man sitting behind a semi-opaque window

Travelling while Muslim: UTM sociologist on identity and citizenship at the border

Friday, April 28, 2017 - 3:56pm
Blake Eligh

For many Muslim travellers, crossing the border is an experience charged with fear and trepidation. A U of T Mississauga sociologist is investigating how border security routinely violates human and civil rights, and the impact this is having on those targeted by heightened security measures.

Professor Paula Maurutto and co-researcher Baljit Nagra, of the University of Ottawa, are studying the effects of racialized border practices on identity and citizenship of Muslim Canadians with a follow up to previous research on travel and Muslim identity.
In a study published in the Canadian Journal of Sociology in 2016, Maurutto and Nagra interviewed 50 young Muslim Canadians between the ages of 18 and 31 living in Vancouver and Toronto. “Our interviewees referred to being repeatedly stopped, questioned, detained and harassed by security personnel,” Maurutto says. “They felt that any evidence of their Muslim identity—name, country of birth, appearance or clothing—made them a target for extra surveillance.” In those situations, interviewees reported that they felt fearful they would stripped of their rights, and said they felt a lack of ability to freely assert their religious identities when travelling.

Paula MauruttoThe researchers found that the experience created two very different responses. Perhaps not surprisingly, many respondents made a point of moderating their religious or cultural identities when travelling. In some cases, this meant trimming beards for men, and forgoing a hijab, or choosing a colourful scarf instead of a black one for women, as well as adopting a more “North American” style of dress.  But in their personal lives, respondents said their negative border experiences often served to reinforce their religious and cultural identities. About 30 per cent of interviewees said their Muslim identity had been a focal point of their identity before 9/11, but 68 per cent reported identifying more strongly as Muslim and feeling a deeper connection to their faith after 9/11, due to feelings about needing to protect their faith. “They reported taking on more of an identity to counteract perceptions and human rights complaints. Women who had not worn headscarves became politicized and began wearing them as a political statement,” Maurutto says.

Maurutto and Nagra are currently completing related research, investigating the effects of Bill C-51 on Muslim Canadian travellers. Passed in 2007, the legislation expanded the Canadian Passenger Protect Program so the government could add anyone to the no-fly list who they suspected might engage in terrorism. “At the time, it was estimated that there were between 500 and 2,000 names on that list,” Maurutto says. “We don’t have current data on who has been added to or removed from the list since then.”

“It’s very difficult to get information about the list—people only find out that they’re on it when they are denied a boarding pass and there’s very little recourse to get one’s name removed from the list,” she says. “It has real implications—it affects whether people can leave the country for business, to visit family, accompany their children or go abroad for university.”

“The government has created legislation and practices with a serious impact that hasn’t been thought out carefully,” she says. “[Muslim Canadian] freedoms are being restricted because they are part of a group. But these are human rights and civil rights violations of people who have legitimate Canadian status. We have to understand how human rights are being violated and why certain groups are targeted.”