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An Interview with Dr. Katherine Bullock on Religious and National Identity, and Generational and Denominational/Interpretational Differences in Islam (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/02/22


Katherine Bullock received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Toronto (1999). She is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto at Mississauga. Her teaching focus is political Islam from a global perspective, and her research focuses on Muslims in Canada, their history, contemporary lived experiences, political and civic engagement, debates on the veil, and media representations of Islam and Muslims. Her publications include: Muslim Women Activists in North America: Speaking for Ourselves, and Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes which has been translated into Arabic, French, Malayalam, and Turkish. Bullock is President of Compass Books, dedicated to publishing top-quality books about Islam and Muslims in English. She is past President of The Tessellate Institute, a non-profit research institute in Canada, and of the Islamic Society of North America- Canada.  She served as editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (AJISS) from 2003 – 2008. She was Vice President of the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies (NAAIMS) from 2013-2017. Originally from Australia, she lives in Oakville, Canada with her husband and children. She embraced Islam in 1994. She discusses: religious identity and national identity, and their relationship; the plurality of Canadian Muslim identity; generations of Canadian Muslims; denominational and interpretational differences between generations of Canadian Muslims; and identity issues facing generations of younger Muslims.

Keywords: Aboriginal, Canada, Canadian Muslim, generations, Islam, Katherine Bullock, Muslim, religion.

An Interview with Dr. Katherine Bullock: Past Chair, Islamic Society of North America-Canada (ISNA-Canada); Lecturer, Political Science, the University of Toronto at Mississauga; Past President, Tesselate Institute; President, Compass Books (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To make things transparent and upfront, you are a former Christian. Now, obviously, you are a highly prominent Muslim woman, a Canadian Muslim woman. We have been in correspondence since 2018 with the publication of an interview on October 8, 2018 (Jacobsen). 

Since that time, I have been independently working to build relevant relations, as time and energy permits, and projects with some leading members of the Canadian Muslim community. 

Our work in this series will continue in this ongoing work. In between 2018 and 2020, recently, you accepted an invitation to join the Advisory Board of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Now, as per a proposal by me, you accepted moving forward with an educational series after a discussion on relevant topics to the Canadian Muslim public and needing some discussion. 

Our trajectory will be three-fold: 1) internal issues, 2) external issues, and 3) ongoing or potential solutions to the issues. The first two, 1) and 2), will be leading, naturally, into 3), which is good. 

I like happier endings; I assume the same for you. Our educational series here will focus on the statistical trends, which should exist in the back of the minds of the public in regard to the issues mentioned and the claims made here. Every single religious individual is – ahem – an individual.

To begin, let’s focus on the central issue facing Canadian Muslims as an internal issue, the actuality of identity and the relation of religious identity to national identity. What is religious identity compared to national identity in general? How are these related and not related to one another?

Dr. Katherine Bullock: A religious identity is how one connects to one’s spiritual self. I know that some people find religions can be dogmatic and domineering, but they still feel a spiritual connection to something larger than themselves, a link to an intangible presence in the universe.  They will say, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.”  Back home in Australia, when I thought of myself as an atheist, I nevertheless, had spiritual experiences.  For instance, I always found swimming in the ocean or the local outdoor swimming pool a spiritual experience.  Underwater, I would watch the light rays dancing under the waves, separating into beams that faded at the edges into the grey-blue opaqueness of the water.  I would hold my breath, watching the swaying light that seemed to be reaching down into the murky depth to illuminate my life with the knowledge of something other-worldly.  Eventually, my spiritual experiences, which happened while thinking of myself as an atheist, led me down the path to embracing the concept of a Creator-God, and thence to Islam.

This spiritual journey took place in Australia, and later, in Canada.  I am a proudly and blessedly a citizen of both.  Nationality is one’s political, economic, social and cultural identity.  There should not be any conflict between a spiritual or religious mode and one’s citizenship; especially in today’s multicultural, multi-ethnic, globalized world.

2. Jacobsen: In particular, what is Canadian Muslim identity as a concept, i.e., its components and relations between its parts? Naturally, I assume a plural category rather than a singular one. 

Bullock: Canadian Muslims come from all over the world.  Our communities are incredibly diverse.  The most significant countries of origin are Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India. According to the National Household Survey of 2011, there were also more than 1,000 Muslims who identified as Aboriginal (First Nation or Métis).[1]

There is also sectarian diversity, mirroring that of the world – Sunni; Shia; Ahmadi; Ismaili.  Inside each of these broad groupings are also differing theological schools.

All this makes it hard to say, in a general way, “This is a Canadian Muslim Identity”!

3. Jacobsen: When it comes to the older and the younger generations, the older generations of Canadian Muslims – brushing over denominational or interpretational differences for the moment – may hold more firm beliefs and senses of self, i.e., firmer religious identities. 

Young generations of Muslims may not have this. Youth exists in a state of uncertainty, sometimes producing anxiety, due to the inchoate state of one’s mind and sense of self-identity. 

Without endorsement or not of religion, what is a concern amongst older generations of Canadian Muslims in terms of the passing of values, practices, and beliefs in a modern, technological, and largely secular society to younger generations of Canadian Muslims?

Bullock: I’m not sure that religious identity works like that.  The 2016 Environics Survey of Canadian Muslim opinion, which I worked on, found some interesting statistics that complicate the way you’ve asked the question.[2]

First, 40% of those who had been in Canada less than ten years found that their attachment to Islam had increased since arriving.  For those in Canada more than twenty years, it rose to 47%.

Second, perhaps counter-intuitively, stronger attachment to Islam was found amongst younger Muslims, who reported attending the mosque at least once a week, especially for non-prayer purposes (e.g. social events), which was more than older generations.

On the other hand, a frequent conversation I have with parents is concern over passing along the values and religious practices of the Islamic faith (remembering as I say that that we must be aware of denominational or interpretational diversity in what those look like, as you have noted above).  Parents worry particularly about passing along the habit of praying five times a day – especially the morning prayer which is done at dawn – no easy thing in the summer at 4.00 am; about no alcohol or drugs; about no dating before marriage; and about not eating pork – i.e. no pepperoni on pizza and no marshmallows.

4. Jacobsen: Following from the previous question, does Islamic denomination or interpretation influence the kinds of concerns amongst the older generations of Canadian Muslims about the passing of Islamic values and practices, and beliefs, and Muslim identity?

Bullock: Denominational or interpretational concerns certainly exist, but I don’t think it’s generational.  I see youth getting tied up into narrow views of Islam, or dissolving into broadness, as much as older people.

The more important concern I hear about from older people is about passing along customs and traditions that are not necessarily Islamic, but part of their cultural identity.  Contentious issues are around dress and marriage, and careers – whether the child will wear “western” clothes or country-of-origin clothes; whether the family will choose the spouse or not; and whether the child will go into medicine/engineering or journalism; whether the woman will work outside the home or not.  None of these are about Islam as worship.  They do cause inter-generational conflict.

5. Jacobsen: From the younger generations of Canadian Muslims, what are the identity issues facing them now – not from the concerns of older generations but solely within their own perspectives on the world?

Bullock: Although I quoted the Environics survey’s findings on youth attendance at the mosque, there are other findings that suggest the picture is more complicated.  A 2014 documentary, called Unmosqued,[3] found that many Muslims feel unwelcomed or uncomfortable in mosques, especially youth, women, converts, minority ethnicities in a mosque dominated by one ethnicity, and black Muslims.  They don’t always leave the religion, though many do, rather, they try and establish other spaces (called “third spaces”) where they can be Muslim.

The Environics survey pointed to some troubling statistics:

  • Only 41% of youth aged 18-34 reported a strong sense of belonging to Canada;
  • 83% of Canadian born rejected traditional teachings about husband as breadwinner and head of household;
  • 78% of Canadian born Muslims noted discrimination as the most important issue facing the country; it was 54% amongst the youth 18-34;
  • 50% of Canadian born, and 41% of youth 18-34 believed they would face more discrimination in the future; and
  • 32% of Canadian born and 24% of youth 18-34 24% feel inhibited in expressing their political or social opinions.

Together these tell a story of a cohort of young people who are not sure of their identity, rejecting aspects of traditional teachings, not sure where they belong, not sure if they fit in, and not sure about expressing themselves.  They are un-moored.

I am not a psychologist, but I know enough about self-esteem and self-confidence to understand that to flourish individuals need to feel certain about their identity, comfortable fitting in with their society and expressing themselves.  They need to feel moored.

A successful community can only be made up of individuals who are doing well.  If we have some who do well, and others who do not, then we have work to do.  Young people in this cohort need programming to assist with handling discrimination; counselling; self-defence; self-esteem; empowerment; they need teaching/guidance on hope, on coping tools; on addressing discrimination; on bystander training; and help feeling they belong to Canada.

6. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Bullock.


AboutIslam & Newspapers. (2018, September 17). Katherine Bullock: Woman Leading Canada’s Largest Muslim Group. Retrieved from

Baig, F. (2018, July 6). How ISNA-Canada’s 1st female chair hopes to overcome a major scandal. Retrieved from

Bullock, K. (2019, October 28). ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ left us with enduring stereotypes. Retrieved from

Bullock, K. (2019, September 23). How the Arabian Nights stories morphed into stereotypes. Retrieved from

Bullock, K. (n.d.). Katherine Bullock, Ex-Christian, Canada. Retrieved from

Hamid, M. (2018, September 17). Katherine Bullock, the new chair of ISNA. Retrieved from

Jacobsen, S.D. (2018, October 8). An Interview with Dr. Katherine Bullock. Retrieved from

Shah, S. (2019, August). Canadian Muslims: Demographics, Discrimination, Religiosity, and Voting. Institute of Islamic Studies.

Tessellate Institute. (2016, April). Survey of Canadian Muslims. Retrieved from

The University of Toronto Mississauga . (2020). Katherine Bullock. Retrieved from

The University of Toronto Mississauga. (2018, August 2). UTM political science lecturer chosen as first female head of major Muslim non-profit. Retrieved from

UnMosqued. (2014). UnMosqued: A Documentary Film about Immigrant Founded Mosques in America. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Past Chair, Islamic Society of North America-Canada (ISNA-Canada); Lecturer, Political Science, University of Toronto at Mississauga; Past President, Tesselate Institute; President, Compass Books.

[2] Individual Publication Date: February 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: Image Credit: Richard Sheen.

[3] Sarah Shah, “Canadian Muslims: Demographics, Discrimination, Religiosity, and Voting,” Institute of Islamic Studies, Occasional Paper Series, August 2019.

[4] Tessellate Institute. (2016, April). Survey of Canadian Muslims. Retrieved from

[5] UnMosqued. (2014). UnMosqued: A Documentary Film about Immigrant Founded Mosques in America. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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