In 2019, Canada can act with courage in global affairs

I don’t believe in simple annual reviews. They aren’t very useful or relevant to people’s lives or countries’ politics. A year is a relatively short period of time when it comes to detecting patterns or deducing trends in human lives and politics. I believe that a longer period of time can be more useful in trying to establish observations and determine where we seem to be going.

Today I look back seven years ago, to 2011, and remember the beginning of the Arab Spring. It started in Tunisia, the country where I was born and the country for which I gave up any kind of hope for political change since I came to Canada in 1991. But what happened there in 2011 had a huge impact on international affairs — it impacted the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Europe, the U.S. and even us, here in Canada.

The spark that started in a small poor town in the interior of Tunisia was ignited by huge economic and regional disparities, police brutality and corrupt government. Those are the prevalent ingredients in many countries of the region and they are, I believe, a fertile ground for social and political unrest.

In 2011, the entire region of the Middle East was swept by a wave of street protests, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and followed by Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Syria. Unfortunately, only Tunisia was able to get out with some mitigated positive changes: a newly written constitution, a free press and free democratic elections, but challenges are still hanging over the country and the threat of economic turmoil and political collapse are real.

Similar protests on the streets of other countries calling for political change have miserably failed. Even worse, they were quashed in bloody repression and in the case of Syria and Yemen, swirled into tragic civil wars fuelled by sectarianism, geopolitical interests and international foes.

The initial legitimate calls and movements asking for dignity, better living conditions, and an end to police regimes and military dictatorships were generally first met with silence, then carelessness and later with the active participation of Western democracies and Russian intervention to crush these movements for change. Western countries and Russia may have different reasons to stop these changes, but they wanted the same results: the status quo. This element is crucial for Israel’s security in the region (an argument that always comes first in Western capitals) but also for Saudi Arabia’s sake (since it is providing lucrative arms deals to many Western countries). Silencing and destroying these calls to democracy was possible with Canada selling arms to Saudi Arabia and with Russian President Putin selling arms and lending colonels and commanders to defeat the Syrians rebels and save their friend, Bashar al-Assad, preserving his power in Damascus, and consequently, the Russian presence in the region.

The consequence of this military intervention was a flow of refugees crossing to Europe, the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and the crushing of all hope for any genuine democratic change in the region.

Some countries, like Germany, accepted one million refugees but many others refused to do so; instead countries like Hungary and Italy established entire political platforms to prevent the acceptance of refugees.

In Canada, we aren’t immune to the impact of the wars in the Middle East, even if many Canadians are not aware of them. Alexandre Bissonnette, the young Quebecer who killed six Muslim men and seriously injured five others in the Quebec City mosque shooting, justified his gesture through fear of refugees coming to Canada.

In 2018, hate crimes soared across Canada, with Quebec recording the highest number. Xenophobic and Islamophobic groups like the Three Percenters have flourished in Canada, increasing their memberships and spreading false news targeting Muslims and refugees on social media. They have organized protests in Canadian cities to create a sense of urgency and incite the population to fear “others.”

In 2019, there will be a federal election in Canada. Already, populist MP and founder of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier (who showed very poor judgement when it came to choosing a romantic partner, once dating a woman with ties to criminals while he was foreign affairs minister, and leaving highly secret documents with her), is now claiming that he wants to save Canada from all the immigrants who are undermining “Western civilization’s values.”

Since he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shy about fighting Islamophobia. Even when one of his MPs introduced a motion to study Islamophobia, its causes and impacts, the Conservative Party of Canada waged a “holy war” against that initiative. Quickly, the move turned into a purely partisan issue and the report that came out afterward was weak, with almost no recommendations.

At an international level, the Trudeau government kept a similar line to its predecessor, the conservative government of Stephen Harper. Trudeau kept the Harper government’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, until recently, when he started looking for a way out — but not before the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, most likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the debacle of the tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, where she raised the fate of Saudi women activists and was immediately viciously attacked by Saudi government officials on Twitter and threatened with economic reprisals.

All these examples bring me to my initial point: our internal politics are not isolated from external politics, and vice versa.

I hope for this coming year, 2019, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is courageous both at home and abroad — supporting democracy by finally cancelling the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, promoting peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict (instead of equating the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to anti-Semitism), and supporting the development and construction of Yemen. In this way, he can leave a real legacy as prime minister. Canada is a small player when it comes to international affairs but with the erratic behaviour of the U.S. president and America’s international decline, there is a vacuum that Canada can fill with ethical political decisions.

This article has been originally published at rabble.ca

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The rise of a politics of hate in Canada

Last week, Statistics Canada released very troubling numbers on hate crimes in Canada. In 2017, 2,073 incidents of hate crimes were reported, the highest number recorded since 2009 when Stats Canada started collecting this data. That is an increase of 47 per cent compared to numbers reported in the previous year. The incidents targeted three main groups: Jewish, Muslim and Black populations, with Muslims suffering the most violent incidents, and with Quebec and Ontario the two provinces registering most of the increases. To my knowledge, neither Quebec’s new premier, François Legault, nor Ontario premier Doug Ford felt compelled to comment on these scary increases, hence sending a message that they were unconcerned by them.

However, both of these politicians and their supporters have on several occasions spoken about and taken explicit actions that made them, in my opinion, responsible for creating a toxic environment leading to the normalization of hate.

When he was a member of Quebec’s opposition, François Legault surfed the wave of Islamophobia that swept through Quebec politics with the advent of the charter of values in 2013. In 2015, he even went on to declare that all mosques in Quebec should be investigated before opening.

Last summer, Legault spent his political campaign insinuating that immigrants are the root problem of Quebec society. Those comments coincided with TV images of African and Haitian families crossing the Canadian border from the U.S. and applying for refugee status — creating the false impression that the Black population is foreign to Quebec and that the province is about to be invaded by “foreign Black refugees.” The reality is, of course, totally different and more complex. The Black population represents only four per cent of Quebec’s general population, with a deep and long history in the province.

The day after his election as premier, Legault insisted on fulfilling his discriminatory promise of introducing a bill to ban public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at their workplace. These symbols include: the veil for women, the kippa for Jewish men and the kirpan for Sikhs. As for the crucifix, he proudly declared that it isn’t a religious symbol, even if it represents Christian values.

This ridiculous assertion was left almost unchallenged while Premier Legault and his government continued to openly target the presence of Muslim women in teaching positions, despite the fact that teaching isn’t the same “position of power” as compared to police officers or prison guards or judges.

The obsession in politics with certain religious symbols and the demonization of some racialized groups more than others creates the politics of hate. It doesn’t take politicians committing hate crimes or even inciting others to do it; all it requires is creating a climate of impunity that ineluctably leads to the normalization and banalization of hate.

A similar pattern was observed in Ontario. While still a Toronto city councillor, Doug Ford used the word “jihad” on two occasions to attack journalists who criticized him. The use of such a politically charged word was meant to target Islam and Muslims. While on his campaign trail last spring, Doug Ford surrounded himself with candidates who were not embarrassed to adopt and declare Islamophobic opinions.

For instance, he defended his choice of Andrew Lawton, a former private radio talk show host who made Islamophobic comments and jokes while campaigning in London, Ontario. Ford also kept Tanya Granic Allen as a PC party candidate for weeks after it emerged that she made Islamophobic and homophobic comments. He never denounced her comments, just as he never apologized for taking a photo with Faith Goldy, a white supremacist who ran in Toronto’s mayoral election. Goldy’s racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic history is well documented and public knowledge, yet Ford didn’t denounce her until after a huge public outcry, when he made a speech condemning anti-Semitism and hate. But it was too little, too late. The underlying message had already passed: since the premier is “soft” on hate, hateful persons or groups can continue their horrible work with total impunity.

Given such acts contributing to the increase of hate, it’s no wonder both Premiers Legault and Ford kept silent in the face of skyrocketing numbers of hate incidents. What is even more troubling is the silence of the majority public, which in part has worsened the situation by voting for these dangerous populist governments and cheering their simplistic and irresponsible promises like “buck a beer” by Ford or “reducing the number of immigrants by 10,000 people” by Legault.

Perhaps it is time for the federal government to step into this dangerous arena and take leadership in fighting hate crimes targeting Muslim, Jewish, and Black communities, and other groups. It is not only a matter of continuing to apologize for past errors made by Canada — it should also be about preventing future mistakes that are primed to happen in light of the normalization of hate.

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

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

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

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 it comes to Palestine, many Canadian politicians are silent

In June 2009, I joined a delegation of Code Pink to visit Gaza. The main purpose of our delegation was to build playgrounds for the children of Gaza after Israel’s brutal aerial, naval and ground attack named Operation Cast Lead. It was estimated that 1,400 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces. Schools, hospitals, universities and a major part of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed. The ultimate objective of our delegation was an attempt to break the siege imposed since 2007 by the Israel government on the Gaza strip — a densely populated 365 square kilometres where 1.8 million people live, many of them in precarious conditions.

Our delegation was composed of U.S. human rights activists, mostly women, and a few Canadians. We were motivated by our quest for justice and our will to see with our own eyes the conditions Palestinians were living in after the devastation caused by the military operation. Armed with patience but mostly a lot of good luck, our delegation was able to cross the Gaza border with Egypt, another country complicit in maintaining this unfair and humiliating blockade.

Since then, two other brutal military operations (Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014) targeted Gaza, and the humanitarian crisis has deepened. Last week, on March 31, Palestinians from Gaza gathered along Israel’s borders for a “Great March of Return” to demand that refugees obtain rights to return to their land. It is a symbolic but strong move, expected to continue until May 15, the commemoration of the Nakba, when Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. Israeli soldiers responded to these demonstrations by firing live ammunition and killing 17 Palestinians and injuring more than 700 hundred people. Israel claimed that the protesters killed were either violent and part of Hamas.

Last December 2017, when Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, Canada issued a statement where it described itself as “a steadfast ally and friend of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people.”

One assumes that if a state is an “ally and friend” with another state, both offer condolences to each other in times of tragedy and share “good advice” or at least “restraint in using force” if an “ally and friend” has fired on demonstrators, killing 17 of them and injuring more than 700.

But this is only if the “ally and friend” is not named “Israel” and if the victims of the military operation are not named “Palestinians.” So Canada sheepishly didn’t say anything to its “friend and ally” and once again let down the Palestinian people.

This position — choose what you’d like to name it — of “cowardice” or “self-censorship” or “who really cares,” not only defines the action or inaction of the Canadian government in general, it also applies to individual members of Parliament, who in a democracy are supposed to enjoy freedom of opinion and some sort of immunity to speak their minds. But, once again, apparently this applies only to “some issues” and to “some countries” and not when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian people.

Last year, when a simple “harmless” motion, M-103, that led to another “harmless report” with no serious recommendations regarding Islamophobia was presented in the House of Commons to study the extent of Islamophobia in Canada, many members of Parliament were panicking, speaking out, and raising the spectre of the loss of freedom of expression and a creeping sharia invading Canadian streets. They were claiming that people should be able to criticize everyone — even Muslims and Islam. Over and over, we heard the argument that “no one is above criticism, we are a free country.” No one or maybe except when you kill 17 people and they happen to be Palestinians, then freedom of expression isn’t used — it is replaced by silence.

Even our Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — whose spokesperson explained her silence on the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem with the reason, “The minister does not make statements about world events before they happen” — didn’t say a word about the killing of 17 Palestinians by the Israeli army.

However, Minister Freeland was eloquent in speaking out about the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Canada, because of the alleged Russian poisoning of an ex-Russian agent and his daughter in Britain. There is not an investigation into the poisonings yet, no report yet and still she was quick to take strong actions and words. But on the killing of Palestinians, despite the flagrant casualties, the pictures on social media, the dead bodies shot by the bullets, the denouncing of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, she kept silent.

In about a year, there will be a federal election. I really hope that Canadians will remember this troubling silence and think of the MPs that communities worked so hard to elect, the ones they distributed flyers for, the ones they went door to door to help elect, the ones they helped to raise funds. These hard-working communities should remember how their MPs reacted during these moments of tragedies. Did they react with silence or did they stand up for justice, even with a simple word? I am not saying that federal MPs should be elected solely on a single issue, in this regard their positions on Israel-Palestine. But rather, these positions are very eloquent. Sometimes silence is more telling than words.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

The troubling silence of the “Sheikhs” about the fate of Tariq Ramadan

I stopped going to the Revival of Islamic Spirit (RIS) years ago. I found the event super commercialized, and less and less intellectually challenging for me.

It became a big fair of many self-proclaimed sheikhs who are carefully chosen and who lined up according to certain criteria that is more linked to their gender, celebrity and popularity status.

Those same scholars were more interested in the pursuit of their “religious careers” and the building of their “fans club”. The topics were ascepticized, superficial and the speakers were very careful in the choice of their talks so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Aside from few speakers, the majority would come there and maintain a very shallow and fluffy talk about good manners, good behaviour, and most of all would avoid criticizing or denouncing unjust policies in a North American context or in the Middle East where a large part of the audience is originally from.

Not a single word about Guantanamo, not a single word about the dictatorship of the Gulf countries. No fiery political speeches, no thought provoking conversations. Just a preacher and good listeners who would come back home feeling good that they spent few hundred dollars on a hotel package and entrance fees. This is of course not to mention the shopping discounts of boxing day (the event usually takes place during Christmas period).

One of the rare speakers at RIS who defied these almost implicit rules was Tariq Ramadan. He challenged the audience with his opinions. He stopped them when they were trying to clap when he said something appealing, encouraging the crowd to be rather rational instead of emotional.

In 2014, he rightly decided to stop participating in this big fair of “halal entertainment”. My understanding of the rational behind his decision is the problematic positions of some invited “sheikhs” who kept silent, or even worse, sided with the counter-revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, in 2011, when the Arab Spring traveled from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya, to Yemen, to Bahrain and to Syria, a new era was about to open in that region. An era of fearless populations who were ready to put an end to dictatorship and arbitrary rules, the start of an era towards building a new life full of dignity.

No wonder that one of the slogans branded at the numerous demonstrations that went through the streets of Sidi-Bouzid in Tunisia or Dara’a in Syria were “The people want the system to fall”. The “system” (or the regime) means the government running these countries and the corrupt regime suffocating the lives of all the citizens.

This new era wasn’t accepted with wide arms by all. It was actually stopped with arms and blood. Among the countries that were so frightened of the changes were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both of them, with a long history of oppression and flagrant absence of civil society, had a lot to fear from this change that not only threatened their thrones but “the system”.

The whole world watched these political and social changes unfold. Youth were especially excited and optimistic. Many of the societies of these countries were composed of young population with no serious opportunities like jobs or even mariage prospects.

During this period of turmoil, very few “sheikhs” sided with the change. To the opposite, many of them sided with the statu-quo, reminding the youth of the importance of obedience of the parents and of “those who are in charge of their lives”, aka the “system”.

At the RIS, the year after the start of the Arab Spring, nobody spoke about the events in those countries. Only Tariq Ramadan did. He even wrote a book about it. Even though, I disagreed with some of his opinions about few matters, I still thought that his voice was needed and relevant. The whole world was anxiously watching the change, so why shouldn’t he be speaking and discussing it.

But the RIS organizers invited the “Sheikhs” who are officially close to the United Arab Emirates or other similar monarchies. These “Sheikhs” kept silent about the tragedies happening in the Middle East and the dawn of change that was stopped with a fierce military intervention in Bahrein and Egypt and with literally bloody wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

This was a shameful and problematic position. The history wouldn’t forgive whoever sided with the oppressors. The “sheikhs” who are supposed to have a duty to support the oppressed and speak out for their rights, sheepishly took the side of the oppressors, the one who has the money and power, basically they sided with the “system”. I am so glad that Tariq Ramadan was not like the “Sheikhs” and that he decided to stop attending what became like a “circus”.

Today, Tariq Ramadan has been accused by three French women of violent rape. In France, he was interrogated by the police and subsequently preventively arrested. For the first days of his incarceration, he was in Fleury-Mérogis, an infamous French prison where many French Muslim suspects of terrorism have been held.

This is a highly symbolic gesture by the French legal system. It is intended to humiliate one of the most known public Muslim figures. But his treatment went beyond this mere symbolism. He was denied family visits for 45 days. His medical treatment was not proper and adequate. On the other hand, his accusers were given a platform to go to all popular TV shows and tell their stories. He was kept in prison in total commnunicado.

This case came in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement where the women are supposedly liberated so they can confront their harasser and raper. In the case of Tariq Ramadan. There was no confrontation. There was one side talking about their stories and the other side was silenced. The whole principle of the rule of law was denied to him. Worse, today, we are hearing from the lawyer of Tariq Ramadan, that even the versions of some of these women have been questionable and very problematic, to say the least.

Meanwhile, faced with this complex case, the “sheikhs” who are usually very quick in condemning every thing from terrorism to bad muslim manners, have been utterly silent. An uncomfortable silence. Usually they are very prompt to have an opinion on every thing including what you wear, who you marry and what you eat. But when one of the prominent and intellectual voices from the Muslim community, whether we agree with him or not, is silenced, is denied due process, is humiliated by being transferred from one prison to another, they have nothing to say.

Actually, for me, their silence means a lot. It means that they have no intellectual courage to defend the “Right”. And we aren’t here defending Tariq Ramadan the person, as it is not our purpose. The courts can do better jobs, at least we still hope so. But we are defending every one to be treated with dignity. From terrorist suspects to any other accusations, be it allegations of rape after the #Metoo movement. Anyone has the right to defend himself. And those who are looking for the spotlight in the RIS or any other “halal entertainment” event, and would keep silent about Tariq Ramadan have miserably failed the test of the integrity.

But here’s what they don’t get: Today is Tariq Ramadan, tomorrow, it will be them.