Rendition: Canada, Sweden and Denmark share the same barbaric practice

What factor is common to Canada, Sweden and Denmark? The snow, perhaps? The cold weather? The social programs? Or maybe smoked salmon?

How about rendition to torture? And how about cooperation with the intelligence authorities of countries which practice torture with total impunity? These may be some of the darkest common factors shared by the three countries, ones that not everyone is aware of.

In Canada, the cases of Maher Arar, Abdullah Al-Malki, Ahmed el-Maati and Muayyed Nureddin happened between 2002 and 2004.

These cases became publicly known and sparked a huge outcry. Two inquiries were ordered into their cases. But even if Maher Arar was cleared from terrorism suspicions by Justice O’Connor and awarded compensation, the recommendations made by Justice Iacobucci regarding compensation for the other three men have never been followed by the government. Canadians found out from both inquiries that these four Canadians, all Arab-Muslim citizens, were detained in Syria, and tortured by Syrian officials in the same facility known as the Palestinian Branch of Syrian Military Intelligence. What’s even more troubling is that both Canadian judges found that Canadian intelligence officers shared information about their own citizens with Syrian officials and didn’t hesitate in using this information, knowing that it was coming from the dungeons of one of the worst prisons run by the Assad regime.

A tragic pattern

In Denmark, the scenario of this tragic pattern is not any different. In the Al Jazeera documentary Outsourcing Torture, we learn that in the mid 2000s, three Muslim-Danish citizens had a similar fate to the one met by their Canadian counterparts. The only difference is the country of torture: Lebanon.

Ali Ibrahim is a taxi driver of Lebanese descent who had been living in Denmark with his family. In 2006, he was approached by PET, the Danish intelligence service, to become an informant. He refused and PET threatened to make his life miserable.

Hassan Jabbar is a cleric who came as a refugee from Iraq and was living in Denmark for years. He was repeatedly interrogated by the intelligence service for his work with charities in the mosque. And finally, the documentary presents us with the case of Abu Abdullah, who kept his identity secret, as he is still worried about what PET officers could do to him.

The pattern is simple and diabolic: meet with an intelligence officer, refuse to become an informant, arrest takes place in a country with a poor human rights record, torture, interrogation, imprisonment without charge and eventual release.

The three men were arrested during a family visit to Lebanon. Ali Ibrahim was arrested in 2006. Four gunmen arrested him on the streets of Tripoli in front of his wife and children.

He was interrogated by Lebanese intelligence for a week and then released. Immediately after his release, he tried to leave the country to go back to Denmark but was prevented from doing so at the airport. He was arrested and then released a few times. Each time he was transferred from one prison to another and each time he was tortured. He even stayed in the infamous Roumieh prison in the Block B section known as  the “Block of terror.” A UN report, released in 2014, documented the systematic use of torture in Roumieh prison.

All three men declared that they were interrogated and tortured by Lebanese officials and all of them were either explicitly told, or implicitly understood, that the Lebanese torturers were acting under the instructions of Danish intelligence officers.

Ali Ibrahim spent one year in solitary confinement and then two more years with other prisoners before he was able to go back to Denmark. He was suspected to have helped his brother, suspected of terrorist activities, by adding money to his phone card.

Hassan Jabbar was arrested in 2007 by Lebanese officials. In one of his interrogation sessions, the Lebanese interrogator told him “if you didn’t have a EU passport, we would have lynched you by now!” He was later released. No charges were laid against him.

Similarly, in 2010 Abu Abdullah was arrested in Beirut during a family visit. When he was leaving the country, he was stopped and transferred to a detention centre run by the Lebanese Ministry of Defence. He was held there for 21 days, interrogated and tortured by Lebanese officials. He couldn’t leave the country until he was cleared through Danish intelligence.

The pattern repeats

And how about Sweden?

The Swedish stories are as scary and troubling. Immediately after the events  of 9/11, Swedish officials decided to deport two Egyptians citizens who came to Sweden as asylum seekers: Mohammed al-Zari and Ahmed Agiza were handed to CIA operatives operating in Sweden who transferred them to Egypt. Both men were suspected by the Swedish and American governments of terrorist activities.

The Swedish government obtained diplomatic assurances from Egyptian authorities that the men wouldn’t be tortured or subjected to the death penalty and would be given fair trial. This assurance is equivalent to the one you get from a hungry lion to not eat a live rabbit.

Indeed both men ended up in prisons where they were tortured. al-Zari was released after two years without charges. Agiza was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a military tribunal and released in 2011.

It is only in 2004 that these two cases became known to the Swedish public. Human Rights Watch closely followed the cases in Egypt and in Sweden, and in 2008 both men were awarded compensation by Swedish authorities for the damages they endured. Both men were granted permanent residence permits by Sweden.

If the Canadian and Swedish victims of rendition received some sort of recognition for the suffering they received through this barbaric treatment, the Danish victims remain looking for answers to their cases. No inquiries or legal actions have been initiated yet. After many years, the victims live in fear under the shadow of what happened to them.

The globalization that many of us feared in previous years for destroying our local economies, the specificities of our local culture and education systems is alive and well in the “national security” field. The cases mentioned in this article represent clear evidence that countries known internationally as leaders in human rights and champions against torture are being caught up in this new web of globalization that outsources everything from manufacturing clothing to torture.

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

Wages of Rebellion: Calling for a peaceful revolution

Chris Hedges’ recent book is a passionate call for the “oppressed” of the Empire to revolt against the tyranny of surveillance, financial greed and propagandist journalism.

Oppression, tyranny, greed, propaganda — these are words that seem to come straight from a communist manifesto or anarchist pamphlet. But Hedges is neither the former nor the latter. Actually, in some of his previous writing, he referred to himself as a socialist.

His book, Wages of Rebellion, is a compilation of several stories about Americans, some of whom became household names: Mumia Abu-Jamal, the imprisoned Black revolutionary, Chelsea Manning, the imprisoned whistleblower, and other “normal” citizens like Avgi Tzenis, a survivor of Hurricane Sandy who saw her house badly damaged after the disaster and has since been living in poverty with no or little assistance from the U.S. government. All of these stories are handpicked with care and purpose, and make up the portrait of a new socially, financially and ethically unfair America formed over the last few decades.

Hedges’ main thesis is that as a society, we have reached the point of no return when a tiny group of political and financial interests is controlling the majority and “blindly serving their masters.” Meanwhile, the majority is kept under control with massive surveillance programs, through mass incarceration, without health care, and with a high rate of unemployment, rising level of debt and scrambling infrastructure. According to Hedges, only a peaceful revolution can change the tide and reestablish equality and peace.

Hedges is not a prophet. He doesn’t know when, how, or when this crawling revolution will happen, but he firmly believes that it will happen as it did in other countries and eras.

For this, Hedges brings in some historical examples: from the 1905 Argentine Revolution, the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, the 1911 Chinese Xinhai Revolution, to current ones like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. They were all unexpected, with a misleading facade of powerful governments but with decreasing government popularity and a strong desire for change.

But the type of revolution Hedges is calling for sometimes remains a bit vague for readers. Even though Hedges calls for a peaceful revolution, the line between peaceful resistance and armed struggle is sometimes blurred. Were there really peaceful revolutions with no blood and victims? Perhaps the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia? How about the Arab Spring that started peacefully and turned into bloody repression? How about the French Revolution? The Bolsheviks’?

Hedges quotes the work of Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. In 2008, the authors studied 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements and found that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings.

Hedges mentions the case of Edward Snowden and even goes on to visit Julian Assange in his forced imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. The fact that these two figures have been demonized in the West’s mainstream media seems to be indication for Hedges that they are rebellious figures fighting the hegemony of a media more and more aligned with the interests of political and financial elites.

The motives of Snowden and Manning may appear useless or self-destructive since one is in exile in Russia and the other has been in prison since he leaked sensitive files that the U.S. government never wanted the public to see. It is interesting to note that Snowden’s sacrifice, for one, didn’t go in vain: the new U.S. surveillance legislation, the USA Freedom Act, has been rewritten mainly as an answer to what Snowden disclosed to the public.

A crucial point of this new legislation is that it limited National Security Agency activities that were exposed by Snowden, and forced the government to stop its obvious spying on its citizens’ electronic communications.

The new legislation is not perfect. Instead of accessing the phone records of citizens directly, information is now stored in the hands of phone companies and the state will need a warrant to access them. In other words, the spying will continue, it is just the methods and scope that will change; but it is important to note that Snowden’s “peaceful act of rebellion” didn’t go in vain.

Civil liberties and privacy rights will always be fragile, and will always be in need of more activism, vigilance and acts of courage, but this small setback to the surveillance apparatus should be recognized and emphasized.

Last October, Chris Hedges was ordained a Presbyterian minister. After reading his book, I have no doubt that his faith played a tremendous role in shaping his ideas. In Wages of Rebellion, he declares: “There is nothing rational about rebellion. To rebel against insurmountable odds is an act of faith, without which the rebel is doomed.”

As a person of faith myself, I can’t say it better than this!

The legal vengeance case of Omar Khadr

A few years ago when some Canadian Muslim men, accused of terrorism, challenged the Canadian government through the courts to ask for their legal rights, voices within the intelligence community rose up and insinuated that these men were waging “judicial jihad.”
When the federal government appealed the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision to grant the release of Omar Khadr, another Canadian Muslim man who spent over ten years in Guantanamo prison for being a child soldier, none of these same voices would rise up and accuse the government of “judicial vengeance” — despite the fact that the Canadian government has been using taxpayers’ money to wage one legal battle after another to defend the indefensible: the torture and the indefinite detention of a Canadian citizen.
In one of its decisions concerning Omar Khadr, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Omar’s rights were violated by Canadian interrogation in Guantanamo. Still, this ruling didn’t make him welcome in Canada.
The Canadian government is using the fear of a former Guantanamo detainee and the untold story of Omar to please its Conservative base and to send its usual strong message of “law and order.” Omar Khadr became a weapon in the Conservatives’ hands to show how “serious” and how “committed” they can be in “cleaning” the Canadian landscape from “bad” guys like Omar.
But the Canadian courts aren’t hearing the same story this government has been repeating through its successive public safety ministers. Indeed, Omar Khadr has been described by his Canadian guard as a “model prisoner” and by one American guard as “salvageable” and “a good kid.” What will happen to public opinion if Omar Khadr tells his own version of his story?
Stephen Harper burned all his cards with respect to Omar’s case: terrorism, family record, criminality, U.S. military tribunals. Harper’s Conservatives called Omar a convicted dangerous criminal and a manipulative individual. They alleged that his release would threaten the bilateral relationship with the U.S. even though the U.S. stated that this won’t be the case. Actually, the Canadian judge who ordered his release declared that Omar would have a strong chance of success in U.S. courts, which have overturned similar cases. But the Canadian government continues its legal vendetta and now claims that by releasing Omar “abruptly,” it will set a legal precedent even when everyone knows that there are not thousands of cases similar to Omar’s.
A few days ago, Albertans punished Premier Jim Prentice, a former federal minister under Stephen Harper, by electing a majority NDP provincial government. If this political result had only one explanation, it would be that Canadians are looking for change. People are fed up with a government that has lost all of its cards, including the economic one.
Yesterday, an Alberta court rejected the federal appeal of Omar Khadr’s release. Alberta, the same province that elected Stephen Harper, rejected the vengeance that seems to have been motivating this government and its persistence in keeping Omar locked up by all means. You have to be really unconscious to have these two decisions come out and still think that nothing really happened.
The positive decision in the case of Omar Khadr seems to fit into this new environment of people wanting change, and refusing to be stuck in old battles and old thoughts. Stephen Harper and his government seem to be the only ones looking backward. They don’t realize the incoming tsunami could well wipe them out.
This article was published on rabble.ca on May 8 2015

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 rabble.ca

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 rabble.ca

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.