Muslims in Canada: Findings from the 2007 Environics Survey

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Michael Adams
President
Environics Research Group

Even in countries with long histories of mass immigration, specific migrant groups sometimes garner particular concern or attention. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants to Canada arrived almost exclusively from Christian Europe. But religious divisions among Christians were vastly more charged at the time, and as Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland, and Southern Europe added to the ranks of the French-speaking Catholics already living in Canada, the Anglo-Protestant elites wrung their hands and worried that these people would never integrate. With attachments to the Vatican that were sometimes seen as undercutting nationalist loyalties, and with a desire for a separate school system that would continue to inculcate Catholicism into new generations, Catholics were seen as a social subgroup that might never successfully fit into Canadian society. Similar doubts were raised in relation to the large numbers of Orthodox Christians emigrating from Eastern Europe.

Today, with Catholics and Orthodox Christians long installed at the heart of mainstream Canadian life, Canadian Muslims are now under special scrutiny.1 Against a global backdrop of concern over terrorism carried out under the banner of militant Islam, as well as a handful of spats about Muslim headcoverings (mostly hijabs and niqabs), some Canadian commentators have expressed concern about whether Muslims who immigrate to this country are willing to adapt to Canada’s secular, liberal norms.

In late 2006 and early 2007, Environics Research Group surveyed Canadian Muslims to gain insight into this minority religious community’s attitudes toward Canada and its desire to participate fully in Canadian life. This study was inspired, to a great extent, by a parallel study conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes project in France, Spain, Germany, and Great Britain. Like the Pew project, the Environics study included a survey of an oversample of Muslims (in Canada’s case, the sample included 500 Muslims) as well as a survey of the population at large designed to measure the general public’s attitudes toward the Muslim minority.

The findings in this article are drawn from telephone interviews conducted with 500 Canadian Muslims and 2,000 members of the Canadian general public. The Muslim survey took place from November 30, 2006 to January 5, 2007. Interviews were conducted in English, French, Arabic, and Urdu. Comparisons with census data indicate the survey sample mirrors the total Canadian Muslim population in demographic characteristics as well as regional distribution. The general population survey occurred between December 8 and December 30, 2006. Interviews were conducted in English and French.

The survey results offer cause for optimism about the successful integration of Muslim immigrants (about nine in ten Canadian Muslims are foreign-born) into Canadian life. Canadian Muslims expressed simultaneous pride in Canada and pride in Islam, a willingness to participate in and adapt to Canadian norms, and a condemnation of the extremism that is sometimes cast as commonplace in other countries with significant Muslim populations. Although seriously concerned about discrimination and underemployment, Canadian Muslims expressed feelings of goodwill toward Canada and were the least likely Muslim minority in any Western country surveyed to express a sense that the bulk of their compatriots are hostile to Islam.

Canadians at large expressed moder­ately positive views of Islam, but were less likely than Muslims to feel that most Muslims wish to integrate fully into the Canadian mainstream. Likely as a result of this underlying uncertainty about Muslims’ willingness to integrate, the general population was more inclined than the Muslim minority to favour certain measures geared toward forced adaptation, such as a ban on Muslim headscarves in public buildings (although the proportion of Canadians favouring this measure remains a minority).

Muslims are proud of being Canadian, although with less enthusiasm in Quebec

Muslims are proud of being Canadian, although with less enthusiasm in Quebec

Muslims and the population at large do not feel Canadians are hostile to Muslims

Muslims and the population at large do not feel Canadians are hostile to Muslims

General Impressions of Islam and Muslims

Muslims were divided on whether other Canadians’ impression of Islam was generally positive or negative. Half of Canadian Muslims (50%) believed Canadians’ impression of Islam to be positive, while four in ten (39%) believed Canadians have a negative impression of Islam overall. Seven percent thought Canadians’ impression of the Islamic faith was neither positive nor negative.

Notably, when Canadians stated their own impressions of Islam, their answers corresponded closely to Muslims’ expectations. Half of all Canadians (49%) said their impression of Islam was generally positive, while about four in ten (38%) said their impression of the religion was negative. Eight percent said they were neither positive nor negative about Islam.

These results are almost the same as in the Focus Canada omnibus survey in the first quarter of 2004. It is also worth noting that as Canadians’ personal contact with Muslims increases, their impressions of Islam become more positive: among those who said they often encountered Muslims in their daily lives, 70 percent expressed a positive impression of Islam. Among those who rarely or never have personal contact with Muslims, by contrast, just 36 percent had a positive impression of Islam.

Most Muslims in Canada did not see other Canadians as hostile to their coreligionists. When asked to estimate how many Canadians are hostile to Muslims, 16 percent of Canadian Muslims said most (5%) or many (11%) Canadians were hostile. The majority of Muslim Canadians believed just some Canadians (39%) or very few (36%) were hostile to adherents of Islam.

When the general public was asked to make a similar estimate about Canadian hostility toward Muslims, the proportion perceiving hostility was somewhat higher. About three in ten Canadians believed most (7%) or many (21%) Canadians were hostile to Muslims. Forty-four percent believed some Canadians were hostile, while a quarter (24%) saw very few Canadians as being hostile to adherents of Islam.

Canadian Muslims were less likely than Muslims in Great Britain, France, Spain, and Germany to feel hostility from the society in which they live. Seventeen percent of Canadian Muslims felt that most or many Canadians were hostile toward Muslims. This is markedly lower than the proportions of Muslims in Germany (51%), Great Britain (42%), France (39%), and Spain (31%) who felt that most or many of their compatriots were hostile to Muslims.

Integration and Identity

Muslims and the general public both perceived a growing sense of Islamic identity among Canadian Muslims, but differed on whether this was a good thing for Canada. Most Canadian Muslims believed that, overall, Canadian Muslims have a very strong (30%) or fairly strong (42%) sense of Islamic identity. The general population had a very similar perception; most Canadians believed Canadian Muslims have a very strong (27%) or fairly strong (44%) sense of Islamic identity.

Muslim Canadians and the general public also shared the impression that the sense of Islamic identity in Canada was on the rise: 69 percent of Canadian Muslims and 62 percent of all Canadians believed there was a growing sense of Muslim identity in this country. Muslim Canadians differed from the general population, however, in their perception that this growing sense of Islamic identity was a good thing for Canada. Of those Canadian Muslims who saw a growing sense of Islamic identity among their coreligionists, 85 percent believed this was a good thing for Canada and nine percent believed it was bad. By contrast, among members of the general population who perceived a growing sense of Islamic identity in Canada, more than half (56%) saw this as a bad thing for Canada, while just a third (33%) saw it as a good thing.

Canadian Muslims tended to say they were positive about the growing sense of Muslim identity in Canada, because the values of Islam are positive and they believe Canada will benefit from the expression of these values. The population at large, however, expressed reservations about a strengthened Muslim identity in Canada, citing the fear of extremism as the main reason.

Most Canadian Muslims identify first as Muslim, and second as Canadian, but their pride in being Canadian matches the national average. When asked whether they identify first as Muslim or first as Canadian, 56 percent of Canadian Muslims chose Muslim first, while 23 percent chose Canadian first. Notably, 17 percent of Canadian Muslims volunteered the answer that both identities are of equal importance to them. (“Both” was not an option presented by the interviewers to preserve comparability with the Pew surveys in Europe, but in view of participants’ eagerness to employ this answer, the questionnaire will be adjusted in the next wave of Canadian research.)

There is a notable generational difference on this question, with Muslims aged 18 to 29 markedly more likely than average (77%) to describe themselves as Muslim first. Among those in the youngest cohort, 14 percent called themselves Canadian first and eight percent volunteered that they were equally Canadian and Muslim. The question of youth identity is an important one, and not heavily emphasized in this research. Whether young Canadian Muslims’ relatively strong embrace of their minority religious identity is a sign of pride in Islam (which John Berry of Queen’s University would likely count as a positive) or a sign of alienation from the wider Canadian society resulting from discrimination and exclusion (as Jeffrey Reitz and Rupa Banerjee of the University of Toronto might argue) is beyond the scope of this study but obviously bears examination.

While the majority of Canadian Muslims identified themselves first as Muslim, almost all (94%) said they were proud to be Canadian. This proportion is the same as the proportion of all Canadians (93%) who expressed pride in being Canadian. Similar proportions of Muslim Canadians (73%) and the general public (74%) said they were very proud to be Canadian.

Muslims believed their coreligionists want to integrate into Canadian society, while the general public perceived Muslims as wanting to remain separate from the wider society.

When asked whether they thought most Muslims wanted to “adopt Canadian customs and way of life” or “be distinct from the larger Canadian society,” a modest majority (55%) of Muslims said they believed most Muslims wanted to adopt Canadian customs. An additional 13 percent believed their coreligionists wanted both to adopt Canadian customs and remain distinct as a community. Just a quarter of Canadian Muslims (23%) believed that most of their coreligionists in Canada wanted to remain distinct from the wider society.

Among the general population, the proportions were roughly reversed, with just a quarter of all Canadians (25%) believing that most Muslims are interested in adopting Canadian customs, and a majority (57%) believing that Muslims wish to remain distinct. Seven percent of the general public believed Muslim Canadians are interested in both integrating and remaining distinct.

In Canada, the disparity between the opinions of the Muslim community and the general population was the second largest of any country surveyed (after Spain) on this issue. In other words, Canadians were more likely than citizens of France, Germany, or Britain to underestimate the desire of Muslims in their country to integrate into the wider society.

Muslims and the general public diverged notably on support for the recognition of Sharia law and the banning of Muslim headscarves in public institutions. About half of Canadian Muslims (53%) believed Sharia law should be recognized by Canadian governments as a legal basis for Muslims to settle family disputes. A third (34%) believed Sharia law should not be recognized. Among the Canadian public, by contrast, eight in ten (79%) believed that Sharia law should not be recognized by Canadian governments, while just one in ten (11%) supported such recognition.

A divergence of opinion – albeit a less marked one – also emerged on the banning of Muslim headscarves in public places, a measure adopted most notably in public schools in France. Canadian Muslims overwhelmingly (86%) believed that such a ban was a bad idea, while just one in ten (9%) called it a good idea.

Among the Canadian general public, a majority (55%) agreed with Canadian Muslims that the headscarf ban was a bad idea, but over a third (36%) called the ban a good idea. The Canadian public was similar to the British and American publics in expressing majority opposition to the headscarf ban; 57 percent of Americans and 62 percent of Britons believed the ban was a bad idea. By contrast, majorities in Germany (54%) and France (78%) favoured the headscarf ban, while Spain was more divided (48 percent opposed to the ban and 43 percent in favour).

This divergence of opinion between the Canadian Muslim population and the Canadian population at large is, probably, rooted in the two groups’ divergent perceptions of the general willingness of Muslims to integrate into Canadian society. While Muslims were relatively confident that their coreligionists wished to participate in Canadian life – and saw no benefit (or possible harm) in, for example, a ban on headscarves – Canadians at large, particularly Quebecers, were less certain about Muslims’ underlying willingness to integrate and placed great stock in symbolic adaptations, such as the abandonment of religious clothing. Hijabs and niqabs were seen by many secular Canadians, particularly Quebecers from Catholic backgrounds, as symbols of patriarchy and a form of religiosity that Quebec as a society largely abandoned only a few decades ago.

Canadian Muslims and the population at large are the least likely to perceive hostility to Muslims in their country

Canadian Muslims and the population at large are the least likely to perceive hostility to Muslims in their country

Life in Canada

Canadian Muslims expressed satisfaction with life in Canada, reporting that Muslims were better off in Canada than in other Western countries, and that Muslim women enjoyed a higher quality of life in Canada than they would in most Muslim countries. Nevertheless, nearly a third of Canadian Muslims said they had had a negative experience related to their race, ethnicity, or religion in the last two years. In addition, majorities expressed concern about unemployment and discrimination.

In Canada, Muslim satisfaction with the direction of the country was higher than the national average. Eight in ten Muslim Canadians (81%), compared to six in ten members of the general public (61%), expressed overall satisfaction at the way things were going in Canada. Canadian Muslims expressed greater satisfaction with the direction in which their country was headed than did Muslims in France, Germany, Spain, or Great Britain.

Three quarters of Canadian Muslims believed Muslims were treated better in Canada than in other Western countries. Another 17 percent saw Muslims as experiencing similar treatment in Canada to what Muslims encounter in other Western countries. Just three percent believed they were worse off in Canada than their coreligionists in other countries in the West.

Seven in ten Canadian Muslims (70%) believed the quality of life for Muslim women was better in Canada than in most Muslim countries. Twenty-three percent believed Muslim women’s quality of life in Canada was about the same as it would be in most Muslim countries. Just three percent saw Muslim women as worse off in Canada. Canadian Muslims (70%) were markedly more likely than those in France (62%), Britain (58%), Germany (50%), or Spain (46%) to see Muslim women as better off than they would be in most Muslim countries.

Three in ten Canadian Muslims reported experiences of discrimination in the previous two years. Thirty percent of Canadian Muslims said they had “had a bad experience” due to their race, ethnicity, or religion in the last two years. Canadian Muslims were roughly average in this regard. They were more likely than German (19%), Spanish (25%), or British (28%) Muslims to report negative experiences related to ethnicity or religion, but less likely than French Muslims (37%) to report the same. Notably, the youngest cohort of Canadian Muslims was the most likely to report an experience of discrimination: 42 percent of those aged 18 to 29 reported such an experience, 11 points above the Muslim average. Women were also more likely than men to say they had been discriminated against, a disparity that may be linked to headscarves, which identify women as Muslim.

When Canadian Muslims were asked to rate their level of concern about a slate of issues relating to Muslim life in Canada, the proportions saying they were very or somewhat worried was highest on the issues of discrimination (67%) and unemployment (64%). Smaller, but still significant, proportions of Muslims declared themselves to be very or somewhat concerned about extremism among Canadian Muslims (53%), the influence of music, movies, and television on Muslim youth in Canada (49%), and the declining importance of religion among Canadian Muslims (48%). Muslim Canadians expressed markedly less concern about women taking on modern roles in society (26%).

Muslims say they want to adopt Canadian customs, but the population at large doubts this

Muslims say they want to adopt Canadian customs, but the population at large doubts this

Extremism and Terror

Canadian Muslims expressed minimal support for extremists who claim to act in the name of Islam, and estimated very low levels of support among their fellow Muslims in Canada for extremist activities. Muslims living in Canada felt a terrorist attack perpetrated by Canadians of Muslim background was very unlikely. In addition, a large majority of Canadian Muslims felt a strong responsibility to report on potentially violent extremists in their communities.

Four in ten Canadian Muslims (40%) believed there was a struggle in this country between moderate and extremist Muslims. Of those who believed such a struggle was afoot, 80 percent personally identified with the moderate side, while 14 percent identified with the extremist side, though it is by no means clear that most (or even any) among this subgroup were prone to act on those views, especially with regard to violence. The general public (56%) was more likely than Muslims themselves to perceive a struggle between moderates and extremists in the Muslim community.

When asked to rate the likelihood that Canada would experience terrorist attacks in the near future carried out by Canadians of Muslim background, eight in ten Muslims described such an event as not very (21%) or not at all (60%) likely. About one in ten Muslim Canadians thought a domestic terror attack was either very (3%) or somewhat (8%) likely.

The general public was considerably more likely than the Muslim population to believe a terrorist attack perpetrated by Canadians with a Muslim background was likely. Most Canadians saw such an attack as either very (19%) or somewhat (40%) likely. A minority said it was not very (26%) or not at all (11%) likely.

Canadian Muslims felt a strong responsibility to be vigilant about extremists in their communities. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Canada believed ordinary, law-abiding Muslims have a responsibility to “report on potentially violent extremists they might encounter in their mosques and communities.” Seven in ten Muslim Canadians (72%) said that ordinary Muslims have a great deal of responsibility to report on potentially violent extremists they may encounter. An additional 15 percent said law-abiding Muslims have at least some responsibility in this regard. Just six percent of Muslim Canadians felt no responsibility at all to report on extremists they suspect might perpetrate violence in the name of Islam.

Three quarters (75%) of Canadian Muslims were aware of the arrests of 18 men and boys in the Greater Toronto Area on terrorism charges in 2006. Of those Muslims who reported an awareness of these arrests, three quarters (73%) said the attacks, if carried out, would have been not at all justified. Thirteen percent (of the 75 percent subsample who had heard of the arrests) said the attacks would have been either completely (5%) or somewhat (8%) justified. The combined total of those in the subsample saying the attacks would have been at least somewhat justified (13%) amounted to a little under 10 percent of the overall sample.

Asked whether they had any sympathy with the feelings and motives of those who allegedly wanted to carry out the attacks, eight in ten Canadian Muslims (82%) said they had no sympathy with the young men’s feelings and motives. Nine percent expressed some sympathy with the young men, while two percent expressed mixed feelings.

When asked to estimate how many Muslims in Canada supported extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, just three percent of Muslims believed that most (2%) or many (1%) of their coreligionists in Canada supported such groups. Eight in ten Canadian Muslims said that just some (11%), very few (61%), or no (11%) Muslims in Canada supported extremist groups. Fifteen percent of Canadian Muslims said they did not know how many Muslims in this country supported such organizations.

Muslims were notably less likely than the population at large to imagine support among the Canadian Muslim population for extremist groups. Still, among Canadians at large, just 13 percent estimated that most (5%) or many (8%) Muslims in Canada supported al Qaeda and other such organizations. Most Canadians believed that just some (26%) or very few (51%) Muslims in Canada supported such groups.

Conclusion

The findings of the Environics survey of Canadian Muslims, as well as the survey of the Canadian general public on Muslim participation in Canadian society, reveal areas of concern and misunderstanding, but also a strong foundation of goodwill between Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians. Environics research shows that in their optimism, aspirations, and feelings of both Canadian and minority-group pride, Muslims in Canada have much in common with other immigrant groups in this country both past and present.

When the status, treatment, and behaviour of a minority group becomes politically charged – as in the case of Muslims today – sustained quantitative research into both attitudes and outcomes (such as employment outcomes, efforts toward social and political participation, and experiences of discrimination) can be an invaluable corrective to the sometimes inflammatory soundbites on the nightly news.

Environics Research Group intends to update this important survey in 2009 or 2010.

Notes

  1. Other minority religious groups, most notably Sikhs, have also been scrutinized at various moments in the last few decades. International events, including the September 11th attacks, the London transit bombings, and various cultural clashes in Europe (such as international Muslim anger over a Danish cartoonist’s depictions of the Prophet Mohammed) have conspired to make scrutiny of, and anxiety about, Canada’s Muslim minority especially intense.

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Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, Beyond 20/20 Professional Browser 97F0022xCb01004.IVT