New book examines diaspora by design

Diaspora by Design: Muslim Immigrants in Canada and Beyond, co-authored by York School of Social Sciences Professors Haideh Moghissi, Saeed Rahnema and Mark Goodman, was published Feb. 6 by the University of Toronto Press. The book is the final result of a Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and a parallel project supported by the Ford Foundation (2001-2006).

Introducing the book, the publisher says: “Few groups face as many misconceptions within their new countries as do Muslim immigrants. This book challenges the common misperceptions of Muslim immigrants as a homogeneous, religiously driven group, and identifies the tensions they experience within their host countries."

Diaspora by Design is a comparative, multi-ethnic study based on 2,350 interviews conducted with individuals of Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani and Palestinian origin in Canada, and comparator groups in the United Kingdom, Iran and Palestinian occupied territories. Reflecting collaboration with researchers in several countries as well as teams working in local communities in the GTA, Montreal and Vancouver, the book includes interviews, focus groups and media analysis as well as an analysis of census data and government reports to provide a statistical and qualitative profile of each community. Diaspora by Design provides an analysis of family and spousal relations, religious identities and identification, and problems of youth caught between two generations. 

Issues of social and economic integration and the challenging experience of “not belonging” are central. The study finds that the four communities are sharply differentiated in their religious involvement. In fact, issues of gender, class, ethnicity, rural-urban origin, age and the like crosscut these groups and give particular shape to their social, political and religious attitudes. It also finds that immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in Canada have a higher level of education than the national Canadian average but are much more likely to be unemployed; these persons also evidence a substantial gap between their educational preparation and qualifications and their occupations in country of origin and the jobs they are able to secure in Canada. 

This is a detailed empirical study, and does not hesitate to identify certain policy concerns. The authors argue that social integration for any minority group is a multi-faceted process, and that for it to be effective and lasting, it must also be reciprocal – a genuine two-way process in which there is give and take on both sides. Social integration becomes a reality only when it occurs gradually, reflecting growth in the migrant’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. If this happens, then abandoning certain cultural practices and adopting new ones does not threaten a person’s ethnocultural identity.

This can be contrasted with the more common situation, where an imposed identity is reluctantly accepted in the new country by individuals subject to public scrutiny within the host society, but shed like a badly fitting uniform when the individual is safely at home in the private domain of family. To that end, the authors point out, it is necessary to seriously and continuously interrogate the institutions and relations that attack peoples’ sense of self-worth, agency and dignity. They emphasize the need to adopt forcefully implemented anti-racist and multicultural policies that can address inequalities and erase the residue of colonial mentalities. 

Without hesitating to note the incidence of self-defeating and isolating behaviours among a conservative self-identified Muslim minority (often overplayed in the media), the authors stress that the great majority of populations of Muslim cultural background came to Canada, as to other Western countries, in the hope of finding a decent life free from violence, disrespect, discrimination and harassment. They find it remarkable and important that despite clear dissatisfaction with levels of occupational and economic achievement which fall below what could be expected on the basis of previous experience and education, most respondents (some 70 per cent) insist that the decision to migrate to Canada was the right one.  

Moghissi, Rahnema and Goodman suggest that “this is something that the larger society can build upon in the direction of promoting an equitable, multicultural and socially cohesive society.” But they warn that “if people live on the margins and feel that the future is unknown, uncertain and insecure, they may easily be driven to cling to the past as a means of preserving their sense of identity, dignity and self-worth." They conclude that “facilitating the move of diasporas from the past into the future is one of the most complex and challenging questions facing them and their new countries.”