06/23/2016 01:16 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 11:59 EDT

Building More Mosques Won't Solve Canada's Islamophobia Problem

AHMED FARWAN via Getty Images
Construction cranes are seen in Saudi Arabia's holy Muslim city of Mecca on September 12, 2015, a day after a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque. This year's Muslim Hajj pilgrimage will go ahead despite a crane collapse which killed more than 100 people at the Grand Mosque of Mecca, a Saudi official told AFP. AFP PHOTO / AHMED FARWAN (Photo credit should read AHMED FARWAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Given Islam's origins in the Arab peninsula, sand is something that many Muslims are not entirely unfamiliar with. Many Canadian Muslims migrated from sand-rich countries. Thousands of Canadian Muslims join the many millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca every year. Sand is thus not novel for Muslims. It is familiar. So nobody should be especially surprised to learn that "let's bury our head in the sand" is a sport that too many Canadian Muslims play rather well.

Let's step back with some context, first. 2015 was a vintage year for Canadian Muslims. It emerged with an electoral voice after years of political reticence. An estimated 79 per cent of Canadian Muslims voted in the federal election, a sharp upturn from the estimated 46.5 per cent who voted in 2011. Stephen Harper's Islamophobia motivated Canadian Muslims to vote -- which they did, and overwhelmingly against his party. A staggering 98 per cent of Canadian Muslims voted against the Conservatives.

This participation was important not just for Canadian Muslims, but all Canadians -- one of the country's largest communities partook in this defining act of civil society. Participation signaled ownership. Migration is not like instant coffee. It takes decades to effect. So this particular voter participation was heartening because it reflected the reality that Canadian Muslims increasingly see Canada as "home." In the face of rising Islamophobia, led by none other than the prime minister, Canadian Muslims weren't leaving. They had migrated. They were Canadian.

The problem? Well, it's slipperier than that. The real problem for Canada's Muslims is that they ignore their biggest problems. The collective head is somewhat in the sand. You'd think that Canada's Muslims would allocate resources to the issues that they most stress or worry about, but they don't.

Hate crimes against Muslims have more than doubled in three years though hate crimes nationally have declined.

Is the community waiting for the Mehdi, a prophesied redeemer of Islam, to fix matters for them? Or is there an inertia of this is what we did before and it's what we're going to continue to do? Probably the latter. What are these sources of angst? Two things stand out above all else, obvious not only in the empirical research but also in social media and the natters at the baklava stand.

First, there's Islamophobia. Some 54 per cent of Canadians distrust Muslims, a much higher level of fear than of any other religious community. Hate crimes against Muslims have more than doubled in three years though hate crimes nationally have declined. Seven per cent of Canadian Muslims rank Islamophobia as the most important issue facing the entire country, not just their own community. That's up from four per cent in 2006. Meanwhile, 35 per cent of Canadian Muslims feel that Islamophobia is the most important issue facing the community specifically. Islamophobia alarms Canadian-born Muslim women especially. In a survey published in 2016, 62 per cent of them said they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about discrimination against Muslims.

Islamophobia, as you might expect, ties into the second serious problem that Canadian Muslims face -- economic discrimination. Unemployment amongst Canada's 1.1 million Muslims is almost twice as high as it is for the population at large despite Canada's Muslims being far better formally educated than the national average. Little wonder that while 13 per cent of the national population consider unemployment to be the most important issue facing Canada today, 18 per cent of Canadian Muslims consider it the most important issue. In the same earlier survey, a striking 53 per cent of the community claimed that it was either 'very worried' or 'somewhat worried' about unemployment.

Building mosques is neither going to challenge Islamophobia nor give jobs to Muslims.

In light of these pressing concerns, where does the community dedicate its resources? What is it trying to fix? Well, one thing is for sure, it's not towards tackling Islamophobia or Muslim unemployment. My estimate, having gotten to understand who is doing what in this space over the last couple of years, is that in 2015, Canadian Muslims probably didn't even allocate a combined million dollars in the direction of tackling their two major anxieties. In other words, on average, each Muslim gave less than the cost of a small Tim Hortons coffee towards the two issues that Canadian Muslims are most stressed about.

So, what causes then do Canadian Muslims contribute to? The bulk of social and community funding goes to charitable work and developing mosques. Muslims give tens of millions of dollars to charities. Two leading recipient organisations are Islamic Development Relief and Islamic Relief, who between themselves raised almost C$21 million from (overwhelmingly Muslim) public donations in 2015 for desperate people, mostly outside of Canada. At one level, this does little to resolve either Islamophobia or Muslim unemployment. In fairness, it also speaks volumes about the community's selflessness -- helping people who are often without food, water and shelter. It would be wrong to fault this.

The other big cause that Canadian Muslims contribute to is in building mosques -- which now needs some Ramadan-inspired self-reflection. Just west of Toronto, there are mosques going up in Mississauga, Oakville and Hamilton to the tune of C$35 million. It's possible that the total funding being assembled for mosques across Canada stands at C$100 million. I'd not raise an eyebrow if Canadian Muslims had infinite resources or their lot was hunky dory. However, building mosques is neither going to challenge Islamophobia nor give jobs to Muslims. The point that Haroon Moghul makes about the U.S. is as valid here in Canada:

"We've spent tens of millions of dollars in the United States, for example, and on what? We have some nice mosques. Most of them are empty most of the week, except for a few hours every Friday afternoon. We built some Islamic schools. I guess that's cool. But on the major metric, we've failed. It feels as if we are more unpopular than ever."

Tackling Islamophobia or Canadian Muslim unemployment is a problem not just for Canadian Muslims, but for all Canadians, meaning society and state. We, all Canadians, suffer from hate mongering and economic discrimination. That being said, if Canadian Muslims don't lead the effort to tackle these issues, including educating that same society and state, little will get accomplished. And to lead that effort, Canadian Muslims need to start thinking more strategically, aligning their limited resources to the issues that matter most to them. For now, most of the community can get by with the small mosques that it's been used to.

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