Book Review: Islam in the Hinterlands

Book Review: Islam in the Hinterlands September 27, 2012

Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada is a recent book that looks at the place of Muslims within Canadian media, schools, politics, and laws.  Edited by Jasmin Zine, the collection provides insightful analysis on a number of current topics related to Muslims in Canada, and is a valuable resource for those of us working as scholars, writers, and/or activists in the field.

The first section of the book, “Gender and Cultural Politics,” begins with a chapter by Zine that maps out issues of gender and race in a number of recent events involving Muslims in Canadian news and politics.  Zine identifies three major lenses through which these issues get discussed: “disciplining culture,” where Muslim cultures are defined as dangerous and needing to be contained within Canada’s multicultural framework; “death by culture,” where Muslim women are portrayed as being under threat from the beliefs and practices of their communities, and “death of culture,” where Muslims are seen as a danger to Canadian society as a whole.  In the second chapter of this section, Itrath Syed writes about debates in 2003-2005 around the use of Islamic family law in Ontario (short overview of the issue here, in PDF), arguing that in the way that the debates were framed, “Muslim women were infantilized, the Muslim community of Canada was denationalized, and Islamic law was fossilized” (p. 61).  The third chapter, written by Katherine Bullock, looks at how we might do research on political engagement among Muslim women in Canada, and provides a useful framework for how we might understand definitions of “Muslims,” “political engagement,” and “activism” more broadly.

Cover of Islam in the Hinterlands. Image via Amazon.

In the following section, “Media and Representation,” Yasmin Jiwani examines articles following the events of 9/11 from Canada’s two major national daily newspapers, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.  She argues that, although these papers are commonly seen as ideologically distinct, they both reinforced certain images of Muslims, and neglected to analyse other elements of the political context.  Next, a chapter by Meena Sharify-Funk focuses on the differences between how “moderate Muslim” Raheel Raza and “Muslim refusenik” Irshad Manji portray themselves and their agendas for reform in their respective books, Their Jihad… Not My Jihad! and The Trouble with Islam Today.  Aliaa Dakroury’s chapter looks at media policy and principles of media inclusion in Canada, taking Little Mosque on the Prairie as an example of a positive step in the representations of Muslims in Canadian media.

The book’s third section, “Education,” starts off with a chapter by Nadeem Memon that looks at the history of Islamic schools in Canada, explaining their development in terms of the relationship between ideological leanings and political engagements, and identifying four main categories of Islamic education: traditional madrassas, weekend or after-school Islamic programs, full-time Islamic schools, and alternative schools.  In the next chapter, Zine shares her ethnographic work among Muslim girls in a Toronto-area Islamic school, pointing to the gendered dimensions of Islamophobia as it affects Muslim girls in Canada, and linking this to the ways that these students negotiate beliefs and expectations around veiling and religious clothing more broadly.

In the final section, “Security,” Jacqueline Flatt writes about media constructions around the use of security certificates in Canada, looking at how Canada’s main newspapers constructed Muslims as potential threats, and drew boundaries around the category of “Canadianness.”  Finally, Shaista Patel writes about Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act, also known as Bill C-36, using an anti-colonial, anti-racist feminist perspective to explain how this law, while framed as a neutral political document, reinforces colonial myths of the Canadian nation, as well as Orientalist depictions of those defined as terrorists.

Although the research in the book is specific to the Canadian context, much of it would be relevant elsewhere; for example, Bullock’s contribution on the many dimensions of political engagement, Syed’s framework for understanding how Muslim women are often positioned in discussions related to Islamic law, and Memon’s typology of the different histories and ideologies among Islamic schools in would all be interesting to apply to contexts outside of Canada as well.

One area where this research needs to be extended is in its geographic diversity.  Although some of the chapters within this book are not linked to a specific geographic location, those that are focus on studies in Ontario, and there is much less attention given to the localised experiences of Muslims elsewhere in Canada.  Especially noticeable is the lack of chapters related to Quebec, and of French-language sources informing the research.  Zine does acknowledge this absence in her introduction, and her suggestion that the topic of Muslim cultural politics in Quebec should really be a whole book on its own is a good one. The reason this struck me particularly is that there are a number of Quebec examples that get used to frame analyses of Islamophobia in Canada as a whole, but are only ever briefly expanded to take into account the distinct cultural history and context of Quebec.  At the same time, the case studies in the book do reflect the English-language research happening when it comes to Muslim cultural politics in Canada, and the absence of in-depth research on Muslims in other parts of Canada is likely reflective of the field as a whole, and not a weakness of only this collection.

This book does an excellent job of analysing the gendered dimensions of Islamophobia as it relates to Muslim women, and this analysis is present in several chapters; although there is a section of the book dedicated to questions of gender, this analysis is integrated throughout all of the other sections as well. Syed’s chapter is particularly strong here, with her nuanced examination of the complicated positioning of Muslim women within Ontario’s sharia debates, and Zine’s chapter on her ethnographic work with girls in an Islamic school provides a thoughtful reflection on questions of veiling, racism, and religious identity. That said, I was disappointed that the analyses of the role of gender seem framed as only encompassing women, as if it’s only women who possess gender. Muslim men are talked about too, but they are rarely talked about as men within a gendered analysis; indeed, Zine defines “gendered Islamophobia” as “specific forms of ethno-religious and racialized discrimination levelled at Muslim women that proceed from historically contextualized negative stereotypes that inform individual and systemic forms of oppression” (p. 210). And yet, it seems obvious that racism against Muslim men – portraying them as dangerous, barbaric, and volatile – is also deeply gendered. Jiwani’s chapter touches on the gendered dimensions of Islamophobia against Muslim men, and Patel looks specifically at how Muslim men are constructed as irrational and uncivilised, but I would have been interested to see more attention to this dimension, particularly in a volume so aware of the gendered nuances of Islamophobia as it targets Muslim women.

Overall, Islam in the Hinterlands is fascinating and relevant, full of interdisciplinary perspectives and critical analysis on some key moments and institutions relating to Muslims in Canada, and certainly something I would recommend to others interested and engaged in these topics.

Islam in the Hinterlands: Muslim Cultural Politics in Canada is available through UBC Press.

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