Do Muslim Women Need Saving: A book review

Do Muslim women need saving? This is the question author Lila Abu-Lughod tries to answer in her bookpublished by Harvard University Press in 2013.

Abu-Lughod is a trained anthropologist from Columbia University. For several years she lived with Bedouin women in Egypt’s Western Desert. She wrote Veiled Sentiments, a book filled with poems Bedouin women tell about their men, their relationships and their lives. Abu-Lughod kept returning to visit and live with rural Egyptian women for the purposes of her studies, and one can feel throughout the book that these women are not objects of curiosity or pity, or perhaps objects of study — but rather becoming akin to close friends and almost relatives to the author. She compares her own children to theirs, speaks fondly of their attitudes, and tries so hard to understand their struggles and the dynamics of their decisions.

Abu-Lughod constantly questions herself about the reasons that would make these women look oppressed to their Western counterparts. She acknowledges that their lives are economically and socially challenging, but reports that they have never accepted their fate in any way and instead are constantly trying to change things around them at their own pace and on their own terms.

In the West, some authors and popular media make us believe that it is both the culture and/or the Muslim religion that are the causal roots of this “oppression.” But Abu-Lughod claims that her own experience actually showed her the opposite: how culture and religion can sometimes become the real engine behind the strong will of change she frequently encounters with these women.

Abu-Lughod studies in great detail the messages of “pulp nonfiction” books sold in the West, whose dangerous mixture of violence and pornographic content about the lives of Muslim women abused by their families is intended to keep the supposed link between religion and oppression alive.

Abu-Lughod exposes the pattern behind memoirs telling us horrific stories of Muslim women abused by their husbands, fathers or family, who were able to escape and embrace freedom in the West. For instance, the story of Zana Muhsen told in the book Sold is a story of a Birmingham girl who escaped from Yemen with her mother’s help after 13 years of abuse. These books are usually written by ghostwriters, sold by the millions and sometimes turned into movies. These books enter the popular imagination and become the reference points for an avid Western audience already convinced of the moral superiority of their culture and the universality of “freedom.” What Abu-Lughod names as the fantastic world of “pulp nonfiction” is filled with real or sometimes simply “invented” stories that are later used to justify moral and military crusades from the West with the dubious objective to “liberate” Muslim women from the barbarism of their culture and offer them freedom of choice.

Thus, the obsession of the Western media with “honour killing” stories does not always emerge from a genuine desire to help women fight the injustice they face in their own communities but rather from an intrinsic message that their indigenous culture is barbaric, doesn’t permit love, and forces girls to marry men they despise.

Abu-Lughod explains:

“[T]he problem is that when violence occurs in some communities, culture is blamed, in others only the individuals involved are accused or faulted. As Leti Volpp has shown in her classic article called “Blaming Culture,” violent or abusive behaviour gets attributed to culture only when it occurs in minority or alien culture, racial, or national groups.”

So what to do to improve Muslim women’s rights? Abu-Lughod gives two examples of women’s rights groups: the classical Western feminist approach and the new Islamic feminist approach. Abu-Lughod praises some aspects of both approaches but also criticizes their shortcomings. For instance, she points to the danger of the governmentalization of rights where the government would sponsor a sort of elite feminism, especially in urban centres and wouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the population in rural areas.

The emerging movement of Islamic feminism that started in Malaysia can be seen as responding to an increasing need to change the Islamic texts underlying marriage and inheritance. She cites the example of some North African countries where feminist reformers developed a model marriage contract that would build the requirement of consent into a husband’s decision to take a second wife.

Even though she applauds the extensive work done by these initiatives, like the Musawah movement, she criticizes the fact that they “have aligned surprisingly well with the clichéd causes familiar to us through our study of sensational media and pulp nonfiction.”

The strength of Abu-Lughod’s message is the intricate and complex stories of Muslim women that she shares with readers. In these stories, it becomes extremely difficult to distinguish between oppression and the consequences of colonialism. On many occasions, the concept of choice, so much cherished in the West, is blurred by poverty, economic and social problems.

So finally, after reading Abu-Lughod’s book, can we answer the question, “Do Muslim women need saving?” The answer isn’t as obvious as some authors, politicians and journalists want us to believe.

Abu-Lughod’s book isn’t a justification for Muslim women’s oppression. It is a plea for the humanity of all women, regardless of their religion or race.

This column was orginally published at

Once again the bodies of Muslim women are used to justify wars

Lord Cromer, the British consul general of Egypt, who was the de facto ruler of that country between 1883 to 1907, wrote in his book, Modern Egypt:

“The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is … a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the Western civilisation … The obvious remedy would appear to be to educate women.”

Reading his words, one could easily mistake Lord Cromer for a “feminist” or a genuine defender of women’s rights. At that time, there was no Internet. So Lord Cromer couldn’t boast about his objective of saving Muslim women to his Facebook and Twitter followers. Nevertheless his ideas made their way into British politics, which made him a celebrated personality for some.

Any biographical book about the life of Lord Cromer would mention the infamous role he played in the anti-suffragette movement in Britain. Indeed, in 1908, after retiring from his duties in Egypt, Lord Cromer presided over the anti-suffragette Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage. The purpose of this committee was to fundraise against the suffragist movement, and to publicly campaign against women’s demands, including those in the British political system. Even though this committee successfully raised money for the cause, it was not able to gain public support as the suffragist campaign became more and more popular among British women.

This makes us wonder if Lord Cromer led a double life: a feminist in Egypt and an anti-women’s rights crusader in England.

In other words, it is easier to speak about other people’s rights and forget or even fight against the rights of your own people. Or maybe it was more rewarding politically to justify the colonization of Egypt by evoking the “backwardness” of Islam and the “poor status” of Muslim women while disregarding all the voices calling for women’s rights at home.

It must be noted that it is easier to convince an ignorant public with simplistic justifications for complex problems, leaving them with a nice feeling of superiority after helping the “oppressed.”

Ironically, the tactics of Lord Cromer are not obsolete in today’s politics. They are still being used by politicians of the likes of George W. Bush, who, in one of his justifications for the war in Afghanistan, evoked the sad fate of burqa-wearing Afghan women.

At that time, a majority of Americans cheered for his newly discovered feminist spirit. They applauded his efforts and believed that Afghan women would instantaneously remove their burqas the minute U.S. soldiers set foot in Afghanistan, and the little girls prevented by the Taliban from going to school would automatically be allowed to go to school after the military invasion.

Today, many NGOs are reporting that things didn’t change much in Afghanistan. The burqa is still present and many schools are still closed for girls. Literacy rates for women over the age of 15 is 12.6 per cent and only 6 per cent of girls go to secondary school.

And what happened to the concerns of Tony Blair, George and Laura Bush? They are gone with the last soldiers who left the Afghan soil! Meanwhile, in the U.S., George W. Bush fiercely opposed policies that promoted women’s rights. Among many anti-woman policieshe introduced, he unsuccessfully tried to shut the Labor Department women’s bureau offices which informed women about their workplace rights. Furthermore, he slashed library funding (and by the way, Laura Bush was a librarian).

But today, it seems that the bodies of Afghan women are no longer in demand. Instead, it is the bodies of some Iraqi women who represent the source of concerns for some politicians.

One of the politicians extremely worried about Iraqi women is Jason Kenney. And because it happens that he is the Minister of War (sorry for slip of the tongue — I mean Minister of Defence) it made his job a bit easier: he can save Muslim women by going to war (I mean defensive war).

And this is why he was so quick to tweet about the issue — to the point that in his rush he made an “innocent” mistake. The pictures he posted were not correct. They were not showing pictures of Muslim women but instead the dramatization of a religious ceremony conducted by Shia Muslims. But of course for Jason Kenney, this doesn’t really matter. Shia, Sunni, Muslim women — the point here is to save the bodies of these women from oppression.

Here in Canada, it was the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney that, in 2006, cut funds to the Status of Women Canada, and it is the same Jason Kenney who came up with a hand-tailored law to tell a woman what to wear and what not to wear at a citizenship ceremony. It was also the government of Stephen Harper in 2010 that didn’t want to provide international aid to family-planning programs that included abortions despite the criticism of this policy by political parties and feminist groups.

And while the “anti-women culture” of the niqab seems to be number ONE on Stephen Harper’s radar, a public inquiry into the more than 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada is not really high on this same radar.

So now the question is: can you identify the common trait between Lord Cromer and Stephen Harper and his Minister Kenney?

This blog originally published at

Reclaiming Our Narrative

Edward Said famously argued “the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not”

This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen!”

So how as Muslim women can we make things happen?

Three important steps:

  • Look at our strengths
  • Build networks with other women
  • Reclaim our narrative

As women, we are built to be strong. Physically, emotionally and mentally. However, our environment constantly remind is to sit down and be weak.

When my husband was arrested by the US and sent to Syria to be tortured and imprisoned. People looked at me and whispered “How is she going to do it?” “Fighting a lost cause…” But I did it. How? By looking inside me for strength, by building a network of allies and by reclaiming my own narrative.

When I ran federally in 2004 for the New Democratic Party. Some analysts and journalists said “she is a sacrificial lamb” But I gathered more than 8000 vote in a riding that voted always Liberal and sometimes Conservatives.

For many centuries, Muslim women have been portrayed in books as passive, oppressed, victims of their religion, victims of their traditions or victims of their own men. Today, the stigma is still there. We are still suffering from the same stereotypes. In the media, we are either totally absent or if present we are victims.

Muslim women fate was an alibi before for colonialism and even today it is still used as a justification to go for war.

So how can we “Make it happen?”

By reclaiming our voices. Reclaiming our own narrative. Black women did it before us. Aboriginal women in this country are working hard to do it. So why can’t we do it?

It is about time to be pro-active in shaping all the different Muslim pictures of Muslim women.

Not only the oppressed, the victims, or the absent. But also, the smart, the hard working, the struggling, the activist, the artist, the sensible, the ones who does NOT necessarily need to be saved from some one else.

I am not saying we have to tell the story of THE MUSLIM WOMAN, as it doesn’t exist only ONE story or only ONE woman.

We are different and complementary in our views in our visions in our practice of Islam.

But the challenge is to give our own version of the stories. The challenge is to talk to the other about who we are really are. The challenge is to define ourselves before other do it for us.

This was my speech at the Federation of Muslim Women for International Women’s Day

Reflections of a Muslim Woman in a post 9/11 World

These are difficult times for all of us. Difficult for the non-Muslims because all of sudden they find themselves in front of people that they don’t know. They found themselves in front of concepts, vocabulary, ideas they have not paid attention to them before. They found themselves participating in military conflicts in far away countries. Countries on which they ignore almost everything: the language, religion, culture even the geography.

This is also an extremely difficult time for people of Muslim faith. Many of them came to Canada to flee war, famine, persecution, and oppression… Today, many of these Muslims find themselves obliged to take sides in complex wars. Sometimes they see their own children going back to the wars they themselves fled. And many of them find themselves going through discrimination and fear.

Faced with this painful situation, one is conflicted:

  • do nothing
  • keep watching the news with a passive attitude
  • live in fear
  • despise the other
  • surround yourself with people like you

Or instead:

  • be proactive
  • learn about the other
  • understand the other
  • surround yourselves with people different than you

I came to Canada in 1991 in the middle of the first Gulf war. I was against the war. In Tunisia, I participated in my first demonstration to show my disagreement with it. Many of my friends, my family, everyone around me didn’t want to see the Americans drop bombs on Iraq. I didn’t like Saddam Hussein. I thought he was a ruthless dictator. He killed his own people with chemical weapons. He persecuted Shias but also he persecuted Sunnis who didn’t approve of his crimes. But I saw in that war a huge injustice to the Iraqis people. I saw in this injustice a continuation of the imperialistic attitude the American government have been implemented around the world for many years in South America, in Asia and in the Middle East.

When I came to Canada I lived several years in Montreal in Quebec. I was one of the few who wore a hijab, or scarf over my hair. I was exotic and people rarely paid attention to me. I was an invisible minority.I barely heard programs on TV or radio about Islam. Internet as we know today was inexistent. And then there was the huge debate in France about the “foulard”. The media in Quebec picked upon that issue. Some journalists started reporting about it. Questions were being asked whether to introduce such a measure of banning the Islamic scarf in school like France did or not.

And the glances at me in the streets started to change. From an exotic creature, I became to represent the veil of the Muslim French girls that were presented on TV. I became to represent Islam with all the unanswered questions about it. People started asking me questions like:

“What is this on your head?”

“Do you wear it by choice or are you forced to wear it”

With a smile, I answer back that “I wear it by choice” and all of a sudden the face of the person asking me the question became so radiant. They were happy that I am able to choose. As if my simple words reassured them about something. But what if I was lying to them? May be I was oppressed at home. What if my brother beat me everyday so I can wear it. They didn’t want to know anything else. My words sufficed.

But one at home I would ask myself : “why did these strangers think that a scarf can’t be worn by a woman with her own choice?” What made these strangers stop me in the middle of the streets or in the halls of my university worried about my well being and about my own decisions or lack of it?

Personally, I wore the veil when I was 20 year old after 8 years of intense reflection. For me, hijab had a strong sense of religious identity. It defines me, it gives me what we call today confidence.

When I hear some women saying that I can’t get out of the house without make-up. I am surprised. And then they elaborate and they say make-up gives me some confidence then I am still surprised but I understand better. However, when I go out with my hijab people look at me as an alien. They think I am oppressed. I tell them this is my religious identity. And they don’t get it. I try to be smarter and tell them that this is my confidence and then they laugh at my silly argument.

But despite all this incidents, anecdotes happening in North America, Muslims and non-Muslims kept ignoring each other. Each group burying its head in the sand with the hope that God or Allah, will intervene. So for the main stream society, everyone dream of the day when all the Muslims can became less religious, less oppressed, less invading or more westernized and on the other hand, many Muslims lived with the hope that one day all the non Muslims will become with beards and hijab!

And unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks came. The dreams and hopes of both groups were shattered. The war began and the two groups started looking at each other with defiance and suspicion.

After 9/11, two new wars were declared: one in Afghanistan and Iraq. And another one, very insidious, off the radar, was conducted all over the world. This other war is called: war on terror.

Both wars were ugly devastating and with many victims. But on TV, only pictures of Muslims women in burqa were shown and coffins of soldiers being sadly brought home.

As if the message conveyed was the following:

“The men who went there to liberate women in burqa are killed by the horrible terrorists”

But the reality is far more complex than this easy cliché.

Today who still cares about women in burqa in Afghanistan? Who still care about the thousands of refugees, orphans, displaced because of the war? The TV doesn’t show any of their pictures.

What about children elders bombarded? What about men arrested for being suspected as terrorists? What about drones attacks killing civilians? Those were not mentioned they are called collateral damages.

Today the whole word seems to care only about ISIS, the Islamic State. Everyone confuses the Islamic State with Islam. Equally everybody seems to confuse terrorism with Islam.

Personally, I think this is the time where each one of us has some serious homework to do.

As a Muslim, I condemn all sort of violence. As a Muslim I try everyday to answer questions about my religion. I try to educate my own children about their religious identity but I try also to inform people around me about my faith. I don’t pretend to be the only true Muslim or the best representative of my faith. I don’t want to be called a moderate Muslim. I don’t want to be named an extremist Muslim. I am neither a liberal Muslim nor an oppressed Muslim. I am just a Muslim. I am a human being with some strength but also with a lot of weakness. So why do I have to be always the defender of Islam?

If you are a Christian, can I blame you for all the sexual abuse scandals that happened inside the church? No! If you are a German can I blame you for all the horrors of the world war II? Of course not! Today, as a Muslim I can’t be always denouncing and denouncing and denouncing the crime of a group that I don’t have any control on. I can have an opinion yes and I can act upon it.

Also I can have some little control or at least some influence over my family, my friends and my community. I can build strong bridges between people of different faiths. I can explain what Islam requires me to do and I can choose arguments to discuss with the others.

But this can only works if the other is listening. This can only work if the other doesn’t feel superior over me. This can only work if we do it together. This is like a marriage. It can only work with communication and consensus.

Also what I think is important for me to do is that I can give my own narrative. I can speak of Muslim women as I understand them as I see them. I can write books about them to show them like human beings and not simply like beings in cages or in boxes being oppressed. This is how we can eliminate the solitude between us.

Yes we are different but at the same time we are close to each other in our humanity.

 This was the speech I gave on March 3, 2015 at the Emmanuel United Church.

When Fear Triumphs over Rationality: Harper Anti-Terror Legislation

In the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of the word “fear” reads as follows: “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.”Stephen Harper must have learned this definition by heart. The way he uses fear on the Canadian population to pass his proposed new anti-terror legislation is working to perfection, as least so far.In a speech he recently delivered in Richmond Hill, Ontario, the prime minister stirred the spoon of fear in the cauldron of politics with a misleading dose of confusion, the whole wrapped in irrational reasoning to give birth to the following explosive statement:

“A great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil which has been growing more and more powerful: violent jihadism.”

“Violent jihadism is not just a danger somewhere else, it seeks to harm us here in Canada — in our cities and in our neighbourhoods, through horrific acts, like deliberately driving a car at a defenceless man or shooting a soldier in the back as he stands on guard at a War Memorial.”

“Canadians are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians. They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents.”

“Violent jihadism is not a human right, it is an act of war, and our government’s new legislation fully understands that difference.”

After reading these words, I had a hard time believing that they were uttered by a politician with a master’s degree in economics, presumably familiar with rationality. Evil? Descending? Hate? What is missing in the speech: heaven or maybe hell!

So what to do with this sort of paranoia or religious fever “descending” upon us? In a democratic and free society like ours, we have multiple choices: we can simply ignore these statements, embrace them and even defend them, or disagree with them and denounce them. I, for one, choose the last option and my scientific mind comes to my rescue. So instead of succumbing to fear, I resort to rationality in order to explore whether there is any truth in these words.

So let’s examine “violent jihadism.” What do these two words put together mean? But first, I am wondering how many Canadians really know the definition of “jihadism.” Personally, I wasn’t sure of its meaning. Of course, I know the meaning of “jihad” as it is an Arabic term with a literal meaning of struggle (emotional, spiritual and physical struggle) but the “ism” suffix makes the term a Western word so I am a bit confused about the new meaning of this hybrid. After consulting the online dictionary, here came enlightenment:

Jihadism: an Islamic fundamentalist movement that favours the pursuit of jihad in defence of the Islamic faith.

It is not very clear to me from this definition whether this movement is violent or not but it appears that Stephen Harper took some extra precautions to make sure that he is targeting the violent form of jihadism.

So according to this definition, if I struggle everyday to defend my Islamic faith, I would be considered an adherent of jihadism. I am already shaking in fear. If I conduct this struggle peacefully with simple words or arguments then I will be considered a simple jihadist but luckily I wouldn’t fall into the new category created by our prime minister. So my jihad will be non-violent and inshaAllah I will be saved from hell…oops, sorry, from the scoop of Bill C-51.

A bit further down, Stephen Harper reminds us that under the new legislation, “violent jihadism” is not considered a human right. Does that mean that with the current legislation, “violent jihadism” is a human right? Did I miss this in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Can any legal mind help me here?

Then without any warning, Stephen Harper jumps from “violent jihadism” to terrorism. So is it OK to substitute one with the other? At this level of confusion, I don’t think it matters anymore. The more sophisticated words you use, the better it looks from the outside. It gives the aura of an expert in “Islamicism” (for the definition of this term, please ask Stephen Harper who owns the right to this trademark).

So I bet that for anyone who listens to this speech by Stephen Harper and who barely knows the difference between all these “barbaric” terms with exotic connotation, the equation becomes very clear:

 “Violent Jihadists” = “Terrorist” = “Islamists” = “Muslims” = “Islam”

Now let’s move on. To complete the proof of his theorem and in his attempt to make his case about evil, Stephen Harper evoked the two cases (terrorist, violent jihadist, just fill in the blank) where two troubled young Canadian men attacked two soldiers in two different locations in Canada. What is really troubling here is that so far no police investigation, no factual evidence was presented publicly to explain that these two men were linked to a terrorist group. We never heard about their real motives. Did they belong to a violent jihadist group? Did they work alone or under the instruction of a mentor? From what I read in the media, nothing like this transpired. What was clear though is that these were mentally disturbed individuals with some serious addiction problems, who found refuge in Islam. Do we know whether they hated our society or our values? I didn’t read this anywhere except in Stephen Harper’s speech.

So why don’t we do a bit of research here to see whether we need new anti-terrorism legislation to fight “violent jihadism.” Since 9/11, three main terrorist plots were thwarted by intelligence and police forces in Canada. The Toronto 18 case, Operation Samosa and the Via Rail terror plot. These three cases are the most prominent ones and the most publicized.

The common factor among these three cases is the crucial role, whether legal or not, of surveillance and entrapment.

In Operation Samosa, CSIS and the Canadian Border Services Agency used “extensive surveillance” and other police techniques to gather evidence. I didn’t find any public documentation about any role of an informant.

For the Toronto 18 case and for the Via Rail case, at least one Muslim police informant was used to “entrap” or at a minimum played a prominent role as an “agent provocateur” to propose ideas and encourage the men financially or through ideology to pursue their plans. For instance, in the case of the Toronto 18, Mubin Shaikh, was a Muslim who worked as an undercover counterterrorism operative to help the arrest of the 18 men. Another Egyptian Muslim who received millions of dollars for his entrapment role and who is now under the RCMP’s witness protection program, played an important role in the case as well. With the Via Rail plot, another Egyptian informant infiltrated the group and encouraged the two men to go ahead with their foolish plan and provided them with funds to buy equipment. Even recently in Ottawa, with the recent arrest of a young man, Awso Pashdary, suspected to recruit other young Muslim men to fight in Syria, a Muslim convert named Abdullah Milton, also under the RCMP witness program, seems to have played a role in the surveillance and the arrest of the young man.

So if these arrests happened and are made possible through surveillance and infiltration, why do intelligence officers need more legal tools to do their work? What makes Prime Minister Harper think that we are in dire need of new legislation? To legalize what was already being done illegally? To save us from the evil descending upon us? Is it a new “evil” this time? Didn’t Harper prove that “Violent Jihadism” = “Terrorism”? So what is different this time?

My opinion is that this increase in power is intended to spy not on terrorists — as I just showed above, they are already being spied on, disrupted, infiltrated and arrested. The real targets are the rest of us, all the citizens. The more surveillance conducted on us, the more controlled we become. The more frightened we become, the more easily we accept new laws without questioning their real intentions and motives. Even if we don’t have anything to hide, knowing that someone is watching over our shoulder, bugging our phone or reading our comments on Facebook, we will either censor ourselves or simply keep quiet.

Meanwhile, the information collected on our behalf can be used to falsely incriminate us (remember Maher Arar), sent to the Canada Revenue Agency to be used against us (if you don’t believe me, read this), shared with foreign agencies or added to the no-fly list with not even a possibility to challenge it.

So who will conduct “surveillance” on CSIC, RCMP, CSE? Who cares — evil is descending upon us. Maybe it is already among us. Who knows?

The false debate between freedom of expression and religious extremism

Reading news coverage about the recent attacks on the French satirical magazineCharlie Hebdo left me with many unanswered and uncomfortable questions. A very complex French, European and international event was summarized with simplistic headlines such us: “How remarkable that a humour magazine has led the fight against fanaticism” or “Paris attack illustrates the power of mockery.”

After the deadly attack, many cartoonists reduced the event to a confrontation between an armed, bearded jihadist and a pen. A simple representation, yet it is both powerful and misleading.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush and many like-minded politicians and media outlets confined the attacks to a fight between evil (the “Islamic terrorists”) and good (the United States and its allies), or between the free world (led by the United States) and oppression (led by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban).

When Bush famously proclaimed “you are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” he truly believed that he had received a divine message to liberate Muslim countries from oppression. He consequently built all of his political and war strategies around this sort of “prophecy.”

Meanwhile, all the dissident voices that denounced this dangerous war were silenced, labelled anti-patriots, and accused of siding with the extremists (remember the “Taliban Jack” label satirically attributed to the late Jack Layton by the Harper government).

Today, after many years of a failed “war on terror,” numerous scandals about abuse of political power, torture and indefinite detention, people have come to realize that this dichotomy is false and that security for all can’t be achieved without respect of human dignity for all. 

Unpacking the layers of a tragic event

Following in the footsteps of Bush, French President Francois Hollande, his friends, as well as many media outlets, want to reduce tragic events to a fight between the enlightened French freedom of expression and barbaric fighters affiliated with Islamic groups. Even if this seems the case from outside, there happen to be many layers behind the event that shouldn’t be ignored if one wants to conduct a serious and honest analysis.

Without giving any reason or excuse for the use of violence against journalists — which is not acceptable under any circumstances — one should remember that France is at war in many Islamic countries: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Mali… Even if the human costs of these wars are not always clear to the French masses, as civilian casualties are not always reported in the headlines, there is a lot of resentment within the local population with regard to these policies. This resentment travels very well within the French Muslim community.

Moreover, France has a heavy colonial, racist and violent past with Muslim countries like Algeria, for instance (one can only state here the assassination and torture campaign against Algerian dissidents). The large wounds of the Algerian war of liberation — a struggle that ended costing Algerians a million lives — never healed, even more than half a century later.

Furthermore, the relationship between France and its Muslim population, estimated today to be close to 10 per cent, has never been an easy one. The ghettos surrounding Paris and other big cities, the violent riots between police and unemployed youth from marginalized North African communities, speak for themselves.

The concerns raised recently by some French politicians with respect to French prisons that are crowded with Muslims, a number estimated to be around 40,000 prisoners representing 60 per cent of the prison population, are real. Many see in these prisons the breeding ground for a new class of resentful and disillusioned Muslim groups that are vulnerable to political violence.

It is not a simple coincidence that about 700 French citizens travelled to the Middle East to join the ranks of the Islamic State. One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is the counter-reaction expressed by some youth to their lack of integration and their marginalization by French society.

But most importantly, the powerful concept of secularism, used so well by many French politicians as a political tool to justify controversial policies, is at the heart of the issue. When banning the religious veil worn by Muslim girls in public school was introduced by the French government in the ’90s, secularism was widely evoked. The Muslim French population’s concerns with respect to freedom of religion were brushed off. Later, when another related law was introduced to ban the burqa in public spaces (even though the estimated number of women wearing it in France was estimated to be around 1,900 in 2009), once again, the “sacred” principle of secularism was evoked and the many voices who tried to argue with this controversial law were mocked as defending the oppression of women and obscurantism.

Defending ‘freedom of expression

Freedom of expression, a noble concept, came to be perceived by many marginalized French Muslim youth as an empty slogan used by the powerful elite to justify the silencing of Muslims and to allow the right-wing to bash Muslims at will. This in turn created a feeling of victimhood among many disfranchised youth.

The debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic, as was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Why are the media and politicians pushing us to choose a side: liberty or oppression, freedom of expression or violence, secularism or religion?

In their pursuit to make us choose the “right” option, politicians and media pundits create a new holy entity called freedom of expression. It becomes another sacred, holy, untouchable “cow.” Another religious concept which if you’re “killed” promoting, you become a “martyr.”

When Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents that implicated the United States and its allies in many scandals, the concept of “freedom of expression” was completely rejected by these governments. Many journalists in the U.S., and even some in Canada, sided with their governments and were not sympathetic to his plight.

The freedom of expression that everyone nowadays rushes to defend is not as simple to understand or to practice. The same thing can be said about religion. Why do we have to choose between one or the other, or accept a self-serving version of both? 

This column has been first published with

Hiding torture from us

In my last blogpost, I spoke about the horrible treatment of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, one of the Guantanamo detainees who was abusively force-fed by his American guards to dissuade him from continuing his two-year-long hunger strike. In that article, I wrote that Abu Wa’el Dhiab was another example of the collateral damage of the War on Terror, and indeed he was, as U.S. officials proved recently.

A few days ago, we learned in the news that Abu Wa’el Dhiab was released from Guantanamo after being detained there for over 12 years. He was never charged with any crime. Abu Wa’el was sent to Uruguay, a country that accepted him as a refugee, along with five other detainees. Apparently, the transfer deal was sitting for a year on the desk of Chuck Hegel, the embattled U.S. Defense Secretary, before it was finally approved.

The same week Abu Wa’el was released, the Obama administration, purely for political reasons, released a “doctored summary version” of a CIA report about the “creative” torture methods conducted in what came to be known as black sites.

I am still trying to figure out how to interpret some of the U.S. officials’ reactions, warning the public that release of the report might pose security threats to American interests around the world. What exactly does this mean? They weren’t concerned about what is inside the report but how the report would be perceived? Another thing: implied by this strange reaction is that the Muslim public is impulsive and prone to behaving like savages (remember their riot reaction to the Danish cartoons, the officials implied).
The messages these officials are sending seems to suggest that we, Americans, have the absolute right to be uncivilized. It is OK for us to torture people, to sexually assault them, to waterboard them, to make them endure sleep deprivation, to keep them on the cold cement until they die — but you, Muslim public, you should be respectful, civilized, democratic and well-behaved.
This same attitude is applied when dealing with Abu Wa’el Dhiab. When the decision to release him became official, his lawyers and supporters sent him mango juice to ease his pain and to put an end to his continual hunger strike. What the U.S. officials did was horrific: they confiscated the mango juice. Up to his final release, the U.S. didn’t care about Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s health; all that mattered to them was their public image. They didn’t want people to see the bad shape Abu Wa’el was in as a direct result of their actions, and so they even banned the release of any tape recording his health. Or as Cori Crider, Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s attorney, better phrased it: “the U.S. defense department is strikingly keen to be sure evidence of that suffering never sees the light of day.”
The Americans are not the champions of this attitude; Syrian torturers beat them to it many years ago.

When my husband Maher Arar was held and tortured in solitary confinement, the Syrians jailers didn’t care about his health, his well-being or suffering. But when they knew he was going to be released, they sent him to another prison, where he could see other prisoners and have a “vacation” from the underground cell where he was kept for over 10 months. The Syrian officials were concerned about how the Canadian public would judge them, through the frail look of Maher Arar.

But despite all these strategies, tactics and hiding games, the ugly truth surrounding the War on Terror is slowly emerging from the darkness into the light of day. Now, it is up to us to forcibly and continuously denounce it, and call for justice for all of its victims.

This blogpost was originally published at