Supporting the integration of Muslim immigrant men

Why looking beyond religion helps understand the challenges they face

Muslim immigrant men are often portrayed as inflexible and unwilling to integrate into western society. Their faith is usually presented as the primary reason for their difficulty accepting new cultural norms—but University of Calgary PhD candidate in sociology Hamid Akbary says there are many other sociological factors to consider. Income, occupation, educational opportunities, housing and treatment by non-immigrant Canadians all influence how they perceive and adopt the norms of the host society.

“Muslim men can and want to integrate, but it can’t be forced on them,” says Akbary. “When they’re made to feel like Canada can be home, that’s when their attitudes start to shift.”

Coming face-to-face with discrimination

Born in Afghanistan, Akbary spent his early career doing gender equality and advocacy work in Taliban-controlled parts of the country before moving to the United States in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree. There, he had his first experience of anti-Islamic discrimination from a stranger who saw Arabic text on a pack of cigarettes he’d picked up in the United Arab Emirates.

“This man who knew nothing about me was suddenly calling me a terrorist and a wife-beater,” he recalls. “I’d never experienced anything like that before.”

Seeking to understand the man’s reaction, Akbary turned to literature on Muslim immigrant integration. Nearly everything he found was focused on religion, arguing that adherence to the tenets of Islam made Muslim men hostile to western cultural norms. Realizing other factors were also at play, Akbary has devoted his dissertation to the topic, supported by a SSHRC doctoral fellowship.

Beyond individual choice

To get beyond the usual questions of faith, Akbary complemented secondary quantitative data with a series of qualitative interviews with Muslim immigrant men from Afghanistan, asking about their expectations about coming to Canada versus their realities when they arrived. (He focused on Afghanistan because of his familiarity with the language and culture, as well as the high level of “culture shock” that comes with moving from one of the world’s most conservative countries to one of the most liberal.) He asked participants what they found most different about Canadian culture, especially in areas such as notions of masculinity and the roles of husbands and fathers. He also asked about the strategies they use to deal with those cultural inconsistencies, and probed about their community ties and emotional attachment to Canada and Afghanistan.

He found participants could be grouped into three categories. “Assimilationists” have positive feelings about Canada and adapt their lives to fit the typical Canadian model. “Isolationists,” on the other hand, associate exclusively with other Muslims and actively retain Afghanistan’s cultural norms. “Integrationists” fall somewhere in the middle.

Akbary also found that these men didn’t end up in one group or another based solely on their own choices. Their moral judgments of Canadian society and willingness to integrate were largely dependent on the nature of their socio-economic experiences. For example, those who experienced more discrimination or had to switch to lower-paying job fields were less likely to report positive feelings about Canadian society, making them more likely to avoid integrating.

“When these men feel satisfied about their present and optimistic about their future, they’re more able to think of Canada as somewhere they belong,” says Akbary. “This leads to greater feelings of attachment to the country and acceptance of its cultural norms.”

Changing outcomes by changing policy

Akbary’s research points to the need to understand integration as a two-way street that involves effort not only by immigrants, but also by host societies. With that understanding, policy-makers can make decisions that will improve socio-economic outcomes for Muslim immigrants (for example, by improving foreign credential assessment processes to make the labour market more accessible), which can lead to more successful integration—benefitting both immigrants and host societies.

“This research offers a more realistic and nuanced story of Muslim immigrant men and how integration isn’t just up to them,” says Akbary. “How they’re treated by Canadians and by Canadian society can make a huge difference.”

Want to learn more?

Read about this project in the paper Akbary is co-presenting with his research supervisor, Abdie Kazemipur, at the 2021 Canadian Sociological Association conference. He also co-authored a paper in Canadian Diversity (p. 77) looking at the value of qualitative research in understanding how a country’s gender norms affect immigrants’ access to settlement services.

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