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 rabble.ca

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 rabble.ca

From 2001 to today: The never-ending War on Terror

On October 6, 2014, a U.S. judge decided to make information public about the horrific force-feeding of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Guantanamo detainee.
The news didn’t make the headlines on CNN or Fox news. The treatment was not denounced over and over by every big or small Muslim organization, as they have done when it comes to the treatment of minorities and journalists by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In some media outlets, the news was portrayed as a victory for transparency and government accountability.
Only a handful of journalists have dared to write about the suffering of this detainee. Why was he arrested in the first place and why was he never charged with any offence? How can the U.S. justify his incarceration in the Guantanamo military prison for more than 10 years? Perhaps he is only more collateral damage to add to the War on Terror that the U.S. has been conducting, each time under a new name, but always with disastrous consequences. Perhaps he is another inevitable casualty. Soon, he will be forgotten, as have many other casualties in this infinite, despicable war.
For the U.S., Guantanamo is a prison of another era. Or, put differently: Guantanamo is a prison that was created for prisoners of the first “War on Terror.” Today, its presence bothers the Americans more than it helps them. Guantanamo became an obsolete tool in a yet another “War on Terror.”
Three successive Wars on Terror
From 2001 to 2014, the Americans waged three successive Wars on Terror.
The first War on Terror started in 2001 by George W. Bush, immediately after the events of 9/11. Then, the Americans were still testing the waters. First they used “methods” of conventional war. They sent troops on the ground. They captured prisoners of war; some were fighting with the Taliban, others with al-Qaeda and many others were innocents who turned out to be in the wrong place. Abu Wa’el Dhiab was one of them. The Americans tortured them and even invented a waterboarding technique to make prisoners speak; they force-fed prisoners who went on hunger strikes. They desecrated the Quran, they used dogs to scare some prisoners and even used female agents to sexually humiliate or “tempt” them. The U.S. and its allies considered these methods “legal” and “legitimate” as they were “cleaning” the world of Al-Qaeda terrorists. And of course, the majority of American people believed their politicians.
Between 2008 and 2012, the Americans got tired of George W. Bush. He became an embarrassment for the world and for the U.S., so they elected a new president. After all, the War on Terror conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq wasn’t as successful as the politicians and military wanted people to believe. The war was bringing home more bodies of soldiers killed overseas. The U.S. economy was suffering from an over-stretched war. This is where President Obama came into the picture. He promised to close the Guantanamo prison; he never did. He promised to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan; he did, but that is another story. He even stopped calling the “War on Terror” by its name.
But what the majority of people didn’t know is that Obama subtly started a second War on Terror. In his book, Jeremy Scahill calls it a “dirty war.” Instead of capturing prisoners and sending them to Guantanamo, where one day they could become a liability for the U.S. administration, Obama and his advisers came up with a new war, one that is invisible to the eyes of the common people. This lethal war was conducted behind the screens of remote controls in bunkers in the desert of Arizona, where military personnel can guide drones from the comfort of their chairs to kill “terrorists” and their supporters.
This war was conducted in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. U.S. officials even changed their way of counting the victims of their killing policy. Thus, “militant” became “all military-age males in a strike zone.”
So, if they kill a militant and his friends and family, the casualties are all counted as “militants” as long as they are adult and male. The reasoning here is so simple, it’s perhaps too simple: the friend of my enemy is my enemy.
For four years, the second War on Terror became almost invisible until the chaos created by the first one came to haunt the U.S. again. The “new Iraq” the U.S. wanted to create imploded in three main zones: the one controlled by the Shias, the one controlled by the Kurds, and the rest where Sunni militants, soldiers of the old Baathist regime, and marginalized groups merged together to take over what was left. Thus, ISIL was born.
At first, the actions of ISIL didn’t bother Obama much, and neither did the horrific killings conducted in Syria by dictator Bashar al-Assad on his own people. The U.S. “tolerated” them. In fact, they kept them both in balance.
Launching the third War on Terror
But when ISIL proclaimed itself a caliphate, and started beheading foreigners, the U.S. felt the need to wage its third War on Terror.
This time, it seems that there is no capturing of prisoners or killings with drones. The U.S. and its allies chose air bombings. In public opinion, this third war is described as a war against a ruthless group. Fine. But what the U.S. administration fails to tell Americans is why it doesn’t wage a war on Saudi Arabia, another barbaric state that kills and tortures with total impunity. Even stranger, Saudi Arabia is a major ally of this war against barbarism. As if there are degrees of barbarism: type 1 barbarism (a.k.a. classic barbarism) that is tolerated by the U.S., and type 2 barbarism (a.k.a. barbarism light), one that must be denounced and fought with vigour.
The third War on Terror isn’t really a war on ISIL or their barbaric methods to scare the West. It is a war to recapture of what is left from the old map of the Middle East after two disastrous Wars on Terror. This new war is a battle where the Americans are trying hard to reinforce their strategic positions in a Middle East torn between Shia and Sunni dominance.

This article was originally published in rabble.ca

Lean In: A fairy-tale in a fantasy land

After reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, I couldn’t stop comparing myself to her. After all, Sheryl Sandberg is almost my age. We were both born in 1969. We grew up in a middle-class family and went to business school.
But perhaps the similarities stop there.
Sheryl Sandberg became one of the most powerful and successful women in the U.S. During her ascent, she had powerful mentors — for instance, Larry Summers, Secretary of the Treasury under the Clinton administration — who believed in her, helped her and pushed her forward, despite her doubts and tumbles.
So despite the fact our paths seem to have been quite similar, at least from the beginning until we finished university, there are plenty of differences between the two of us. In Tunisia, I never had a mentor. Nobody believed in me, except my parents. No Tunisian “Larry Summers” hired me or pushed me forward to succeed. To the contrary, I was implicitly pushed aside because I didn’t conform to the mainstream society moulds waiting for me. The Tunisian government of the time did all it could to strip me of my rights to a scholarship because I was wearing a veil. I was considered a fundamentalist.
When I came to Canada, I was in a way given a second chance, a new opportunity to build a new life and show my true self. As a new immigrant I had to not only be good but extremely exceptional to be noticed. I had to always double my efforts to be recognized as a woman with the potential to succeed and make a difference around her.
I never had the luxury to lean back. I always looked forward, climbed ladder after ladder to find closed doors. I understood that no matter how far and how hard you “lean in,” when you are starting from below the bottom you will never reach the summits of the world in which Sheryl Sandberg lives.
And as an immigrant Arab-Muslim woman, I can assert that I was starting from very low. In Canada, I had mentors; one of them was my thesis director at McGill University. He believed in me and defended me when others wanted to put obstacles in front of me. But contrary to Sheryl Sandberg, he wasn’t trying to find me a job in the Bank of Canada or in the Department of Finance; he was trying to keep me in the program. My battle is one of survival, not of ambition. Later, I had Alexa McDonough, former leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, stand beside me and my children when the Government of Canada let my husband down. Once again, I wasn’t fighting to become a successful leader in my company or a brilliant politician; I was fighting for my rights to be treated with dignity and justice. I was fighting for the bare minimum.
In contrast to Sheryl Sandberg, I didn’t have a nanny to take care of my kids when I went out to defend my husband’s rights. I didn’t have a partner, as he was far away in prison. I had my mother who stood beside me all the way and if I didn’t have her I wouldn’t have been able to go outside and leave my children at home.
My path isn’t an exception. There are many other women in Canada and in the U.S. who “lean in” every day as single mothers, as Aboriginal, immigrants, refugees, as underprivileged members of society. Their battles aren’t recognized. Some think of them as lazy, marginalized, or perhaps not adequately integrated.
In my opinion, their battles are as important, if not more important, than Sheryl Sandberg’s. These women are working so hard to bring food to the table and find affordable daycare for their children. Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t speak about them in her book. They seem to be invisible to her eyes.
Sheryl Sandberg is talking to a small, restricted “girls’ club.” And I admit, it is a fine discussion. In theory, I agree with most of it. But it forgets all the other women who are in another world. Not the world of Silicon Valley or Capitol Hill or fancy lawyer’s Manhattan towers. They are the women who work in the fields, in the factories, in the offices, in hospitals, in schools. They are the women who do not have nannies to feed and clean their kids, or wealthy husbands to pay their bills. Sheryl Sandberg’s book is excellent — but only for women who are like her! It gives them a moral boost. It motivates them to climb the corporate ladder from being a manager to becoming a CEO. However, her book, for many other women, me included, means nothing. It is another fairy-tale to add to the list.

This book review was originally published in July 11, 2014 at rabble.ca

A world of fear

While I was visiting my family and friends in Tunisia this summer, I came across a new feeling, or maybe it is an impression — a feeling or impression that I never encountered before in the country that is proud today to be called the sparkle of the “Arab Spring.”
I grew up there in the ’80s. I remember seeing in people’s eyes the fear of authority, humiliation, loss of dignity, the sorrow of poverty, suspicion, but I didn’t see the “fear of terrorism.” Even in the darkest hours of the country, during the ’80s, when there were violent incidents attributed to Islamist militants, I didn’t hear from people around me that they were afraid.
Was I young and carefree at the time? Was I naïve and unaware of the news around me? I have my doubts. I grew up in a house with a lot of newspapers, books, TV and radio, both local and foreign. My father was not complacent towards the regime and we were always hungry for political news.
But during my last visit, I saw something special, an impression of “déja vu.” Every simple talk I had with family members and friends seemed to hint at the uncertain future, “fear of the terrorists,” or simply, fear of the “other.” Listening to the news in the car, I heard the speaker reporting on ongoing discussions in the “Assemblée Constituante,” the elected assembly, about new “anti-terror legislation.” I couldn’t stand listening. I turned it off instantly. This tense environment brought me back to the troubled days of Canada in the post-9/11 era.
The difference was that while in Canada as a member of the Arab-Muslim community, I felt, sometimes understandingly, the target of suspicion. Nevertheless, in Tunisia I was not a member of any visible minorities and still everybody is scared of the “other.” But who is the “other”?
If you are an Islamist, you are scared of the “old regime” coming back to power and putting you in jail. If you are from the “bourgeoisie,” you are afraid of the hordes of the poor and their slums and diseases. If you are from the “old regime,” you are scared of the “Islamists” and their hidden agenda of allowing polygamy and genital mutilation of little girls. If you are Tunisian, you are scared of the Libyans who are rumoured to have money and arms and who are blamed for all the economic and security problems of the country. And finally, the whole country agreed to be afraid of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Many times, I felt uneasy during those discussions as fear can’t cohabit with rationality and without rationality democracy can’t be built.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how, after the events of 9/11, the U.S., Canada and many other Western democracies were plunged into an era where civil liberties were curtailed, where innocent people were jailed and others deported. I couldn’t stop thinking about the role of some media outlets and authors in perpetuating old myths like “Canada was a safe heaven for terrorists” or about the imminent “Islamic tide” that would wipe us all out, and soon we would have “sharia-based tribunals” cutting hands and stoning women.
Today, the situation is not any different in Tunisia. Facebook, which as social media was assumed to have played a positive role in mobilizing youth against the tyrannical regime of Ben Ali, today has becomes a rumour-spreading machine, where “scared” people keep perpetuating and feeding one another “scary stories” about “the other” and maintaining social hysteria.
One can wonder: who is this environment benefiting?
In the U.S., post-9/11, groups of politicians, some military and right-wing think-tanks and corporations benefited from maintaining a high level of fear among the population. Several new pieces of legislation targeting individual rights and privacy were introduced with almost no opposition, only because people longed for more security. Many politicians were given “carte blanche” for their illegal actions, and never brought to trial simply because they had to do the right thing and “save” the country from evil. Torture techniques became the “mal necessaire” and indefinite jail of suspects became the norm.
Today, I am afraid the same thing is happening in Tunisia. Ministers from the old regime were not even questioned for their role in the brutal dictatorship. The mismanagement and corruption of more than 50 years were magically forgotten. The journalists, artists, and authors who in the past praised the dictator and his policies were forgiven, if not granted a “new virginity” for continuing their circus.
In 1988, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent. It showed how media played a role in creating a population ready to accept government policies without questioning them. Today, it would be similarly relevant to explore the topic of “fear” and how this became a tool in some hands to shape public opinion in favour of more scrutiny of citizens by government while pushing aside real debates.

This post was originally published at rabble.ca

Capitalism, oligarchy and the new economic order

What Is Stephen Harper Reading? That was the title of a book Yann Martel wrote in 2011. He wrote it as a compilation of recommended readings he sent bi-monthly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I know it is a bit late but I wish Martel had included among those titles Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the newly released book authored by French economist Thomas Piketty.
As an economist by training, Stephen Harper would be interested in reading what Thomas Piketty has to say about capitalism and the threat that rising inequality is representing for the whole economic system.
But don’t get me wrong; Thomas Piketty isn’t a leftist politician. It just happens that some of what he is preaching corresponds perfectly with what some leftist activists and analysts have been warning us for years, to no avail. Today, the words, analyses and charts inside Piketty’s book are confirming their predictions and giving them credibility — not with neoliberals but with common people who discovered Piketty’s book. The book confirms their suspicions and perfectly describes their realities.
In reality, Piketty’s book came three years late. The Indignados movement in Europe and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. started way before the book was originally published in French.
However, the difference between Piketty and protest groups is that his work can’t be brushed off as lousy, simplistic or the work of some anarchists. His original contribution, developed together with his colleagues, is a statistical method that allowed him to track the evolution of income and wealth over a long period of time (over the 20th century for America and Britain, and the18th century for France). Thus, he was able to follow inequality through two dimensions: across social classes and through time. He traced the inequality of La Belle Époque (19th century in Europe) and was able to pinpoint the main culprit: the accumulation of wealth and its transmission through inheritance. In today’s words, Piketty was able to track down the 1% that Occupy Wall Street protesters strongly denounced. Indeed, he found out that:
The top 10% owns most (70%) of the capital, and the bottom 50% owns almost none (5%) of it.
Moreover, Piketty drew similarities between rich people of the 19th century and the wealthy today. He even mentioned, unheard of from an economist, some literary characters from the novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac. In the Belle Époque, the family in which you are born, or to whom you get married, make you poor forever or rich forever.

It is the emergence and later the spread of capitalism that came to change this fatalism. Workers and then middle-class groups, through education and hard work, made a path between the rich and poor and this is how, for instance, the middle class came to represent the most important class in America during the ’50s. Not for a long time, though! The Jane Austen and Honoré Balzac characters of this new world reappeared and concentrated all the wealth in their hands.
It is interesting to note how Piketty emphasizes wealth instead of income as the most important tool for studying inequality — and for this he studied tax records instead of relying, like other economists did in the past, on surveys about salaries and income.
Of course, many critics say that today’s rich made their fortunes through hard work and not through inheritance like was the case in La Belle Époque. It may have been true for some when the American Dream was still a reality but it is no longer the case today. Take the cases of CEOs who keep receiving million of dollars in compensation and yet aren’t good enough to save their firms from financial disasters. And how about JPMorgan Chase, one of the biggest banking and financial multinationals in the world? Didn’t this firm start from a wealthy family?
Piketty advocates for a wealth tax that would reduce the growing inequalities that we currently observe in Canada, in the U.S. and all over the world. Politically, this is extremely difficult if not impossible. In France, Gerard Depardieu and other movie stars or singers went to war against the French government when it tried to increase the taxes on their wealth. In the U.S., Forbes magazine, which promotes wealth through its famous list of the richest people in the world, harshly criticized Piketty’s work.
So after reading Thomas Piketty’s book, can we safely say that America, as the icon of capitalism, is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy? Everyone seems to be afraid to say so!
There are some courageous voices who dare to do so. In their book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, Ronald Barlett and James Steele write: “a sign held by a protester at Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011 framed the issue: I don’t mind you being rich. I mind you buying my government.”
Recently, two American political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, released a report in which they declared:
“…we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”
Gilens and Page don’t go as far as declaring the U.S. an oligarchy but they nicely frame it as follows: “economic elite domination.” It is exactly what Thomas Piketty discovered through his study of tax records and patterns of inequality.
In Canada, we are not immune to such inequalities and “economic elite domination.” In a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it is mentioned that:
“… many gasp at the fact that Canada’s richest 20% of families take almost 50% of all income. But when it comes to wealth, almost 70% of all Canadian wealth belongs to Canada’s wealthiest 20%.”
Piketty’s findings cannot be better confirmed, even here in Canada. Once again, I find myself wishing Stephen Harper would one day read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

This article was originally posted with rabble.ca