Being Muslim in Canada: Subverting stereotypes and challenging narratives

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

"I am a Muslim. But I am also not just a Muslim"

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Given mainstream media's talent for waxing hysterical about Muslims without actually talking to any, anthologies like The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self edited by Nurjehan Aziz are both timely and necessary, especially in a post-9/11 world.

The collection features prominent members of the cultural and intellectual community and their accounts and analyses of what it means to be Muslim in Canada.

The 11 essays in this book deal with a range of issues like the complexity and multiplicity of Canadian Muslims' identities; the pervasiveness of Islamophobia, including at the highest levels of Canadian politics, and Muslim responses; critiques of seemingly-neutral concepts, like secularism and multiculturalism, that are often used to understand or problematize the place of Islam and Muslims in Canada; and Muslims' efforts to re-interpret sacred texts and traditions for contemporary Canadian life.

The terrain of Islamophobia in Canada, particularly during the Harper decade, is canvassed in contributions by recently retired editor emeritus at The Toronto Star Haroon Siddiqui and Ihsaan Gardee and Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Some highlights of this ugly territory: the long-simmering panic about the niqab, climaxing in federal attempts to ban the face-veil at citizenship ceremonies; the obsession with "barbaric (Muslim) cultural practices" such as forced marriage, polygamy, and "honour killing," which constitute a small percentage of violence against women in Canada, but apparently required special legislation and a dedicated tip-line to address; the passage of increasingly draconian anti-terrorism laws, justified by reference to the threat posed by "Islamic terrorism," "Islamic extremism," or some variant thereof; and the vilification and abandonment of Omar Khadr, the child soldier imprisoned, tortured, and prosecuted in Guantanamo Bay.

The "war on terror," and the Islamophobia used to propel it, have profoundly shaped Muslim identity in Canada. Editor Nurjehan Aziz remarks on the ubiquitous concern about Islamophobia throughout the volume: "one observation was almost universal: recently in Canada Muslims have found themselves the objects of vilification and discrimination. Being a Muslim then means being a victim."

However, it is clear from several of the anthology's essays that being a Muslim means much more than passively "being a victim" of anti-Muslim racism, for Muslim communities continuously resist and challenge the discourses used to securitize, marginalize, and demonize.

Zainub Verjee cites Mississauga's annual Muslim Festival -- a showcase of the city's diverse Muslim population -- to illustrate Muslims' contestation of Islamophobic narratives. "The performance of Muslims at the Festival uses Celebration Square (a public space or commons) in a subversive way to create a dissenting narrative and takes a central role to counter the Western discourses such as that of securitized identities and niqab issues," argues Verjee.

Insisting on the diversity and multi-dimensionality of Muslim Canadians' identities is also a form of resistance: resistance to popular frames attempting to confine Muslims to some "essential" and monolithic Muslim Other (which is almost-inevitably violent, fundamentalist, backwards, and patriarchal -- qualities antithetical to supposed "Canadian values").

As novelist Ameen Merchant writes, "My sense of my Muslim identity [ . . . .] is multifarious, absorbent, and always subject to change. [ . . . ] I am a Muslim. But I am also not just a Muslim."

Human rights advocate's Monia Mazigh's piece is a compelling example of how Muslim women challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam, subverting (yet again!) the stereotype of the oppressed and voiceless Muslim woman.

Dr. Mazigh's own campaign to free her husband Maher Arar, who was detained and tortured in Syria for over a year, demonstrates that Canadian Muslim women's struggles for justice are waged on several fronts: against the abuses of patriarchy and the abuses of national security, against our subjugation as women and our subjugation as Muslims.

There are, however, some salient issues left unaddressed by The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada.

Most significantly, the anthology does not include any contributions from several communities that are persistently marginalized in accounts of North American Muslim life, including Black Muslims, Southeast Asian Muslims, and Indigenous Muslims. This reinforces the conflation of Islam with South Asian and Arab identity, and prevents analysis of the multiple systems of racism that inflect Muslim histories and experiences in Canada.

Hopefully, future volumes will expand on the scope of this one, sharpening our critical picture of what it means to be Muslim and what it means to be Canadian.


Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law and the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she completed a Masters of Law specializing in Islamic Law.


related items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.