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Collectivized Identity among Shi’a Imami Isma’ili Muslims of Calgary:Implications for Pluralism and Policy

Vers une identité collective des Musulmans Ismaéliens de Calgary : implications pour le pluralisme et les politiques publiques
Yvonne M. Hébert et Rani Murji
p. 107-119


Installés au Canada depuis une trentaine d’années, les musulmans ismaéliens de secte Shi’a Imami à Calgary sont caractérisés par une grande diversité. Le critère déterminant de l’identité collective dans une société démocratique libérale plurielle est une question essentielle. À partir d’une étude sur les contextes identitaires des jeunes immigrés, des interviews avec parents et chefs communautaires indiquent que la religion est un élément-clé de définition. Plusieurs stratégies collectives servent à la construction d’un nouvel ordre social dans un nouveau contexte et le maintien de sa cohésion sociale. La citoyenneté est considérée par les participants comme un processus complexe qui garantit le respect des droits de la personne et permet aussi une appartenance collective tandis que l’intégration exige une recherche de l’ouverture face à la discrimination et les préjugés. Dans le cadre de la politique canadienne de multiculturalisme, la création des identités hybridisées exprime la double dimension de la brutalité linguistique de l’installation en terre nouvelle et d’un espoir idéalisé dans ce nouveau contexte de vie.

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1The Canadian policy of multiculturalism, first introduced in 1971, has played a critical role in the establishment of the Isma’ili community in Calgary. The policy of multiculturalism means that “although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other” [McLeod, 1984]. In other words, multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage (Canadian Multiculturalism Act, § 3.1, a-j, 1988). All Canadians, whether by birth or by choice, enjoy equal status, are entitled to the same rights, powers and privileges and are subject to the same obligations, duties and liabilities (Citizenship Act, 1947). Moreover, to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians (§27), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) provides that every individual should have an equal opportunity with other individuals to make the life that the individual is able and wishes to have, consistent with the duties and obligations of that individual as a member of society.

2At issue in this paper is the basis of collectivized identity and its interplay with other identity markers, within the context of Canadian multiculturalism and citizenship. We draw upon part of the findings of a study on the contexts of identity formation of immigrant youth in Calgary, a Western Canadian city. Funded by the Prairie Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Integration as well as the University of Calgary, with Dr. Yvonne Hébert as the principal researcher, data collection was carried out in the summer of 1997. Individual semi-directed interviews of approximately an hour and half each were conducted by Noorani Murji, research assistant, with the leaders and the parents of the Shi’a Imami Isma’ili community settled in Calgary, Alberta. As portrayed through these interviews, the Isma’ili community of Calgary is remarkably diverse being composed of many races, ethnicities, and speaking numerous languages, and thus serves as a particularly rich case study of the issue.

Community profile and challenges

3Since the first influx of Isma’ili immigrants settled in Canada approximately thirty years ago, the community has established its own institutions, notably prayer houses known as Jamat Khanas, throughout Canada, and has maintained institutional contact with others around the world as a transnational community. Categorized according to origin, two broad groups constitute the Isma’ili community in Calgary. In the first group are those Isma’ilis who trace their origins to East Africa, India or Pakistan. Part of the Ugandan exodus of the seventies, the East Africans were themselves second or third generation migrants from either India or Pakistan. Referred to as Khojas, this group converses in languages such as Swahili, Gujerati, Hindi, Urdu and Kacchi/Kutchi (a dialect of Gujerati); and share many practices, traditions and cultures. As the first arrivals in Canada, the Khojas established those religious practices which were familiar to them. Thus, a typical congregational gathering would consist of two main prayers conducted in Arabic, Ginans (devotional and philosophical hymns) mostly in Gujerati, other prayers, as well as rites and rituals in Gujerati or Kutchi.

4The second group is comprised of Ismai’lis who came to Canada more recently, mainly from Tajikhistan and Afghanistan in Central Asia, with a small number from Iran and Syria. This group brings cultures, traditions, and languages which differ significantly from the practices of the Khoja community. As a result of the war in Afghanistan and Tajikhistan, the Isma’ili community negotiated an agreement with the Federal government allowing the community to sponsor a number of Afghan and Tajik refugees. Then, in 1992, the community successfully negotiated an agreement between the government of Canada, the Isma’ili Council for Canada and the Isma’ili Council for Québec to sponsor Isma’ili Afghani refugees. According to the local Council Member and Chair of the Resettlement Portfolio, the agreement stipulated that the Isma’ili community would take full responsibility for the new immigrants for a full year which includes financial responsibility for language training, housing, employment, education, social and religious needs of the immigrants. Since then, further agreements and protocols have been signed by FOCUS Canada and the Isma’ili Council for Canada, with the governments of Québec and Canada. Consequently, approximately 2,500 Afghanis have entered Canada. Almost half of these have settled in Québec, the remainder in the rest of Canada: Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta, notably in Calgary and Edmonton [Haji, 1997, p. 43]. Given the different linguistic, cultural and religious practices between the two groups, the only common component shared by the entire Jamat are the two main prayers which are recited in Arabic. Given the prior arrival and dominance of the Khojas, the ceremonies are conducted in languages inaccessible to the Central Asian Ismai’lis within the Jamat.

5Experiencing a process of transformation, two significant challenges flow from the racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity within the community: one of localizing and living multiculturalism and the other of creating religious and social cohesion within the Calgary community. First, implementing the Canadian multiculturalism policy within its community becomes increasingly important, not only to assure the voice of speakers of the diverse languages and practices, but also to allow the development of these languages across generations. A second challenge facing the community is imparting the essence of the faith to the younger members of the community, many of whom do not understand the language or symbolism behind the practices. The key issue for the Tariqah, defined as faith, teaching or practice, is whether it can be conveyed to youth who are not part of traditional societies and in a language they understand.

6The juxtaposition of religion and modernity, in a context where the utopia of modernity is no longer functional, as well as the tensionality linking tradition and postmodernity, situates the questioning of collectivized identities of Muslims in secularized democratic societies in Canada and in Europe [Diop, 1997]. The interplay of religion, language, culture and gender is of particular interest. The terms ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’ are used guardedly herein as there is a tendency to view Islam as a singular homogeneous entity, where ‘Islam’ equates a religion, a culture, a political framework. However, its use raises serious questions, such as ‘Which Islam? Whose Islam?’ The term ‘Muslims’ with its plural marker is preferred here as it allows for plurality within Islam, both in interpretation of the faith and for the distinctiveness between culture/tradition and faith, in spite of the close link between them, making it difficult to draw clear boundaries. But then, identity is first of all, a question of the placement of boundaries.

7The frontiers between the collectivity and the host society as well as the everyday linkages between individuals and the common memory are important to a situated collective seeking to maintain atomized ideals of accomplishments, realizations, values and progress. The placement of the frontier between a collective and the host society is not given; instead, it is unstable, moving and porous, subject to negotiation against a backdrop of conflict and struggle between groups and other social actors [Lapeyronnie, 1999]. The concept of ‘culture’ is also problematic, as is the concomitant concept of ‘identity’ as these have been challenged since the mid-1980's. Earlier theoretical constructions of ‘culture’ were critiqued as homogenized and bounded, and ‘identity’ as fixed, stable and allegedly anchored in discrete, bounded cultures [Caglar, 1997]. Today, in the face of massive social changes on global-local bases, it is no longer possible to define ourselves in discrete, definite and limited ways. Instead, we seek to define ourselves in terms of multiple attachments and feel at ease with subjectivities that encompass plural and fluid cultural identities [Hoerder, Hébert and Schmitt, 2005; Caglar, 1997].

8In spite of the accepted inadequacies of closed concepts, the search for more open concepts is not yet realized. Scholars, national and minority intellectuals as well as ordinary people continue to use the bounded notions of culture and identity of yesteryear, as part of deeply held daily discursive practices. Thus, we distinguish between what we shall term ‘ordinary’ uses of the terms and ‘postmodern’ uses, by a shift of perspective, moving from descriptive to analytic textual passages, from a voice writing from within, to that of researchers who recognize, by virtue of their role, that research requires some measure of separation and distance which may be difficult, inevitable and perhaps desirable in most research situations [Hébert, 2001; Olson and Shopes, 1991]. Within these problematics, this paper addresses five issues: (1) defining collective identity; (2) language at the time of settlement; (3) language and community identity; (4) strategies for the construction of a new social order and new hybrid identifications; as well as (5) citizenship and multiculturalism policy as part of collective identity in the Canadian context.

Defining collective identity

9Over the years, there has been considerable debate on ethnic identity and the significance of language and cultural retention. The academic debate of the 1980's focused upon culture as a closed system of symbols and considered language as an important element in that system. In assuring group survival, “culture and the language that serves as its vehicle cannot be disassociated. Language is a desirable cultural attribute, but is not theoretically a sine qua non for maintaining ethnic-group culture” [Herberg, 1989, pp. 100-101]. Other scholars argue that language need not hold central value in defining the identity of a particular ethnic group. Indeed a culture can be expressed in a language different from the original language; moreover, speaking the dominant language of the society, such as French or English, does not have to constrict a cultural group from expressing its thoughts and ethnic way of life in that language [Corson, 1993, p. 49].

10In the eleven interviews that were conducted with the Isma’ili community leaders and parents of adolescents, it became very clear that identity of the community rests on the ethos provided by its faith: “I mean definitely the one thing that binds us is our religion, and that is what initially brings us together...” states a Council Member responsible for the Women Development Portfolio. Another who works closely with recently arrived immigrants adds that it is the Imam (religious leader) who holds and binds the community together.

“Every group of people, even from different countries in the world, who may have different practices, identify with the Imam. The community has always been kept together, whatever the case, differences in clothing or practices don’t matter, because it the Imam who says that we are all brothers and sisters. Nobody argues that (Council Member and Chair for the Resettlement Portfolio).”

11If the community’s identity is based on religion, then how do individuals maintain cultural identities without coming into conflict with the religious ethos? Reflecting on this dynamic, Driedger notes that “Religious or political ideology can rally followers to a goal beyond cultural and institutional values” (1996, p. 153). A charismatic leader, moreover, can adapt that ideology to a “current situation linking it symbolically with the past and using the media to effectively transform the present into a vision of the future” (153). The Imam has a firm policy on matters of diversity within the Jamat. His Firmans stress strength in diversity and urge the members to learn from the diverse practices within the Jamat. For the Isma’ilis in Calgary, a delicate balance has to be achieved between ethnocultural, linguistic and religious identity, as markers of collective identity. Religious ideology can provide a common vision that allows its followers to look beyond their individual cultures. In other words, it is the religious faith, and not culture, which becomes the primary mode of identification. For example, a member of the research team, Rani Murji, who was born in East Africa and traces her origins to India, voices her transformed and transformative sense of identification:

“I used to identify myself as an ‘East African Indian Isma’ili Muslim’ however, today, I identify myself simply as a ‘Canadian Isma’ili Muslim,’ and when pushed, as a ‘Canadian East Indian Isma’ili Muslim.”

12Within an ensemble of multiple identifications, religious identity generally remains constant as it holds central defining value, collectively and individually, whereas geographical, ethno-cultural, political and linguistic affiliations are subject to change and adaptation to new and changing contexts.

Language at the time of settlement

13The main focus of the Khoja community was to integrate within the new society, understood as becoming fluent in the dominant language which, in Western Canada, is English. As reported in various interviews, the pioneers of the community faced challenges of overcoming accents, improving grammatical skills, and honing writing skills, important linguistic skills for successful integration into mainstream society. According to a Council Member and Chair of the Resettlement Committee, the Khojas did initially attempt to reinforce the home languages so that children would retain their mother tongue. However, it soon became apparent that, if one was to access opportunities within Western Canadian society, priority had to be given to mastering English. To adapt faster, one had to speak English and speak it well.

14It was within the families that the linguistic struggle was most difficult, as illustrated by the experiences of two families. One family had two children, both born in Calgary. Although both parents speak Kacchi and were determined to pass on the language to their children, the parents were strongly advised by the teachers to speak English at home. Reflecting now on the situation, the mother says,

“I think it is important that they learn Kacchi; it is our language too. They knew (the language) when they were young. When they started school, the teacher said: Talk to them in English so they (can) understand it. You know, we made a mistake. We should have continued talking with it.”

15Today, both children speak flawless English, but neither one understands nor speaks Kacchi. As a result, the parents have decided to reintroduce Kacchi and a collective effort is being made to speak Kacchi as a home language.

16For another family, the reasons for language shift were many and compelling. The husband worked within the public sector where communication was a vital component of his job duties; however, he had a heavy accent and poor grammatical skills. Therefore, the couple decided to communicate in English in the hopes of improving his oral skills. With the birth of their two children in Canada, the parents decided to make a conscious effort to teach them Kacchi. As a result, both little children spoke fluent Kacchi but little or no English. Later on, with the onset of public schooling, the mother became concerned when she discovered that her son was ignored because he could not communicate his most basic needs in English. When they started school, the son in kindergarten and the daughter in daycare, both were speaking what the mother described as ‘pigeon language’:

“It was scary ... I think it was because, when they came home, they were mixing the two languages. They would say part of the sentence in Kacchi and part of it in English. And I got alarmed. Because I thought if they do this at school, a couple of things are going to happen. One, they will be isolated because they will be perceived as having a communication problem. Two, they are not developing the skill they need to, to be topnotch, to be where they are in the school system. So instantaneously we switched and we all spoke English. Today, they both speak English without accent, very much into the mainstream.”

17Language plays an important role in the settlement process of any community in any given country. To participate effectively, fluency in the dominant language provides the key to social mobility and economic prosperity. Some insight is provided by John Ogbu’s (1991) distinction between voluntary and involuntary minorities, which helps to explain why some immigrant groups adopt successful integration strategies. The main difference between the two groups rests in their history and response to their particular position. Involuntary minorities are those who have had a history of subordination and exploitation during which educational and societal constraints denied them equal opportunity for many generations. Voluntary minorities see their own cultural differences as barriers to be overcome in achieving their own long-term success in employment or lifestyle. They look to their former countries as places of few opportunities, and their new homeland as places of greater life chances. Thus, voluntary minorities have an easier time adopting schooling strategies that will enhance academic success and social adjustment [Corson, 1996, p. 50].

18The Isma’ilis may be considered to be voluntary minorities. They certainly have found better opportunities — socially, economically, and politically — in Canada. However, does adjusting to a new environment necessitate abandoning the culture(s) of origin? A Council Member and Chairperson for Communication and Publications portfolio observes that, as a youth and an earlier migrant to Canada, he was more willing to conform to the values of the new society:

19The social mirror was very important. The social mirror was the Canadian way of doing things, because we needed to be accepted and it was very important to be accepted as we went through the educational system. As we grew up, we realized, I think, that as we became parents, that the value system may not be totally consistent with the way we wanted to bring our children up. We wanted our children to become this principled-centered, value-centered, ethically-centered people that our faith asks of us. We started to track back and to bring our children up feeling proud of our culture and recognizing that our culture is something to be proud of.

20During the settlement period, the community re-established many of the institutions that had been a dynamic part of life in countries of origin. As a result, local and national councils were organized with volunteer professionals in charge of many portfolios such as Youth, Resettlement, Arbitration, Social and Welfare, and Women Development. In consultation with the Imam, these institutions address many of the issues facing resettlement within the community. Today, the Youth portfolio attempts to balance out the ‘social mirror’ by juxtaposing another mirror for the youth. The Chairperson for the Youth portfolio defines his mandate as “looking after the interests of the youth to provide an environment where the Isma’ili Muslim youth will be a dynamic, successful, balanced individual who embodies ethics, values, and traditions of the Tariqah.” This portfolio concentrates on five main areas so as to:

  • Provide support for the youth so that the youth have places to be and people to talk to;

  • Provide development opportunities in terms of leadership, sport and fitness;

  • Provide an environment where the youth can discuss the relationship between the intellect and faith

  • Apply the intellect to articulate social aspects, cultural aspects in terms of who we are, where we come from, and what are our traditions; and

  • Implement religious practices and reinforce the Tariqah.

21To actualize these areas of responsibility, the portfolio is organized in committees, such as the ‘Peer Network Program’ established to provide the youth with the peer-to-peer support and an opportunity to discuss social issues. The ‘High School Associations’ and the university level Calgary Isma’ili Student Association (CISA) represents the student body. Each of these committees organizes events such as camping trips, sport meets, social activities, and plan celebrations around religious occasions. The values of the Tariqah are reinforced by stressing volunteerism, serving non-alcoholic drinks, and demonstrating ethical principles. The Council Member who is also Chairperson of the Youth portfolio describes the process as fluid, trusting, and leading to individual autonomy and responsibility:

“It is very subtle. It is not black and white and there are a hundred things like that going on. I guess, in the end, you hope you have given (them) the right tools and right enabling environment and let the intellect take over.”

22Although the Isma’ili community is experiencing language shift, it would be a mistake to conclude that the community is losing its identity as this is a faith community. Nevertheless, the affective and symbolic meanings of the faith are communicated within the community in a diversity of many languages, some of which are offensive to all members of the whole congregation. The choice of language(s) of wider communication, therefore, becomes an issue of primordial importance to the cohesion of the collectivity.

Languages and community identity

23Language serves to create interpersonal ties, to convey histories, knowledge and culture [Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981], and to build a “rich underpinning of shared connotations” [Edwards, 1985, p. 17]. Group identity is complex and rests not on a single marker but on the “continuation of boundaries which, in turn, depend upon a maintained sense of groupness, the erosion of an original language - at least in its ordinary, communicative aspects - does not inevitable mean the erosion of identity” [Edwards, 1985, p. 48]. The reasons for non-transmission are not related to some personal repudiation of the language as some scholars propose [Camilleri, 1990], but rather to pragmatic assessments of the utility of competing varieties [Edwards, 1985, pp. 50-51]. In this case study, the results of the pragmatic language shift is quite clear and has serious consequences for group cohesion and identifications.

24The Isma’ili community addresses two challenges: first, giving voice to the diverse practices and traditions of the Jamat conveyed through the many languages existing within it, and second, articulating the essence of the faith in language that is mutually understandable. Although the faith is practiced in a variety of languages, the two main evening prayers are conducted in Arabic. The rest of the prayers, the devotional and philosophical hymns and the rites and rituals of the Faith, are conducted in either Gujerati and/or Kacchi. Thus, most of the more recent groups of Isma’ili do not understand the Ginans or the prayers conducted either in Gujerati or Kacchi. This is an acute situation among the youth of all sub-groups who tend to not value these practices and ceremonies.

25In light of the diversity within the Jamat, the community leaders are aware that there won’t be an easy solution or a singular solution to address the challenges. There are many emotions within the Jamat that need to be acknowledged, fears that need to be put to rest and misperceptions that need to be addressed and corrected. As repeatedly voiced in the interviews, the community’s collective identity is strongly based on the concept of Imamate as a spiritual leader or guide:

“What makes us a community? We have a strong diversity but we have a focal point and that is our faith....To sum it up, it is our leader. Our leader who has a vision, he guides us and basically is the focal point. And that regardless of what or who we are, that is our common element (Council Member, Education Portfolio).”

26The Isma’ili faith is an individual quest for enlightenment. It is up to each individual member or family to attend or not the twice daily meetings, seven days a week. The ceremonies and prayers are processes which facilitate and contextualize this quest and as such, hold personal importance to members of the Jamat. Yet, the Khojas are concerned that the Qasidas recited by the more recently arrived immigrants may replace the Ginans. Both are devotional and philosophical hymns sharing the same themes and ideologies, which have evolved in different historical and cultural contexts. Meeting the challenges of group cohesion would require (a) an acknowledgement of the emotional attachment to both hymnal traditions; (b) prayer time managed in such a way that both can be practiced; (c) ways of conveying the meaning, the cultural and historical contexts of the diversity of hymns, rites and rituals; and (d) provision for youth understanding and participation.

27The affective attachment to particular prayer traditions and their languages of expression is particularly strong, as expressed by the Council Member and Chair for Aga Khan Education, when describing her participation in prayers:

28Even though I speak English fluently and have been educated in English, my dominant language has been Kacchi. ...When we say our prayers and it is translated in English, somehow my emotions are not there. The language and the emotions do not fit. Then you turn around and put it (prayers) in my language... my whole body and state changes because I can feel it within me.

29One of the Mukhi Saheb of a Jamat Khana, a male religious leader observes: “There will be very, very few kids who will really continue speaking in the language. I think some of the Jamat is concerned. The concern is mainly to do with our religious knowledge and history because it is in Gujerati, so are most of our Ginans.” For many, losing the language of prayer also means losing cultural, historical ties as well as the linguistic encapsulation of philosophic thought. Although the reasons are pragmatic, the process is lived as cultural loss, as a source of emotional grieving for some, especially the dominant group, and yet also an occasion to provide solace, to facilitate the passage to another language so as to assure community cohesion and continuity.

30Being forward-thinking nonetheless means accepting diversity. For one community leader, “You don’t let go because you are looking ahead. You look ahead in terms of adapting to the situation at hand. We adapt to the environment. Look at our brothers and sisters in Central Asia, they have their own practices but the essence is the same. So how different does that make them? So surely our children will even hopefully understand the religion in English. The principles are the same.” According to another, a religious representative, “Diversity is our strength. We have to allow diversity. I think it might be very difficult in terms of the practice in Jamat Khana, for example. Diversity has to be continued and community has to make sure that we try to do the translations, for example, so the community does not lose track of what is happening in any language”.

Construction of a new social order and new identifications

31Human beings socially construct their world and organize experiences into meaningful order, with the resulting structure then imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals. Within the migrant experience, this social re-construction requires some degree of participation and collaboration of the people. A sense of belonging which allows for participation in a community’s rituals, practices, and philosophy, is needed.

“It is a very, very slow process” notes the Council member in charge of the Resettlement Portfolio, referring to the Khojas: “the larger community needs to accept that first of all we are a diverse group. Now we need to appreciate each other’s practices and languages and culture. After the acceptance phase, we really can start to encourage everyone to participate.”

32Over the last few years, the community has implemented several tactics to facilitate a better understanding of its diversity and to create social cohesion. These are a balanced attempt to facilitate (a) the retention, maintenance and growth of the various languages and practices within the Jamat, and (b) the passage towards a language of wider communication. Some of the tactics include teaching the key languages within the community; sensitive and inclusive use of labelling; the addition of new prayers; the provision of translations and multilingual practices; as well as the celebration of diversity. Each of these is exemplified below in list format.

  • Teaching some of the key languages within the community
    The community offers instruction in religious matters once a week. Nonetheless, there is insufficient time to teach one language let alone several languages, whereas focusing on one particular language would constitute bias in favour of a group.

  • Labeling
    In November 1998, the Jamat adopted the term “the newly arrived Isma’ili immigrants” rather than the “Afghani Jamat” so as to be more inclusive and avoid negative labeling.

  • Adding a Ginan and a Qasida in the elementary religious curriculum in 1996

  • <#ITALIQUES#>Providing Translations and Adopting Multilingual Practices</#ITALIQUES#>
    Translations of Ginans and Quasidas are often provided at various places in the prayer house. All announcements are read out in English, Gujerati, and Pashavi. English translations are also provided of some of the common words in Pashtu and Pashavi.

  • <#ITALIQUES#>Celebrating Festivals in a manner which reflects the diversity within the Jamat</#ITALIQUES#>
    Certain Festivals, such as Navroz (New Year), are organized by newly arrived Isma’ilis
    The traditions of Central Asian Isma’ilis are reflected in communal meals and activities.
    Seminars inform the leadership, youth and Jamat of the traditions and cultures of ethnic groups within the Jamat
    Youth camps and other social events promote understanding of the diverse cultures within the community.
    Various gatherings are held for a range of groupings as well as the whole Jamat.
    Presentations of the experiences of the newly arrived Isma’ilis create empathy and better understanding.

33These tactics and activities figure among an inventory of strategies of identity formation which permit the individual to define him/herself in a situation of interaction and to participate as a social actor [Taboada-Leonetti, 1990]. The notion of identity strategy assumes a certain freedom of action on the part of the actors, to determine the outcome of social or existential problems and to act capably in a process of self-definition. This perspective rests upon individual and collective choice and determination as to the forms and issues of strategic processes, without claiming that the entire process and problematic of immigration can be resolved within the purview of a particular individual. Nonetheless, identity strategies are sensitive to the actors themselves, whether individual or collective; the variety of situations and the issues that flow from them; as well as the individuals’ goals and available resources. Actualized on a daily basis, these involve an important transformation, conflict or contradiction, for ex., in negotiating, modifying, contesting or rejecting an identity that ‘Others’ assign.

34In analyzing the range of tactics and activities implemented by the Isma’ili community in Calgary, according to Taboada-Leonetti’s inventory of strategies of identity formation, four strategies may be identified: collective action, internalization, semantic reversal and identity re-composition. The nature of collective action assumes primary importance to modify images held by others within the group and in the larger Canadian context. These modifications are consciously articulated via tactics such as festivals, language instruction, seminars and social events planned within the community’s administrative infrastructure. More specifically, a keen sensitivity to processes of internalization of group identity, both positive and negative, motivates some forms of community action and discourses, for example, consciously selecting words to serve as inclusive labels for others and providing for translations and multilingual practices. As tactical examples of this specific strategy, we note the inclusion of prayers from a diversity of cultural traditions as well as the creation of safe, respectful spaces that allow the youth to acquire, challenge and modify assigned gender roles and discourse patterns in the new context.

35Closely akin to the processes of internationalization is another strategy, semantic reversal, inherent in instilling pride in one’s culture of origin. Taking stigmatized traits so as to reverse them, this strategy focuses upon objects of discrimination and prejudice and allows the transformation of negativity into positivity. Finally, given the awareness of community leadership which seeks to optimize social positioning and to facilitate passage to a common language, that of the new social environment, it is the conscientisation of identity re-composition which allows for the creation of new transcultural identities in the Canadian context, with an integrative passage to English as the eventual language of prayer and of daily interactions both within and outside the Isma’ili community, and with sustained symbolic links to languages of origin and their practical daily usage in rites and rituals. Within the processes of recomposition and the resulting hybridization also lies a painful negativity. Rupturing the emotional attachment to languages of origin is a form of the linguistic violence, an analysis and term first proposed by Skutnabb-Kangas (1981) to express the essence of the loss of affiliation to a language of origin. In the case of the Isma’ili in Calgary, linguistic violence is painfully inherent to the resettlement processes and yet also mirrors an idealized hope in a better future and new identifications, as the underlying double dimensions of transculturation in new contexts.

Collective identity, citizenship and multiculturalism policy

36Given the transformative processes of collective identity of the Isma’ili community in all its diversity, how then do members articulate their relationship to the state and position themselves with respect to citizenship? Becoming a citizen entails the formation of a political identity, i.e., a relationship to the state and to others within that state for political participation and deliberation [Hébert, 2002]. Developing a collective identity includes not only groupal attachments but also a strong attachment to the state, the latter being quite importantly for minorities, whether national ones or polyethnic ones [Kymlicka, 1995]. For many Isma’ilis, citizenship is an individual matter as well as a transformational process, requiring an effort to hold onto the core of one’s personal and community identity, to allow oneself to be perceived as different. Yet, there needs to be stability as well as a sense of belonging within Canada. Pluralism, integration and citizenship need very careful balancing if harmony and solidarity are to exist in societies where members are free and equal [Bernard, 1999]. As individual stories unfold, it is possible to see that within either liberal or communitarian conceptions of citizenship [Taylor, 1994; Kymlicka, 1995], the understanding of what it means to be a citizen constitutes complex evolving phenomena, including access to human rights and responsibilities, as well as inclusion and adaptation within diversity.

37Citizenship for most immigrants means accessibility to the rights and privileges of the country. Council member and Chair for the Resettlement Portfolio pragmatically notes, “it allows those who wish to travel, to do so without any penalty.” A possible explanation for this is that the newly arrived immigrants:

“Don’t feel as much a part of Canadian society because they don’t understand the language—they don’t read a lot, they don’t understand a lot of things that come through the mail, ... they are unable to follow elections. There is a hope that one day they will be able to return to their homelands. Applying for citizenship does not harm them and it does not take away the possibility of returning someday (Council Member, Resettlement Portfolio).”

38Digging deeper, the youth are actively debating the issue. At a session at a youth camp of Khoja youth and newly arrived immigrant adolescents, the discussion on citizenship was a heated one. The Khojas were quite willing to marry within the newly arrived community but were adamant about remaining in Canada. In the words of one participant responsible for the Resettlement Portfolio, in referring to the newly arrived immigrant girls, he aptly voiced the attraction that being free and equal in a democratic society elicits in response, “We don’t know whether we want to go back—after living in a society like this with so much freedom, being independent, we sure will not be allowed ... such freedom if we went back.”

39The Chairperson for the Youth Portfolio explains that “there is a concept of freedom” in citizenship. In terms of being a Canadian, “you take that a step further, freedom to practice your culture, and yet still have the privileges of being Canadian. Safety, Health Care, all the benefits of being Canadian. I think the two are tied together. You can practice your faith and culture and still be loyal to your country.” Citizenship in Canada, a liberal pluralist democracy, offers important human rights, such as freedom of mobility, freedom of belief and expression, and freedom of assembly, thus safeguarding the individual while allowing for membership in a religious community.

40Others see a seamless mesh between individuality, group membership and political allegiance. For example, the Council Member for the Outreach and Publications Portfolio sees no conflict between culture, religion and citizenship. His understanding of the symbolic July 1997 opening of the newly built Jamat Khan in Calgary exemplifies an additive, flexible view of collective identity including citizenship. He refers to the raising of three flags, the Canadian, provincial and religious ones, symbolizing intertwining multiple allegiances. The red and green standard, termed ‘My Flag’, holds historical religious significance for the Isma’ilis and its use is sensitive to the political context. In Tanzania, for example, it was hoisted to mark a celebration or a special event. Although the practice of raising this flag could be misconstrued and become politically dangerous as occurred in prior contexts, this is not the case in Canada. Thus, in situations where the socio-politics of recognition are positive, symbols may shed negative aspects to maintain the power of positive affiliations.

“We had a flag raising ceremony. We had the Alberta Flag, the Canadian Flag, and the My Flag, there was no conflict. We raised all three flags with the same amount of dignity and respect.”

41Looking at yet another dimension of the development of a sense of belonging, a parent agrees but adds that acceptance comes from individual attitudes, in considering that Canada is open to different cultures, races, and ideologies as long as these ideologies are respectful to Others and don’t break any laws.

“Canada is really there for everybody, it is open for everybody. It is up to individual people how they take it; that is important... People will not call me Canadian. They will call me Paki or whatever or Indian. They don’t call you a Canadian even if I am a Canadian. They feel you are the other person. Canada is open.”

42A basic question unfolds from the poignant experiences the quotes represent. Is there conflict between culture, race and citizenship? While there is a great appreciation to enjoy the rights granted by citizenship in a pluralist society, there seems to a resentment of not being identified as being ‘Canadian’ because of one’s colour or practice, of being the other, of experiencing discrimination and prejudice, for the representation of the Other as different stems initially from superficial characteristics. For one Council Member, the point of convergence is democratic:

“In other words, are we going to focus of differences of race, ritual, or are we going to focus on values and ethics? The point of convergence is values, ethics, (and) principles. That is what determines if there is an Other or not.” The Council Member for the Youth Portfolio agrees and claims that the principles of faith and of Canadian citizenship complement each other and therefore there is no conflict: “Ethics, morals, and principles solicit the good, humility and faith, faith in one’s religion, not only that but faith and dedication to one’s country.”

43Initially framing the possibilities for the external definition of the group, Canadian multiculturalism permitted the negotiation of the frontiers between the community and the host society. Continuing to do so internally as part of the process of integration of recent diversity, the policy permits the negotiation of the inner fabric of the community. As we have seen, the construction and recognition of collectivized identities and their recognition were complementary and contradictory. Constructing itself within and against the dominant host society meant differentiating the community from the majority while affirming its right of affiliation and sense of belonging. And yet, inversely, it also meant weaving itself from within, affirming its own cultural, political and symbolic content, without allowing itself to simply be an undistinguishable Other for the majority, for the Isma’ili have their own specific histories and heritages. Making extensive use of their own organizational social and collective infrastructure, the leadership sought to comfort its own, to protect emerging and transforming identities, to obtain recognition and to affirm its legitimacy within the host society, both politically and religiously. It is with the creation of public places of worship, of internal and external transactions of cultural practices, and the attainment of public visibility, that the community succeeds in symbolizing its own collectivised identifications and those of the dominant Other.

44As active collectivising processes, integration and identity formation are negotiated by groups such as the Isma’ili Muslims, upon the basis of religious practices mitigated by languages and cultures. Nonetheless, integration is a difficult concept to live, either individually or collectively. Considered a process by several leaders, there is a need initially to fit into the larger society. This was especially true for one Council member when he was growing up. “I think to some extent there is a tendency to conform. It is easier to be same than different.” However, for the Council Member and Chair for the Resettlement Portfolio, there are two kinds of integration: first, integration within the religious community and secondly, integration within the larger community. For her, integration is about being well informed, taking others seriously and overcoming stereotypes, both within and beyond the community.

“Integration in my opinion means that the Afghanis have to feel comfortable that they are accepted as they are. In the beginning it is very, very difficult because the Khojas have had their traditions and practices.”

45Refining the notion of integration to be able to access resources outside the community, the Council Member and Chair for the Women Portfolio notes that the community is atomized, like a “segregated cocoon. We need to integrate and I think that is one of the biggest challenges that we have. We have to stop reinventing the wheel for the community, to stop giving them programs that are already available outside.” For this member, the Isma’ili community is very important, but so is recognizing the limitations of boundedness and the necessity of being involved outside the community. “I’m also Canadian, well maybe, that’s what I am, a Canadian Isma’ili rather than just Isma’ili.”


46New identities forged within a dynamic, self-reflective community in a mid-sized city in Western Canada are set in the context of double challenges resulting from group diversity, so as to live within the intent of Canadian multiculturalism, respecting the voice and participation of all sub-groups within the Isma’ili community, while assuring the strength, wisdom and practices of the faith community wherein the religion holds central defining value. The analysis reveals that a range of collective identity strategies are utilized at the communal, familial and individual levels to construct a new social order and new identifications. These include :

  • (a) the modification of images that others hold of the group;

  • (b) sensitivity regarding the internalization of marginalizing labels;

  • (c)semantic reversal of views of one’s own culture and faith, thus turning negativity into positivity

  • (d) conscious recomposition of social positioning.

47As social actors, the Isma’ili community engages in an internal policy of integration, set in the context of considerable community diversity, mirroring the state’s policy of integrative multiculturalism, by facilitating passage to English as the language of broader communication and by sustaining the retention of languages of origins in family and community settings to the extent that this is possible. Lived according to faith and civic principles, the resulting processes of hybridization internalize both the violence of language shift as well as the hope that new transcultural identifications bring. Having sought refuge from war-torn countries characterized by life as strife, resettling in Canada conditions and lessens the pain of linguistic violence as this tensionality is lived in a country that has never known major warfare, in which individual and collective human rights are protected, and in which living ordinary lives in peaceful times is to be blessed.

48Given the significance of human rights, multiculturalism as well as the critical role of community leadership in the experience of this collectivity, it is recommended that public policy continue to balance pluralistic conceptions of citizenship with individual human rights and responsibilities. The preservation of collective identities and enhancement of new transcultural, hybrid identifications as well as a commitment to democratic representative government within a communitarian understanding of liberal democratic citizenship are central to the successful integration of groups such as the Isma’ili Muslims. Although this community is more extensively organized than other Muslim sects as well as most other poly-ethnic groups, a community-based approach to integration and citizenship is equally relevant. This means legitimizing different ways of belonging to a common polity; preserving defining elements of individual and collective identities flowing from the interplay of language, gender, ethnicity, religion and race; protecting the nature of communities without unduly burdening them; and allowing for differential identifications and permeable, movable boundaries; while supporting collectivities and emphasizing collective identities; as well as enhancing collaboration between socio-educational institutions and ethnocultural community groups

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Biographical profiles
A professor at the University of Calgary,
Yvonne Hébert (Ph.D., Linguistics, University of British Columbia, 1982) specializes in cultural, political, and social issues in education. Her books include the two volume set, Indian Education in Canada (UBC Press, 1986 and 1987); L'évolution de l'école francophone en milieu minoritaire, a thematic issue of Canadian Modern Language Review, 49, 4 (1993), Citizenship in Transformation in Canada (UT Press, 2002), Negotiating Transcultural Lives: Belongings and Social Capital among Youth in Comparative Perspective (V&R Unipress, Germany, 2005); and the collection, Values, Human Rights, and Citizenship Education in Transnational Perspectives, a thematic issue of Canadian and International Education, 34, 1 (2006).

Moving to Canada from East Africa in her early adolescence, Noorani Murji (M. Phil, U Cambridge, UK) is a member of the Shi'a Imami Isma'ili Muslim community of Calgary. Her thesis deals with the amiability of Islam as a faith and liberal values, within an understanding that its different interpretations encourage critical study and evaluation of its defining precepts and practices. She served as research assistant within the project on Strategic Competence: Identity Formation among Canadian Adolescents, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Canadian Heritage, under the direction of Dr. Yvonne Hébert (U Calgary). She subsequently worked as educational officer with the Calgary Police and is currently an educational consultant.

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Yvonne M. Hébert et Rani Murji, « Collectivized Identity among Shi’a Imami Isma’ili Muslims of Calgary:Implications for Pluralism and Policy », Espace populations sociétés, 2006/1 | 2006, 107-119.

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Yvonne M. Hébert et Rani Murji, « Collectivized Identity among Shi’a Imami Isma’ili Muslims of Calgary:Implications for Pluralism and Policy », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2006/1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2016, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/eps.1189

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Yvonne M. Hébert

Faculty of Education
University of Calgary
2500 University Drive NW
Calgary, AB T2N 1N4

Rani Murji

Eagle Point Consulting Inc.
827 Rundlewood Drive NE
Calgary, AB T1Y 2N9

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