.

Her experiences indicate that, for some young Canadian Muslims, an "us and them" mentality persists in their home country.

A 2006 Environics poll of 2,045 Canadians bears this out, finding that of those who had rarely or never had contact with Muslims, 49 per cent held a negative view of them. The large majority (70 per cent) of those who were "often" in contact with Muslims had positive views of them.

But regardless of what other Canadians think of them, it's getting harder to ignore Islam, and young Muslims, in Canada. Islam is Canada's fastest-growing major religion. According to a Statistics Canada estimate, the Muslim population will soar to 2.9 million by 2031 from its 2006 base of 884,000 adherents.

A population shift alone may not be enough to close the gap between the solitudes. Ms. Raja is optimistic that attitudes will change, but said the responsibility also lies with her and her fellow Muslims.

"I guess people gravitate towards their own community, but for me, I feel like it's extremely important to engage with the larger Toronto community," she said.

High-profile stories, including the Toronto 18 terrorism bust, the murder of Mississauga, Ont., teenager Aqsa Parvez by her father and brother, and tales of radical youth travelling overseas on jihadist missions, have left many non-Muslims with a skewed understanding of the religion - a faith whose diversity, especially within Canada, is immense, with differences across sect, ethnocultural or national origin, and levels of adherence.

The same narratives also make some Muslims pessimistic about engaging in community work while representing themselves as Muslims, Rizwan Mohammad said. "They felt almost like, 'We're fighting a losing battle.'"

In 2009, Mr. Mohammad set out on a two-year cross-Canada project with the Canadian Council for Muslim Women to better connect young Muslims with their communities. The more than 800 Muslim youth who participated in workshops shared one gripe in particular: their portrayal in the media as an isolated, alienated and - in the case of females - oppressed group.

Although Sana Rokhsefat serves on the University of Toronto's student union, takes karate classes and wears the same trendy clothes as her peers, she still must battle those who equate her decision to wear the hijab with patriarchal forces in Islam.

She said her Iranian-born parents were surprised when she chose to wear the headscarf in junior high, so soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There's nothing about me that is oppressed. To have people think that about me is very disheartening," said Ms. Rokhsefat, 20.

Dispelling the widely held belief that Canadian and Islamic values clash can be a burden for Muslim youth: they often have to correct both their parents and their peers.

Adam Koshin's Somalia-born parents enrolled him in Islamic schools in Calgary and Regina until he was 13 because they feared he'd "meet the wrong people, start doing the wrong stuff" at a secular public school, he said.

Now 15, with a circle of mostly non-Muslim friends, he still prays regularly and visits his local mosque at least once a week on his own.

Leaving the Islamic school cocoon was a shock to him, though. His friends' views of Islam were shaped by sensational media stereotypes.

"They think we're all terrorists and we're all waiting for 40 wives in the afterlife. All the stuff from the TV. It's ridiculous," he said.

Although there are significant Muslim populations throughout north and east Africa and Indonesia, his classmates thought all followers of Islam came from the Middle East or South Asia.

"Most people when I tell them they go, 'I didn't even know black people could be Muslim.'"

Muslim youth in Canada don't practice the faith in any single, prescribed way. Some follow the schedule for five prayers a day with rigour (Ms. Raja has excused herself from exams to pray) while others visit their mosque only a few times a year with their families.

But some young Muslims are reluctant to label or rank their level of orthodoxy.

"Every label has connotations around it, right? I'm not a fan of words like moderate and everything like that," said Sabour Baray, the 20-year-old president of York University's Muslim Students Association.

Mr. Mohammad said that when the subject of radicalism came up during the workshops he led with Muslim youth, participants were at first reluctant to talk about the existence of extremist views among their peers.

They eventually acknowledged that "bullying" and "intimidation" with a radicalizing intent occurs at some mosques.

At the same time, young people stressed that simply adhering closely to the Koranic tenets of the faith does not automatically lead to extremism.

Although 15-year-old Emaad Mohammad, the son of Pakistani immigrants, feels a responsibility to correct his classmates' misconceptions about his faith, he wishes teachers at his Mississauga school took on that cause instead.

"You could learn about math, you learn about science, you learn about all these things, but to learn about people and people around you and their culture and their religion is probably more important," he said.

Educators have grappled with the idea of bringing education on Islam to public schools.

In 2006, after the Toronto 18 arrests, the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education appointed Sarfaroz Niyozov, a professor with the department, to lead the Muslim Education Project. Its goal was to explore ways to accommodate and teach Muslim students in the public school system.

While school boards may offer a world religions elective to high school students, the majority of teachers, he found, are reluctant to discuss controversial political issues involving Islam: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But inclusiveness in lesson plans isn't the end of it. While most major universities have designated prayer rooms on campus for Muslim students, that's not the case in the public school system.

Providing such accommodations should be a priority for public schools, Prof. Niyozov said. Holding back could mean losing more students to Islamic schools or home-schooling, where they have limited opportunities to meet and interact with their non-Muslim peers.

At the same time, school boards must define "reasonable accommodation," he said.

This spring, a group of parents in Winnipeg requested their elementary school-aged children be excused from music and physical education classes out of concerns about the content of "Western" music and the mixing of sexes.

In their desperation to keep students and compete with private schools, public school administrators might go too far in indulging the whims of parents, Prof. Niyozov said.

Ms. Raja said some of her co-workers have been shy to ask her about her faith when she takes prayer breaks in the back room or fasts during Ramadan. She'd rather be burdened by their questions, she said, than have them hold onto outdated stereotypes.

"An issue a lot of people have is they don't understand it is a lifestyle … For Islam, you can't have it separate from the public sphere."

The Series

Time to Lead is journalism driven by our readers - the ideas come from you. This week's series focuses on young Muslims in Canada, as they find their way between tradition and modernity.

  • Monday: Young Muslims tell their stories
  • Tuesday: How Canadian artists of Muslim origin draw on their religion
  • Wednesday: Commentary and reader response

Join us in the comments to discuss the issue: tgam.ca/time-to-lead.

If you have an idea for a Time to Lead series, we'd like to hear from you. E-mail timetolead@globeandmail.com with your thoughts.

 

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