Road to Congress: Easing pressures within the Muslim diaspora

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on researchers Haideh Moghissi, Saeed Rahnema and Mark Goodman, professors in the School of Social Sciences in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, who are examining relations between Muslim diasporas and host societies in the West.

The UN has some staggering statistics about the numbers of migrants who will arrive in industrially developed regions between 2005 and 2050: Some 98 million migrants will leave their countries, and nearly a tenth of the flow will come to Canada – approximately 200,000 individuals annually.

Challenges and opportunities to homelands and host countries are enormous, especially to the men and women who move. Migrant populations are always subject to extraordinary pressures, politically, economically and culturally.

York Professors Haideh Moghissi, Saeed Rahnema and Mark Goodman are working to get a clearer picture of some of these pressures among a select group of migrants and citizens coming to Canada from majority-Muslim countries (Iranians, Afghanis, Pakastanis and Palestinians). They hope to bring to light some of the complex problems experienced by these groups with the help of a SSHRC-funded project called Diaspora, Islam and Gender.

“What part do social class, gender and religious background play when someone emigrates, and what role does the host country play in how well diaspora settle? These are some of the basic issues we’ve been considering in our research,” says Moghissi, the project’s principal investigator.

The York team of social science professors has found a connection between the chilly reception of migrants of Muslim backgrounds in the new country and Muslims’ growing social isolation, their fear of loss of identity, a resistance to assimilation and their social conservatism, particularly with regard to gender roles. They note the specific socio-economic and political reasons why some communities or individuals suddenly exaggerate their Muslim identities, and resist integration into mainstream society of the host country.

“An inhospitable climate in the host societies, formation of ‘third worlds within the first world’, isolation, social exclusion and cultural marginality, as well as aggressive turns in global politics, are the main reasons for a new awareness of ‘Muslim identity’ among the groups that we are talking about,” Moghissi says.

This new awareness, the researchers suggest, is associated with more conservative gender relations within the family, justifying them in the name of religion. If husbands and wives don’t find a new understanding about gender roles, this can lead to further tensions and even domestic violence.

“Without overlooking the fact that some forms of Muslim cultural expression are extreme and invite hostile reactions from the host society, we need to look at the powerful influence of social factors and to understand the surprising ways that ‘Islamic’ values and practices are expressed,” says Moghissi.

“For example, our research reveals major differences between an immigrant’s education and the level of job he or she attains in Canada. When those with a high level of education cannot get beyond a low-paying job – or perhaps cannot even find work – then enormous pressures build within the home and outside it.

“We’ve found that about one-third of the diaspora of Muslim cultures in Canada felt people here had become hostile toward them since the events of 9/11,” says Moghissi. “They also felt that changes in immigration rules have made it easier for them to be deported to dangerous places and made it harder for other potential migrants of Muslim backgrounds to move to Canada.”

The researchers fear that ideologically-driven Islamic teachings and politically motivated religious messages might find fertile soil in the minds of the disenfranchised, alienated youth of Muslim background in the West.

Moghissi, however, cautions against over-generalization about communities of Islamic cultures and the individuals within each community. “Our research findings show remarkable variance in how people respond to the social pressures, racism, and the cultural and economic exclusions.

“A large number of people of Muslim background, in fact, fight against cultural stereotypes targeting Muslims and their own exclusion by rising to the challenge to excel and to claim their space, with or without the support of the mainstream society and its institutions.”

Moghissi adds, “In the end, it is serious anti-racist policies and programs that will assist Muslim immigrants integrate into their host societies. Getting good jobs with decent incomes, social respectability, and equal rights and conditions, will promote a dignified sense of selfhood and encourage sense of belonging to the adopted country.

“If we could achieve this, then the conservative Islamist groups would have a much smaller influence on the diaspora.”

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.