Making space for Muslim youth voices within dialogue on Canadian diversity

Do Muslim youth fear speaking up? A recent roundtable convened a group in order to hear their views on Canadian multiculturalism. Steven Zhou shares their insights.   

By: /
January 25, 2017
Muslim Woman Canada
A woman holds a sign during a solidarity march in Toronto November 20, 2015. The march was organized to show solidarity for two Muslim woman were allegedly verbally assaulted on the Toronto subway system on Wednesday, according to local media. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Chatter about the ascent of right-wing populism in the West today often has a way of evading mention of how such politics can find a home in Canada. There’s a sense that Canada is immune to that sort of divisiveness, but the million or so Muslims in this country, particularly the youth, who have lived through the politics of the past decade would probably beg to differ. 

Last month I spent the better part of a day in conversation with a dozen young Muslims for a project supported by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation to gauge their opinions on what it means to be Canadian. Most of the youth I spoke to see political and civic engagement as a core principle of this identity, but they also seem to think that there simply is not enough of it. 

When asked why, they almost all replied with two answers: First, a lack of opportunity for meaningful engagement, and second, a fear that they will be attacked for voicing their opinions on controversial topics. 

These aren’t unfamiliar responses to me. I have been observing how Muslim youth attempt to engage their society in today’s post-9/11 climate for the past few years as both a journalist and a community organizer. This experience tells me that the project’s effort to map out Muslim youth public opinion at this time is of utmost importance, particularly when Islam has become more than just a hot-button issue, but a factor in public policy. That young Muslims feel a certain pressure to react to this climate with activism seems to me like common sense.  

Yet, tragically, I am also not surprised that they don’t feel like they have enough guidance to carry out the necessary steps to mobilize others to act on issues that they consider important. And it’s definitely not a surprise to me that many of them seem to anticipate negativity and backlash for expressing their political and social views in public. 

Many of the youth I spoke to noted how social media, despite its creative and logistical uses, has made matters worse. Online bullying, negativity, and trolling contribute to a virtual environment that forces them to think twice before voicing their opinions. 

For me, this anxiety is connected, among other things, to the abrupt increase in hate propaganda on many of our university campuses: “F**K Your Turban” posters at the University of Alberta; “Make Canada Great Again” posters at McGill (complete with anti-Muslim and anti-gay graphics); “White Student Union” flyers on the University of Toronto, York, and Ryerson campuses, etc. These are just from the past few months. 

The Canadian Muslim youth I spoke to feel that such a climate, which extends into cyberspace and is compounded by an apparent lack of urgency on behalf of their own communities, hurts their ability to initiate campaigns that aim to dispel misconceptions of Islam and Muslims. 

I sit on the board of The Tessellate Institute, an NGO that documents and explores the Muslim Canadian experience that, along with The Environics Institute and several other partners, issued a comprehensive survey on Muslim public opinion last year. The survey showed that more than a third of respondents think that the next generation of Muslims will face discrimination of some sort. 

This makes the space for dialogue — which the recent event supported by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation provided — all the more important because it gives Muslim youth a chance to voice what they perceive as the biggest obstacles standing in their path to mitigating bigotry and discrimination against their community. At no point has accounting these opinions been more important than today, when anti-Muslim sentiment helps underscore the political trends that characterize so many Western nations.

It is time that Muslim youth in Canada are given agency to frame the way they are portrayed in the wider society, be it in the media or elsewhere. My conversations with them have revealed that the grievances they hold don’t just tell us more about them — they reflect back to us the nature of public debates at large.