Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-June 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

Rima Berns McGown.
Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 302pp. $60.00 cloth, (0-8020-4707-6), $ 24.95 paper (0-8020-8281-5).

Forced population movements are the hallmark of our time. The status of displaced populations or refugees (who are distinguished from immigrants by their involuntary departure from their homelands) in host countries continue to be a pressing political issue. Although they host only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugee population Western states continue to adopt restrictive immigration policies. Their excuse is to differentiate between “genuine” and “bogus” refugees, to alleviate the “compassion fatigue” which they claim their citizens feel, and to reduce the “burden” of new arrivals on economic resources and social services. Personal stories of the uprooted, however, hardly attract the same attention. Studies which give us the human faces behind the tragedy of exile and the enormous challenges involved in the process of integration are a much needed addition to the tons of materials already produced about refugees.

Thus, Rima Berns McGown’s study of Somali communities in London, England and in Toronto, Canada makes a welcome contribution in helping fill the large gap in the literature. The book begins with an introduction, in which McGown lays out her conceptual framework, her thesis about the process of integration of ethnic minorities in the West and her methodology, based on interviews with eighty Somali men, women and teenagers. This is followed by seven substantive chapters. McGown suggests that the integration of an immigrant community can be harmonious or tense, and this is determined by whether the political culture of the host country makes room or refuses to make room for the new community.

The author’s aim is to help her readers understand how groundless are their fears of the essential otherness of Muslims. I particularly liked her argument that integration or resistance to it is a two-way street. Integration involves both the ethnic immigrant communities and the host country, and requires change on both sides and some degree of convergence. For Somalis, McGown suggests that in both Canada and Britain the community has yet to weave its culture or “Islam” (which for this author are one and the same thing) into the tapestries of its hosts. Still, the Somali community shows a great deal of flexibility in redefining aspects of its religion and this promises “successful” integration into the societies in which they live. (The changing position of the community towards Female Genital Mutilation, and the attempt made to disentangle religious from cultural custom, discussed in Chapter 5, are examples.) The difference between the British political culture which has yet to allow ethnic minorities (Somalis) to feel they belong and Canadian society which has already created such a space determines the speed at which integration will proceed.

These are helpful observations. But one perhaps needs more evidence than availablility of halal meat in supermarkets and Muslim burial grounds in Toronto to be convinced of the acceptance of the Somalis and other Muslim immigrants as full citizens with equal rights and with the respect of their host society. In her first chapter the author provides useful factual information about the cultural and political trajectory of Somali refugees and their day-to-day struggles in dealing with the difficulties of resettlement in Britain and in Canada. But little analysis is offered of the differing socio-economic conditions within the community that, one can reasonably assume, define how refugee status is experienced. McGown, is attentive to “cultural” and language differences between Somalis from the north and the south of the country (pp.21-22), but this valuable comparison is not taken to its conclusion. Since the focus is on “values” and “attitudes” the reader cannot get a grasp of how the “acceptance” of the Somalis, for example, is reflected in their children’s schooling or the kind of occupations in which they are concentrated. In fact, throughout the book the Somali community is treated as a homogenous group, which seems to huddle under an Islamic blanket. Hardly any mention is made of the class, gender, ethnic and regional differences which separate rather than unite migrants of Muslim origin and continue to shape their experience in diaspora. As studies of other diasporic communities of Muslim origin in the West demonstrate, these differences in “cultural” values and, particularly, adherence to religious practices vary in accord with economic and social differences within each immigrant community. Indeed, the term “culture” may represent different things to women and men altogether (see for example, Afshar, 1994; Al-Azmeh, 1993; Abu-Laban, 1995).

Unfortunately, the lack of a well-developed class and gender analysis diminishes the value of the author’s often interesting observations about cultural conflicts and the concerns of the community about issues such as dating, sexual conduct and Islamic practices (discussed in Chapter 4). Finally, the suggestion that the Somalis have become more religious in exile remains an unproved assertion. If, in fact it is true, the reader needs a clear explanation of why this is the case. Is it a consequence of pressures of exile, of overt or covert racism targetting Muslim communities and a resulting sense of powerlessness, loss of status and job discrimination? Hence, one may find puzzling the author’s observation that the position of Somali women in the West has strengthened considerably within their community “in significant part because of their increased religiously” (p. 100). The obvious question is why this strengthened position is not related to “the [large] number of single-parent homes run by women in Western communities” which, one can reasonably assume, gives women more economic independence and authority inside and outside the families. This reality has been observed in other diaspora communities (see for example, Moghissi & Goodman, 1999; Buijs, 1996; Grmela, 1991).

McGown has made a strong effort to give us the feelings and the voices of her respondents and for that we can be grateful. But one wonders, in the end, if her study is free of the presupposition the author endeavours to challenge, that “Islam” is all that there is whenever the subject of study is the communities which come from Islamic societies. And that “Islam” alone can explain the behavioural patters and the integrability of the Somali community or of any other “Muslims” for that matter.

Haideh Moghissi
Department of Sociology
Atkinson College, York University

Works Cited:
Afshar, H 1994. Muslim Women in West Yorkshire:Growing up with Real and Imaginary Values amidst Conflicting Views of Self and Society. In H. Afshar and M. Maynard, (eds.) The Dynamics of ‘Race’ and Gender:Some Feminist Interventions. London: Taylor & Francis.
Abu-Laban, B. 1995. The Muslim Community of Canada. In S.Z. Abedin and Z. Sardar (eds.), Muslim Minorities in the West. Place: Publisher
Al-Azmeh, A. 1993. Islams and Modernities. London: Verso.
Buijs, G. (ed.) 1996. ‘Introduction.’ In Migrant Women Crossing Boundaries and Changing Identities, Washington, D.C. BERG.
Grmela, S. 1991. ‘The Political and Cultural Identity of Second Generation Chilean Exiles in Quebec.’ In S. P. Sharma and A.M. Irvine (Des). Immigrant and Refugees in Canada: A National Perspective on Ethnicity, Multiculturalism and Cross-cultural Adjustment. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: University of Saskatchewan.
Moghissi, H. and M.J. Goodman, 1999. ‘A Culture of Violence’ and Diaspora: Dislocation and Gendered Conflict in Iranian-Canadian Communities.’ Humanity and Society, Volume 23, No. 4, pp. 297-318.
June 2000
© CJS Online