Canadian Muslims: Political Discourses in Tension

By Nesbitt-Larking, Paul | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Canadian Muslims: Political Discourses in Tension


Nesbitt-Larking, Paul, British Journal of Canadian Studies


This article reports on certain studies conducted as part of a broader exploration of Muslim diasporic experiences of political integration and citizenship in contemporary Canada. Both within the Muslim community and between that community and other Canadians, social relations and social representations have recently been undergoing profound reconfigurations, reflective of the ebbs and flows of global forces. Through in-depth interviewing of Canadian Muslims and a discourse analysis of the transcripts of parliamentary Hansard, this article explores the dialectics of two discourses in Canada: a dominant discourse of concern regarding anti-Muslim words and actions in Canada and beyond, and a secondary anti-terrorist discourse that centrally implicates Muslims and Islam. Relations between these two discourses are explored both within the debates of the House of Commons and within the responses of the Muslim interviewees.

THIS ARTICLE has been generated by an ongoing investigation into the nature of Muslim political identities in Canada, notably since the events of 9/11, as reported through the voices of Canadian Muslims, political leaders and opinion leaders. The empirical basis of the larger project consists of four principal waves of research: an ongoing series of in-depth interviews with Canadian Muslims; a discourse analysis of parliamentary speeches and statements in the month following 11 September 2001; a content analysis of five major English-language newspapers over two sample weeks in October 2004 and October 2005; and a discourse analysis of submissions to a public inquiry into Ontario family law and the matter of dispute resolution mechanisms incorporating aspects of Muslim religious principles. The focus of this article is a preliminary and necessarily tentative analysis of the findings of two of these waves of empirical research: the first round of in-depth interviews, and the discourse analysis of parliamentary speeches and statements.

The project has arisen from a concern and a curiosity. The concern is that in the current North American theatre of aggressive anti-terrorism, there has been a deterioration in the quality of civic and public life for Muslims in Canada. Rushed anti-terrorist legislation in Canada undermined the civil liberties of Canadian Muslims from the time of its hasty passage through Parliament in December 2001, and the Canadian security apparatus has covered itself in a blanket of secrecy. Racist attacks against Muslims have occurred in parts of Canada, and there is a perception that Islamic cultures have in general been less willingly accepted. Community relations between Muslims and others have been affected, sometimes for the better, but also occasionally negatively. My curiosity centres on Canada's reputation as one of the most tolerant and inclusive polyethnic and multinational polities in the world, with a highly sensitive apparatus of multiculturalism. To the extent that this reputation is sound, Canadians in a world under stress should nonetheless continue to exhibit tolerance, acceptance and the politics of inclusiveness.

The social psychological questions and concerns raised in my current research project are not mine alone; they are powerfully resonant among the Canadian intelligentsia today. A recent edition of the Globe and Mail, Canada's English-language newspaper of record, carried two articles and a survey on matters related to the quality of life of Muslims in Canada. What is remarkable is that these stories appeared in the newspaper on Canada's national birthday, 1 July, in 2004. On that day, Edward Greenspon, the Jewish editor-in-chief of the paper, chose to profile a report on anti-Muslim sentiment and a story about Muslims and Jews working together to save a boy who needed heart surgery. The paper also published the results of an online poll concerning Canadian attitudes toward restrictions on the display of religious symbols in schools.1

In the context of these considerations, my research addresses two interrelated discourses. …

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