Today’s online Guardian from the UK features a piece by Nesrine Malik about how the British media routinely recycles certain stories about Muslims which, she argues, “create a fear of stealthy, incremental Islamicisation”.
Looking at this story from a Canadian view, it’s hard to put this story into context. No mainstream voices in Canada have argued that our multicultural policy has failed, whereas British Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2011 that Britain’s multicultural policy has failed.
The British Office of National Statistics put the Muslim population of England and Wales at 2,706,066 according to the 2011 Census, about 4.8% of the total population. Statistics Canada put the Muslim population of Canada at about 3.2% as of 2013. In both cases we are talking about small fractions of the total population.
While Canada has has several prominent court cases involving Islamist terrorism, we haven’t had an incident comparable to the killing of a British soldier, Lee Rigby, in by two Nigerian converts to Islam in May 2013. There has not been a controversy regarding sharia law in Canada comparable to that which erupted after Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech about sharia law in Britain in 2008.
Given these different contexts, it is not surprising that the British press would cover issues around Islam differently than their tamer Canadian colleagues. However, Ms. Malik’s article is a useful reminder that numbers and perspective matter. The number of Muslim women in Britain who wear the niqab, for example, may be as low as .001% of the total population, or, at the very least, statistically slight. That seems like a helpful number to keep in mind when trying to decide whether Muslim dress poses a cultural threat to society.
I consider myself moderately informed about Islam. I’ve served with several Muslims in the Canadian Forces and found them little different than anyone else, other than a few distinctions. For example, I’ve learned that when yo go to the movies with a Muslim friend during Ramadan, your offer of popcorn may be politely turned town. That said, if you asked me to explain the difference between Shia and Sunni, it would be embarrassing. I’m reminded of these things as I began a grad class on Religion and Globalization this term, and have several readings (Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State; Peter Mandaville, Global Political Islam, and Nafissi Mohammad, Shiism and Politics”) that I hope will amend my ignorance somewhat.
Given how little most of non-Muslims know about Islam, we should be better served by journalism.