What Canadians think of Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Muslims . . .

MACLEAN’S EXCLUSIVE: A disturbing new poll

Canadians like to think of their country as a model for the world of how all sorts of people can get along together. But when it comes to the major faiths other than Christianity, a new poll conducted for Maclean’s finds that many Canadians harbour deeply troubling biases. Multiculturalism? Although by now it might seem an ingrained national creed, fewer than one in three Canadians can find it in their hearts to view Islam or Sikhism in a favourable light. Diversity? Canadians may embrace it in theory, but only a minority say they would find it acceptable if one of their kids came home engaged to a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. Understanding? There’s not enough to prevent media images of war and terrorism from convincing almost half of Canadians that mainstream Islam encourages violence.

The poll, by Angus Reid Strategies, surveyed 1,002 randomly selected Canadians on religion at a moment when issues of identity are a hot topic in Ottawa. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has led a push by the Conservative government to revamp citizenship law, emphasizing the need for real bonds to Canada, and Kenney is looking for ways to encourage immigrants to integrate faster and more fully into Canadian society. But as federal policy strives to encourage newcomers to put down roots and fit in, the poll highlights an equal need for the Canadian majority to take a hard look at its distorted preconceptions about religious minorities. “It astonishes and saddens me as a Canadian,” said Angus Reid chief research officer Andrew Grenville, who has been probing Canadians’ views on religion for 16 years. “I don’t think the findings reflect well on Canada at all.”

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Those findings leave little doubt that Canadians with a Christian background travel through life benefiting from a broad tendency of their fellow citizens to view their religion more favourably than any other. Across Canada, 72 per cent said they have a “generally favourable opinion” of Christianity. At the other end of the spectrum, Islam scored the lowest favourability rating, just 28 per cent. Sikhism didn’t fare much better at 30 per cent, and Hinduism was rated favourably by 41 per cent. Both Buddhism, at 57 per cent, and Judaism, 53 per cent, were rated favourably by more than half the population—but even Jews and Buddhists might reasonably ask if that’s a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty result.

Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he was shocked that so many Canadians responding to a poll were willing to be so open about their negative feelings toward minority religions. “It tells me,” Farber said, “that our journey from intolerance to tolerance, to where we can actually celebrate each other’s cultures, is elusive.”

From the perspective of Sikhs and, especially, Muslims, that’s putting it mildly. When asked if they thought “the mainstream beliefs” of the major religions “encourage violence or are mostly peaceful,” only 10 per cent said they thought Christianity teaches violence. But fully 45 per cent said they believe Islam does, and a sizable 26 per cent saw Sikhism as encouraging violence. By comparison, just 13 per cent perceived violence in Hindu teachings and 14 per cent in Jewish religion. A tiny four per cent said they think of Buddhism as encouraging violence.

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations Canada, said “reductive reasoning” in media coverage of armed conflict in largely Islamic countries is a big part of the problem. Violence in countries with Muslim populations is portrayed as rooted in their religions in what Gardee calls a “clash of civilizations” world view. “They’re not looking at the social and economic context in which these things are happening,” Gardee said. “It can’t be reduced to Islam, per se.”

Clearly, Islam and Sikhism face the highest hurdles when it comes to persuading many Canadians they are not inherently violent faiths. The problem varies across regions. By far the highest percentage who viewed Islam as encouraging violence was found in Quebec, 57 per cent. Sikh doctrine is mostly likely to be viewed as violent in the province where about half of Canadian Sikhs live: 30 per cent of British Columbians said they think Sikhism encourages violence.

Palbinder Shergill, a Vancouver lawyer who has long represented the World Sikh Organization of Canada on legal matters, said she might have expected such negative opinions about Sikhism in the 1990s. Back then, the 1985 Air India bombing, the work of Sikh separatist terrorists, was still a fresh memory. “Air India has had a very lasting negative legacy for the Sikh community,” Shergill said. “The majority of imagery of Sikhs in the media typically associates the community with that sort of violence.”

Patient work trying to overcome the widespread view of Sikhs as dangerous seemed to be paying off, she said—until recently. Shergill said Sikhs have lately faced a “huge resurgence” of the sorts of challenges to their distinctive practices that they thought were put to rest 15 years or so ago. In Ontario, a Sikh man is fighting in court for the right to wear a turban, but not a helmet, when he rides his motorcycle. In Montreal last week, Judge Gilles Ouellet found a Sikh boy guilty of having threatened two other boys with a hair pin, used to keep his hair neat under his turban.

But Ouellet said the boy didn’t use his kirpan, the small symbolic dagger many Sikh men carry. The judge gave him an unconditional discharge, leaving him with a clean record, and said the case would never have reached his bench if the incident hadn’t had a religious dimension. “Too much importance has been given this case,” he said. “This matter should end here.”

Shergill suspects that many more Canadians read about the initial charge being laid than the remarks of the obviously frustrated judge. And the fact that this episode unfolded in Quebec is not incidental. The province appears to be an incubator of deep suspicions concerning minority faiths.

A mere 17 per cent of Quebecers said they have a favourable opinion of Islam, and just 15 per cent view Sikhism favourably. Only 36 per cent of Quebecers said they hold a favourable opinion of Judaism, far below the national average, and in sharp contrast to neighbouring Ontario, where 59 per cent expressed a favourable view of the Jewish religion. “It’s sadly not a shock,” Farber said.

Farber said his group, a 90-year-old advocacy organization for Canadian Jews, recently rebranded its Quebec wing as the Quebec Jewish Congress, a bid to highlight its roots in the province and reach out to francophone Quebecers. He said Quebec’s perennial anxieties about the survival of the French language play into attitudes toward minorities. “There are built-in fears there that have to be overcome,” he said. In fact, all religions were regarded less positively in Quebec than in Canada as a whole, including Christianity, which 67 per cent of Quebecers view favourably, five points below the Canadian average.

A heated debate over how far to go in “reasonable accommodation” of minorities gripped Quebec in 2007 and 2008. A commission headed by sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor toured the province holding often controversial hearings on the subject, ultimately concluding in a final report that Quebec needed to adapt, but that its cultural foundations were not at risk.

Angus Reid took that debate national, asking how far governments should go to accommodate minorities. A strong majority of 62 per cent agree with the statement, “Laws and norms should not be modified to accommodate minorities.” A minority, 29 per cent, agreed with the alternative statement, “On some occasions, it makes sense to modify specific laws and norms to accommodate minorities.” Another nine per cent weren’t sure. In Quebec, 74 per cent were against changing laws or norms, the highest negative response rate on the accommodation question in the country.

Recent campaign trail experience in Canada has taught politicians to be cautious about anything that smacks of a concession to religious minorities. John Tory, the former leader of Ontario’s Conservatives, was largely expected to win the province’s 2007 election, until he pledged to extend public funding to all religious schools. That promise proved deeply unpopular, even with his party’s base. The Angus Reid poll suggests that lesson can be broadly applied. It found 51 per cent oppose funding of Christian schools, and the level of opposition soars from 68 per cent to 75 per cent for all other religions. On even hotter-button religious issues, opposition is overwhelming. Only 23 per cent would allow veiled voting, and just three per cent Islamic sharia law—an even lower level of support than the eight per cent who would allow polygamy. There’s substantial sympathy for recognizing religious holidays, 45 per cent, but a solid majority still opposes the idea.

Leaders of religious groups contacted by Maclean’s commonly said their impression is that urban attitudes are more open, especially in Toronto and Vancouver—huge magnets for immigrants. Yet familiarity does not appear to be a reliable predictor of tolerance or acceptance. The Sikh community is prominent on the West Coast, but only 28 per cent of British Columbians surveyed reported a favourable impression of Sikhism. That was well below the figures in provinces where Sikhs are far less numerous, like neighbouring Alberta, where 47 per cent reported a favourable opinion of Sikhism, or Ontario, where Sikhism was rated favourably by 35 per cent.

Still, many advocates for Islamic and Sikh groups optimistically tout fostering personal contact—the sort of bonds that grow into friendships—as the key to creating acceptance of that religion. “The more that people have interactions with Muslims,” said Gardee from the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada, “the more favourable an opinion they have of Muslims.”

To try to assess the extent and impact of friendships between Canadians of different faiths, Angus Reid asked, “Do you personally have any friends who are followers of any of these religions or not?” Not surprisingly, given that seven out of 10 Canadians identify themselves as Catholic or Protestant, the vast majority, 89 per cent, said they have Christian friends. Less predictably, given that only two per cent of the population follows Islam, fully 32 per cent of respondents claimed they have a Muslim friend. Only 16 per cent nationally reported having Sikh friends, but 36 per cent of British Columbians do. Across Canada, 45 per cent reported having Jewish friends, from a high of 61 per cent in Ontario to a low of 20 per cent in Quebec.

Digging into that data, Angus Reid checked to see if those who claimed to have friends of a particular religion tended to view that faith more positively. There is a correlation. Among those who said they don’t have any Muslim friends, a mere 18 per cent reported that their opinion of Islam is generally favourable. But among those who said they do have Muslim friends, 44 per cent had a favourable opinion of Islam.

For all other religions, well over half of the pool of people who have friends of a certain faith view that faith favourably: for example, 63 per cent of those with Sikh friends view Sikhism favourably, compared with just 23 per cent of those without Sikh friends. And 76 per cent of Canadians with Jewish friends are favourably disposed toward Judaism, while only 34 per cent of people with no Jewish friends have a favourable opinion of Judaism.

Beyond personal contact with adherents of different religions, there’s the question of whether Canadians really know much about what the various faiths profess. Asked about their level of knowledge, 86 per cent said they have a “good basic understanding” of Christianity, compared to just 32 per cent who make the same claim regarding Islam, 18 per cent for Hinduism, 12 per cent for Sikhism, 32 per cent for Buddhism and 40 per cent for Judaism. In fact, it’s a stretch to imagine that a third of Canadians really have a solid grounding in Islam. Or, to express that skepticism another way, is it likely that Canadians are much more likely to have a grasp of the basic tenets of Islam and Buddhism than of Sikhism and Hinduism?

More likely, the higher reported levels of “good basic understanding” actually represents superficial impressions gleaned from news reports, combined with images—both negative and positive—picked up from popular entertainment. Grenville pointed out that with common Old Testament roots, Christians, Muslims and Jews have a natural starting point for mutual understanding. As for Buddhism, he suggested the sixties cultural touchstones established good press. “Meditation, the Beatles, all these things that feel Buddhist, even if they’re not really Buddhist, feel friendly,” he said. “There haven’t been a lot of Buddhist wars.”

Muslims and Sikhs might well envy that vibe. But Buddhism is more than an odd case—it shows that even a fast-growing religion can avoid rubbing Canadians the wrong way. The Buddhist population increased 84 per cent between 1991 and the 2001 national census. Still, that left the total Buddhist population at only about 300,000, or around one per cent of the population—far too small for most Canadians to have anything beyond fleeting direct contact with the religion. Even so, Buddhism’s favourability rating of 57 per cent is four points higher than Judaism, a religion with much deeper roots in Canada. Buddhism was the only religion, including Christianity, for which more than half of people who said they don’t have a friend of that faith held a favourable opinion of it anyway.

Even among those who profess a broad acceptance of other religions, the prospect of one of your children marrying someone from an unfamiliar background can be a test of tolerance. On this delicate question, though, the poll suggests a paradox. Although only 28 per cent said they have a generally favourable opinion of Islam, fully 39 per cent declared that they would find it acceptable for one of their children to marry a Muslim. The pattern follows for the other minority faiths: Canadians surveyed were more likely to say they would approve of one of their kids marrying a follower of a given religion than tended to view that religion favourably. So while only 30 per cent view Sikhs favourably, 39 per cent wouldn’t object to a child marrying one. Similarly, 41 per cent have a favourable opinion of Hinduism, but 46 per cent would find their child’s marriage to a Hindu acceptable.

That pattern might signal an intriguing instinct to respect personal choice in marriage over misguided generalizations about religions. Still, the numbers hardly suggest open-armed tolerance: with respect to all three of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, less than half of those surveyed said they would find it acceptable for one of their children to marry a follower of those religions. For the marriage question, the results again suggest the usual stratification: Christianity is by far most widely accepted, followed by Judaism and Buddhism, with Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism facing the most negative feelings. A resounding 83 per cent would accept a child marrying a Christian, 53 per cent a Buddhist, and 56 per cent a Jew.

Overall, the findings suggest minority religions aren’t getting a fair shake from the majority. But there remain legitimate questions, even misgivings, about the relationship between mainstream believers and fringe extremists. Outsiders, including journalists, sometimes have trouble gauging how many Sikhs support groups that have sometimes resorted to terrorism in their quest to carve a separate state out of India. Earlier this month, for instance, portraits of the assassins of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi were reportedly on display in Surrey, B.C., at celebrations of Vaisakhi, the birth of Sikhism, and the images even appeared on T-shirts. Palbinder Shergill responds to questions about this sort of issue by making the simple, but fundamental, point that not everything a particular Sikh espouses should reflect on Sikhism as a whole.

Muslim groups also face a minefield of image challenges, which often flow from international affairs rather than domestic life. Gardee admits, for example, his organization’s campaign urging the federal government to bring home Omar Kahdr might convey the wrong impressions to some Canadians. After all, Khadr, the Canadian being held by the U.S. at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, is the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, who was an al-Qaeda financier before he was killed in a gun battle in Pakistan in 2003. Other members of the Khadr family have made outrageous public comments. “Yes, some of the things his family have said have been troubling and outright disturbing,” Gardee said. “But as a Canadian citizen he still has rights. He’s a Canadian citizen and he’s a Muslim. That puts him squarely within our mandate to deal with.”

The problem of how to project a moderate face of Islam to a wider Canadian public is a pressing challenge. Within disparate Muslim communities—and the religion is anything but monolithic—the nature of mosque leadership is a subject of sometimes fierce debate. In fact, that argument is currently raging at Ottawa’s largest mosque, just a few minutes drive west of Parliament Hill. An imam recruited last year from Egypt to preach at the mosque is regarded by some who pray there as not fluent enough in English and too out of touch with modern Canadian society for the job. Others say he needs more time to find his place.

Karim Karim, a communications professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, recently released a report based on extensive surveys and focus group sessions in Canada, the U.S. and Britain that found Muslims in all three countries yearn for imams who better understand the West. “There was a lot of admiration for leaders who were engaging in issues of youth, poverty, employment, women’s issues,” Karim told Maclean’s, “rather than just knowing the theology and being able to recite the Quran.”

Perhaps a new generation of Muslim leaders more attuned to Canadian sensibilities can help bridge the obvious gaps in understanding. Karim points to negative connotations that have built up around a handful of loaded terms. According to him, sharia is a “very malleable, very diverse” set of ethics and values about leading a Muslim life—not a rigid legal code. He describes a fatwa as an “informed opinion by a learned scholar”—not a death edict. And Karim says most Muslims think of jihad as “a daily struggle to be a good Muslim.” But he adds, “It would be disingenuous on my part to say that, no, the other side does not exist. It does exist—the taking up of arms for a cause of justice.”

His willingness to try to explain details, convey nuances, even underline contradictions—it all suggests that Karim craves dialogue on a level the Angus Reid poll suggests too few Canadians are ready for. Even Grenville, who has long experience tracking all sorts of opinions, finds the landscape of attitude toward unfamiliar faiths bleak. “This runs counter to all we espouse,” he said. “We need to face up to the reality of it.” No doubt leaders of the fast-growing, little-understood religious minorities need to consider the image they project. But the rest of Canadians might try a little soul-searching, too. For a country that often boasts of modern identity based on acceptance of diversity, this poll suggests that’s still a goal to strive toward rather than an achieved reality.

Angus Reid’s online poll was conducted from April 14 to April 15, 2009. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The results were statistically weighted for education, age, gender and region to ensure a sample representative of the adult population of Canada.