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A Religion like No Other: Islam and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Canada

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journal contribution
posted on 21.05.2021, 17:39 by Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, Jameela Rasheed
Introduction: In survey after survey, Canadians express strong support for the maintenance of relatively high levels of immigration and a policy of official multiculturalism. Canadian governments have long pursued aggressive immigration policies and, since 1971, have overseen a policy of official state multiculturalism. Public opinion in other industrialized democracies has been less supportive of immigration and, at least rhetorically, governments have been critical of multiculturalism. In this sense, references to "Canadian exceptionalism" in the sphere of immigration and multiculturalism politics and policy are credible. Canadians' support for immigration and multiculturalism has not, however, translated into an easy-going acceptance of demands for religious accommodation. This is especially true with respect to Islam. Public opinion toward Muslims is strikingly negative and efforts at meeting requests for accommodation have been resisted, at times strenuously. In this respect, Canada is anything but exceptional; attitudes toward Islam and Muslims are depressingly familiar. Our paper marks an attempt to make sense of this puzzling contradiction. How are we to understand the popularity of multiculturalism in Canada, on the one hand, and the frequency (and vociferousness) of anti-Muslim sentiment on the other? How can we begin to understand Canadians' exceptionalism with respect to support for immigration and multiculturalism and more typical antipathy toward Islam and Muslims? In an effort to address these questions, we advance a two-pronged argument. First, it is important to recognize that Islam is not just another minority religion. The stigma attached to Islam in Canada and other industrialized democracies is unique. Islam is cast by its critics as an existential challenge to liberal democratic states - a remnant of unenlightened, premodern thinking that is out of place in contemporary liberal societies. Second, we maintain that debates over religious accommodation in Canada trigger concern over the maintenance a particular mode of national identity, centered on liberal-democratic values and, ironically, multicultural tolerance. Intolerance of Islam is justified on behalf of protecting a secular, tolerant, liberal-democratic public ethos against a putatively premodern, intolerant and illiberal enemy. In a peculiar way, then, support for multiculturalism may inform opposition to Islam. After briefly touching on how immigration is changing Canada's religious landscape, we survey public opinion data on immigration, multiculturalism, and Islam. We then turn to practical manifestations of Islamophobia, including the troubling rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. We go on to explore how anti-Muslim attitudes and behavior can thrive in a country defined by its commitment to multiculturalism. Drawing on Hannah Arendt's analysis of antisemitism in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1973), we argue that that fear of Islam is rooted in the history of the recent past, particularly as regards debates over immigrant integration that have been conducted against the backdrop of the so-called "war on terror." Anti-Muslim activists have exacerbated this fear by framing questions of integration in existential terms, whereby the compromises intrinsic to accommodation represent nothing less than a mortal threat to liberal democracy. We conclude by asking Canadians' conflicting views on immigration, multiculturalism and Islam have influenced electoral politics. We note that Canadian parties, particularly those on the Right, face a quandary. On the one hand, institutional dynamics which amplify the weight of new Canadians in electoral politics rule out heavy-handed attacks on multiculturalism; on the other, the deep well of anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada offers a tempting means of securing short term political advantages. We illustrate this dynamic through brief references to the 2015 and 2019 federal elections and the Conservative Party's 2016-17 leadership campaign.



Anna Triandafyllidou Usha George