I was in Toronto, Canada at the end of June during the country's federal elections, and watched friends in the process of voting. Much to my surprise and delight, Canadian Muslims were voting in droves. It was unlike anything I had ever seen here amongst Muslims in the U.S. I found only two people who had not voted by the time I met them. Muslims in Canada were up and running, literally running, for the elections. There were about 10 Muslim-sounding names from different parties, while three Muslim-sounding names actually won seats in their ridings. The New Democratic Party (NDP) used the strategy of minority coalition building and introduced several Muslim candidates. But most Muslims voted for the Liberal Party, which described a vote for their primary opponent, the Conservative Party, as a disaster for immigrants.
Twenty-one constituencies in Canada have a seven to 14 percent concentration of Muslim voters. Muslims are now the largest religious minority in the country, double the number of the Jewish community, according to the 2001 Canadian Census. Sixty-one percent live in Ontario and the greater Toronto area has about five percent of the total population, making Toronto the city with the highest concentration of Muslims in all of North America.
But Muslims have double the unemployment rate of other Canadians (14 percent compared to the national average of seven percent). Those who do have jobs, are heavily underemployed, despite the fact that Muslims in Canada have more university graduates and PhDs than the majority Catholic and Protestant communities.
But during these latest elections, it seems that Muslim Canadians were not voting for more jobs, a better economy or discrimination against the community as much as they were voting against the risk of conservatives coming to power. As in many quarters in America, conservatives in Canada are considered racist, anti-urban and anti- immigrant. This is especially disturbing for Muslim Canadians, 90 percent of whom are immigrants.
The Liberal Party successfully used fear tactics against its Conservative opponents by presenting Canadians with images of the US quagmire in Iraq during their campaign. Their argument was that if Conservatives had been in power these last few years, they would have stuck Canadians into the messy situation in Iraq that Americans currently find themselves in. This last-minute scare tactic did nothing but help associate the Conservative Party with George W. Bush and his neoconservative gang. That was enough for Muslim Canadians, which probably explains why Liberals won and increased their margin of victory in almost all ridings where Muslims had a good presence.
The NDP, which has almost always been the underdog of Canadian politics, tried to use a coalition of ethnic minorities to defeat the Liberals in many constituencies. They fielded many Muslim candidates including two Hijabis, one in Ottawa, Dr. Monia Mazigh who led the campaign to free her Syrian-Canadian from jail in Syria, and Itrath Syed, former producer of Radio Islam in Chicago. Neither Mazigh nor Syed gathered more than 7,000 votes. But this is understandable not so much because they are Hijab-wearing Muslim women, but more because of NDP's radical liberalism. For example, one NDP leader, Jack Layton, co-hosted a show in Toronto with music group Barenaked Ladies which ended in a Gay Pride celebration. For socially conservative Muslims, the NDP proves to be a bit too much. For Itrath Syed, it was her own Imam in Vancouver who dedicated an entire sermon encouraging Muslims not to vote for her because of the NDP's support for same-sex marriages.
Although a number of Canadian Muslim organizations are claiming that that 85 percent of Muslims voted, based on very unscientific surveys, the anecdotal evidence still seems to indicate that this is the first time Muslims have taken elections in Canada this seriously. Their participation has ensured the Liberal Party's survival in Ontario. In addition, with a stronger NDP, it is very possible that the Liberal Party will be far less to the right of the political spectrum than it was previously.
Although Muslims in Canada are still virtually non-existent in local branches of the Canadian government unlike other religious communities like Sikhs, their participation in election 2004 is promising. With few to no Fatwas popping up against the practice voting in the community, this uncharted territory is ripe with opportunity. Let's hope Muslim Canadians seize it as they did the federal elections this year.
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