Religious students look to reconcile themselves with an increasingly secular culture while maintaining their beliefs.
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For students of faith, the university space poses unique challenges regarding reconciliation with the self and the world. Faith is not erasable; for those who are religious, it exists at the core of their conscience and defines their sense of dignity.
When spaces that foster faith do not exist, are lacking, or are threatened at university, communities of faith become ‘othered.’
To build true inclusivity, it is important to reflect upon the unique experiences of people of faith and how it is possible to build new dialogues, relationships, and solidarities that can forge real plurality in Canada.
Why faith matters
Sarim Irfan, a Muslim first-year student at the University of Toronto, sees his faith and worldview as intertwined. His faith has played a major role in determining his morals, values, and general sense of conduct.
“The Islamic perspective influences me such that, where problems arise, I look for the outcome that satisfies the most people without compromising my religious rules and regulations,” Irfan reveals. “Islam preaches love and respect for others, as well as steadfastness in practice,” he explains.
Martha Nussbaum, an ethics theorist at the University of Chicago, argues for the importance of accommodating different belief systems. She writes that two elements make people equal: dignity and freedom of conscience. Though the sources of dignity may differ, possessing it always means having autonomy over your mind and body.
For Ifran and others like him, faith is a filter through which to reason, evaluate, and view the world, and to realize dignity in the sense that Nussbaum describes. To learn and embrace each other’s faith opens up a channel to mutual understanding.
Fady Andraws, an Egyptian Orthodox student, describes her faith in a similar way. She sees it as a vital part of her culture, family life, and value system. “It provides an ethical code, as well as a familial and national identity,” she reflects.
For others, the integration of faith and behaviour happens more gradually.
“I’ve begun the process of incorporating my religious beliefs in my day to day life,” comments Monique Gill of the Sikh Students Association. “Specifically, Sikhism places a high value on community service or ‘seva’ and for the past few years I’ve been restructuring my personal and career goals with seva in mind. This relationship between belief and action in Sikhism is what I’ve been focusing on implementing as an integral part of my worldview.”
However, when people of faith’s personal experiences, worldviews, and dignities are subject to reduction and homogenization, the consequences are alarming. This is evident in the way popular Western culture commonly portrays Islam — not as a faith comprised of unique individuals and diverse communities, but as a monolithic, dangerous ‘ideology.’
Being the ‘other’
It is clear that religious beliefs are not just individual and personal. They are subject to politicization, which may result in exclusion and even violence.
At a Québec City mosque in February, a white university student massacred six praying Muslims. Atrocities like this shed light on the skepticism people of faith may have surrounding the Canadian narrative of multiculturalism, progressiveness, and tolerance.
The regularity with which the Muslim community is described as separate from a Canadian identity accentuates a pitfall of Canada’s multiculturalism myth.
At a vigil held at the University of Toronto for the Québec City attack, Muslim third-year Afghan Students Society Vice-President Madina Siddiqui vocalized the challenge of her own competing identities. “I grew up with little knowledge of my own culture. And my parents always pushed me to be more Canadian. To learn English. To forget my own culture,” she said.
One way to understand Siddiqui’s experience is to conclude that the visibility of visible minorities of faith — whether at mosques, in the appearance of niqabs or beards, or in foreign names — is not always accepted as ‘Canadian.’
That Muslim Canadians are made to view their faith and their Canadian identity as competing attributes demonstrates how assimilation marginalizes these minority groups.
The Québec attack is part of a broader history of Islamophobia; it is not new on campus, let alone in other spaces in Canada. Siddiqui’s speech cited an event that took place in 2006, when a female Muslim student was assaulted at Hart House. The following day, on International Women’s Day, female Muslim students were egged.
Ten years later, in late 2016, St. Michael’s College student executives were exposed for Islamophobic behaviour via leaked Snapchat videos. Despite how internationally-accepting the University of Toronto appears to be, it is clear that Islamophobia systematically thrives here.
What is more, the response to Islamophobia is not sufficient, as the denunciation of Islamophobia by public officials has been criticized for being superficial.
For example, York University-based spoken word poet Nasim Asgari told CP24 that the presence and speeches of Mayor John Tory and Liberal Member of Parliament Bill Morneau at the Québec City vigil were merely symbolic and hollow.
Asgari argued that politicians are complicit in the lack of police accountability in the deaths of racialized folks in Toronto and contribute to a largely obscured but real structure of Islamophobia by crafting legislation like the Cultural Barbaric Practices Act and Bill C-51 — both of which, it has been argued, target Muslims.
The Toronto police killing of 18-year-old Muslim Sammy Yatim in 2013 serves as a painful reminder that an Islamophobic structure exists in this city. Hence, the veneer of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ at vigils and descriptions of attacks as ‘senseless’ do not mask the underlying structural cause of such violent attacks: the othering of visible faith minorities.
Belief in the university space
Finding spaces where solidarity between communities develops is wonderful in theory, but carving out spaces of mutual respect and tolerance remains challenging. The reality of existing as an other means looking for safe spaces where your values are not only shared, but considered.
A central challenge for people of faith in Canada is the clash between their deeply rooted beliefs and a secular culture that demands assimilation. In the midst of this tension, people of faith are compelled to learn to mediate between worlds, reshape their identities, and form communities.
The university space may be the first place that many students are challenged to actively practice their beliefs away from their families or communities.
Joining a student association lent Gill a sense of community within Canada. Since Sikhism is often tied geographically to the state of Punjab in India, Gill says it is quite common to see a person of Punjabi culture practicing Sikhism. This sentiment led her to the Sikh Students Association in hopes of meeting people with a similar background.
“Being a part of this faith group has opened me up to a process in which I examine the intertwining of culture and faith specifically in looking at gendered practices in this Punjabi-Sikh community,” Gill says. “That being said, the Sikh Students Association goes out of our way to distinguish between practices of religion and practices of culture as we find it makes the space more inclusive by encouraging people of any race to join.”
She adds that reaching out to her faith community and discussing how fellow second generation immigrants practice their faith has helped her navigate the Western and South Asian binary. “I’ve always needed support in coming to terms with my contemporary Toronto lifestyle while also balancing the way I practice Sikhism so this community that I’ve reached out to has really supported me in that,” Gill says.
These spaces help students of faith feel supported and affirmed and provide them with a venue to have their concerns addressed.
Andraws feels that having a faith group is important to her on both spiritual and social levels: “Being part of a faith group gives me more friends, more support, and more people who have my struggles. In general, it’s just really hard to meet people on campus.”
“[The Egyptian Orthodox Student Group has] a lot of people downtown who help each other and pray for each other,” Andraws says.
University is meant to be a space that encourages students to explore new ideas. For faith perspectives, this can mean an opportunity for philosophical exchange, dialogue, and inquiry.
Alternative worldviews can initially create discomfort, alienation, and fragmentation. Where ideas and beliefs diverge, we can turn to Nussbaum’s ideas about dignity, which remind us that mutual respect and tolerance are possible.
In some cases, the proliferation of new ideas and perspectives can be the very thing that fosters faith.
Gill speaks on how the university environment helped her find faith. “Being in Equity Studies has really developed my self awareness (ideologically) alongside an understanding of how I situate myself in the world socially, economically, geographically,” she says. “I feel like the growth of my character coincided with the growth of my faith because in addition to acknowledging my privilege and positionality, I explored my identity through analyzing my worldview and religious roots.”
However, not all students find the freedom to express their beliefs. It can be hard to find like-minded people, and it can be exhausting to constantly defend one’s own beliefs.
“This may also be due to the fact that I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Andraws says, “But I find that I’m continuously experiencing a culture shock with the things my peers do and say. I also find it difficult to stand up for things I believe in. I find myself being unable to confidently answer questions about my faith. Some people ask questions for really sinister reasons, or to find faults in you as a person, so they can push academic faults on you as well.”
For some, the juxtaposition of faith and an academic university setting makes for opportunities as well as tensions.
“If a prayer time comes about while I’m with friends at [university], I’ll excuse myself from the conversation and pray right there in my seat,” Irfan says. “People respect that I am in prayer and do not talk loudly or play music while I pray, and ask polite questions afterwards,” he explains. “Being a person of faith in a secular university space is a conversation starter.”
Earlier this year, grassroots organization Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East hosted Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan to speak to the University of Toronto community on “Creating Thriving Societies in Troubling Times.”
The phrase “Troubling Times,” as it pertains to religious discrimination, does not refer exclusively to the state of affairs south of the border where President Donald Trump has assumed office. In 2015, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government supported policies that marginalized womens’ choices to wear a niqab and defended the securitization of Syrian refugees as potential terrorist threats.
It has been over 15 years since past American President George Bush declared a ‘War on Terror,’ which has emphasized radical Islamic terrorist groups.
Since then, the West — including Canada — has continually deployed discourse about ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ that inadvertently or explicitly criminalizes Islam.
Ramadan challenges Muslims and non-Muslims alike to reclaim the discourse of jihad in terms of its original meaning: a dual struggle to resist bad and promote good in every dimension. Doing this, Ramadan argues, would help to illuminate the fact that Islam’s values are part of universal values that can help us offer solidarity and humanize one another.
In a deep condemnation of the global rise of nationalism and discourses surrounding ‘my people first,’ Ramadan insists that a pluralistic society with multiple narratives should and can prosper when we fight for each other’s communities.
He calls us all to wage a jihad in struggles like Black Lives Matter, gender equity, and climate justice, because ultimately, they are all rooted in philosophical and faith communities that converge toward a defense of human dignity.
Ramadan’s call for pluralism is, importantly, centred in the recognition that having or practicing faith does not preclude holding other identities. Embracing the plurality of society means embracing the plurality of our own identities.
Hence, to be Muslim does not mean to either not belong in Canada or to practice Islam with a monolithic standard. With nuance and a will to reject popular generalizations, we can better understand ourselves and others and define our own identities.
Fostering mutual respect first means respecting the original faith communities of Canada, as well as the land upon which such respect can develop. Namely, we must defer to Indigenous worldviews.
At this year’s Hart House Hancock Lecture, Anishinaabe artist Susan Blight spoke on “Land and Life in Tkaronto: New Solidarities Toward a Decolonial Future.” Blight, who works to rename roads and landmarks as a means to visibilize the Indigenous history of Toronto, emphasized that Indigenous worldviews are centred around land.
It is on this land that interconnected relationships and communities form — communities which are not marked by shared values, but by time spent together.
In Toronto, cultural diversity and Indigenous resurgence make for a fertile moment in which vibrant relationships are being formed. For example, in 2016, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous communities in Toronto formed conspicuous solidarities against anti-Black police brutality and the Attawapiskat suicide crisis.
It is faith within and between these communities that reminds us that “Black Lives Matter on Indigenous land.”
Whether in the form of street signs or protests, increased Indigenous visibility compels settler Canadians to acknowledge the worldviews of those who have ancestral connections to the land. These encounters can prove fruitful in the quest to form strong interpersonal relationships and communities.
As Blight urges, such relationships can reaffirm the “Dish with One Spoon” treaty: that we must share, protect, and preserve the land together, peacefully. Given that settler colonialism is a living history that concerns all of us, it must be dismantled by all of us if we are to create a more sustainable, inclusive future.
At the University of Toronto, the Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee has just released its report of 32 recommendations on how the university can respond to the legacies of residential schools and ongoing systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.
President Meric Gertler stated that the university “acknowledges its responsibility in contributing to the plight of Indigenous peoples, and we embrace the opportunity to engage with Indigenous communities and, together, lead the process of reconciliation.” The report advises Gertler to create visible Indigenous spaces on campus, hire more Indigenous faculty and staff members, and integrate Indigenous curricula into university education.
Moving past stereotypes, misconceptions, and isolation, it is important to recognize that the Indigenous population of Canada is comprised of plural communities, whose worldviews about interconnectedness and land protection can inform a more harmonious future for the University of Toronto and Canada more broadly. It is not Indigenous beliefs that require scrutiny and dismissal, but rather our disbelief in them.
One can consider the case of Professor Brenda Wastasecoot, a member of the York Factory Cree Nation. In teaching the course “Indigenous Worldviews, Spiritual and Healing Traditions,” she implements Indigenous pedagogy in the most uplifting forms.
Wastasecoot uses circle teaching by which method all students are given a chance to speak. She emphasizes that everyone’s voice, presence, and story must be valued. She is also very candid about her own personal experiences with trauma and abuse and their connections to settler colonialism. Her openness is a radical call to believe in the lived experiences, worldviews, and right to human dignity of marginalized communities of faith.
Wastasecoot also compares the Western mental health system, which bases itself on individual treatment and pharmaceutical drugs, to the Indigenous sweat lodge, which focuses on natural medicine and community healing. Last year, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto opened a sweat lodge — the first of its kind in Ontario.
At the university and in Toronto generally, reclamation of Indigenous spaces and traditions is important for decolonization and how we conceive Indigeneity. When othered people of faith build solidarities with one another under an Indigenous framework of interconnectedness, community, and respect for the land, we can begin constructing a more inclusive future for all.
Learning to listen
People of faith do not exist in a bubble. They learn quickly that disagreeing with a point of view does not disqualify them from creating communities of respect. Not only do students of faith learn from others, but others can learn from them.
“I think I’ve become more open,” Andraws says in reference to her faith practice. “I have a lot of friends that have converted, and I think understanding all faiths is incredibly important. Not only to ‘defend’ your own, but to [understand] what is out there. It makes you appreciate other people, and it gives you an opportunity to solidify your own beliefs.”
So, perhaps there is hope for Ramadan’s call for an intersectional jihad. At the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto for example, the Sikh community demonstrated solidarity by serving samosas, tea, and hot chocolate to protesters in cold February weather. The Sikh community is frequently confused for and attacked as Muslims, and it remains a leading ally in the anti-Islamophobia struggle.
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Toronto led the rally itself, given the existence of Black Muslims and more importantly, their commitment to anti-racism in general. University of Toronto student groups led several contingents to the rally, including the ASSU and PoC@Trin. Hope is highest where solidarity between othered communities flourishes, in defense of the right to faith, self-determination, and dignity.
By understanding the plural communities of faith and their politicization, we can better understand the unique experiences of those we come across.
At university and in Canada, making sustainable learning spaces does not mean that we only believe in the validity of our own communities, but that if we believe that we are valid, others can be as well. Only then, perhaps, can ‘they’ become ‘us.’