The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: The missing stories

Two weeks ago, I was in Winnipeg, invited by the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Thin Air) to speak about my latest novel: Hope Has Two Daughters.

As part of my others activities for the same festival, I was asked to speak at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Last time I was in the city, the museum wasn’t open for the public yet, though I heard back then that some private tours were being scheduled for special guests. Obviously, I was not special enough to be one of them, so I decided that next time I would visit the museum and get to know more about its exhibitions and galleries.

In my talk, I spoke about the link between my work as a writer and as a human rights advocate. I spoke about what happened to my husband Maher Arar; the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program that he was victim of; the physical and psychological torture he endured while detained in the Palestinian Branch in Syria, his country of birth; the dangers of information sharing between intelligence agencies in a post 9/11 world where torture has became banal (or, to say the least, “justified”); and, of course, the role of Canadian institutions in this terrible ordeal.

As someone who trained to become a financial economics professor, I spoke about how writing came to me as a tool of activism, of justice-seeking, but (most of all) of understanding and analyzing the new global order we are living in, particularly the national security agenda pushed by the U.S. and many other countries.

I also insisted on the importance of storytelling as a powerful medium for many oppressed communities to share their struggles with other privileged groups.

In this context, as a Muslim woman who has to daily fight Islamophobia and is constantly confronted by national security policies, writing remains for me the best and only means to oppose stereotypes and these policies without necessarily victimizing myself, but rather, resisting them and liberating myself from cowardice and a sense of helplessness.

Following my talk, I tried to take a quick tour of the museum. I have to say that the great architecture of the place — shaped creatively like the wings of a dove — gives it a majestic feel that can counterbalance some of the heavy stories I was going to see exhibited.

In a short period, I couldn’t render justice to the entire seven floors of exhibits, artefacts, and interactive multi-media videos, thousands of documents, pictures and poignant and beautiful stories told through pictures and of pieces of arts. In my rush, I might have missed important things. Nevertheless, one of the most important issues I was eager to read about in this museum was the “war on terror.” I wanted to see how this ongoing war was handled and told. I consider my husband and my whole family as survivors of this war, that former American President Georges W. Bush qualified as “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” 

I really wanted to know more about the “ghost planes” documented by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book with the same title. Exactly like my husband was transported from New Jersey to Amman, Jordan. Perhaps even thinking of seeing a picture of these planes. I wanted to see the name of some of the American private companies who operated them, such as Aero Contractors based in New Jersey, as well. I was also expecting to see images of the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan where my husband was kept there and many others prisoners of the war on terror.  A place that the political writer Arun Kundani described as “the Guantanamo in New York you’re not allowed to know about.”

This is a place where Human Rights Watch described the treatment of the Muslim suspects detained there in the following words: “subjected to punitive conditions, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to security measures typically reserved for dangerous persons. Most were let out of their cells only one hour per day. Although material witnesses have a right to counsel, including court-appointed counsel if necessary, some in fact did not have access to counsel.”

I was hoping to see pictures of Guantanamo inmates in orange jumpsuits surrounded by the barbed wires, not because they were a powerful reminder of the fragility of our human rights and that despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by several countries after the atrocities of the Second World War, more abuses are being conducted today on other groups of people without any possibility of accountability or due process.

While I was circulated on the astonishing ramps made of alabaster and feeling being literally transported in the air from one floor to another and from one struggle to another, I thought of my own struggle, knocking on politicians doors, speaking to journalists, organizing vigils in the bitter Canadian cold with other human rights activists, and speaking to media to push Canadian politicians to bring my husband home. I thought of these longs hours I spent in front of the computer, after my young children went to bed, desperately trying to surf the Internet for names of journalists or human rights organizations to cover the story of my husband. I remembered those years between 2004 and 2006 when the public inquiry was taking place and the national and international media attention that followed us all the way to our doors. I thought of the thousands of pages written by Justice O’Connor and his legal counsel Paul Cavaluzzo to understand what really happened to Maher Arar, what led to his arrest by the U.S. and his subsequent torture in the Syrian dungeon.

Seeing some these documents exposed in one of the galleries of the museum or the remarkable recommendations by Justice O’Connor being showcased would have made my trip there a personal proud moment that to share with my family and friend, but also a terrific Canadian victory of justice over arbitrariness and discrimination.

But I was clearly dreaming. Nothing of the sort was exhibited or even mentioned. No images, no press clips, no information about the black hole prisons network that swallowed the victims of renditions keeping them hidden underneath and tortured, not a single mention about the horrific treatment of Guantanamo prisoners like the waterboarding. Nothing.

Among this shameful desert of lack of information, I finally saw a newspaper picture. One that I have never seen before, showing people holding signs “Justice to Maher Arar” with the following interesting description “Maher Arar supporters, around 2008. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar, a Canadian citizen, for not protecting him from torture in Syria”. Not a single word about Canada’s role or any other similar Canadian cases of Al Maati, Al Malki and Nurredin. The picture probably taken from an American paper, threw the responsibility ball to U.S. and Syrian camps.

No picture of Guantanamo, not a word about Omar Khadr, another victim of the war on terror, and the incredible work his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney has been doing and all the work of Canadians activists, filmmakers and human rights groups who supported the cause until the end.

I simply can’t understand these missing stories. Is it a deliberate act of self-amnesia? Is it politically motivated? I don’t know.

But certainly, Canadians have all the right to know and understand these missing stories. Human rights are not only stories that we can choose depending on our likes or political affiliations or religious affinities. For example, today, it is politically safe to criticize and hit upon countries like Iran, or Russia and North Korea. They came to represent the “evil”, the “other”, that is the total opposite of what our liberal values incarnate like democracy, and freedom of association and of religion…

But how about some of our friend or allies countries, for instance the U.S. or Israel or France. Don’t they have big skeletons in their closets? Guantanamo, the Nakba, the Algerian war? Aren’t these shameful historic moments that our children and grandchildren should learn about in an honest and transparent way?

So far the Canadian Museum of Human Rights has missed some of these stories.

This column was published at rabble.ca

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Faith and Perspectives

My biggest challenge in Canada is being recognized and living as a Muslim woman.

There are two key words here: Woman and Islam. It should be emphasized that my struggles today as a Muslim woman in Canada are different from the ones faced by a Muslim man. Also as a woman wearing a headscarf, my challenges are different than women not wearing one.

Societies, cultures and traditions in general have usually put women down, despised women and treated them unfairly compared to men. I am very lucky to be born in a family where I was loved and respected and most of all always intellectually challenged. I never felt that I was less than a man. However, this attitude would stop at the doorstep of our home. Outside the house, the society is full of disrespect towards women.

When I chose to wear a headscarf as part of my personal growth and my spiritual journey towards God, I found in the message of the Quran, a message of fairness, a message of divine equity and a message of justice.

This message is very hard to transport into the world we live in. Not only in a non-Muslim context but also in a Muslim environment.

In Muslim countries, it is very difficult for women to be taken seriously at home, at work and in the street. They struggle when they marry, they struggle at work, they struggle when they divorce, and they struggle when they want to inherit their parents or relatives. Their lives are a series of struggles. Some of these struggles are found elsewhere and some others are justified under the name of Islam.

The patriarchal societies where many Muslim societies lived and developed for centuries kept those deep roots of suspicion towards women even though the Quran brought a message of liberation from all sort of form of injustices and worship including patriarchy or tribalism or traditions.

Patriarchy isn’t just a form of decision-making process and financial hegemony inside the family unit but it goes deeper than this. It creates a sort of dictatorship inside the house and that dictatorship would allow other forms of dictatorships to flourish at the level of legal and political institutions.

Islam brought a very special form of management of public affairs: the “shura”. That mean: consultation or moving forward through consensus. Ironically and interestingly, it is a woman who God chose to show us the path in the Quran: Queen Sheba or Saba. There is a whole chapter dedicated to her in the Quran and the following verse tells us about how she dealt with a message sent to her by a powerful man: King Solomon, peace be upon him:

 “She said Oh Chiefs! Advise me in this affair. No affair have I decided except in your presence” Chapter 27, verse 32

Sadly many of these “empowering” and “liberating” stories from the Quran are today unheard of by many young Muslim women and by the societies in general.

I think that the challenges I live aren’t particular to a faith or to an ethnic group. The problems we face today emanate from the attitude that societies have toward faith and spirituality in general. We turned everything into consumption and religion became the cheapest good or the one with the worst customer service. We live in a world that in its path to Enlightenment, Science and Rationality, it ditched Religion, pushed it aside and tried to hide all signs of religiosity from the public sphere. This erasure becomes so obvious and entrenched when the religion is different and called: Islam.

The biggest misconception I would like to clear about Islam is that women are unfairly treated or oppressed. This task is huge and gigantic as I am fighting centuries of ignorance, an industry of entertainment that perpetuate the myths of the oppressed Muslim women, and a lucrative industry of islamophobia that is well funded and that keeps spreading those lies like implementing Sharia in the US like polygamy legalized or women stoned to deaths. Moreover, it is always a daunting task to fight the propaganda around those military expeditions like the war in Afghanistan or the war on Terror that are conducted under the name of liberating Muslim women but that would make them worse with more devastation, less economic opportunities and more social economical problems. Those wars are not anyhow different than the colonization of Egypt and Algeria for instance where women’s welfare became the justification of the foreign presence and the confiscation of the natural resources of those lands.

I would like to remind you that Lord Cromer, who was the first Pre-consul British in Egypt:

“The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation”

You would be surprised to know that the same Lord Cromer was an active member and one-time president of the UK ‘Men’s League for Opposing the Suffrage of Women’ campaigning AGAINST giving British women the vote.

When you don’t know anything about a topic or a group of people or a culture, you always think that everyone from this group looks the same, eat the same and behave the same. It is a sort of defence mechanism to make us feel smart about ourselves and worry less about our ignorance. My mother thinks that Chinese people look all the same and my Syrian mother in-law thinks that Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan dialects are all the same and as a Tunisian I can assert you the opposite.

In fact, the more you know about something, and more details and discoveries you will make. The same thing applies to Islam. The diversity within Islam is of languages, cultures, religious interpretation, clothing, architecture, cuisine…

In my work as an author, I try to tackle this issue of homogeneity by having very subtle and nuanced characters:

  • A woman wearing a Niqab and so attaching to her smartphone and computer
  • A woman not wearing a headscarf but still very attached to her religion and helping others to understand Islam.

 

Many years ago, I came to understand that I can never change these attitudes by only being nice but rather by embracing my civic duties fully and that means that I start considering my self as a full citizen not only when paying my taxes, or sorting my garbage for recycling or holding the door to others but by having political opinions, advocating for rights for the most vulnerable of out society, advocating for social justice, speaking out and challenging injustice around me.

It is actually this common path between my faith and my citizenship that make me overcome the daily struggle and make me continue…forever

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neoliberalism is a global story that has dictated our destiny

In the early ’90s, when I was in my last year of business school in Tunisia, our finance professor, freshly graduated from Paris-Dauphine, one of the most prestigious business schools in France, urged us to get into “financial culture” by reading the Financial Times, as a way of immersing ourselves in capitalism or rather, neoliberalism (he didn’t use any of these words, though). He was very pragmatic but only half right. Most of us were a bunch of “ignorant” kids working hard to obtain a university degree with only the hope to eventually land in a safe job like bank manager or government clerk. Very few of us heard about the “stock exchange,” “derivative products” or even “financial markets” — and even if we did, these concepts were black holes with no clear grasp or discernment. In those times, finance was still synonymous with safe words like “budget,” “investment rate” and “profit ratios.”

Little did we know that in the coming years, the world would start harvesting the fruits of neoliberalist policies implemented respectively in the U.S. and the U.K. by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s.

Tunisia, a small country in North Africa, wouldn’t be immune to that global overhaul. Indeed, the country experimented with one of the harshest austerity policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank throughStructural Adjustment Programs.

On the surface, this program had a poverty reduction objective — and many infrastructure projects were built, like highways, roads and bridges. Tunisians had access to home ownership programs through easy loans and the most popular initiative was the importation and selling of small Europeans cars at relatively affordable prices. Those cars would soon fill the dense urban space, polluting the landscape and contributing to poor air quality.

These economic policies were accepted with open arms by the business class of the country, which often collides with the political class. Many state-owned companies, like la Société de l’Industrie Laitière (STIL), were sold to private interests at derisory prices with little economic transparency and no political accountability whatsoever. The public wasn’t particularly financially literate and even if they were, political oppression didn’t leave any space for civil scrutiny or criticism.

Missing parts of the story

As a studious pupil, I followed my professor’s advice and started reading the Financial Times, understanding only one per cent of the articles and their accompanying jargon. Gradually, I got familiar with rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s, investment banks like Merrill Lynch, and derivatives products like futures and swaps. Later on, this peek into an unknown world helped me understand basic concepts and paved the road to my future academic endeavours in Montreal at McGill University’s Faculty of Management. But my Tunisian professor told us only half of the story. He didn’t warn us about the social consequences of the neoliberal theories defended by Milton Friedman from the Chicago school or his founding father, Friedrich Hayek.

Once in Canada, I came to better understand capitalist theories started by Adam Smith and his famous “invisible hand.” I also discovered that those experiments didn’t just affect poor countries like Tunisia but also rich countries like Canada. Between 1992 and 1994, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Canada’s credit rating due to its foreign-denominated debt. Former finance minister Paul Martin slashed Canadian spending in an attempt to eliminate the growing deficit and balance the federal budget. Those cuts, praised by the IMF and World Bank, translated into social programs being erased, health and education programs decimated and public infrastructure put on hold. The economy started a new era: the privatization and financialization of sectors like energy, university education, and even prisons.

South of the border, these changes were even more aggressively implemented, with direct consequences.

The 2007-2008 financial crisis brought to the surface the obscure financial tactics used for years with total impunity by the “golden boys,” the smart financial traders that my Tunisian professor admired so much and in whose footsteps he wanted us to follow.

The creation of high-risk securities by repackaging risky mortgages and reselling them to other investment companies with the promise of more profits was behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis that affected many middle-class American families and made them instantaneously homeless and bankrupt. The collateralized debt obligations (CDO), as they were named, were not real financial products; they were “synthetically” constructed by hedge funds and other investment companies through mathematical models and they “derived” their value through other assets which turned out to be extremely risky and led to the fall of the fixed-income market.

U.S. president Obama followed the advice of Wall Street experts and instead of penalizing the real culprits — greedy financial institutions and their CEOs and traders — he “saved” them. He hid behind empty old slogans like “too big to fail,” perpetuated by the tenors of neoliberalism who in other circumstances would never have accepted any intervention from the state into the sacrosanct arena of the economy. But, when financial institutions were on the verge of collapsing, the “invisible hand” became “visible” and cashed billions of dollars of bailout money. The same story could be told about Milton Friedman’s famous line, “there is no such a thing as a free lunch” — Friedman would use this “principle” to explain everything from financial arbitrage to fair market prices and efficient financial markets, but would be unable to rationally explain the “free lunches” distributed to banks and financials institutions after the crisis.

Root causes ignored

In the last U.S. election campaign that led to Donald Trump’s election, little was said about the real causes of the pauperization of the American middle class — as if it was assumed that the economic crisis of 2008 was created by previous U.S. president Obama. Few links were made with the policies initiated by Ronald Reagan and later implemented by Bush the elder, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. These successive economic policies were the seeds of today’s political polarization and economic crisis. Instead, today’s problems are attributed to simplistic rhetoric of “us” versus “them” — where “us” came to represent “white” disadvantaged middle-class families hit by these policies and “them” a sort of a “potpourri” made up of illegal immigrants, Hispanics, refugees, Muslims, Blacks, and everyone else who didn’t look or think like “us,” and most of the time accused of “stealing jobs” and increasing crime rates and violence. This dangerous oversimplification falsely assumes that these formerly praised policies affected only the white middle class, whereas in reality neoliberal policies affected an entire class of workers. The difference is that the impact is felt today by many, including those who used to be relatively well off in past decades.

In the U.S., it is not a secret that the policies of globalization and global trade were pushed by both Democrat and Republican governments, not only nationally but also internationally. In each election or new rounds of trade agreement negotiations, the simple explanation thrown out by politicians to voters was that having our products built in countries like China or India or Mexico would allow “us” to buy cheaper goods, thus making “us” richer. This was relatively accepted until the majority of American jobs were transferred to those countries and most of the profits made by multinational companies evaded the fiscal system and channelled profits and dividends to CEOs through astronomical compensations and extravagant bonuses, keeping U.S. minimum wages always at the bottom.

Neoliberalist policies not only divided the world into “rich” and “poor” countries but went on to exacerbate the wealth gap in each country. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy Wall Street movement was born and the “the 99%” helped bring the inequality debate into the mainstream. This was to no avail as politicians seem to have shifted the debate about economic inequalities to identity politics, as seen in the travel ban in the U.S. and the Brexit vote in the U.K.

Today anti-racist groups, human rights groups, social movements and environmental groups tend to work in silos, each one thinking that they are conducting the mother of all battles. These fights are all crucial but they will never be totally won if neoliberalist policies continue to determine all aspects of our lives and traditional economic growth models are always in charge of our destiny.

This article was published on rabble.ca 

What Does Canada “150th Celebrations” Mean to Me

 

I immigrated to Canada in 1991 at the age of 21. I became Canadian few years after entering Canada as a landed immigrant. But I constantly felt that I am an immigrant: “immigrant forever”. If I dare to forget that I am an immigrant or try to “behave” like I have lived all my life in Canada, some people quickly remind me the precarity of my status: “Oh, did you arrive recently to Canada?” with a reference to the wave of Syrian refugees that Canada received in 2016. And, honestly, I am not offended. To the contrary, I like to be an immigrant. It makes feel humble and light as if I belonged to two worlds with attachments to neither.

When I am in Tunis, the city I was born in, a Tunisian taxi driver would ask me “ Where are you from?” Something in my demeanour, the choice of my words or my behaviour, make locals realize that I don’t belong and the taxi driver is absolutely right! Yes, I speak the dialect, yes I am obviously Muslim with my headscarf, but in my heart I despise the way people behave in the streets, constantly trying to cheat you, and the lack of civility especially among the “nouveaux riches” who think that they can buy everything except good manners, of course.

In Canada, it is no way better. Despite the fact, I went to university here and speak both official languages, run for politics, write books, I am constantly reminded that I don’t belong. Through looks, comments and sometimes as subtle as embarrassing silence that tells more than words. But that doesn’t bother me as much since I am proud to call my self an immigrant.

These days, with the media hype surrounding the celebration of the Canada’s 150th birthday, I started asking myself about the position I should adopt as an immigrant and as a Muslim vis à vis those “celebrations”.

In fact, my position emanates from two angles: my sense of belonging and my faith. As, an “immigrant forever” I feel that I have an official status: a Canadian citizen and a de facto one: a guest on the land of the Indigenous communities. I constantly thrive to keep these two statuses coherent as much as possible. I don’t want the Canadian rights that were granted to me through my citizenship to trumpet, threaten, bully or diminish the right of the ancestors of this land: the Indigenous communities.

I don’t want to behave like an entitled settler and pretend that the materialistic goods that I own are solely the result of my work or my sweat. Perhaps for some of it, but there is more in them, there is the land that was built on them and the roads that our cars and buses run on. Those lands were never ceded. On these lands, residential schools were built and children from Indigenous communities were taken away from their families, stripped off their culture and languages. These “barbaric acts” created a disruption of generations. Generations where adults and youth used to be so close and attached were forcibly separated. So I don’t want to be part of this injustice.

In environment, we have been convinced to reduce our ecological footprint, so why don’t we also try to reduce our “settler footprint” too?

Some new Canadians, claim that they were not part of this original injustice so they don’t feel concerned or at least in any way complicit of it. But, how about this example: let’s imagine that someone who steals money from a friend, never get caught and later becomes super rich and builds a huge and luxurious building. In the meanwhile he has a change of heart and becomes very generous and starts offering “free apartments in his building to people”. So how can we “normalize” these free apartments and forget the fact that they were unethically built? Isn’t some sort of “thief wash”, similar to money laundering that is today financially and criminally fought by many governments around the globe?

From a Muslim perspective, the question of celebrating “Canada 150th birthday” is also very problematic. The concept of immigration or “hijra” in Islam is so important. When Prophet Mohamed was persecuted in his hometown of Mecca, he left with his companions and established a new community in “Medina”. One of the first acts the Prophet did in Medina was to create “brotherhood” and “sisterhood” bonds between the immigrants (named al Muhajirin) and the original inhabitants of Medina (named al Ansar, or the ones who supported his message). Those bonds were not only spiritual but also financial and materialistic: they shared houses, lands and businesses. Such acts are crucial today as we are hearing about “reconciliation”. How can Muslims communities in Canada, pretend not to be affected by these discussions when the origin of Canada and still today’s wealth has been built around land confiscation, colonialism and exploitation of natural ressources?

We shouldn’t only give the example of Israel and denounce its occupation of the Palestinian lands. Closer home, we have Indigenous communities who still live under occupation in reserves without access to clean water, to schools and medical services and we have to educate ourselves about their situations and denounce as much as we can the treatment reserved by Canada to its First Nations. Islam isn’t a religion of peace; it is a religion of justice. If we feel powerless to change oppressive institutions, we have at least to denounce systems that underlie them and allow injustice to operate and be perpetuated.

For all these reasons and more, I would be extremely careful in joining any celebration. Unfortunately, some of these Canada 150th birthday celebrations, become photo ops for some politicians to show how well “integrated” the Muslim immigrant communities are. In realities, those shallow ceremonies are erasing memories of colonialism to build new fake memories of belonging. We have to be vigilant and ask ourselves “ what are we celebrating here”?

 

 

There’s No Justifying Canada’s Flawed Counter-Radicalization Plan

In his mandate letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included the creation of an Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator.

In the 2016 federal budget, the Liberal government pledged to spend $35 million over five years to set up such an office. So far, the Liberal government hasn’t made any official announcement about the office, although Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale hinted to some news outlets that the so-called office would focus on “radicalization to violence of all kinds,” as opposed to the previous Conservative government’s strategy of exclusively targeting Muslim Canadians.

According to some media reports, it seems that the Canadian government’s counter-radicalization model gets its inspiration from what the British government has already implemented in recent years: the Prevent strategy, a program that proved to be a failure at many levels and by all standards.

Two NGOs, the U.S.-based Open Society Justice Initiative and Rights Watch U.K., studied Prevent and its sister program, named Channel, and found in 2016 major flaws with them both. One of the main criticisms is that these programs are based onprofiling and targeting Muslims, particularly in schools, in kindergartens and in health institutions. But most importantly, there is a lack of consensus among academic experts that these counter-radicalization programs are scientifically reliable.

The notion of certain “indicators” identified as risk factors that would draw individuals to terrorism has been discredited by many scholars: “Indeed, the claim that non-violent extremism — including ‘radical’ or religious ideology — is the precursor to terrorism has been widely discredited by the British government itself, as well as numerous reputable scholars.”

The creation of such a program relies on several false premises. It wrongly assumes that Muslim youth are prone to espouse violent ideologies or perpetrate violent crimes more than their peers. Recently, Statistics Canada released the disturbing figuresabout hate crimes in Canada that happened in 2015. In summary, the new figures convey to us two main points:

  • That Muslims communities are among the groups that saw the highest increase of hate crimes perpetrated against them.
  • That the perpetrators of these heinous acts are young men between the age of 18 and 24.

These figures are not surprising to say the least. Many grassroots groups have in the last couple of years shown and documented the rise of Islamophobic acts. Simultaneously, academics brought attention to the rise of violent right-wing extremist and racist groups in Canada.

Neither the provincial or federal governments took these indicators or studies seriously and never acted upon them to present new legislation to fight this phenomenon. The narrative that “Muslim youth are attracted to violence and Jihad” remains very widespread. Meanwhile, groups like Pegida, La Meute, Soldiers of Odin and the Jewish Defense League, to name only a few, are thriving and gaining in popularity and seeing their membership increase. Their protests are also becomingmore public and more provocative. Up until today, an investigative piece reported about a new violent anti-Muslim group — III%, or the “three per cent,” — which claims that they are heavily armed and ready to wage a war on Canadian soil.

After the attack on the Quebec City Mosque, last January 2017 and the assassination of six Muslim men, federal, provincial and local politicians denounced the attacks and said some comforting words to the Muslim communities across the country. Nevertheless, no concrete action was taken to tackle Islamophobia. No extra funding (of very little) was given to schools to fight Islamophobia through education programs. No new measures were adopted by local police to make arrests and ensure that prosecutions of hate crimes are successful.

The only concrete initiative that was undertaken was the introduction of motion,M-103 in the Parliament by Liberal Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid. One of thepurposes of the motion was to “study how the government could develop a government-wide approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia, and collect data to provide context for hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities.” The motion was never intended to be a piece of legislation, but simply a proposal to draw attention about an increasing phenomenon.

The media and political backlash that ensued after this initiative couldn’t be justified by the real impact this motion proposed to have. Indeed, it created a huge controversy among politicians; some of them hid behind the classic pretext that the use of the word “Islamophobia” would mean the end of freedom of expression and free speech, and the destruction of our democracy and liberal values.

In 2014, when two Muslim individuals attacked and killed two Canadians Forces members, one in Saint-Jean in Quebec and the other near the Parliament Hill in Ottawa, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced Bill C-51, which became the Anti Terrorism Act 2015 — one of the most intrusive pieces of legislation threatening the civil liberties of all Canadians. It was widely denounced by several law professors, former judges and human rights activists. Some of the politicians who last February vehemently opposed M-103 voted in 2015 for Bill C-51 and weren’t that concerned about the real impact the legislation had on the freedom of expression and civil liberties.

Moreover, there has never been a public debate about the root causes of terrorism in Canada. Citing Canada’s successive military missions in the Middle East — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria — as one of the reasons that push some young Canadians to join violent groups is practically taboo. Linking these attacks to mental-health issues, drug addictions or social and economical marginalization are brushed off as legitimization of violence. Rather, the general public is made to believe that these violent acts are solely explained by the faith and religious beliefs of the perpetrators, which happened to be Islam.

This reductionist approach to define, tackle and explain terrorism continues to justify the creation of a $35-million public office. Rather, the money could have been spent on development of education programs in schools to fight hate, on special training for law enforcement forces to understand racial profiling and on NGOs that offer mental and economic support to marginalized youth.

This article was published on the Huffington Post 

Is there such a “thing” called a Muslim Writer?

This question kept swirling in my head after I attended the Festival of Literary Diversity, FOLD, organized in Brampton, Ontario, between May 4 and May 7.

First of all, the festival was super well organized. Jael Richardson, its director, and her team were welcoming, smiling, funny and making sure that the authors guests were taken care of, picked up from the airport, driven to their hotel and arriving on time to their panels. During the time I was there, I met and listened to many emerging writers, poets, spoken word artists who belonged diverse communities: Indigenous, Metis, Black, LGBTQ, South Asian and many others groups and subgroups. Within these communities, cross-sectional identities were also represented and celebrated. I participated in two panels. The first one was around the theme of immigrant women from racialized communities. I was one of the editors and contributors to an anthology named: “Resilience and Triumph: immigrants women tell their stories”. In my contribution, entitled: “Random Thoughts about Feminism”, I wrote about my upbringing in Tunisia and my distaste that I developed through he years to the “State Sponsored Feminism” that became another political propaganda used to “sell” the country abroad specially within institutions like International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Gradually, I came to associate feminism with privilege, elitism and one-party politics. Later, this repulsion shaped my political and even religious opinions until I left my hometown for Canada.

 

The second panel was about writing fiction and we were four Canadian authors with different ethnic backgrounds. Many times, as a Muslim woman writing novels, I asked myself whether my Muslim identity can be dissociated from the topics I write about. The fact that I am a practising Muslim woman, does it confine me in one identity that I can’t exist outside it? Are there any specific “Islamic” topics I should be writing about? And if yes, how can I tackle them in an “Islamic way”?

 

I remember some years ago while discussing book titles in a book club (where the members were Muslim), I suggested to read “The Yacoubian Building”. I defended the book for its literary merits but also for bringing very “controversial” topics to be discussed in predominantly Muslim society. One member of the book club demolished all my arguments and told me that these sorts of books encourage depravity and bad morals. I was shocked by her strong reaction as I considered myself as a “good Muslim” with some sense of morality. However, this incident made me realize that I crossed a red line, at least for some.

 

When I wrote my first novel, I really wanted to create stories about Muslim women, but not in any way similar to the ones of “Pulp Fiction” as described by Lila Abu Lughod in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” where Muslim women are usually portrayed as victims of their religion, husbands or fathers and end up finally being rescued by the “West”. I wanted stories that describe the lives of women I see around me. Muslim women who struggle within their faith, within their workplace, within their families but also women who love their faith, cultures and studies. Muslim women who look for love and find it or perhaps do not. While doing so, did I have to explain the rituals of Islam? Did I have to be decent? Not always unless needed by the story or its context. Did I have to convey in my writing any sense of morality specific to Muslim or Islam? Not as far as I am aware of. Do I have to avoid describing “depravity” or bringing it forward? Not necessarily. As a writer, my ultimate objective was to be able to bring stories as I imagine them as close to reality as possible.

 

My second novel was about revolutions, women, and political awakening. The protagonists are Muslim women and their relationship to their faith isn’t taking any prominent place in their lives. This choice isn’t deliberate, it is rather natural. This is what I feel around me and this is how I was able to capture in the stories.

I consider writers as the photographers of the communities they belong to. They take multiple shots of the lives of people they meet, talk to, befriend, hate or simply interact with. These shots are not done with a particular intention of voyeurism and judgement but with the objective of artistic sharing. Sensitivity, subtlety, emotions are my guide. I try to follow this approach in my writing without preaching, without proselytizing without any “Muslim agenda” with one objective in mind: humanizing Muslim women as much as possible.

But the stories I bring to the readers are not the ones that makes the best selling titles, are not the ones that would be picked by Heather Reisman of Chapters. They are not the ones that would be chosen by the mainstream media, as they are nuanced, and most importantly defiant of the cliché about Muslim women.

Today in a world where even “hijabi” Muslim women are objectified, sexualized and made into another class of consumers, the writing of a “Muslim women” has become another category to create additional barriers to limit its widespread accessibility and restrict it to another confined space.

 

 

 

Omar Khadr’s Case A Black Stamp On Canada’s Human Rights Record

Canada is in celebratory mood this year, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Confederation. The Canadian government has been funding cultural initiatives here and there to promote the diverse communities living together and to bring the multicultural aspect of Canada.

Internationally, Canada is portraying itself as an open country, accepting refugees from war ravaged countries like Syria. A sort of the antithesis of the American policies recently announced by U.S. President Trump to ban refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes himself as a feminist, taking selfies with young Muslim girls in hijab. A sharp contrast with the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, whodefunded the Ministry of Status of Women and dehumanized Muslim women by fomenting the niqab debate.

However, amidst this festive and open atmosphere, there is a dark cloud that keeps the rays of the sun from reaching everyone. The case of Omar Khadr is a black stamp on Canada’s human rights record.

Omar Khadr was a child when he was imprisoned by the Americans in the military base of Bagram and later airlifted to Guantanamo Camp, where he was forcibly kept for over a decade. He was subject to physical and psychological abuses. He was betrayed by successive Canadian governments: Liberal and Conservative alike wanted him to stay in jail, far away from the public eye and TV cameras. No other western country dealt with its citizens detained in Guantanamo like Canada shamefully did.

Along these years, some prominent Canadian voices rose up to denounce the treatment of Omar Khadr, but they were not enough to deter the Paul Martin government, and later the Harper government, in refusing to call for the repatriation of Omar Khadr. In fact, then-prime minister Harper and his cabinet ministers kept justifying Omar Khadr’s incarceration by the fact that he was convicted in the killing of a U.S. paramedic. Needless to say, this conviction came as the result of a plea bargain Omar Khadr had made with his American jailors to gain his transfer out of the Guantanamo prison.

Even when Omar Khadr was returned to Canada after the insistence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was immediately imprisoned and kept there for three more years.

These days, the case of Omar Khadr has slipped under the radar. Even some human rights activists think that the return of Omar Khadr back home would mark the end of his tragic story. But it wouldn’t. Omar Khadr never received any apology for the treatment he was subjected to in Guantanamo.

For instance, in 2008, Canadians officials flew to Guantanamo specifically to interrogate him and were never interested in his well-being. They offered to buy him a burger and some treats to get information out of him. When he understood that they were there for their own professional interests and not for helping him, Omar Khadr, became uncooperative with them. The Canadian officials pushed him to say what he clearly didn’t know. This behaviour is reprehensible and should be denounced. Unfortunately, Canada never distanced itself from the actions of its officials despite the reprimand of the Supreme Court ruling declaring that Omar Khadr’s rights were violated under the Charter of Rights.

Dennis Edney, the Canadian legal counsel for Omar Khadr, has been a hero in defending his client. Not only did he defend Omar Khadr under difficult circumstances, but he also accepted him in his home and protected him as one of his own children. Recognizing the work accomplished by Dennis Edney on behalf of Omar Khadr should be celebrated by all Canadians and not fought or hidden.

Recently, Omar Khadr had to undertake a 19-hour-long surgery on his shoulder as a result of bullet wounds he suffered when he was shot in the back by the U.S. military. This serious surgery will undeniably delay Omar Khadr’s efforts to progress in his studies and life.

Omar Khadr was stripped of his rights as a child, as a teenager and later as an adult. Today, he is trying hard to put his life back on track and get the education that was denied to him all these past years. As long as Omar Khadr file is still lingering, Canada won’t be able to hide its dark face and celebrate its record on the world scene. It is time for the Canadian government to act swiftly and let the sun shine on Omar Khadr’s life.

This article was published on the Huffingtonpost: 

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/monia-mazigh/omar-khadr-canada_b_15948786.html