A backlash against Muslim minority communities has been very evident throughout the Western world since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. It has been reinforced by subsequent actual or threatened acts of violence where the perpetrators claim a global Islamic agenda – a fairly long list that includes bombings in Madrid and London, and most recently the attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015.

Canada has not been exempt, and in 2006 a group of 18 people plotting various attacks against targets in Canada were arrested in Toronto. More recently, in October 2014, two events grabbed headlines: one in which a car rammed Canadian soldiers in Quebec and killed one of them, and another in which an attacker killed a soldier guarding a war memorial in Ottawa and later attacked Parliament.

Responses to such attacks and threats of attacks, and the rhetoric supporting the resulting “war on terror,” raise important questions about how Muslim minority communities are affected. While an obvious concern is the extent to which local Muslim minorities might feel a sense of kinship with the attackers, underlying this is a deeper concern about whether the attacks reveal that Islamic culture is alien, making it difficult to reconcile with – or actually hostile to – basic Western values of democracy, state religious neutrality and gender equity. Are these concerns well-founded? Are Muslim minorities not integrating into society as well as other immigrant groups, and do their growing numbers represent some kind of threat?

Evidence from social research clearly refutes such concerns. Muslim communities in Western countries represent a variety of cultural and national backgrounds. Each such community tends to reflect these different backgrounds as much as or more than a common Islamic identity. Moreover, Muslims’ experience in the community or the workplace differs little from that of other religious minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs. Their main problems centre on employment opportunity, recognition of qualifications and discrimination – problems of visible-minority immigrants in general, not Muslims specifically.

Although research suggests that the processes of integration of Muslim populations into society are determined by ethnic and racial background, and not religion or religious attachments specifically, public opinion says otherwise. Accordingly, public discussion of immigrants has shifted from issues of race and ethnicity to religion. Immigrants to Canada from Pakistan, Iran and other Islamic countries are now referred to simply as “Muslim,” and considered as such. The same has happened elsewhere. In France, immigrants once called Arabs or Turks are now just “Muslims.” This focus on religion is not just wrongheaded – in many ways, it has actually been counterproductive, leading to policies attempting to repress religious expression, thereby erecting, not tearing down, barriers to integration.

Do Muslims adopt Canadian customs?

Canadian concern about Muslims as a group is clear in public opinion data. The 2010 Environics Focus Canada survey asked, “Do you think most Muslims coming to our country today want to adopt Canadian customs and way of life or do you think they want to be distinct from the larger Canadian society?” A majority of respondents (55 per cent) thought Muslims “want to be distinct.” Far fewer (28 per cent) thought Muslims want to adopt Canadian customs.1 And, of course, despite widespread support for multiculturalism, Canadians really want immigrants to “adopt Canadian customs” and blend in. Fully 80 per cent agreed that “ethnic groups should blend into Canadian society and not form separate communities,” with 51 per cent agreeing “strongly.” Two thirds (68 per cent) said that “there are too many immigrants coming into this country who are not adopting Canadian values,” with 40 per cent “strongly” agreeing.

17_Figure_1Characterizations of Muslims as preferring to be “distinct” are challenged by Muslims themselves, the vast majority of whom view their coreligionists as wanting to integrate into Canadian society. A 2006 Focus Canada survey (see figure 1) interviewed both mainstream and Muslim populations; 57 per cent of the mainstream respondents viewed Muslims as wanting to remain “distinct” but only 23 per cent of the Muslims agreed. By the same token, 55 per cent of Muslims saw their coreligionists as wanting to adopt Canadian customs, but only 25 per cent of other Canadians agreed.2 Even more tellingly, Muslim Canadians are as likely as other Canadians to express pride in their citizenship: in both groups, three in four said they were “very proud” to be Canadian, and all but 6 or 7 per cent at least “somewhat proud.”

The irrelevance of religion

The most persuasive evidence of Muslim integration comes from large broad-based social surveys, particularly Statistics Canada’s 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey. Based on more than 42,000 interviews with mainstream and minority populations across Canada, this survey provides such indicators of social integration as intercultural friendships, participation in voluntary activities in the community, social trust, voting, sense of belonging and feeling Canadian.3 It is by far the most detailed information ever collected on Canada’s minorities, at a time before the most intense public focus on Muslims, and it shows that all growing religious minorities, such as Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus, were slower to integrate socially because they are racial minorities, not because of their religious commitments and beliefs.

The survey reveals the irrelevance of religion to social integration in two ways. First, among visible minorities, those whose religious commitments are strongest – whether Muslim or otherwise and including Christians – do not differ in their social integration in Canada from those whose religion is more peripheral in their lives. To measure religiosity, respondents were asked about the frequency of public and private religious devotions, and about the importance they attached to religion in their lives. The results of these three indicators were combined into an index of religiosity. Social integration was measured using survey items tapping Canadian citizenship, trust in people generally, life satisfaction, a sense of belonging in the larger society, Canadian identity (responding “Canadian” to a question on ethnic identity), voting in previous federal elections and participation in voluntary activities.


Table 1 presents bivariate correlations between this measure of religiosity and these seven indicators of social integration for a number of religious groups who are visible minorities in Canada. Two points are very clear. First, the relation of religiosity to social integration is often positive, sometimes negative, but almost always very small. And second, most important here, the patterns are roughly the same for Muslims and for other groups. The only significantly negative relation of religiosity and social integration for Muslims is regarding “Canadian” identity, and this number is even more negative for other religious groups including Protestants, Hindus and Sikhs. In fact, religiosity for all these groups may be best regarded as an indicator of engagement with an ethnic community rather than something to do with particular religious groups.

Second, when visible minorities are asked about problems such as discrimination, both Muslims and members of other religious groups describe the problem as a result of skin colour or national origin, not religion. In the Ethnic Diversity Survey, about one third of visible-minority Muslims reported that they had experienced discrimination based on some aspect of their origins in the previous five years, and only about one in ten attributed the discrimination to their religion.

Women, employment and integration

One issue of particular concern is gender equity. Muslims are thought to hold traditional views on the status of women, and these views are perceived as extreme and impervious to change. But do gender issues hinder Muslim integration? Surveys of Muslims suggest that many Muslims, including women, feel Canada should accommodate their traditional beliefs about women’s rights and roles. Nevertheless, the reality is that given time in Canada, Muslim minorities adopt Canadian beliefs and practices, including on the status of women.

Muslim assimilation to Canadian values on gender equity is powerfully demonstrated in data on labour force participation. Recently arrived Muslim women follow traditional roles in the family, and relatively few engage in paid work outside the home. In this, they are not so different from recently arrived Hindu or Sikh women, and the census data show that low levels of labour force participation of recent immigrant women are more about country of origin than religion. Muslim women from Pakistan, for example, have much lower labour force participation than Muslim women from the Middle East or Europe. Evidence also suggests those who are strongly religious do not differ from those who are less so.

17_Figure_2More importantly, Muslim women’s labour force participation rises dramatically over time (see figure 2).4 Group differences fade for those with more than ten years in Canada and completely disappear for their children born in Canada. The bottom line is that assimilation is alive and well for Muslims in Canada, particularly regarding domestic roles for women as shown in paid employment outside the home.

No matter how hard we look, we do not find evidence that Muslim communities in Canada, whether Pakistani, Iranian, Somali, Afghani or Turk, are becoming isolated in ways reflecting social outlooks fundamentally – or even slightly – different from those of groups from India, Vietnam, China, Jamaica or Korea. Concerns about unassimilable Muslims are empirically unfounded. All groups face difficulties integrating in society, but the difficulties relate to visible-minority status and particularities of national origin, not religion.

An interesting source of information on integration is a large-scale employment audit study conducted by Philip Oreopoulos.5 In this study, nearly 13,000 résumés were sent to employers in response to advertised jobs. Résumés containing English or British names prompted employer calls for an interview 39 per cent more often than résumés with Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and Greek names, even when these indicated Canadian education and Canadian experience. (Callback rates were far lower for those with minority names whose education or experience came from outside Canada). The extent of discrimination against Pakistanis – who are mainly Muslims – is about the same as for the other groups.

Of course, we can’t know if employers realized that someone called Ali Saeed, Chaudhry Mohammad or Fatima Sheikh probably was Muslim, while Samir Sharma, Panav Singh or Priyanka Kaur probably was not (these are names used on the résumés in Oreopoulos’s study). It made no difference to their inclination to pass over such résumés in preference for Greg Johnson, John Martin or Emily Brown (again names used in the study). This is consistent with other information about the social experience of Muslims in Canada. Their problems arise from their minority status. They are about the same as the problems of other ethnic groups and are not related to religion.

From the theological to the social

The empirical evidence says one thing, the general public says another, and the public discourse is all about religion. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11 and subsequent events, the religious affiliation of Muslims has come to define them in public opinion. Regardless of their countries of origin, they are now called Muslim. The salience of religion does not hold nearly as much for other immigrants: for example, those from India remain Indian or “South Asian,” rather than Hindu.

What has been the effect of this change? Muslims themselves are very aware of the increased salience of religion in their public identity. Understandably, many are resentful and fearful, seeing it as an invitation to negative attention. Many, of course, have been attacked. Yet the dominance of religion in public discourse has not substantially altered the pattern of social, economic and political integration of Muslim communities in Western societies. There is little overall impact on national identity, or on friendship patterns and so on. Most people, including Muslims, operate on a day-to-day basis with friends and coworkers they know and like, not with hostile people. Bad things happen, but at the same time there are positive signs. Sometimes even a struggle against stigma and exclusion can bring people into a society and into its social and political dynamic. Some Muslims, for example, have engaged with the project of countering anti-Muslim viewpoints; this effort brings them into closer relations with the political process, producing greater integration in society, not less.6

The fact that a public discourse of exclusion does not necessarily lead to exclusion is illustrated by a comparison of settings displaying fairly wide variation: France compared to Canada, and Quebec compared to the rest of Canada. In France, the debate over religion in the public sphere as applied to Muslim immigrants has been intense, bans on the headscarf for Muslim women have been extended to the public schools, and the right-wing National Front has made notable political gains based on its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies. In Quebec, similar political themes are more muted, and the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which would have imposed French-style bans on the wearing of headscarves for public employees, failed because of the defeat of the Parti Québécois government that proposed it. And in the rest of Canada, while debates have sprung up (for example over shari’a law in Ontario) and majorities favour headscarf bans, public discourse reflects little if any interest in new policy restrictions.

So it’s interesting that in comparing Muslim minorities in France, Quebec and the rest of Canada, we find little difference in their social integration – more specifically, in experiences of discrimination, in the establishment of social relations with members of other communities, or in feelings of trust in and identification with the larger society.7 However, in one place there is a clear difference: in France the headscarf policy seems to have backfired. Instead of facilitating integration by making all women alike, it has thrown up yet another barrier. Many Muslim women comply with the regulations, but other highly motivated and Westernized Muslim women choose to withdraw from the labour market and other arenas where headscarves are banned.

In Canada, as mentioned above, the gender differences in labour force participation observed for recently immigrated Muslims (and recently immigrated Hindus and others) fade over time and are virtually eliminated for the Canadian-born generation. In France, Muslim women also assimilate into the labour market, but this assimilation is limited. Even French-born Muslim women maintain a somewhat lower level of participation in the workforce. Detailed analysis of labour force data show that in Canada, including Quebec, the odds of a Canadian-born Muslim woman being in the labour force are identical to those of the mainstream population. In France, however, the odds that a French-born Muslim woman will be in the labour force remain 13 per cent below the odds for the mainstream population. Interviews with Muslim women suggest this difference arises in part if not entirely because of the restricted employment opportunities for Muslim women who wear the hijab. There is a clear difference in Canada where the headscarf bans do not exist.

The conclusion is clear: the Muslim community, regardless of national origins, integrates as well in Canadian society as any other visible minority group. Further, policies restricting their religious expression would not be conducive to integration, as French experience with headscarf bans suggests. While these policies have not been adopted in Canada, public opinion is very supportive in Quebec (where a 2010 Focus Canada poll showed 66 per cent thought it was a good idea, compared to 29 per cent thinking it was a bad idea), with a substantial minority also supporting the idea in the rest of Canada (where 41 per cent thought it was a good idea as against 49 per cent who thought it was a bad idea).

Bans on the wearing of headscarves in public places are misguided policies. As Abdolmohammad Kazemipur argues, the best approach is to “shift our attention from the theological to the social.”8 Put otherwise, the prevailing focus on religion diverts attention from those areas of life that actually determine social integration: getting a job, sending children to school, playing a role in community decision-making. We should remove the existing barriers to integration, not build new ones.


1 See my Pro-immigration Canada: Social and Economic Roots of Popular Views, IRPP Study No. 20 (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2011).

2 Environics Research Institute, Focus Canada Report 2006-4 (Toronto: Author, 2006).

3 See Jeffrey G. Reitz, Raymond Breton, Karen Kisiel Dion and Kenneth L. Dion, Multiculturalism and Social Cohesion: Potentials and Challenges of Diversity (New York: Springer, 2009); Jeffrey G. Reitz, Rupa Banerjee, Mai Phan and Jordan Thompson, “Race, Religion, and the Social Integration of New Immigrant Minorities in Canada,” International Migration Review, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 2009), pp. 695–726.

4 Jeffrey G. Reitz, Mai Phan and Rupa Banerjee, “Gender Equity in Canada’s Newly Growing Religious Minorities,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 38, No. 5 (2015), pp. 681–699.

5 Philip Oreopoulos, “Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Thirteen Thousand Résumés,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Vol. 3, No. 4 (November 2011), pp. 148–171.

6 Anny Bakalian and Medhi Bozorgmehr, Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009).

7 Jeffrey G. Reitz, Patrick Simon and E. Laxer, “Muslims’ Social Inclusion and Exclusion in France, Québec and Canada: Does National Context Matter?”, paper presented at the 18th ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, July 15, 2014, retrieved here.

8 Abdolmohammad Kazemipur, The Muslim Question in Canada: A Story of Segmented Integration (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014).