Combating Perceptions of Islam: The Strategy of Education among Muslims in St. John’s, Newfoundland

by Caitlin Downie


Because I’m not wearing hijab, people do not know I’m Muslim and sometimes they have, they make comments about, you know, Muslims and I feel like I have also a responsibility to explain to them what’s the real deal here and why you’re wrong and, you know, how you can view it differently…So trying to approach that in a different way where I don’t have to, like, you know, especially identify myself before I explain to you…I can just simply explain to you as an individual not as a Muslim" (Dalal)1.

Drawn from my 2012 Master’s thesis research, this article examines one strategy that I found Muslims in St. John’s, NL employ to combat negative and inaccurate perceptions of their faith. My thesis research involved both participant-observation and 30 interviews with Muslims living in the city2. The St. John’s context is particularly interesting due to its relatively small Muslim population3, its lack of ethno-religious diversity4 (Statistics Canada, 2006), and because it is a single-mosque community.

In this brief article, I describe how Muslims in St. John’s, Newfoundland use education as a strategy in their everyday lives. I also consider the impact this strategy has on the religious identities of participants. Finally, I discuss how the education strategy may be useful on a larger scale to combat negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims and promote mutual understanding.

Education of Others

The vast majority of the participants I interviewed cited education strategies as their primary response in dealing with pejorative public perceptions of Islam. In fact, about 90% of participants in my study used educational strategies to counter negative perceptions of Muslims and Islam. Many individuals with whom I spoke actively educated those around them about Islam in response to questions, comments, or judgments. One participant argued that Canadian Muslims use education as a strategy in instances of ignorance (when people do not know about Islam and thus explanation is necessary) and in instances of criticism of Islam (or when one feels compelled to defend one’s beliefs and practices).

This response came with some cost for respondents. Indeed some participants described how the high frequency of questions and comments led to a feeling of exhaustion and irritation of having to constantly play the role of educator. Amira, a 1.5-generation immigrant who describes herself as ‘spiritual’ and a ‘non-practicing’ Muslim says, "I find I use it [education] as a teaching, teachable moments. With people who should know better I get annoyed". Continuing her narrative, Amira, she laments that it is "really annoying to have to explain who you are every two minutes". Sabrina, a convert who wears hijab, shares this feeling when she says, "People are always asking questions. Always. I know I should probably be a little more open about it…but it is exhausting. It’s like I explain it myself a hundred thousand times…I feel like I should just go do an education seminar".

While some participants felt overwhelmed by the number of instances of educational moments, others saw this role as important. Faizah, a ‘cultural Muslim’5 who immigrated to Canada nearly 10 years ago, voices her conviction that education is extremely important and even a responsibility.

Raji, a professional who immigrated to Canada recently from the Middle East says, "It’s my responsibility to educate them…Once they know the truth hopefully…they change". Similarly, Alina points out,

So it’s also the responsibility of the newcomer to take a role, to play a role in bridging the gaps and filling the gaps. If they don’t know much than I can educate myself and help to educate, help my counterparts to educate themselves about Islam.

These examples drawn from interviews show that the responsibility to educate others about Islam is keenly felt by these Muslims. This imposition means that participants educate themselves with the knowledge and information needed to effectively talk about Islam and dispel misconceptions and negative stereotypes.


Indeed, for many Muslims in St. John’s, the responsibility to take on an education role impacted their religious identities by compelling them to become more knowledgeable about Islam. In other words, participants felt self-education or an increase in religious knowledge was necessary to educate others and to defend Islam against negative stereotypes.

Wafa, for example, began to educate herself about Islam following negative experiences of others questioning her about her hijab. She says, "I faced a lot of difficulties initially. The thing was I felt like I didn’t know my religion enough to explain it to other people…It kind of made me go and learn more about my religion" (Wafa).

In this way, educating others has become an everyday social and religious ‘practice’ that is arguably heightened because they live in St. John’s where they are arguably more visible than in other major cities in Canada. Pejorative public perception of Islam impacts religious identities of participants by compelling them to take on an educator role and to increase their knowledge of Islam. These Muslims’ religious identities are constructed in reaction to negative perceptions and attitudes.

Scholarly literature has also arrived at this conclusion (see Moghissi et al, 2009; Duderijia, 2008; Khan, 2002; and Nagra, 2011). Nagra (2011) has argued that education contributes to reactive identity formation among Muslims. She found that many Muslims reacted to discrimination after 9/11 by asserting their Muslim identities, increasing their knowledge of Islam, strengthening their ties to the Muslim community, and becoming involved in advocacy work and educational initiatives (Nagra, 2011).

The Search for Solutions

There have therefore been attempts in St. John’s and around the world to use educational strategies on a larger scale in order to combat negative perceptions, stereotypes, discrimination, and even Islamophobia (the irrational fear of Islam). For example, Doors Open Days is a city-wide event that the St. John’s mosque, Masjid al-Noor, has participated in for several years. The event encourages the public to visit the mosque, meet regular attendees, and learn about Islam. A similar event, which is also held on many campuses across Canada, is Islamic Awareness Week. The Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s has successfully run this informative week-long event for many years including hosting a lecture series with a question and answer period tailored for non-Muslims.

While these educational initiatives undoubtedly combat intolerance, hostility, and misunderstanding, they may inadvertently create other problems. Who gets to speak for Muslims? Who gets to decide which Islam (be it more conservative or more liberal) is presented? Educational and multi-faith initiatives are often organized and led by religious institutions and formal Muslim organizations. Consequently, those who are involved in these initiatives tend to be more practicing Muslims who can be more conservative in their beliefs and therefore not as representative. Such representations often present one form of Islam. As a result, these well-intended multi-faith and educational initiatives may in fact, re-create an undesired monolithic and orthodox view of Islam and Muslims.

Instead of large-scale singular perspective initiatives, I suggest that more individual-based multi-perspective projects may be more effective. For example an interesting program called ‘Culture-to-Community’ was started in St. John’s that invites international students and recent immigrants to visit rural high schools and talk about their background, their religion, their culture, their jobs, etc. Habib, a cultural Muslim from Africa, participated in this program and feels that it is a great way to break down stereotypes. He said, "it gives them [students] a different sense of who immigrants are" (Habib). In this way, intolerance, ignorance, and misunderstanding are fought while presenting multiple Islams that challenge negative perceptions and stereotypes.


  1. Pseudonyms are used to protect the identities of participants.

  2. This research was part of a larger SSHRC-funded project led by Dr. Jennifer Selby and co-investigator Dr. Lori Beaman titled "Religion in the Everyday: Negotiating Islam in St. John’s, NL" and fell under Strand 2 of the Religion and Diversity Project.

  3. In 2001 Statistics Canada reported the Muslim population of St. John’s, NL as 445. However, the local mosque estimates their current membership at about 1000 people (MANAL, n.d.).

  4. According to Statistics Canada (2006) about 5% of the population in St. John’s, NL are immigrants and about 3% are visible minorities.

  5. The term ‘cultural Muslim’ refers to those whose identity as a Muslim focuses around ethnic or cultural background rather than on religious observance or practice. See Gans (1994), Eid (2007), Duderijia (2008), and Moghissi, H., Rahnema, S., & Goodman, M. J. (2009) for more information on this category.


Duderija, A. (2008). "Factors Determining Religious Identity Construction Among Western-Born Muslims: Towards a Theoretical Framework." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 28(3): 371-400.

Eid, P. (2007). Being Arab: Ethnic and Religious Identity Building Among Second Generation Youth in Montreal. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Gans, H. J. (1994). "Symbolic Ethnicity and Symbolic Religiosity: Towards a Comparison of Ethnic and Religious Acculturation". Ethnic and Racial Studies 17: 577-592.

Khan, S. (2002). Aversion and Desire : Negotiating Muslim Female Identity in the Diaspora. Women’s Press.

Moghissi, H., Rahnema, S., & Goodman, M. J. (2009). Diaspora by Design: Muslims in Canada and Beyond. University of Toronto Press

Nagra, B. (2011). "‘Our Faith Was Also Hijacked by Those People’: Reclaiming Muslim Identity in Canada in a Post-9/11 Era". Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37(3): 425-441.

Statistics Canada (2006). "Visible Minority Population, by Metropolitan Areas (2006 Census)". Statistics Canada, Census of Population. Retrieved from