Navigating Identity amid Islamophobia

What the lived experiences of South Asian Muslims can tell us about inclusion in Canada

While Canada’s multicultural society is a source of pride for many, there is a lack of scholarship about the lived experiences of young Muslims in Canada to understand whether that diversity fully translates into inclusion.

Arshia Zaidi, an associate professor of criminology and justice at Ontario Tech University, is seeking to change that with SSHRC-funded research into the interrelated experiences of discrimination, social exclusion, and emotional well-being of South Asian Muslims who have grown up in an era of ongoing Islamophobia.

“I wanted to give voice to Muslims in Canada about their experiences amid the turmoil and chaos of the post-9/11 and Trump eras,” says Zaidi. Nearly 1.8 million people—or 1 in 20—in Canada identified their religion as Islam in the 2021 Census, making it the second most commonly reported religion in Canada after Christianity.

Zaidi conducted in-depth, multi-hour interviews with a sample of South Asian Muslims aged 18-30, living in Ontario. Participants included those who do and do not wear visible Muslim identity markers, and those who do and do not attend postsecondary school.

She asked questions about their lives in Canada: whether they’ve experienced discrimination, specifically with respect to Islamophobia; how it has impacted their emotional well-being; whether they have access to supports; and what they think about the future for Muslims in Canada.

The research interviews were conducted over video conferencing, after the pandemic necessitated a pivot from in-person interviews. One upside of this, Zaidi found, is that people were more open with her when sitting at a computer in the comfort of their own homes compared to meeting in a public place like a coffee shop. Some shared their experiences with Islamophobia for the very first time—they had kept it private from their own family and friends for years and weren’t aware of any resources or support systems. For some, discrimination began as early as elementary school. One participant remembered being teased and called a “terrorist” by other kids, telling Zaidi, “It definitely felt like I didn’t belong in Canada.”

Zaidi was surprised to learn just how deeply the people she interviewed were affected by Islamophobia. One young man talked about struggling to connect with non-Muslims and described the need to “pre-screen” people for racist views before striking up a friendship. Young people with visible Muslim identity markers were the most likely to have been victims of Islamophobia. Several participants talked about changing their appearance to fit in better, including a young man who shaved his beard and a young woman who stopped wearing a hijab (veil).

“If you have to change your appearance to feel safe, and feel welcomed, and feel a sense of belonging somewhere—that should not happen in a multicultural country,” Zaidi says.

A top concern for young South Asian Muslims in Canada was safety. This included physical safety, with one participant describing how they avoid walking alone or stick to park areas after the fatal hit-and-run attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario, in 2021. Another aspect to this was psychological safety, with participants explaining how they change their names when they enter online spaces to avoid becoming the targets of online hate and racism.

The way forward, according to Zaidi, starts with naming the problem.

“Once the problem is identified, then we can move forward, have workshops, conferences, and more training to create awareness.”

Communities and policy-makers need to work together to bridge the gap between Canada’s reputation as a welcoming country and how alienated many young Muslims feel. Some participants raised the need for greater support at the school-age level, including counselling spaces and enhanced diversity training, which could take the form of diversity courses as part of the school curricula. For example, the Toronto District School Board—Canada’s largest and most diverse board—just voted to develop a system-wide strategy to combat Islamophobia, and, in January 2023, the Peel District School Board became the first board in Canada to adopt an anti-Islamophobia strategy.

Other ideas shared included wider representation for Muslims in public-facing roles like politics, teaching, and law enforcement; a province-wide Islamophobia/hate crime hotlines; and changing media narratives around Muslims, including in online spaces where misinformation and conspiracy theories are shared and promoted.

Change won’t happen overnight, Zaidi says. “It has to happen in steps.” One important step is the recent appointment of Canada’s first Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia. Another is how Muslims Canadians are increasingly seeing themselves reflected in the media and popular culture through positive examples of Muslim journalists, authors and comedians, and more diverse television casts.

Ultimately, the goal of Zaidi’s research is to help create a safer space for Muslims in Canada and enhanced sense of belonging, so Muslims feel at home.

“My research clearly shows that there are larger issues at play that stem from systemic issues and barriers,” she says. “Today, Muslim men and women are feeling alienated. They feel distressed. There is fear, there’s anxiety, and a sense the future for them seems uncertain based on the recent Islamophobic incidences. Real change needs to happen and greater awareness of the issues at play.”