Leo Housakos
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The Challenges of Integration and Multiculturalism
by Leo Housakos

Little is done to prepare immigrants to adjust to North American Society inadvertently thus creating walls of solitudes that bread alienation.

European and Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced racism and discrimination, in some cases even the noose. Pathetically, the so-called "true-blue Americans" boasting relatives who arrived on the Mayflower took exception to people who looked and sounded different.

Jews, Catholics, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and indeed Muslims bore the cruelty of the KKK or the distain of their neighbors. Because they dressed and looked different, belonged to other faiths, cooked strange foods such as pizza, souvlaki, curry and other such exotic dishes that are today a staple of North American cuisine.

Lynchings, beatings and other abuses were the price some immigrants had to pay for the promise of a better life in the new world. They did not have the protection of laws or lobbies and their only asset was the ability to survive.

Just before the Second World War, Canada turned a blind eye to the plight of the Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution and tragically only 5,000 were admitted to this country. In the meantime, millions of Europe's Jews perished in the Holocaust.

A great deal has changed since the harsh decades of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, we have laws against discrimination, punishment for hate crimes and religious freedom. Governments, however, cannot legislate how people think and feel. They can only lead by example.

In this respect, the ability of Western societies to adapt to the rapidly expanding Muslim minorities is increasingly difficult. Despite the laws protecting minorities, after 9/11 and the subsequent attempted terrorist threats in the United States, Canada and Europe attitudes towards Muslims have hardened. A case in point was the murder in 2004 of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in Holland. This single act turned an otherwise tolerant Dutch society into one that now demands conformity of values from all its immigrants.

The backdrop to this Dutch tragedy was the large and welcome influx of Muslim immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and Arabs from the Middle East, who took up a variety of low paying jobs. Unfortunately, by the 1990s the economic boom of the 1960s was over and the Dutch no longer needed the immigrants.

The Swedes also welcomed thousands of Muslim immigrants in the 1960s and in the post economic boom quickly found them alien and incompatible with Swedish values.

Sadly, North American society is slowly drifting in the same direction as Europe. In essence, some North Americans are also ignoring or fearing Muslim members of their communities. Unfortunately, the mountain of misconceptions and misunderstandings is growing. Fear of Islamic terrorism is ratcheting up fear of all Muslims prefaced in 2010 by the backlash to the proposed Muslim community center in New York City.

According to the most recent statistics, the Muslim population in both countries is growing rapidly. Surveys from the last couple of years indicate that the Muslim population of the US has reached seven million and about 900,000 in Canada.

But this data only can easily distort the nature of Muslim communities. On closer examination Muslims are as diverse as are Christians. The Muslim community in the US includes 25% who are converts to Islam and 50% of those are African-Americans, while 4% are Hispanic. A further 25% are South Asian, East Asian, Central Asian and the majority of the rest Arab. Furthermore, rarely are distinction made between Shia, Sunni, Sufi and other denominations.

Unfortunately, not enough effort is made by immigration authorities in embassies and consulates to prepare Muslim as well as other religious and secular applicants on the laws and norms of North America. For example, no one is informing prospective immigrants that in this country men and women enjoy equal status and that we maintain separation of Church and state - which means that religion's place is in the home and in the confines of the church, synagogue, mosque and temple.

Such preparation will facilitate the ability of the immigrants to adjust to their new environment and reduce the anxiety of the indigenous population. Pretending that North American society can accommodate immigrants and they can remain oblivious to Canadian laws and values can only do them a disservice and increase the spread of alienation; which breads extremism.

Leo Housakos is a member of the Canadian Senate
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