May 1, 2020

What does it mean to be a young Muslim in Canada?

Social Work research finds that Muslim youth have a more flexible relationship with their religion than their parents do
Canadian Muslim youth
Canadian Muslim youth

It’s kind of like an identity tug of war. On one hand, Muslim youth strive to be respectful of the religion and culture they were raised with. On the other hand, as Canadians, they face pressure to fit into Canadian society, which often has decidedly different values and expectations. The tensions between these two identities can create real issues and a feeling of disconnection for many Muslim youth in Canada.

A new, SSHRC-funded, nationwide research project is looking more closely at these tensions as well as how Muslim youth reconcile their conflicting identities. “We are looking addressing these tensions and feelings of disconnectedness,” says Faculty of Social Work researcher Dr. Aamir Jamal, PhD, who is leading the project. “We’re exploring factors that contribute to — and hinder — the development of a meaningful and stable youth identity.”

Jamal and co-investigator Dr. Clive Baldwin, PhD, from St. Thomas University, explore these themes through interviews with first- and second-generation Muslim youth from several metropolitan areas in Canada including Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Jamal says his research looks at participants’ personal histories as immigrants and the differences in being Muslim in their home country or in Canada — essentially looking to understand what it means to be a Muslim youth in Canada.

Aamir Jamal

Aamir Jamal

Kloie Picot

“Our research goals include exploring avenues and strategies of prevention and disengagement,” explains Jamal, “that stakeholders such as the Muslim community and Islamic scholars see as most promising in safeguarding Canadian security, building resiliency, and promoting positive youth development.”

Emphasis on mental health, spirituality, faith and self-discovery

The initial research, which is also supported by most major Canadian Muslim associations, suggests profound differences in the way Muslim youth in Canada construct their identities compared to their parents’ generation. Jamal says the youths place an emphasis on mental health, spirituality and faith, as well as self-discovery. This underlies a perspective that seems more pliable than traditional perspectives. 

Jamal says when Canadian youth were asked about differences between “their” Islam and the Islam of their parents or youth in traditional Muslim countries, they said, “The difference is why,” says Jamal. “Many youth told us, ‘Our Islam allows us to ask why, and finds answers through Islamic scholarship in context of our era’ — while their parents or cousins in Muslim majority nations just follow the faith.”

Jamal hopes the collaborative research will inform those with the power to really influence the lives of Muslim youth.

“The findings,” he says, “will be used to develop a conceptual framework for positive youth development that will be incorporated into policy and practice by many religious and faith-based organizations working with youth.”

The innovative national study is already receiving attention from around the world, and the project will likely extend to become an international study.

 “We’ve already received great interest from other scholars in Muslim majority countries including Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan. We’re looking forward to a comparative analysis of various youth identities. It’s really a very valuable and exciting project to work on.”