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

Advertisements

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.

Our society’s double standards in the application of due process

We live in a strange era. An era of deep polarization of views. An era of flagrant contradictions. An era of erosion of principles of justice.

My husband, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born and raised in Syria, faced a public trial in 2002 while he was the victim of extraordinary rendition initiated by U.S. authorities with the complicity of Canadian law enforcement as well as Jordanian and Syrian authorities, official and de facto allies of the U.S. war on terror.

When my husband was given a paper in his U.S. cell stating that he had been arrested because of his alleged association with Al-Qaeda, he didn’t get a lawyer or day in court. He was transported in the middle of the night to an airport where a private jet, known as a ghost plane, flew him to Amman, Jordan. But many people in Canada believed that the U.S. couldn’t be mistaken, people who included politicians, journalists and regular Canadian citizens.

When former U.S. president George W. Bush infamously said in 2001, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” he knew that many people would fall into the new fault line he created. Indeed, despite many disagreeing with Bush, many also listened to him. He created a clash of civilizations, and in a way he succeeded.

If Twitter and Facebook existed at that time, I have no doubt there would have been campaigns calling my husband a terrorist and demands to keep him in Syria to “rot with the terrorists.” Actually, even without social media, those “calls” were relayed by politicians, and journalists and media.

Amidst all this confusion and cacophony, one thing saved my husband: the principle of due process. Not that it was offered to him — I fought with supporters to bring it back to him.

I kept telling people around me that if my husband was guilty of any wrongdoing, he should be brought back to Canada and face justice. Deporting him to a Syrian prison and keeping him there wouldn’t serve any justice.

The notion of due process allowed the most skeptical to listen. Applying the argument of due process to a “suspected terrorist” helped my husband escape a possible death and a very likely life of torture and misery in a Syrian gulag.

There are two direct and serious implications of the 9/11 attacks. The first is the justification of torture as a tool for extracting information from Muslim suspects, with the normalization and “branding” of the ticking bomb scenario by the likes of Alan Dershowitz. The second is the entrenchment of the “war on terror” narrative in public discourse, leading to the disappearance of the principle of due process for Muslim suspects.

From the moment the suspect is arrested until the time he faces the justice system, he has already been tried in the public arena by politicians, journalists and pseudo experts, who most of the time make speculations that are presented as absolute truth. When the time comes for a trial, public opinion has already chosen its side: usually incrimination of the terrorist suspect.

When Hassan Diab, a Canadian citizen suspected of participating in the 1980 bombing of a synagogue in Paris, was arrested in 2006, the notion of due process was not held up for him.

For many, he was already considered guilty. His descent as a Muslim Arab from Lebanon made him a culprit before getting a fair and open trial. Even when a Canadian judge in Ottawa examined the extradition demand from Canada to France, and admitted that the evidence were shaky and flimsy, he still ruled for his extradition. Many blamed it on our extradition laws. They claimed that the judge had his hands tied by the low threshold for extradition in Canada. I concede that point. But not totally. I would argue that the whole anti-Muslim, anti-Arab climate paved the way for such a decision. Why do we gamble with the innocence of someone who has everything working against him, for whom public opinion is shaped by the narrative of terrorism and being “either with us or the terrorists,” and judge him guilty or just ignore his plight?

Today, even the #MeToo movement seems affected by this terrorism fault line.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent, Swiss-born theologian and scholar of Islam, was accused by two French women of rape. Despite going on his own volition to the police and being cooperative with the investigation, he was immediately arrested and put in prison without even visits from his family. Clearly, due process wasn’t deemed necessary in this case. In my opinion, his ethnic background and religion stripped him of this legal principle. His legal and media treatment today is very similar to what Muslim terrorist suspects would receive. Even his incarceration in solitary confinement in Fleury-Mérogis prison is highly symbolic since this is a prison where many Muslims suspected of terrorism have been held, including Hassan Diab.

Yeas ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and poised at the time to be a strong candidate for the French presidency, was accused by a Manhattan hotel worker of sexual assault. Many of his social and political connections stood by him, defended him publicly and claimed that his sexual misconduct (and other later discovered crimes) were a sign of his virility and sex appeal. Later he was acquitted of all accusations of pimping, rape and sexual assault, and now some even speculate about his political comeback.

In 2012, Glen Greenwald, wrote a book entitled With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. In the book, Greenwald focuses on cases of financial fraud, domestic spying and torture in the U.S. and how some corporations and individuals are evading justice and accountability because of their power and money. Today, the same can be seen not only in the U.S. but also around the world when it comes to terrorism or sexual accusations. Your ethnicity, religion and social status will determine whether the same legal principles are applied to you.

This article was already published at rabble.ca

Islamophobia continues to fester in wake of Quebec City mosque shooting

On January 29, 2018, Canada will commemorate the first anniversary of the horrible and shocking killing of six Muslim men, shot by Alexandre Bissonnette in a Quebec City mosque.

Beyond the unanimous condemnation last year (rightly so) of such a violent and terrorizing act by politicians from all level of governments, I believe that nothing was achieved in fighting Islamophobia and stopping the wave of hate sweeping across Canadian cities.

Even the recent symbolic proposal to declare January 29 an official day of remembrance, initiated by more than 70 Canadian organizations, was met with staunch opposition from political parties in Quebec’s National Assembly — the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec — and tergiversation and non-committal replies from both Liberal parties in Quebec and Ottawa.

Like classic arguments used in France or by some conservative politicians during the debate around anti-Islamophobia motion M-103 last winter, each time the issue of hate against Muslims is evoked, it is turned into a semantic debate about the exact meaning of the word “Islamophobia” and about the imagined threats that such initiatives would pose to freedom of speech. As if the killing of six hard-working citizens in a place of worship came out of nowhere or the statistics revealed by Quebec City police last December were just another case of “crying wolf” by victimized Muslims interested in muzzling free minds.

Meanwhile, groups propagating hate, reinforcing stereotypes and ignorance, and inciting violence are left unbothered — or worse, they are growing in intensity and virulence.

During the summer of 2017, a controversy was falsely created about an organized trip at the Parc Safari zoo near Montreal. A group of Muslim families prayed on the lawn, a practice that as a practising Muslim I have been seeing in North America since I first arrived in Canada in 1991. On Facebook, some individuals criticized and attacked the park management, accusing them of allowing Muslims holding prayers in a public space and spreading their religion. With the administration standing by their decision to accommodate visitors as long as they don’t violate park policies, this manufactured crisis became another one added to the long list of incidents in which Muslims are portrayed as threats to the public order, and thus fuelling Islamophobic reactions and fear.

More recently, a Montreal mosque found itself in another fabricated controversy when a TVA journalist alleged that there was provision in the construction contract between the mosque and the builders working for them, barring women from the site on Fridays. Quebec politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the “misogynistic behaviour” of Muslims. There were no second thoughts, no calls to be cautious; every politician had a piece of wood to add to the fire. This time it was not the freedom of speech argument that was raised; instead the principle of gender equality came in handy for some.

Even when the news turned out to be plainly wrong, there were few calls for investigation, no serious reprimand and a very shallow apology by the media outlet.

The accumulation and repetition of these “stories” build on a suffocating atmosphere many Muslim communities breathe across Canada.

A recent media report showed that Toronto is another city where Islamophobia has been growing and left unchallenged by politicians. Anti-Muslim rallies have been held regularly in front of mosques, the Quran was torn in a Peel District School Board meeting about religious accommodation and a Toronto Imam has received death threats because he is helping the board with religious and accommodation issues.

Last December, Pamela Geller, a U.S.-based Islamophobic blogger who once described President Obama as a “third-worlder and a coward,” and said that “[h]e will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords,” was invited to speak by the Jewish Defence league in Toronto, and Ezra Levant joined her at the event.

Once again, freedom of speech was a fine pretext for allowing a blatantly Islamophobic event to take place and hate speech to flourish and become normalized.

I believe there are three categories of people responsible for this troubling situation.

The first are politicians. Many of them have been playing with identity politics for a long time while others have remained sitting on the bench. Not long ago we had a prime minister named Stephen Harper who said that “Islamicism is the biggest threat to Canada.” The uncommon word “Islamicism” amalgamates Islam, fundamentalism and terrorism, making the terms interchangeable. Later, he even gave the example of a mosque as a potential place of youth radicalization, immediately making a connection in people’s minds between Islam and violence.

Even if Justin Trudeau considered the Quebec City killings a terrorist act, his government took very little initiative to help provinces and cities come up with education campaigns in schools, in hospitals or public transit to fight Islamophobia. He didn’t make any changes to hate crime laws to dissuade white supremacist groups, that are on the rise in Canada. Instead in 2015, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals voted for the anti-terrorism legislation introduced by Stephen Harper, formerly known as Bill C-51. Once again, they used laws to create two specific kinds of crimes: ones committed by Muslims and ones committed by other people whose faith doesn’t matter.

Here, it is ironic to remember that Alexandre Bissonnette won’t face anti-terrorism charges.

Even the recently passed amendments to the anti-terrorism law keep the heavy feeling that Canada is constantly under threat by terrorists, a.k.a. Muslims, allowing for secret trials to take place, a practice so far only applied to Muslim suspects.

The second group is media. Some media outlets have also been dangerously playing the card of fear against Muslims. They choose which incidents to report and over-represent, like the issue of the niqab during the 2015 federal election. That was not the only time. In 2008, during the reasonable accommodation crisis, many media outlets in Quebec inflated and distorted the cases of religious accommodation demands, making them seem overwhelming. In Ontario, during the “Sharia debate” crisis, some media invited only extremist views from each side, helping to polarize the debate, and leaving the population with more fear than real answers.

And finally, the third group is the general public. When violent events committed by Muslims occur around the world, the onus is placed on Muslims to distance themselves from violence, from their faith, and from the violent ideologies espoused by some Muslim groups. I lived through that and I keep going through it each time a terrorist act is committed in Western countries (mind you that when terrorist attacks happen in other places in the world, they go almost unnoticed).

I wouldn’t expect people to condemn every single Islamophobic act committed as this is not possible and it isn’t fair to make people guilty by simple association. However, I think that there is a huge duty for self-education about Islam and Muslims, and to make an effort to get out of our comfort zone and make new friends who are Muslims. They can be good or they can be bad, as anyone else. But the effort is worth it. Critical analysis of the news and of politicians’ words and actions should not only matter when it comes to work, health and the economy but also when it comes to national security too. Fear shouldn’t blind us and give a blank cheque to politicians. It should rally us to fight darkness and hate.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

Public apologies serve crucial role in democratic societies

Last week, some voices rose up criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the list of apologies he has made since he took office in 2015. Some argued that his late father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, would not have done so; in this patriarchal analogy, a son has to follow in the footsteps of his dad, whether he is right or wrong. Other critics insisted that apologizing to victims is a symbol of current attitudes which find fault in outdated traditions judged to be colonizing and discriminating by today’s standards.

As a victim of government policies of systematic discrimination towards Muslims after 9/11, I totally disagree with those arguments. Apologies are not merely monetary gifts won through a lottery ticket, or hollow words pronounced in public by teary politicians. They are crucial steps for mourning victims and supporting survivors. They are highly symbolic gestures that are instrumental in building a collective memory, defining our history as a country and restoring faith in institutions. On a personal level, I was adamant about seeing words of apology written down on paper. I keep this paper framed on my desk. The words represent a path of light for my children’s future, always mixed with the clouds associated with their names.

Acknowledging the wrongs of past policies is a crucial pillar of the accountability principle that underlies our democratic system. Our judiciary system is built on the notions of due process and personal liability of citizens and institutions. It is not a coincidence that many countries with difficult pasts (ethnic violence, corruption and apartheid) and which afterwards chose to enter the democratic circle held truth and justice commissions. These were not acts of vengeance or weakness or the defeat of some groups by others, but a strong signal to building a new social contract together on a level playing field.

When some criticize the redress and apology received by Omar Khadr, who spent more than a decade in Guantanamo, or Abdullah Almalki, Ahmed El Maati or Muayyed Nureddin, who were all tortured in Syrian jails with the complicity of Canadian law enforcement and intelligence services, these criticisms overlook the fact that the compensations and apologies didn’t arrive overnight on a silver plate. They didn’t miraculously happen because of a change of heart or a feeling of guilt. They came after years of judicial inquiries and legal battles. They came after years of public calumnies by anonymous sources. They came after years of physical and psychological torture. They came after families lived in anguish and social exclusion. They came after reputations were damaged forever. They came after employment opportunities became inexistent if not null.

Those voices should direct their criticism to the government policies that allowed such discrimination to take place in the first instance. When Muslim asylum-seekers are stopped at the border and questioned about how many times they pray a day or about their religious opinions on women’s headscarves, this is called religious discrimination. When young men are arrested in the street, frisked and asked to supply personal information just because of the colour of their skin, this is called racial profiling and carding. When men and women are rounded up at social gatherings or laid off from their jobs because of their sexual orientation, it is called sexual discrimination. When Indigenous children are separated from their communities and sent thousand of kilometres away from their families, prevented from speaking their native language and then physically and morally abused, this has a name: it is called cultural genocide.

When Canadian professor Hassan Diab was extradited to France in 2014 to face accusations of bombing a synagogue that were shown over and over in the court system to be unsubstantiated, and to say the least, untrue, very few voices rose up to ask Trudeau to call his French counterpart and explicitly request Diab’s release and return to Canada. The minute this Canadian citizen is able to return safely to Canada and eventually sue the government for abandoning him in jail despite eight French legal decisions to release him, then those voices will likely complain about how the government is wasting its tax dollars and throwing out apologies.

It is also worth mentioning the case of another Canadian, Abderrahmane Ghanem, who was a youth radicalized in Calgary but who didn’t join any terrorist groups or commit any violent acts. Nevertheless, while travelling to Algeria, his parents’ country of origin, he was arrested, charged and spent 13 months in prison, in very bad conditions. After his acquittal by an Algerian court, his Canadian lawyer, Gary Caroline, linked Ghanem’s ordeal to Algerians acting on information provided to them by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

As long as our systems allows injustice to happen, we are all responsible for these wrongdoings and one day, apologies are needed. It is up to voters to decide what kind of society they would like to live in and leave for their children. Is it an arrogant society looking at the past with nostalgic eyes, or a fair society that is ready to look at the past with critical eyes and ready to build a better future, even if this costs money and entails more public apologies?

This column first appeared on rabble.ca

My writing, my political activism, and the power of stories

Below is an interview I did with Zehra Naqvi, from B.C,  for the blog Nineteenquestions.com

Zehra Naqvi is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in The TalonSchema Magazine, and Jaggery. She was the winner of Room Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest.

When did you realize you wanted to be writer? You have a PhD in Finance. Was writing something that came to you later in life, or was it something you were always pursuing?

I always wrote. I always loved writing. It was a part of my education, but also a part of my own life. I have always had a journal. I didn’t have a particular idea about writing for others, but for me writing was one of the best ways to express my feelings and to share my ideas with others. Yes, I went to a field that is far from writing. It is assumed to be in a way contradictory or in conflict with what I am doing right now. And there’s truth there. But also, my life is not only my academic background. I think writing came to me, probably as a rescue when my husband was arrested. This is where I started writing opinion pieces, and sharing them with newspapers—basically writing publically. Later on, when I decided to write a memoir about this period of my life, I think this is where I decided to take writing as not just a hobby, but as a tool for me to just survive in this world.

How much have your political experiences been the motivating factor behind your writing? Your first book was a memoir about your husband’s arrest and detainment, your second novel is about Muslim women in Canada, and then this latest one is about the 1984 Tunisian Bread Riots and the 2010 Jasmine Revolution. What is the impulse behind your writing? Why do you write?

I write, first of all, especially with these two latest novels, to tell stories. To tell stories, principally, and very specifically, of Muslim women. It’s very important these days, more than at any time before, to put our stories out there, in the public sphere.  For centuries and till now, we have always been talked about. Stories have been told about us. And I don’t personally identify with a lot of these stories. Some of them are nice; some of them are horrible. I do not want to be portrayed as an oppressed, passive, Muslim woman. If I don’t say anything about this, it means I agree or it doesn’t bother me. So for me, writing is also a political tool. Not only to survive, but to say to people around me: “Look, I exist. I’m here. And there are many other women here as well, and they have different stories. Let’s read about them and let’s know about them.” Yes, it’s political activism, but I think the power of stories is very, very important. And I don’t want only one story to define Muslim women, or women in general. I want multiple stories and I want mine to be also shared.

And I suppose there are challenges that come with that. I was at your book launch for Mirrors and Mirages in 2014 at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember you had come to talk about this book, but a lot of the questions you were receiving from the audience were Islam 101 questions, about sharia law, why you wear the hijab, about banning the niqab—

And this hasn’t changed—

Is that frustrating? How do you deal with often not being able to actually talk about your books, the stories you have written, and talk about yourself as a writer?

I have to tell you something.  You’re right. I have always been struggling as an author with this. But also my background in finance—people rarely ask me about things going in finance, and always just see the hijab and focus on that. By the mere fact, that I am Muslim, I am supposed to embody all the knowledge about Islam. This is also part of the ignorance. However, I think, by continuing doing what I’m doing, in terms of writing these stories—these are Muslim characters, but I don’t really talk about hijab in my books. Yes, I do in Mirrors and Mirages, but it is only one aspect. I also don’t specifically talk about religion. Religion is a detail in the background. So by continuing I’m humanizing Muslim women, whether they have hijab or not, and also introducing this religion to the readers, without those stereotypes. Making it more like a learning experience, rather than a traumatizing experience about violence, and women being raped, and Muslim women being oppressed, and things like that. And yes, we really have a long way to go, but I can already see little changes. Recently, I have had a few interviews about my book in the mainstream media, and there was a story that was focused on the book and about the women in the books. That was really refreshing for me. There will always be questions on the side, which I find totally fine. We are not living in a bubble of only Muslims. We live in the world, and we are affected by everything happening. But I can tell you that the more we try to tell these stories, different ones, not just stereotypical stories about Muslim women, and as diverse as possible, one day people will realize.

Thank you for taking that on.

Well, someone has to.

Yes, as a writer I can count on one hand actual wholesome representations of Muslim women, whether in TV shows or books or literature. There are so few.

Absolutely, and we need more. Not just, you know, “for diversity,” but to be taken seriously for who we are, for what we are, and for what we are saying. Not just as a symbol or a token. We also need solidarity between women. We cannot only talk about oppression happening overseas, and not really talk about what’s going on here. We need intersectional stories, of women, of their struggles. Muslim voices are definitely important today, need to be taken very seriously, to fight what’s going on around us right now, xenophobia and islamophobia. We can’t just count on having open mosque events. These things have been happening for years, many people are still stuck in this narrative of hate. So literature, art, media, and TV are very important in changing these misinformed realities.

You’re also quite involved in the political sphere. You ran in the 2004 Federal elections as an NDP candidate. You’re a human rights advocate. You recently spoke at a rally about islamophobia and xenophobia after the Quebec mosque shooting. What do you think about the term literary activism? Do you see your writing as literary activism?

I am totally fine with that term. I think that’s a very noble thing to do.  Writers have been always been doing this. I don’t pretend to be inventing this sort of activism. Basically, every writer has a message in his or her work. This is something that has been done since the beginning of time. Aristotle, Plato, they used writing to convey their philosophical ideas. Here in Canada, there are authors who focus on feminism. Or take the example of Lawrence Hill, who is an author who writes about Blackness and Black lives, either historical or present. There are many, many authors who do this. I am very privileged to be able to insert myself somehow within these diverse voices and complex stories to open a window into stories about Muslim women, or what’s going on in Tunisia, for example. At this moment this is what I am best at and what I would love to continue to do. If you can change things with books, then I’m happy to do that. 

Muslim women writers often have to put on these different hats. There are so many things going on around us, that we are asked to or compelled to address, whether what’s in the news, the latest thing targeting our communities—the racism, the politics, the everyday. How do you maneuver between these different roles?

Well, I think first of all, each of us has to focus on our strengths. My strengths are more in writing and speaking about things that I feel passionate about, such as social justice, human rights, and accountability for politicians. I have those issues that I’m fond of, and feel strongly about. I keep educating myself about them, and thinking and writing about them. It can be overwhelming too. We cannot really change the world on our own. Nevertheless, I think each one of us has some value. I see some continuity in the work that I do. If we talk about fighting islamophobia. I don’t think it will be enough to just make a speech and go to a protest, and then go back to normal. There has to be continuity and work done at different levels. We cannot just fight islamophobia and remain silent about other injustices. We have to understand what other groups have been going through and also develop networks of solidarity. It’s a holistic approach. We also have to keep the big picture in mind: we need to speak out against every sort of injustice that we encounter, and this is where I try to basically find intersections among all these issues. We should have a broad approach if we are serious and really want to change the actions of some of the people we are seeing around us. 

So it’s more about taking a holistic approach, rather than seeing each role as separate?

Absolutely. The other thing I also wanted to add that also affects me personally is the whole idea of national security. The discourse about national security that has been normalized and accepted by many politicians participated in the creation of islamophobia and this fear that many have. So we cannot just fight against islamophobia and forget about this climate of fear that was installed after 9/11. It became the norm for many Canadians and for many people around the world, without questioning what will happen to people who are targeted by abusive and intrusive laws that allow surveillance, spying on people, and arrests without due process. So all these things have different layers and intersect, and we have to understand all these forms of injustice.

There are so many op-eds out there, including about national security.  People are talking about it.  Yet these issues persist. Will writing more articles about it actually help? I’m wondering what’s needed and what’s absent when it comes to writing about issues such as national security?

First of all, yes, we think that maybe writing wouldn’t be enough. Or maybe, as you said, there are plenty of papers and books about it, but we also have to look at the other side. We are fighting this mentality of imposing surveillance on citizens or arresting citizens because of their cultural or religious background. The amount of money, time, and books involved on that side is really huge and incredible. We cannot think, “I’ve done my share, and that’s it.” This is a continual struggle. I guess there are many voices, but we need more, as long as things don’t change, as long as our voices don’t reach the politicians. Writing today is often seen as being powerless. But remember, many revolutions in the world, the French revolution for example, they happened with words and ideas. A lot of philosophers at the time shared their ideas, and their ideas brought people up.

We live in a world of instant results. We want to see the results right away. Results and changes do not happen over night. Sometimes not even during our lifetimes, but maybe later on, through generations. So whatever we can do today to plant those seeds, more generations will be coming and watering them.

You mentioned the power of story. You have written op-eds, you’ve written a memoir. You’ve written novels. How do you determine which genre or which format is the best for a story?

I like stories—fiction or non-fiction. But you know, this element, where we have characters that are not necessarily from the reader’s time, but there is a connection between the reader and those characters, that’s the kind of story that I like. I like biographies and I also like novels where I can really put myself into the life of those characters created by the writer. I try to share these kinds of stories with the reader. Even if you don’t like some aspect of a character in a book, I think the humanity should always be there. I try to create this in my books.

I see that in your books. It’s so much more interesting to learn about the Tunisian revolution through characters like Nadia and Lila.  It’s so much more engrossing. You enter a reality; it becomes your world, more so than when reading a newspaper article. 

Exactly. You have a love and hate relationship with the character. We discover a friend or someone we don’t like or a new reality. I think we can read about a woman with a niqab and not necessarily be scared of her or judgmental of her. We can sympathize. We can dislike. But we cannot hate the person in it. What I really don’t want to happen is this feeling of superiority: “Look, I’m here, privileged, having all these rights, and over there they have none and we should go and save them.” This is what I would love to avoid and I try to find an alternative. To see the human side of people regardless of their religion, how they look, how they dress or don’t dress. To focus on what they think, how they react to those situations. That’s very important for me.

Did you always consider writing fiction, or was it something you considered after you wrote your memoir?

I loved fiction, but I didn’t start with fiction. After I finished that memoir, I wanted to continue writing, but I wanted to try something different, and create imaginary characters based on my observations and reality. So, in a way, you don’t know what is really reality, what is really imagination, but develop a bond with the characters and it creates empathy. I found writing fiction closer to who I am. I can write another memoir and it would be different focusing on other aspects. I think with these fictional stories we can go wherever our imagination can take us. With non-fiction, we are more limited to facts and reality and we cannot just make things up. With fictional stories we can make things up but they can still be very close to reality.

Would you then say your fiction is autobiographical mixed with imagination?

Yes, I think all authors do that. They don’t live in Mars and then come write the stories here. They live here, on Earth, surrounded by parents and friends, and they always get inspired by things happening around them. Some things are going to be written in a way that is very far from reality, but some others are going to be very close. I do both. In Hope has Two Daughters, I speak about growing up in the 80s in Tunisia. I grew up in the 80s in Tunisia. There are a lot of similarities with that political climate. But I am not Nadia. She’s not me. Many things happened to her that didn’t happen to me, but I have seen some Nadias around me. And this is how I got the idea to write and put them in one character and create this story.

What is your writing process like? How do you begin and finish your book?

I’m not an author who has a plan before writing. I have ideas and I put these ideas together and they evolve. For this book, I knew that I wanted to write about those two times. And then later on I started thinking about these two women. And then the mother and her daughter. Things evolved and unfolded gradually. The same things with Mirrors and Mirages, I wanted a story about four different Muslim women living in Canada, from different backgrounds, and I wanted to create these multiple images of Muslim women, but I didn’t know what would happen to each one of them. I don’t want to confine my stories in a plan. I would rather let it flow slowly.

So there must be surprises along the way, as well.

Yes, for sure. This is something I love. I like to surprise myself, and it gives me more joy in continuing writing because I discover things.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in the publishing industry?

Publishing is very challenging. I write in French, so my books are translated in English. Even for me, writing in French has not been easy, because it’s hard to find a publisher. In French Canada, it’s mainly Quebec, and mainly Montreal that has monopoly of promoting books. For someone living in Ontario, writing in French, I am a minority within a minority. To be accepted by a publishing house is a challenge. It’s easier when you have something published. And then later on, to get translated is another challenge. I think it’s important to write good stories. And each time look for the best and hope for the best. There are many, many good authors who do not get published just because of the logistics.

What advice would you give to young writers, particularly from marginalized communities?

I think we should start somewhere. I don’t think it is easy to come from certain backgrounds and penetrate this place called Canadian Literature. But I think it’s important to believe in ourselves, because we can easily be discouraged. Continue believing in the power of words and ideas, believing in the capacity to bring change for ourselves and others. We should start. Writing blogs is very important for me. They are short-term projects. A book can take over a year or even more. Blogs can keep us reading and thinking about what’s going on. They can also sharpen our writing skills. Sharpen our capacity to come up with short stories that make sense. Keep us in the business. We don’t want to get rusty. It’s easy to lose our capacity to write and summarize our complex ideas into two or more pages. I think blogs are very helpful. Other people are good at poetry, or spoken word. I see a lot of marginalized young people using poetry or songs. Whatever we are good at, we have to continue doing it and sharing it with others. That is my advice.

Thank you so much for talking to me. What’s next for you?

Well, I have been writing another book. I’m working on it. That’s going to take me some time. I don’t want to stop.

Is there anything you can tell me about the book?

This book is going to be also about women. I’m going to have something more historical. A woman growing up in the 30s in Tunisia in a Muslim society so different from today. I want to revisit those times, see how people lived, behaved, especially women. It is another attempt at going beyond simplistic stereotypes and diving into the lives of women of that time.

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