Civic Engagement: A Top Priority For Canadian Muslims

zijad delic
Dr. Zijad Delic
 (August 12, 2009) – There are many reasons why Canada has been seen as a great nation and why its image gained international respect. The most important of them is the acceptance of diverse faiths and ethnicities into its cultural mosaic. Muslims are among the many peoples of the world who settled in Canada and made it their home.

Unfortunately, Canadian Muslims are not among the most engaged citizens when it comes to civic activities; moreover, many who are involved tend to confine their participation to their own faith group or community of origin.

If they become more engaged, however, Canadian Muslims will experience a greater sense of themselves as genuine stakeholders in the life of their society and also be able to motivate others to become more politically active, whether as members of political parties or even as contenders running locally for public office. Both avenues of involvement can be excellent stepping-stones to provincial and federal politics. Additionally, as any minority community’s civic participation increases, mainstream Canadian society will tend to view that particular group in a more positive light.

Over the past decade, dedicated pioneers have done more than their share to put in place much of the needed groundwork to achieve full civic and political participation of Canadian Muslims. Now it is up to us.

Whether by choice, or by birth, most Canadian Muslims regard this great country as their national home. They believe in being simultaneously good Muslims and good citizens, for these two roles are not only complementary, but mutually beneficial. As well, the vast majority believe democracy is the form of government that adheres most closely to the moral teachings of their faith; that is, placing strong emphasis on the virtues of accountability and justice.

While Canadian Muslims may still struggle in some areas to find a balance between their religious, cultural, or national identities, the history and experience of other Canadian communities can teach us that such struggles have actually helped in the process of defining and enriching who they are in the Canadian context. Consequently, it is crucial that Canadian Muslim organizations, associations, mosques, community centres, schools and other cultural institutions continually encourage their members to become more active participants in the civic life of this country.

Civic engagement can take many forms, from volunteering for non-profit organizations, to serving on school boards, taking part in parent-teacher and/or neighbourhood associations, interfaith groups, and so on…

Even those who do not want to engage more fully in society (and there are some) can make an important positive contribution to future Muslim generations in Canada by not discouraging others from becoming more active.

The bottom line is — we are here to stay! This was our choice, and since we have promised to honour our contract with Canada by accepting its citizenship, this contract also binds us to do our fair share in promoting and safeguarding the well-being of our country and all its citizens.

Over our relatively short history, many individual Canadian Muslims have attained prominence in a variety of vocations and positions, but our community as a whole has not yet pooled its collective resources, expertise and ideas in an effort to enhance the participation of Canadian Muslims in the national discourse.

Only a few national Canadian Muslim organizations focus on issues beyond those related specifically to Muslims. Now there is a need to invest significant energy in joining with other organizations to address larger questions of social justice and policy. Advocacy coalitions and intercommunity cooperation are increasingly important vehicles for mobilizing diverse constituencies and generating broad-based support for positive change.

Canadian Muslim organizations could make a valuable contribution to the body politic by expanding their participation in coalitions concerned with issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, reduction of poverty, ensuring better health care, maintaining religious freedom, or scrutinizing national security and foreign policy — to mention only a few.

Greater Canadian Muslim engagement in policy-related coalition building will produce the additional benefit of showing all Canadians by example that the Muslim community is proactively concerned about wide-ranging issues affecting the well-being of our whole nation. That in turn will increase the moral authority of Canadian Muslim leaders when they seek support on issues of particular interest to their community.

Last but not least, since Canada is one of the most poly-religious societies in the world, issues arising over interfaith relations need to be openly addressed. In fact, Canada as a whole would benefit greatly if our diverse faith groups could cooperate on common projects and concerns.

Interfaith dialogue has a long history in Canada, but most of it ends there – in dialogue, with little concrete or meaningful action resulting. And these dialogues often cease entirely in times of crisis, when they are needed the most. It also seems to me that most religious groups tend to keep quiet about problems that do not concern them directly. Instead, they take refuge behind the screen of political correctness (precisely what they should not be doing!) rather than opting for right moral and ethical choices.

Current faith-based participation opportunities can and should be expanded to include all religious groups, with the goal of establishing a national forum. In such an inclusive context, all groups could reinforce the importance of fostering solidarity around shared values and causes, thus becoming far more effective when addressing poverty, human rights, democracy, and other issues of social justice.

In conclusion, I believe it is critical that Canadian Muslims move swiftly into the arena of civil and political participation and make this a collective priority among all Muslim organizations and institutions. It is time for Canadian Muslims who are proud to call this country home to step forward and take a greater and more fulfilling role in contributing to its society; in doing so, we could even help to shape the ability of all Canadians to act for the greater good.

Dr. Zijad Delic is the National Executive Director of the Canadian Islamic Congress.