Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto

Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto

Jones, Richard R

Muslims in the Diaspora: the Somali Communities of London and Toronto. By Rima Berns McGown. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1999. Pp. 302.

Most contemporary ethnographic studies of migrant communities tend to focus either on a single community, or to focus on two (or more) diverse communities in close proximity to each other. McGown’s study goes farther by comparing the experiences of two Somali migrant communities: one in London and the other in Toronto.

Through over 80 interviews (p. 6) with Somalis in London and Toronto, McGown describes and analyzes the very different experiences of Somali migrants in Britain and Canada. The voices of Somali men and women, adults and adolescents, and the religious and non-religious are all cogently presented, effectively exposing many of the complex processes that shape group identity for comparison and analyses.

McGown argues that Somali migration to both Canada and Britain has redefined Somali identity. “Fading is the territorial identity…. In its place, diaspora Somalis have developed a strong consciousness of identity through religion” (p. 228). This new religious identity is not, however, a revitalization of traditional Islam in Somalia, which is predominantly Sufi and where women typically do not wear the hijab or jilbab (head scarves). Rather, in London and Toronto, a more orthodox form of Islam has evolved emphasizing the reading and study of the Qur’an and hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and which calls for women to wear the hijab or jilbab.

This book also explores the differing attitudes of Canadian and British society to the Somali migrant communities and the effect that this has had on Somali attitudes and identity in each case. For example, Somalis in London and Toronto had quite different reactions to the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (p. 172181). A number of other issues that pose dilemmas to Somalis in the diaspora are effectively discussed: sex education, religious education, prayer, marriage, disciplining children, female circumcision, and others. Policymakers and politicians who read this book will have a better understanding of the dynamic relationship that exists between any host culture and its migrant communities and might learn how to serve both better in public policy. As McGown points out, it is not just the migrant community that undergoes change, the host culture is also “altered over time” (p. 55) by the presence of the migrant community. Leaders in ethnic communities would also benefit from understanding the processes that define a group’s status within a larger society.

The successful integration of a migrant group into another society is dependent on the “space for ethnic minorities” (p. 166) that a society creates or allows. In this study, Canada is shown to have created more social space, and to have had more integrative success, for the Somalis than has Britain. Consequently, there are lessons to be learned here that go beyond Somali migration and beyond Canadian and British society. There is hope that public policy and perceptions in Western nations can, perhaps, be changed to better accommodate the needs of, and to facilitate the integration of, migrant communities, especially those that have a religiously centered ethnic identity.


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Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2001

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