Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

I first heard about the case of Mohamed Harkat in December 2002. It was a dark time for me and my family. My husband, Maher Arar, was detained in Syria; I had become a single mother with two young children, living on social assistance. The whole world was swept with anti-terrorism policies: if you were an Arab Muslim man, you would be at high risk of racial profiling, interrogation and eventually deportation to torture.

I learned about the case of Mohamed Harkat when I saw his wife, Sophie Harkat, on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, making an emotional plea for the release of her husband. I immediately felt a sense of sympathy for her. I felt we were fighting a similar battle. We were two women caught in the legal aftermath of 9/11, trying to bring justice to their loved ones, but surrounded by a wave of suspicion and a climate of fear.

Mohamed Harkat was arrested in front of his home in Ottawa under a security certificate. At the time, very few Canadians would have known about the controversial procedure that allows two cabinet ministers to sign a certificate ordering the deportation of a refugee or permanent resident out of Canada. This measure existed before the events of 9/11 and before the new national security legislation that followed. Nevertheless after 9/11, it became the tool par excellence to order the deportation of those deemed “dangerous” terrorists or sleeper agents. The security certificate is supposed to offer ministers a speedy way to order the deportation of an alleged terrorist. However, since 2002, these measures have been proven — through several court decisions and long public campaigns — problematic at many levels.

Mohamed Harkat’s case proved that as well. After his arrest, he was detained for a year in solitary confinement, then transferred to “Guantanamo North,” the Millhaven prison built at the exorbitant cost of $3.2 million specifically to house Arab Muslim men detained under security certificates. When Harkat was released from prison, he was put under house arrest with conditions considered to be the strictest in Canadian history. As Sophie Harkat mentioned in public speaking appearances, during this time she became her own husband’s de facto jailer, responsible for making sure he didn’t use the internet or drive outside the designated perimeter without the knowledge of Canada Border Services agents.

After 16 long years fighting his security certificate, today Mohamed Harkat is still threatened with deportation to his native Algeria. The secret evidence that led to his arrest has been destroyed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the informants used in this case were never cross-examined, and we learned through court proceedings that some of that “evidence” was collected through a suspect named Abu Zubeydah, who is still detained in Guantanamo Bay and who was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to torture such as sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and confinement in small dark boxes.

Mohamed Harkat escaped Algeria in 1990, at the start of the civil war that ravaged his country of birth for over a decade. He left to live in Pakistan and later came to Canada as a refugee claimant fearing for his life if he returned to Algeria. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment and treatment in Canada make him a perfect candidate for immediate arrest and detention in Algeria if deported there by the Canadian government.

According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities “took no steps to open investigations and counter the impunity for grave human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of torture committed by security forces and armed groups in the 1990s during Algeria’s internal conflict, which left an estimated 200,000 people killed or forcibly disappeared.”

So why does the Canadian government want to send Mohamed Harkat back to Algeria? Do they want to turn him into another “disappeared” man?

After the Supreme Court of Canada deemed security certificates unconstitutional in 2007, Canada’s new security certificate legislation was modelled on the British system. Two years ago, the British government was barred from deporting six Algerian men suspected of having links with Al-Qaida to Algeria over concerns of torture.

Despite what British government lawyers qualified as “agreements with Algeria against torture,” the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that “potential future political instability in the country could undermine the assurances’ longevity.”

Why is Canada following the British model for security certificates yet turning a blind eye to decisions coming from that country — decisions that would help keep Mohamed Harkat in Canada, away from torture?

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government are under a lot of pressure from the Conservatives, who are trying to paint them as soft on terrorism. This is not new. The Conservative government has taken a hard line on terrorism — and anyone suspected of having links to it — in the past. They did it when they passed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in 2015, they did it when they refused to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo, and they do it today on the issue of the return of Canadians who travelled overseas to fight in Syria. History has proven them wrong. Prime Minister Trudeau shouldn’t bow to this political pressure. Mohamed Harkat has suffered enough. His place is in Canada. He should never be deported to torture.

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

Advertisements

How anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the Quebec election

It was a strange election in Quebec. I followed it from afar but with a lot of interest and a certain dose of skepticism. Since arriving in Canada and living in Montreal in the early 1990s, I found that during provincial and even federal elections, the question of Quebec independence occupied a big portion of the political debate. Usually Quebec independence came as a final threat launched by the “federalist” Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) to dissuade the last batch of hesitant voters from siding with the “sovereigntist” Parti Québécois (PQ). And this polarization worked relatively well, at least to a certain extent, for the PLQ. But over the last two decades, the referendum on Quebec independence has been losing ground, especially among younger voters, but even baby boomers, usually supporters of the idea, have been showing signs of tiredness.

Over the years, the focus of polarization in Quebec politics has shifted from independence to identity. It was Mario Dumont, forefather of today’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), who was instrumental in bringing the inflated “reasonable accommodation” debate to Quebec political affairs. Political fear-mongering stopped targeting federalist Anglos, who supposedly threatened French culture with their imperialistic language, songs, movies and powerful economic institutions. Instead, it was directed — skilfully, with media complicity — at a new threat: immigrants.

CAQ leader François Legault and his team ran much of their election campaign on the backs of immigrants. They spoke on their behalf — only about 12 per cent of their candidates are from racialized groups, a similar percentage to the other parties — and they demonized them. They created a dangerous rhetoric and repeated it until they won the election on October 1, 2018.

Throughout their campaign, the CAQ insinuated that there are “good immigrants” — the ones who arrive from certain regions of the world, look like Québécois de souche in skin and hair colour, don’t speak barbaric languages, don’t cook with garlic and smelly spices, and accept the jobs that are left over. They have some children — one or two, just enough to keep the jobs in the family — and don’t leave the province of Quebec, as a sign of loyalty. Those are the jackpot of immigrants, the ones Mr. Legault and his supporters want.

But there are also “bad immigrants,” the ones no one likes. They are loud. They have many children, who don’t behave themselves and end up being shot by the police. They complain a lot, they live in ghettos, they don’t want to integrate, and most of all, they wouldn’t hesitate to leave the province after benefitting from its social programs. Even worse, they have barbaric cultural practices, they oppress their women, and they want to change the culture of the majority with their backwards habits.

Clearly, this is the kind of immigrant Mr. Legault and his supporters were thinking and speaking of during the election when they promised to reduce the annual number of immigrants coming to Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000.

Otherwise, how can we explain the fact that on the day after his election, Mr. Legault — instead of acting as premier to all Quebecers — continued with the dangerous, divisive rhetoric of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants.”

He didn’t shy away from invoking the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a prohibition against public employees wearing religious symbols such as as hijabs or kippas in the workplace.

I wish he was a little more honest and clearly stated that by religious symbols, he meant only “hijabs.”

Because, let’s be clear, the PQ’s target, when they first presented their “Charter of Values” in 2013, was women wearing headscarves and niqabs, even though they claimed that they were ready to ban all religious symbols. There was a tacit public understanding that the main targets were Muslim women. When the PLQ won the election in 2014, the Charter of Values was buried but the PLQ produced another legal chef d’oeuvre by introducing Bill 62, which ended up targeting another tiny group: women wearing niqabs. Even though no one in Quebec was capable of answering the very simple question of how many women were wearing the niqab in Quebec, the bill passed and became a law that is currently being challenged by a niqab-wearing Quebecer.

But what Mr. Legault and his team are not getting is that many “good immigrants” are choosing to leave Quebec. Indeed, according to University Laval political science professor Thierry Giasson, 25 to 40 per cent of French immigrants to Quebec decide to leave the province.

And on the other hand, many “bad immigrants” are fighting for their right to stay in Quebec and feel safe in their jobs, offering a great lesson on civic engagement to the new premier and his team.

These nuances show the dangers of polarization and the instrumentalization of “immigrants” in gaining votes. But one thing is for sure. Even if Mr. Legault and his team were able to exploit fear, ignorance and racism to get power in this election, they won’t have an easy time implementing their proposed agenda. This time, they found in immigrants an “alibi” to win. Next time, real problems like climate change, health care and education will catch them.

This article was published on rabble.ca

The othering of immigrants in Canada

This summer, I was a writer in residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today’s standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly “legal” — approved by Canada’s Parliament, the country’s main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the “homogeneity of Canadians.” This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the “othering” of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn’t happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The “othering” of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants “stealing jobs” from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn’t cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today’s politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain “social harmony”? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) “think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014),” whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) “think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014),” and only a mere six per cent “think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014).”

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that “it’s hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa,” basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn’t matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other’s false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa’s family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada’s history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the “Other” as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the “Others” as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure — it won’t take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven’t learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The “othering” of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: “How did these horror stories happen?”

This article was initially published on rabble.ca

What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

Last week, I was on the bus travelling from Gatineau to Ottawa. I was taking that bus line for the first time and wasn’t familiar with the route and stops. Assuming that my stop was coming, I rang the bell, signalling my intention to get off. It turned out that I was wrong and that I was still far from my intended stop. The bus stopped anyway, and I didn’t get off.

A middle-aged man standing beside me asked, “why you didn’t get off?” Taking his question at face value, I replied, “it was a mistake.” To my surprise, he was quick to fire back: “Next time, don’t do it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The bus driver didn’t say anything to me and here is this man, a simple rider, who feels entitled to talk to me in a patronizing tone to teach me how to behave on the bus. “Don’t talk to me like this,” I replied to him, fuming. “Shut up,” he ordered me angrily. “You shut up,” I replied back. “I am going to report you to the bus driver,” I continued.

In the midst of this heated interaction, a white lady stood up, got closer to me, and moving between me and the man, asked me, “is there anything I can do to help?” The whole dynamic changed. Until then, I was the “isolated” Muslim woman facing her white male bully, and now this white woman decided to break the “domination” relationship and turned it into an allyship. In matter of seconds, a Black woman joined the circle and said, lightly, “what is the problem here? I always make mistakes when requesting bus stops.” Another racialized man, who so far had been watching quietly, became encouraged and said to the white man, “why are you behaving this way?” The white man was isolated and started to retreat.

No longer on the offensive, he started saying he was “just wondering.” “No,” I corrected him, “you were simply mean.” He didn’t say a word. I was still shaken, but because of the solidarity I felt surrounded with, I decided to go to the bus driver and tell him about what happened. He was very cooperative. “If you want me to report him, I can do it immediately; I can even kick him off the bus.” I was not on a power trip. I was just trying to go home. I told the bus driver that this time I will let it go and then I got off. The white and Black ladies who stood by me both got off the bus; I thanked them for their actions and words, and each one of us went on her way.

This incident might look trivial, but shook me to the core, physically and morally. I thought I was much stronger than this but obviously I was not. I thought that words would come more easily to my rescue, but they were trembling and slow. I speak three languages: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French and English. It is known that in tense and emotional circumstances, when a person is at risk or in a situation of fear, she finds it easier to communicate her emotions in her mother tongue. Not only did I have to reply to this man in English but also in a manner that accurately reflected my emotions. I became so overwhelmed. Once at home, I felt I needed to cry.

Crying would help ease the tremendous anger raging inside me but also would bring me to my humanity — the simple humanity I constantly have to prove exists under my hijab.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve felt insecure on the street; I am not exaggerating. As a woman wearing a hijab, I became an easy target for glares, rude behaviour, bigotry, and Islamophobic comments. I don’t claim that I am constantly a victim. Nevertheless, fears are always in the back of my mind, and unconsciously or consciously, they shape my actions and my attitudes, my words and even my silences. The hypervigilant state I am always in drains me emotionally, and nothing can calm me down until I am at home.

Despite who I think I am or describe myself to be, my appearance speaks more quickly than me in public spaces. The decade-long hammering about the question of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, followed by the failed attempt to ban “religious symbols” specifically targeting women in hijab by then premier Pauline Marois in the 2013 provincial election, later taken over by former prime minister Stephen Harper during his “niqab ban” in 2015, created this atmosphere of a vigilante attitude by some Canadians.

These tactics of identity politics are not merely political experiments that magically disappear once an election is over or after a politician is defeated. They are not merely words that fade away with time; they have a long-lasting impact on people and they can lead inevitably to actions.

The dehumanization that Muslim women are subject to — either through classic Orientalist depictions in paintings like The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix or through stereotypes like the cute Jasmine character in Aladdin by Hollywood — is ingrained in people’s imagination. The common, simplistic and wrong perception that the hijab is a symbol of oppression is still alive and thriving, even though many books have been written by Muslim women to declare otherwise.

I don’t know what exactly pushed that man on the bus to ask me that question and to treat me the way he did. Is it just the fact that I was a woman? That would be misogyny. Or is it the fact that I was wearing a headscarf that invested him with the mission to “teach me a lesson”? I can’t ever know for sure. However, as someone who lived through that experience, looked into his eyes and saw his expression, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn’t have talked to me if I wasn’t a woman wearing a headscarf.

As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.

My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.

Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.

I believe that populist politicians, with their simplistic and dangerous rhetoric, empower their bases to act upon their words. The dangers of populist politicians like Donald Trump or Doug Ford are not “simple talk” or “controversial tweets” shared in virtual platforms. The impacts of these politicians are what happens to vulnerable people in the streets, on public transit, or in detention centres. Their words are calls for actions. Their words act as green lights for some to “defend” their territories from people who seem weaker than them.

I have never considered myself oppressed. In fact, I think I am privileged. I came to Canada to pursue my graduate studies. I have a family. I have a house and I drive a car. If I didn’t take the bus that day, this incident wouldn’t have happened to me and I would have thought that the world is still a wonderful place and Canada the most “tolerant” city. But obviously, it is not.

Imagine I was a Syrian refugee or any other hijab-wearing woman who doesn’t speak a lot of English, on the bus in the same place. What would have happened? What if the two women who offered support were not there? What if everyone else behaved like bystanders, felt unconcerned by what was happening? What if the bus driver wasn’t cooperative, or worse, indifferent? Most likely, the white man would have been more empowered and even more invested with missions to defend his “public space.”

When I give presentations about Islamophobia, people wonder how it concretely happens. I usually share statistics with them or refer them to examples from the media. Next time, I will tell them this story.

This blog was published on rabble.ca

How Hijab is becoming a neoliberal product for cosmetic and fashion multinationals

Each time I see a young Muslim woman in the front cover of some fashion magazines wearing a “hijab” or rather a sort of a fancy headscarf covering some of her hair, I have mixed feeling.

On one hand, I feel optimistic that “hijab” is becoming more and more visible in some mainstream media. In that sense, it is becoming a “normalized” outfit and this would inevitably reduce the level of rising Islamophobia that is particularly targeting Muslim women. ( Recently, it was reported that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform”)

But one the other hand, I feel that hijab is being “used” by multinational corporations ( L’Oréal, Dolce and Gabbana, Zara…) as a marketing product to appeal to a new group of consumers: young Muslim women. This fact alone makes me feel so outraged as hijab in its essence was never a symbol of marketing but rather a symbol of modesty and resistance to the oppressive social criteria of physical beauty and the never ending demands of consumerism. That doesn’t necessarily means that a Muslim woman who decides to wear a hijab should renounce to beauty or elegance but I personally understand hijab as a way to be at the same time beautiful and still remain modest and discreet and never bow to the rules of the market.

We live in a neoliberal economy that believes in one thing: the free market. In this economy, we are merely consumers who can attain happiness through our levels and patterns of consumption. We are defined by the car we drive, the house we live in and the clothings we wear. In Islam, the economy is one aspect of our lives and doesn’t define us entirely. What really matters in Islam are the ethics of things. What sort of economy do we aspire to? An oppressive economical system where people are left out and with the market deciding of their fate, or a caring economy where the under privileged are “taken care” by a universal healthcare system, affordable housing programs and social welfare for the needy? An economy where personal happiness is becoming the only measure of success and the only objective sought by people or an economy where the general welfare of the population is the goal to be attained together as a whole community? It is through these exact theses lenses that clothing should also be perceived. We dress to cover our nudity and vulnerability but also to be agents of protection rather than an agents of destruction. The clothing we cover ourselves with, are meant to make us beautiful from inside and outside. The clothing we choose to wear are supposed to make us “close” to each other through awareness, sharing and compassion and not divide us through judgements, competition, arrogance and waste.

The hijab is not anyhow excluded from this vision. A hijab isn’t only a piece of fabric to cover the hair. It doesn’t only has a purpose of social etiquette between male and female. Personally, I see hijab as a powerful statement to renounce to the hegemony of fashion and beauty industry that are both unethical and run by corporations motivated solely by profits and greed and predominantly targeting women. So how should I feel when I see a Muslim girl appearing on these magazines with a big smile and a headscarf on her hair. Aren’t these corporations trying to continue to impose images of beauty and success to women whether they are Muslims or not and whether they have hijab or not? Shouldn’t I be concerned by this model of “success”?

What is even more troubling and concerning is that this debate of ethical economy is almost inexistant in “Muslim” countries. In Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that is perceived in the West as the “beacon” of Islam with “Islamic finance” and women covered from head to toe, a neoliberal economy is thriving. Malls with multinational corporations are in all the major cities, even in Makkah, the city that watched the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. Kaaba, the centre of the annual pilgrimage, a ritual of devotion to God where all humans, men and women are requested to dress modestly and avoid all ostentatious signs of beauty and wealth, is today surrounded by high-rise hotel chains filled with neoliberal brands and stores selling clothing that are unethically made in sweat shops. So once, again, what is the meaning of hijab if one one hand we wear it and on the other hand we keep accepting these neoliberal economic models, including fashion and cosmetics? Where is the role of hijab as a symbol of resistance and consciousness? Probably lost or literally hijacked by these new criteria of success, accepted by these same Muslims women posing for these magazines.

Unfortunately, I can only notice that hijab today became a simple accessory like a bag, or a pair of earrings or a watch. A piece of fashion among many other pieces that are daily sold to Muslim women. What is supposed to be a piece of spiritual resistance that defines a “way of an ethical life” was able to be “appropriated” by this neoliberal economy and turned into a marketing tool with huge profits.

The torturers’ bargain: Crime and no punishment, but many rewards

Despite being deeply implicated in some of the worst crimes of the Bush administration’s torture regime, Gina Haspel has been promoted to Director of the CIA.

Haspel managed the CIA’s Site Green detention camp in Thailand, the blueprint for the rest of the Agency’s “black sites” around the world: a matrix of secret prisons where the captives could be brutalized with impunity.

Black site detainees were broken physically and psychologically; kept naked, beaten, hooded, waterboarded, threatened with electric chairs and military dogs, sexually abused (including through medically unnecessary rectal feedings so forceful the effects resembled those of violent rape), locked in boxes filled with insects, and forced to lie in their own excrement. One lost an eye, at least two died, and many hallucinated or begged to be killed.

Even more damningly, it turned out that almost one-quarter of the detainees had been sucked into the CIA’s system of black holes completely by mistake, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

One of the prisoners over whose torture Haspel presided, Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, was described by a U.S. Navy reserve doctor as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen … in my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The prohibition of torture in international law is universal and absolute, and the UN Convention Against Torture requires all forms of involvement in it to be criminalized. But instead of being punished, many of the officials responsible for America’s torture program have been advanced to positions of even greater power — a tradition started by Presidents Bush and Obama, and now extended by Donald Trump.

Government lawyer Jay Bybee, for example, who helped construct the legal framework used to justify torture, was given a lifetime seat as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bybee’s co-architect of legalized torture, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, was elevated to U.S. Attorney General.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who approved the torturous interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, went on to become President of the World Bank.

John Brennan, who endorsed extraordinary rendition and torture as a CIA official during the Bush years, was appointed first as White House Homeland Security Advisor and then as CIA Director by Barack Obama.

George Tenet, who authorized and directed the use of torture as Director of the CIA, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush — while Bush himself is now being memorialized in nostalgic hindsight as Trump’s contrast in presidential virtue and restraint, rather than his precedent in lawless brutality.

In Canada, too, individuals complicit in torture have long been rewarded instead of removed.

For instance, psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron — who conducted electroshock experiments on humans at McGill University in the 1950s, for a CIA-funded project on mind control — ascended to President of the World Psychiatric Association.

More recently, the O’Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries determined that Canadian security agencies wrongfully labelled four innocent Muslim men as terrorists on the basis of racist stereotypes in the wake of 9/11, and then took advantage of their resulting incarceration in countries infamous for torture to try to extract information out of them.

But none of the authorities inculpated have been prosecuted. On the contrary, several were promoted — among them Mike Cabana, the inspector in charge of the RCMP’s torture-enabling A-O Canada investigation, who climbed the ranks to Deputy Commissioner; and Stephen Covey, the RCMP’s liaison with the torture-mongering Syrian regime, who became a Superintendent.

At least three of the participants in the torture scandal, including Cabana, were subsequently honoured with the Order of Merit of the Police Forces for “exceptional service.”

Giuliano Zaccardelli — who was pressured to resign from his post as Commissioner of the RCMP after lying to a parliamentary committee about the torture of Maher Arar — was given a senior position in Interpol, the global police force.

Last month, Kelly Pocha was fired from her job in a British Columbia car dealership, following outrage about her racist tirade in a Denny’s restaurant denigrating a group of Muslims as “not Canadian” — while the planners and executors of a global system of abuse designed to treat scores of Muslim detainees as non-human have not only been spared punishment, but permitted to rise to the heights of institutions entrusted with enormous amounts of power.

The logic required to rationalize the apparent paradox — the bigger the scale of the transgression, the smaller the penalty — can only be described as tortured.

This article was written in collaboration with the legal analyst Azeezah Kanji and first published at rabble.ca

When reporting competes with fake news, journalism is the first victim

The recent van attack in Toronto has left 10 people dead and 14 injured. It is deeply shocking, and as with all the other attacks around the world in recent years, very troubling.

Beyond the human tragedy, this attack has convinced me that journalism, as I have understood and read it since I started paying attention to the news (about 30 years ago), is on the way to becoming extinct. In the last decade, many newspapers have gone bankrupt and several newsrooms closed. Analysts blamed the situation, rightly so, on the internet or digital media and social media, as well as the lack of a viable business model that would allow journalism to survive. But the social media and the polarization that is turning these virtual places into warzones between “supporters” and “enemies” are not the only factors to blame.

Mainstream journalism and some journalists are increasingly reproducing the quick, biased reporting widespread in social media. What we publicly despise in others seems to be a reflection of our own mistakes. The result is a slowly erosion of what makes journalism a strong pillar of democracy, intended to keep the public informed in an objective and accurate manner.

Here, I use examples to show how some “mainstream” journalists are falling into the trap of sensationalism and quick scoops, thus following in the footsteps of what their competitors are already doing.

Each time a tragic event takes place, a new narrative is quickly shaped and spread, and many journalists run to embrace it, without realizing that each time they are digging a bigger hole in the “seeker of truth and objectivity” grave.

When in 2015, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, journalists reported that there were snipers on building roofs and that the suspect had accomplices. That created a tremendous climate of fear. The “terrorist” label was quickly attributed to the perpetrator and a “hero” was made of Kevin Vickers, who was later appointed as an Ambassador to Ireland by then prime minister Stephen Harper. All these news stories, comments and decisions were made within a matter of days, giving the impression that there were no other versions of events and no other plausible explanations.

Zehaf-Bibeau was portrayed as a monster to the point that, fearing the backlash of being considered guilty by association, not a single Muslim place of worship was willing to bury him in Ottawa and his father had to take his body for burial in Libya. His mental health and drug addiction struggles, as described by his mother in a letter to the media, weren’t taken seriously in his public representation. A mug shot of him with either unkempt hair or harbouring a Palestinian keffiyeh to cover his face made the headlines. Despite all the questions about his real motives, the RCMP Commissioner concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau was a “Mujaheed,” a terrorist affiliated with “international” terrorism, a newly introduced term to describe what I guess should frankly be labelled “Muslim terrorism.”

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American security guard, attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. The narrative that came out immediately was that Muslims (Omar Mateen’s faith) are haters of LGBTQ communities and that Mateen went on a rampage as an attack on the sexual orientation of nightclub visitors. Another narrative, widely circulated, went on to describe Omar Mateen as a self-hating closeted homosexual. It took only a few hours and days for these narratives to be circulated in social media and endorsed by “mainstream” journalists. It took more than two years of investigation, legal procedures and thorough journalism to quash these erroneous stories. Last month, Glen Greenwald from the Intercept wrote an investigative piece exposing that the real motives of the perpetrator were related to the U.S. wars and killings of Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a young Canadian man, killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. Some media outlets, quickly followed by a number of national columnists on social media, reported that Bissonnette had accomplices and that his accomplice was a Muslim man of Moroccan descent. Bissonnette’s motives were not rapidly disclosed. A general unease made some journalists less eloquent about the linking of this man to white supremacy movements. Bullying and mental health kept emerging as the main “known” motive of the cold-blooded murders. A clean-shaved picture of him was also shown in the media and his history of anxiety and depression history was repeatedly mentioned. A hero was even found in the actions of Azzeddine Sofiane who was killed in the course of trying to save some of the other worshipers. A heroic act, indeed, but in my opinion, another attempt to positively distract us from the narrative of the horrible actions of the perpetrator.

Alek Minassian, the man arrested and charged with killing 10 people this week by driving a van onto the sidewalks of Toronto, also “benefited” from a narrative quickly shaped by social media, and endorsed by journalists looking for sensationalism and a bit of “market share” in this new model of news.

A reporter from CBC declared on Twitter that the perpetrator was “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern,” trying to associate the attacker with the now classic narrative of “another Muslim or Middle Eastern violent guy.” Later, after this narrative made its way into many news outlet and websites, some journalists quickly jumped and kept asking — was this case not related to “international terrorism”? How did they know? Is it the mere religious affiliation of the perpetrator that makes you a terrorist? Or rather, through negation, “if you are not a Muslim, a.k.a. a terrorist, then you can be anything else.”

Soon after, another narrative came to be built by reports (once again gleaned from social media) indicating that the attacker was a misogynist belonging to an “incel” group — men who are angry about their involuntary sexual inaccessibility to women. As quick as the police and journalists were to “clean” the attacker of accusations of terrorism, they were not as quick to corroborate this troubling news. Maintaining fuzziness in this case makes all explanations plausible and none true. What is supposed to be a rule of objectivity is becoming a fluid argument that some journalists use when it suits them, to refute some claims and accept others.

And once more, a hero is instantaneously found — in this case, the police officer who didn’t shoot at the killer. It’s a gesture that we have seen many times in other situations, especially when the suspect is clearly identified as a person of colour. What should be a rule is unfortunately portrayed and accepted as the exception. A heroic gesture that we cheer despite the real tragedy being lived by people, and the human and social damage created by the attacker in the community.

These examples illustrate how both social media and mainstream reporting are shaping dangerous and misleading narratives that, in the long run, are slowly causing the erosion of the real work of journalism.

This article was first published at rabble.ca