Montrealers following sensational headlines linking Muslims to terrorism or honour killings experience a range of reactions. Some become convinced that Muslims are different and threatening. Others, such as new Canadian Muslims, experience dread.
Like the Jewish community, Montreal Muslims have been targeted by hate crimes. Mosques in Verdun, Dorval and Gatineau have been vandalized in the last few years. After one such attack, Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal said, “These attacks go against the very Canadian values and principles that we are all committed to and must be condemned in the strongest terms.”
But many Montrealers—who work, go to school and get along just fine with their Muslim neighbours—are puzzled by the disconnect between the headlines and the people they know.
It is for them that Doug Saunders has written The Myth of the Muslim Tide (Alfred.A. Knopf, Canada), a lucid, eloquent and compassionate call to reason that deconstructs one by one the claims and fears that have insidiously slipped into our collective discourse since 9/11.
“These claims began with obscure blog posts and work by hard-core anti-Muslim activists,” Saunders wrote in a column in the Globe and Mail. “But around 2005 they spread to popular books. Eventually, they also erupted into national politics in a dozen countries.”
Saunders says that the “Muslim tide” rhetoric lay behind Pauline Marois’s push to ban the hijab for public employees and Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay’s declaration that PQ candidate Djemila Benhabib was trying to “dictate how we behave” and impose her non-Christian “rules” on this province.
Saunders says he is not here to defend Islam. “I’m writing this for the person who has questions about these new people in the neighbourhood wearing headscarves, having beards, and these headlines about Islamic terrorism. What’s the connection between these two things? People looking for answers are not racist, not bigots—they want an answer. But the only answers available have been these books arguing that there is a secret Muslim tide and they’re not going to integrate, they’re going to take over, or books written by believers, saying, ‘Ours is a religion of peace and you’re all racist to be saying this.’ I’m not interested if someone’s religion is good or not, I’m just interested in what they’re going to do.”
It was in the course of researching his previous book, Arrival City, an analysis of immigrant neighbourhoods, that Saunders became aware of what he calls a revolution in scholarly, institutional and statistical knowledge of immigrant groups in the West. “We actually can have empirical answers about both the beliefs and the actual behaviour of immigrants.”
Through the lenses of demographics and history, Saunders examines such claims as: “Muslim immigrants are not loyal to their host countries,” or “Muslims want to set up ‘Sharia courts’ in Western countries.” What emerges is a sobering and refreshing dose of common sense, grounded in hard facts. He shows that the concept of encroaching “aliens” is not a new phenomenon, that the Irish Catholic and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were also received as such. Saunders says that because of communications technologies aiding a secularizing trend across the world, citizens of any great city have more in common now than they would have 100 years ago.
“Now you do get Muslim immigrants, a few, who are living within a world all consumed by religion, people from some remote parts of Kashmir and so on. But somebody who calls himself a Muslim and attends mosque every week is not living the same life as somebody a century ago. Iranians, subject to the only Islamic theocracy in the world, have gone from having seven children each in the ’80s to having 1.7 children each now.
“To have a family that small you first have to accept birth control as a natural part of your life—a decision largely made by women—and you must accept a certain role of women. This indicates that other changes are happening that you could call secularizing. And among immigrants, this is happening much more.”