Muslim Torontonians Forge a Canadian Muslim Identity
By Muneeb Nasir
— Since the turn of the 21st century, Toronto’s dynamic Muslim community has spawned homegrown organizations committed to Muslim participation and integration into mainstream society —
Toronto’s Muslim community has been a leader in North America when it comes to forging an integrated Muslim identity. Muslim Torontonians are proudly proclaiming their Canadian and Muslim identities and working for integration into the Canadian landscape.
For the past two decades, numerous organizations have been formed and become prominent. For example, the Greater Toronto Area has one of the continent’s largest concentrations of Muslims and has always been a leader in community development — the first Islamic Housing Cooperative (est. 1981) was started here, as was the first Islamic private school: Mississauga’s ISNA Elementary School (est. 1983).
Canada’s 37 million people form one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and multicultural society, which is reflected among its Muslims, especially in the Greater Toronto Area — 8% of its population is Muslim. The estimated 1.5 million Muslim Canadians comprise 3.2% of the population and, with a median age of 28.1 years, represent the country’s youngest generation.
While numbering only in the hundreds at the end of World War II, the lifting of immigration restrictions on non-Europeans during the 1960s brought in so many Muslims that they are the second-largest religious group.
Mosque construction kept pace with the community’s growth. During the 1980s, Muslim Torontonians established the continent’s first Islamic school, which became a model for establishing Islamic schools across North America, and the Islamic Housing Cooperative, which helps families purchase interest-free homes and has become the model for other home financing institutions worldwide.
Integration into Society
Since the turn of the 21st century, Toronto’s dynamic Muslim community has spawned homegrown organizations committed to Muslim participation and integration into mainstream society. According to the 2016 Environics Institute survey (see Neuman, p. 4), a majority of Muslim Canadians prefer this effort, a preference that has strengthened over time.
Muslim Canadians are among the most enthusiastic group of Canadians – 83% feel very proud to be Canadian, as compared to 73% of their non-Muslim co-citizens.
One manifestation of these realities is their high level of participation in elections. In the federal election of 2015, the Muslim voter turnout was an exceptional 79% and remained high in subsequent elections. Clearly, they are embracing the country’s diversity, democracy and freedoms.
The Canadian-Muslim Vote (TCMV; https://www.canadianmuslimvote.ca), launched in 2015, is one Toronto-based organization that stands out in terms of mobilizing community members to exercise their democratic rights. A non-partisan civic education organization, TCMV’s mandate is to educate and mobilize Canada’s estimated 767,000+ Muslim voters at all levels of government. Its awareness campaigns, such as the Get Out the Vote sermons, have significantly increased Muslim participation in the electoral process and the number of Muslims being elected to the federal and provincial legislatures.
Its success in this regard was on display during the summer of 2019, months before the federal election, when 75 elected officials from all three levels of government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and 1,000 other people showed up at the organization’s gala dinner.
Political parties are keenly aware that the country 23 ridings (electoral districts) have Muslim populations of 10% or more, and that many of the Greater Toronto Area’s swing ridings could determine an election’s outcome.
Diversity: A Strength
According to the Environics Institute survey, Canadian Muslims agree that immigrants should adapt to Canada, attain linguistic fluency, tolerate and respect different cultures, appreciate Canadian history and respect the law. They place a strong value on diversity and connection among cultures.
Several Toronto-based organizations have been outstanding for their unique emphasis on connecting Muslims across the community’s various ethnic and ideological divides, as well as with other cultures. One such organization, the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention (https://risconvention.com), has emerged as a major platform for leading Muslim personalities from around the world to address one of the largest assemblies of Muslims in North America.
This event, launched in 2001 by Toronto Muslim youths to tackle the post-9/11 backlash and to build a bridge of understanding with non-Muslims, has become a staple in Toronto’s downtown core during the Christmas holiday season. Over 20,000 domestic and international visitors attend this event every year. According to the organizers, the youth envisage this convention as an attempt to help overcome the challenges of communication and integration and promote stronger ties within North American society.
In addition, Toronto is home to two significant Muslim festivals in North America. Festivals are essential to celebrating one’s culture and heritage and to strengthening relations in diverse societies.
Launched in 2004, the three-day MuslimFest (http://muslimfest.com), considered the continent’s largest Muslim festival of its kind, attracts over 30,000 attendees annually and celebrates the best in Muslim arts and entertainment with live performances, art and cultural exhibits, children’s activities and a bustling bazaar. This unique cultural fusion, which combines faith traditions and Canadian culture, attracts people from all backgrounds and has received the Best Social Media Campaign and Best Greening of Festival awards, along with many other local and national awards.
Muslim Torontonians also host the two-day Halal Food Fest (http://halalfoodfestto.com), North America’s largest halal food festival, which attracts over 35,000 visitors from across the continent. It features more than 150 exhibitors — halal restaurants, bakeries, manufacturers, specialty stores and artisan vendors — who showcase a diverse and global range of flavors as well as a shopping bazaar, cooking demonstrations, stand-up comedy performances, children’s storytelling and meet-and-greet with famous bloggers. This festival shares a glimpse of Toronto’s multicultural Muslim community while providing insight into the food industry.
These major events, part of North American Muslims’ yearly social calendar are just a snapshot of Toronto’s dynamic community, a community that is totally confident in terms of its religious identity.
Confidence in Identity
The Environics Institute survey also showed that being Muslim is a very important part of identity for Canadian Muslims and that this feeling of religious identity is comparatively stronger than that of their non-Muslims peers.
Canadians are among the world’s most secular people, whereas Muslims are one of the country’s most religiously observant groups. In fact, their religious identity and practices appear to be strengthening as their lives evolve. This confidence has led Muslim Torontonians to pioneer services and engage in social justice issues and campaigns that are leading the way for North American Muslims.
Three groups stand out for their unique emphasis on serving the differently abled, providing mental health support and engaging in environmental advocacy. Naseeha (https://naseeha.org), a mental health hotline that answers calls from around the world from anyone who is going through life’s challenges, provides a safe zone for talking and helps them get the help they need. It also provides workshops for youth across North America, holds web therapy sessions and offers texting mental health support.
DEEN Support Services (http://www.deensupportservices.ca), another outstanding group, is a charity founded by Muslims with disabilities to advance community inclusion by making available culturally and spiritually relevant services for families and individuals living with disabilities. It both serves all individuals with disabilities regardless of religion, language and culture, and offers drop-in and day-programs at the Muneeba Center, Canada’s first-of-its-kind facility. DEEN Support Services has been a leading voice in North America on disability issues and hosts the Global Conference on Disability and Islam.
Coming out of Toronto as well is Khaleafa.com (http://www.khaleafa.com), which has been the voice for the nation’s Muslim environmental movement. Its events and campaigns have earned it a global reach in terms of raising awareness of environmental issues through an Islamic lens, especially with its annual Green Khutba Campaign. Held on the Friday closest to Earth Day, many Muslim communities at home and abroad have adopted this campaign.
A dynamic faith community is one that responds to the needs and issues affecting the larger society. Muslim Torontonians stepped forward during the Covid-19 pandemic and, working alongside others, started projects to meet the needs of their neighbors and support frontline workers.
A group of young Muslims started the Good Neighbor Project (https://www.goodneighbourproject.com), which picks up and delivers groceries and essentials to the city’s most vulnerable, including seniors, those with health conditions or disabilities, single parents, people with COVID-19 and health care workers. Over 6,000 people offered their services, and public officials have publicly lauded their compassion, dedication and generosity.
Muslim Torontonians are a growing part of the city’s diverse population that is embracing the country’s diversity, democracy and freedoms and forging a Canadian Muslim identity.
Originally published in Islamic Horizons September/October 2020 (Islamic Society of North America)