Vancouver is a Booming City for Muslims

October 30, 2018

The Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies is pleased to publish “Vancouver is a booming city for Muslims” by the cultural geographer, Laura Kapinga.

Laura Kapinga is a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Her research interest revolves around diversity in the urban context, especially the interplay between 'lived' religion and the city, experiences of inclusion and exclusion, everyday geographies of young people, and identity processes.

CCMS thanks Laura for this insightful piece.

Vancouver Is a Booming City for Muslims

Laura Kapinga, PhD Candidate at University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Talking about his experiences in Vancouver, Ahmad describes the city as ‘a booming city for Muslims’. In doing so, he refers to the growing number of events organized by young Muslims for their peers. This experience is echoed in conversations with others who shared their personal stories and expertise about being a young Muslim in Greater Vancouver in relation to my PhD project. The project aims to gain insight in the variety of experiences of inclusion and exclusion of young adult Muslims in predominantly secular and so-called ‘western’ urban contexts. It focusses on ways spaces and places are negotiated, challenged, contested and created while exploring spirituality and religion during youth and emerging adulthood. Without jumping to conclusions, I would like to use this opportunity to share a few reflections about the fieldwork this summer.

The interviewees’ experiences and personal stories showed great diversity in terms of interests, hobbies, lifestyle, personality, profession, education, residential area and so on. Some grew up in Vancouver, while others were born elsewhere in Canada or migrated internationally. Some moved for example from a majority Muslim context to Greater Vancouver which Muslim population is around 3% and growing. Individual characteristics and the places lived in before, but also gender, cultural background, race and religious sect, framed their situated experiences of being a Muslim in Vancouver. Despite those differences, there are some common experiences that shed light on the meanings and creation of young Muslim spaces.

Examples of recent initiatives are Vancouver Madinah, The Breathing Room, Voices of Muslim Women, Sisters Speak and online social media platforms such as Subaltern Magazine and Calandeen. Those also collaborate with each other and are often spin-offs of existing structures like the Muslim Foodbank or the MSAs (Muslim Student Associations). Those existing and new spaces for young Muslims seem to be complementary to, or an alternative for, more institutionalized places such as mosques.

Interviewees often shared observations about mosques’ losing popularity among young adults. However, they also serve an important religious role, because of educational programs followed as kids which are highlighted during the interviews as still contributing to religious understandings as young adults. The meanings of mosques seem to change when growing older, which is partly the result of generational differences, increased mobility and independence, but also of the availability of those alternative places and initiatives.

The appeal of those alternatives for young Muslims was often explained by a combination of reasons in which friendships play an important role. While many events have a specific aim, for example enriching understandings of Islam, many initiatives also provide a social aspect and claim to offer a non-judgment and inclusive safe space in which questions, doubts about religion, and taboo topics can be discussed. Some interviewees valued those inclusive spaces and friendships to explore the balance between ‘Deen’ and ‘Dunya’, which Nayantara translate with ‘religion’ and ‘world’. For example, how does it work to be religious in this specific context and in relation to many other dimensions of who you are or want to be? In the same thread, Nora highlights that religion should not be approached in a vacuum, but in connection with other aspects important to young people’s lives. Additionally, participants also appreciate the initiatives because of the opportunities to self-organize, become involved and empowered, develop skills and reach out to other young adults or local communities.

The growing number of initiatives does not necessarily mean that all young Muslims feel the need to attend or feel comfortable in all events organized by their peers. However, the variety of events offer an interconnected network, providing opportunities to pick and choose not only according to preferences, needs, and feelings of inclusivity, but also in relation to personal agendas and location in the city. If needs are not met, new initiatives are added to the existing network. As Mohammed explains, ‘they are not to compete, but to complement each other’.

The variety of experiences in Vancouver tell the story of a young Muslim population actively negotiating and shaping their own geographies. As a geographer, it is interesting to see how changing geographies during this life phase are shaped by experiences of inclusion and exclusion and by changing intergenerational relationships and friendships. Looking forward to explore the Dutch case of this PhD project, many contextual differences will influence individual experiences, such as historical and social context, urban structures, migration history, multicultural model, discourses around Islam, and separation between religion and state. However, the experience of being a young Muslim in a predominantly secular city, exploring balances between ‘Deen’ and ‘Dunya’ in relation to other identity dimensions, and exploring your own religion and spirituality during youth and emerging adulthood seem to be processes that are not specific for the Vancouver case. Therefore, Vancouver can be seen as an inspirational case showing how places and initiatives - in which the dimensions of being young and Muslim are shared – acquire meaning in terms of inclusion, spiritual development, empowerment, and community involvement.

I would like to thank the 24 participants that shared their experiences and personal stories and all the others that helped or showed me around in Vancouver.

Laura Kapinga, PhD Candidate

Department of Cultural Geography
Faculty of Spatial Sciences
University of Groningen
The Netherlands