Securitized Citizens

Canadian Muslims' Experiences of Race Relations and Identity Formation Post-9/11

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Baljit Nagra
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , November
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Securitized Citizens, Baljit Nagra explores the experiences of fifty ethnically diverse young and well-educated Canadian Muslims in Toronto and Vancouver. In particular, she focuses on the experiences of second-generation Canadian Muslims, who ranged from eighteen to thirty-one years old at the time of her study, conducted between 2004 and 2008. Through their words, Nagra effectively captures the experiences, perceptions, and feelings of young Canadian Muslims in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Securitized Citizens’ key contribution is to demonstrate that post-9/11 anti-Muslim racism has challenged the citizenship of Canadian Muslims, and framed them as disloyal and potentially threatening outsiders—suggesting that Canadian citizenship does not hold the same meaning or protection for them as it does for others. Many of the Canadian Muslims in Nagra’s study expressed feeling as though they were living in a hostile environment. Muslims were harassed and victimized in public spaces; lost their religious freedom; had their economic security compromised; and were increasingly subjected to targeted state surveillance at airports and borders.

At the core of Nagra’s argument is that while Canadian Muslims hold legal Canadian citizenship, their on-the-ground experiences reveal that they are denied claims to national belonging by the state and members in the public. Nagra writes that “post-9/11 racial discourses create ‘legitimate/desirable’ and ‘illegitimate/undesirable’ members of a nation” and reproduce “past colonial practices” (23). Hence, and in line with previous scholarship, Nagra explains that citizenship and nationality should not be viewed as one unified category or state of being, but rather two distinct, yet sometimes overlapping entities. 

Her core argument is in line with recently published research on the paradox of legal inclusion and social exclusion for Muslim-identified groups in North America. Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh (The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race, Stanford University Press, 2017) has analyzed this paradox through the case of Iranian immigrants’ white/non-white racial status in the US; Erik Love (Islamophobia and Racism in America, NYU Press, 2017) has explored the fight against anti-Muslim racism taken up by Muslim American civil rights advocacy organizations.

However, despite being cast as illegitimate members of Canadian society, Nagra finds that Canadian Muslims generally maintain a strong attachment to their Canadian identity and do not face difficulty reconciling their Muslim and Canadian identities, contrary to some predictions in the literature on immigrant integration. Nagra found that the discourse of multiculturalism—which is embedded in Canadian education, law, and media—guided young Canadian Muslims to maintain their attachment to Canadian identity, to continue viewing Canada from a positive, egalitarian lens, and to see the discrimination they faced as anti-Canadian despite continued marginalization and exclusion. Given significant developments in online social activism and racial politics since the time of Nagra’s study, it would be interesting to revisit young Canadian Muslims today and note if these viewpoints still hold.

Nagra’s most intriguing contribution to theory is extending the concept of “reactive ethnicity” advanced by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut to include the experiences of Muslims living in the West, which she terms “reactive identity formation.” Previously, reactive ethnicity has been “used to explain how youth from marginalized ethnic groups can intensify their ethnic identification when they experience or perceive racism” in order to cope with discrimination (148). Nagra advances the theory to suggest that religious identity “may become reactive in the same manner as ethnic identity” (149) and hence the formation of reactive identities is not limited to ethnic groups. Many participants in Nagra’s study asserted and intensified their religious identity following 9/11 in order to cope with multifaceted discrimination, build community ties, educate themselves and others in the Islamic faith, and resist the racialization of Muslim identities and pressures of assimilation. However, according to Nagra’s research, their reactive identities involved challenges as well. Expressions of reactive identity were suppressed at airports and border crossings, where Muslims’ civil and legal rights as Canadian citizens were at most risk, “reminding us of the powerful ability of the state to discipline identities” (170). Thus, Nagra is able to provide an explanation for why Canadian Muslims assert their Muslim identity in a post-9/11 world and how reactive identity formation can change based on social context, an underexplored aspect of reactive identity theory. Ultimately, the experiences of Nagra’s interviewees illustrate that reactive identities may develop when any social dimension—such as ethnicity, religion, or gender—is challenged. 

Although Nagra’s interviews offer rich insight into how Canadian Muslims experience and respond to exclusion, a disproportionate amount of the book is spent summarizing world history and other scholars’ research. Because there are so many thought-provoking quotes and excerpts from her interviews, the reader is left wanting more analysis and interpretation of the data from Nagra herself. In short, a more effective balance between literature review and original analysis could have been struck. Some relative strengths of Nagra’s book, however, are her keen attention to gender throughout the text; her incorporation of the scholarship of theorists-of-color in her analysis; and using affecting quotes from her interviewees that reveal everyday, hidden racism in Canada.

Securitized Citizens is a critical addition to the field. While other studies have documented the experiences of Muslims in the US and UK after 9/11, there has been a lack of research exploring the experiences of Canadian Muslims (one notable exception being sociologist Abdie Kazemipur’s Muslim Question in Canada, University of British Columbia Press, 2014). Nagra’s attention to the experiences of Canadian Muslims is especially vital for scholarship on global anti-Muslim racism due to Canada’s multiculturalism ideology and policy. Centering the experiences of Canadian Muslims post-9/11 in light of Canada’s relatively pluralist national context is a productive and important comparative case for scholars to address.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maleeha Iqbal is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Women, Culture, and Society Undergraduate Review.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Baljit Nagra is assistant professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa.


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