Ahead of federal election, imams at 69 Canadian mosques deliver message that every vote counts

When Canadians go to the polls in October, a non-partisan group hopes Muslim voter turnout will be higher than ever — and seized one of the year's most-attended days of prayer to mobilize the community with a single message: every ballot counts.

On Good Friday, imams at 69 mosques in five provinces — Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Quebec — delivered a coordinated sermon in four different languages, emphasizing the importance of voting. 

"As believers, every single one of us has social responsibilities that our very faith is contingent upon," Imam Faraz Rabbani told congregants at the Bosnian Cultural Centre in Toronto. Voting, he said, is one of those responsibilities. 

"The very basis of religion is that the believer is concerned about maximizing the good for themselves and others, and striving to diminish harm." 

Friday's effort was part of a larger project by the non-partisan, non-profit group Canadian Muslim Vote. It sprang up in 2015 with the aim of breaking what had been a cycle of poor voter turnout among Muslims in Canada — something it says had a tangible impact at the polls.

65 ridings where demographic could make a difference

Good Friday isn't a religious holiday for Muslims, but being a legal holiday in Canada, it typically sees one of the biggest turnouts of the year for Muslims who hold congregational prayer.

According to the last national household survey in 2011, Canada is home to some one million Muslims. This year, CMV estimates the number of eligible Canadian Muslim voters is closer to 1.6 million. 

Richard Agecoutay/CBC

By 2036, Muslims are expected to make up to 7.2 per cent of the population of Canada, according to the latest projections from Statistics Canada in 2017.

Muslims had historically been less likely to vote compared to other religious groups, according to research by Elections Canada. A 2007 working paper by the elections agency put Muslim voter turnout in the 2000 federal election at 67 per cent, compared with 85 per cent for voters who identified as Jewish, 82 per cent for Catholics and Protestants and 78 per cent for Hindus. Total voter turnout in that election was 61.2 per cent.

That changed in 2015. A post-election poll by Mainstreet Research pegged Canadian Muslim voter turnout at 79 per cent. National turnout in that election was 68.5 per cent

This year, based on research by Canadian Muslim Vote, there are some 65 ridings where the Muslim voting population is larger than the margin of victory for the 2015 incumbent MP. 

'A populist movement taking hold'

One area where the Muslim vote could prove decisive is the riding of Milton, Ont. Its incumbent won by 2,438 votes in the last election. And while Muslims don't vote as a block, the riding has a Canadian Muslim population of approximately 8,000, enough to have a direct impact on the result, CMV's executive director Ali Manek told CBC News. 

So what are the issues of greatest concern to Canadian Muslim voters?

"What we find in the Canadian-Muslim community through our surveys and community consultations is that the majority are concerned with the same things as the rest of Canadians: jobs, economy, taxation, immigration and foreign aid usually top the list," Manek said. Islamophobia is another big concern, he said. 

The group has been working to survey voters heading into the 2019 election and expects to have results on their key issues of concern this May. 

Richard Agecoutay/CBC

Aziza Mohamed, a volunteer with the group, was among those who attended Friday's event. She said the coming federal election is especially important.

"When we have political parties in our country that are actively courting racists and Islamophobes, it's really important that we be engaged to fight against that," she said. 

"We have a populist movement taking hold ... putting forth ideas that are completely contrary to what Canada stands for and to what Muslim Canadians stand for." 

Richard Agecoutay/CBC

Among the sermon's key messages: that Muslims vote not only with themselves in mind, but consider the impact on the wider communities in which they live. 

"Think much bigger than your local politics," Rabbani said.

It's a message that hit home for Oguz Sarkut, who regularly attends the Bosnian centre with his daughter. 

His takeaway from the sermon: "If we don't vote, we don't have any right to complain."