Urbanization and Religious Tolerance

When we think of cities, we think of modernity: gleaming sky scrapers, bustling streets, innovation, and progressive thinking. We infer that cities, and the people that live in them, are more secular and more democratic. But does all of this mean that cities are more religiously tolerant?  There is increasing evidence to suggest that urbanites, constrained by the anonymity and segregated nature of modern cities, are in fact more likely to resort to stereotypes. Looking forward, if we are to achieve religious tolerance world wide, we must take a closer look at the tacit social implications of an increasingly urban existence.Cities play a pivotal role as frontiers for social change considering that they are currently home to the vast majority of the global population; 86 percent of the developed world and 64 percent of the developing world are urban-dwelling, and both figures are growing every year. In a city, you are undoubtedly more likely to encounter diversity of religion. However, this does not necessarily mean members of different religions will interact with each other in their work, school or personal lives. This is because with more people comes more anonymity, and a decreased chance that we will have social interactions with the same people we see on the street every day. You may very well see a woman dressed in a hijab on Fifth Avenue, but do you relate to her? Do you understand where she is from, what she stands for? Do you live next door to her? In cities where the likelihood of knowing a stranger is slim, we tend to rely on social constructs to make conclusions about one another. Along with those assessments come value judgements, both tacit and explicit.This notion resonates will all non-dominant religious groups, a large portion of which are immigrants living in distinct urban enclaves. World wide, cities are overwhelmingly the largest gateways to immigrants: both domestic, rural-to-urban migrants and foreign-born migrants. These groups are more likely to be religious due to the fact that they often rely on the social and spiritual aspects of religious affinity to create a sense of community in a large, unknown urban environment. Moreover, it can also be said that these ethnic, religious, and immigrant communities are spatially distinct; that is, another inherent quality of modern cities is a lack of integration. Take for example, Thorncliffe Park in Toronto where many new Pakistani and Afghani immigrants live in neighborhoods separate from that of native city-dwellers, as Doug Saunders describes in his acclaimed book, Arrival City. This means that contact between the locals and new groups is increasingly unlikely. The resulting isolationism of religiously affiliated neighborhoods has hefty implications for social interaction, acceptance, and cultural and religious tolerance globally.

A mosque in Thorncliffe Park, Toronto. Courtesy of 30masjids.ca

As a result of the lack of truly integrated, diverse cities, people in urban environments are more likely to resort to the “ideal types”, social prejudices, and stereotypes due to an absence of first-hand social interaction. This can be particularly pernicious in the many major immigrant gateway cities of Europe and North America. For instance, Swiss MPs recently passed a bill banning the building of minarets. In another case, French lawmakers have banned the burqa in public. Closer to home, Bill C-31 which was recently passed this summer, reveals a sense of xenophobia in that it cuts protections once awarded to refugees and immigrants coming to Canada. Politicians, predominantly members of the mainstream religious demographic, appeal to fear and exclusion in the absence of understanding. It is becoming obvious that the sheer enormity of cities, as well as their demographic enclaves, can hinder a true understanding of one another. This lack of understanding results in measures to standardize, regulate, and prohibit the expression of religious freedoms.

The fact is, large urban environments, the same places we hold to be beacons of democratic values, modernity and progressiveness, can also harbor a sense of skepticism of religious and cultural difference. This is a direct result of many of today’s diverse cities lacking in true integration. Going forward, the key to increasing racial, cultural, and religious tolerance will be to ensure that the physical urban environment is conducive to a mixing of cultures and experiences. Central to this increase in tolerance are diverse urban communities, which are capable of fostering a deep understanding and respect of one another. Further, beyond just tolerating diversity, embracing and valuing diversity come from living diversity.

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