Next Challenge: Developing a Higher Collective Self-Esteem

By: Dr. Asim Ashique*

Chances are that as you read this article you are either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. As such, you are in the early stages of laying down your family roots in North America. In relative terms, this is the infancy of your family history. This is where you begin the story of your inclusion into the Canadian social fabric.

Statistics from government funded studies confirm that of all religious communities in Canada, Muslims are by far the youngest with an average age of 28. We are also growing faster than any other community and, until recently, most of that growth was happening by indigenous birth rather than immigration. We also are more educated than the average Canadian.

Immigrant families and communities have needs. On a basic level, these needs are the same from community to community, from nationality to nationality. The initial focus is on survival. This includes having a roof over one’s head, harnessing a stable income so that the basic necessities can be met, learning the language and the culture, and so on.

The danger is that as individuals, and as a community, we can remain stuck in a survival mentality. This mentality works very well in the early stages of establishment because it provides a quick fix to each immediate need. The danger comes from the lack of longer term vision, foresight and creativity associated with survival thinking, and this can stunt a community’s evolution.

Every person, family and community needs to evolve. We need to move from surviving to thriving. Is it possible that as a community we have failed to make this change in thinking?

Many years ago Charles Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” It’s an important observation. Adapting to the changing conditions is critical to survival. In other words, beings survive if they remain engaged in a dynamic process of change and adaptation. Remain static, or the same, and you’re done!

One could argue that the same principle is applicable to the dynamics of communities. It relates not only to survival but whether they grow to become dynamic and cutting edge. Becoming a well organized, advanced community is no small task. The many elements that make up a community’s dynamics mean that it’s a comprehensive process to understand and facilitate that change.

But there are small steps that we can take as individuals participating in this process. For starters, many of us need to consciously acknowledge the hardships we had in the early years as our families immigrated and settled in this great land, and the dreams for a better life that accompanied those hardships. Then, we need to acknowledge that many of us have evolved past that stage. Things have changed and our community too has evolved. We are no longer struggling to have a masjid that is open for more than the jumm’a and Sunday salah, as in the early days. We don’t drive to the farms and slaughter the animal ourselves if we want zabiha meat, as we did before. The average Canadian no longer stares when encountering a hijab clad sister. We now have many masjids, multiple Islamic schools, regular publications in Canadian newspapers and we’re becoming better represented in all major professions.

We can’t stop here. And the way forward will require awareness and management at levels not seen before. There are elements of the big picture that can’t be missed. Seeing this requires a broad and clear perspective which is not currently commonplace. By neglecting to develop this perspective, we are in danger of failing as a group. It’s very real possibility.

It is time for a change in our collective identity and our communal self esteem. We should set higher standards for ourselves. We must acknowledge that we are no longer passive participants in an existing social and political system; we can take a leadership role in that system and make it better. We can be role models and examples, not just followers. As Muslims, playing an exemplary role in our society is not optional; it’s an obligation. When people give examples of communities that are raising the bar, improving their neighborhoods and contributing to the greater good of our fellow man, they should point to our Muslim community. The opposite is true as well. Muslims should never be seen as included in the weak and dysfunctional of Canadian society.

It’s a collective responsibility to create this kind of progressive community. Each one of us needs to participate. Alexander the Great said, “Remember, upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all”. It’s a team effort. Let’s allow ourselves to dream a little. Without a dream there is no dream to come true! Envision a community that is empowered, self-sufficient, influential, and successful. We have the option of creating this community – in which success is contagious, and we’ll leave no one behind! The secret? We have to all want this; and we have to be willing to put in the work.

Those of us who had the benefit of struggling through the early years must remember that there are new Muslims arriving here every week. They are at the beginning of their journey, as some of us were many years ago – the difference being that they have a (somewhat) established Muslim infrastructure that they can rely on.

But the problems these days are different. We now deal with a growing problem of the passive poverty cycle in which people fall into the trap of relying on social assistance. Too many newly arrived Muslims dismiss education or training in the skilled trades. For some, these decisions lead to a lifestyle of apathy and isolation. Hopelessness may prevail and a cycle of poverty, abuse and addiction can flourish.

An increasing number of Muslims consider social assistance acceptable despite the teachings of our Prophet (SAW) that the “upper hand is better than the lower hand”. Social workers are reporting an increase in domestic abuse, child abuse and addiction involving Muslims. There have recently been many high-profile incidents in Winnipeg involving Muslims and youth gang violence. We have over one thousand Muslim youth in Winnipeg. How many do you see at the masjid? This does not bode well for the future and the time to act is now, before the damage is irreparable.

The current rate of Muslim immigration to Canada is unprecedented. How is it that Muslims are leaving the struggles of their homelands, arriving at the land of opportunity and then not benefiting from that opportunity? How can we help all Muslims to develop a higher collective self-image and self-esteem? How can we show new immigrants that in this great country their progeny will not only get by, but they could thrive and do great things?

In this time of rapid change it is important that our community appropriately adapts. It is time we put into place a strategy for helping new Muslims obtain education, training and employment and discourage anyone from long-term reliance on welfare or other forms of passive social support. We need to have the collective attitude that it is cool to work hard in one’s profession or trade, and to take pride in the independence that comes from that. It is cool to own property, a home or a business. Let us educate our newcomers, as well as the old-timers, and create a new level of awareness in our community. Let’s talk openly and get the word out!

I don’t presume to have all of the answers. But my instinct tells me that we are near a crossroads in our young history in Canada. With affirmative action we can take control of our destiny and flourish. If we choose the path of least resistance and fail to intervene in the conditions of our own people we may have big problems ahead. The solution will have to involve a collective and well-thought out effort.

“We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” ~Benjamin Franklin

Dr. Asim Ashique is a pain and physical injury specialist. He practices as a chiropractor in Winnipeg. He has served as an elected or appointed volunteer for several Muslim organizations including MSA, MSA National, MIA, and the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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