It is time to bring Little Amira back to Canada

Last year, on February 19th, 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau, on the International Day against the use of child soldiers, declared the following:
“All children deserve a safe space to learn and grow. As part of our G7 Presidency last year, Canada and international partners announced a historic investment of $3.8 billion – the single largest investment of its kind – to support education for women and girls in crisis and conflict situations. Canada has also endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration to protect schools, teachers, and students during armed conflict.”

The words of Prime Minister Trudeau are crystal clear. Canada is serious and committed to protect, schools, teachers and students during armed conflict.

But what if the child is born to Canadian parents who allegedly went to fight in Syria? How if the parents went to fight with radical Islamic groups ( knowing that there are about 40 Canadians who went fighting with Kurdish militia. Their actions were met with somehow a sympathetic public opinion, as if some violence can be accepted depending on who is using it and who is receiving it)? And finally, what if the parents who fought with the wrong side, died and the children are left orphans? Would Prime Minister Trudeau be still committed to protect them?
Until now, the answer is a resounding no. At least for the troubling case of little Amira.

She is a five-year-old Canadian girl, whose Canadians parents went to fight in Syria, and she was born there. Unfortunately for little Amira, her parents and other siblings were killed ( was it during an air bombing by the Russian planes? The American planes or the Syrian regime), and sadly she was left alone in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in eastern Syria earlier. By 2019, the camp population was estimated to 74,000 people, mainly women and children, guarded by the US Kurdish forces.

So far, the Canadian government refused to repatriate little Amira so she can live with her uncles, cousins, grandparents and extended family in Canada. It didn’t want to provide her with travel documents so she can fly home.

There are about 900 children from western countries, including Canada in different refugee camps in Syria, run by the Kurdish forces. Even France who has 270 children from French nationals and in which the public opinion is adamantly against any sympathy towards French Muslims travelling abroad to fight, decided few weeks ago to repatriate 10 of the French children stranded in some of these camps.

These kids didn’t take the arms against anyone. They are not even close to the definition of child soldiers. Thus, they should be, at least benefit from the definition and treatment reserved for child soldiers. Because assuming they are child soldiers, through the actions of their Western parents, wouldn’t they be the “perfect” candidates to be included under the protection reserved for child soldiers?

Recently, the uncle of little Amira decided to go after the Canadian government and sue it because he considered that the Canadian government has been negligent in dealing with the case.

I personally think that this is the best thing to do. “Playing nice” is always interpreted by the government as a lack of means, or lack of determination… By going after the government, I think the family of little Amira is sending a clear message to the Canadian government and to the Canadian public that the right place for little Amira is Canada where her family loves her and wants her among them, despite the circumstance that led to the departing of her parents to Syria.

Despite the alleged acts her parents did or didn’t. She is only five. She needs to be loved, nurtured and most importantly start go to school.

Last week, we read in the news that CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency has been lying to judges, using illegal methods to obtain warrants against Canadians who went fighting abroad. This is an explosive news. Not surprisingly, it was met with almost no shame by the government and a sort of indifference from the public opinion.

What if some or most of the information obtained about Canadians fighting in Syria is flawed, biased and even false?
Judge Gleeson, found that CSIS has engaged in illegal activities such as “provision of money” and “provision of personal property” to a person “known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorist activity.”

Judge Gleeson said that, in a case of a Canadian who went abroad to Syria, CSIS paid someone known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorism an amount totalling less than $25,000 over a few years.

Who is the guilty and who is the innocent? Relying on the “false” information gathered by CSIS through person who has been conducting terrorism themselves, has been misleading and damaging to the Canadian government and to Canadians. Judge Gleeson wasn’t outraged because of one isolated case. He talked about a “pattern” over years. Personally, I wouldn’t believe any information after hearing from a Canadian judge that CSIS lied on judges so why wouldn’t they lie on all the government and Canadians.

A public inquiry should be announced and getting to the bottom of this should be the right thing to do by Prime Minister Trudeau and his government.

Last May, sixteen independent human rights experts at the United Nations have called on Canada to repatriate little Amira and have described the repatriation of children as “a humanitarian and human rights imperative”.

The Canadian government should correct the wrong, fulfill its promise of protecting children in zone of conflicts and what is better today than bringing little Amira home.

A slightly modified version of this article was published at rabble.ca

Covid-19, secularism and hypocrisy

When Premier François Legault appeared on May 12 at his daily press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by his health minister and director of public health, all three of them wearing a face mask, I almost fall out of my chair.

This was the same François Legault who brought last year the controversial Bill 21 that banned in Quebec public servants in positions of “authority” while on duty from wearing religious symbols, including the niqab, a religious face cover some Muslim women wear. It was the same François Legault who was adamant about the importance of protecting the secular values in face of the fear of what some view as the “Islamization” of Quebec society (Muslims represent only three per cent of the total population). Nevertheless, this same François Legault is now insisting on wearing a face mask and encouraging all Quebecers to follow his example when they go out in public spaces.

Of course, the face-covering Legault and his minister and top bureaucrat wore didn’t emanate from a religious requirement, but rather from a health-protection measure. However, when a Muslim woman decides to cover her face, it is automatically perceived as a degrading and submissive sign. Most of the time when face covering it is implicitly assumed that it is her husband, father or other male relative who forced her to do so.

But when Legault, a man, strongly recommends that his fellow Quebecers wear a mask (and may perhaps soon make it a requirement) this move is described as “good respiratory etiquette.” So if a Muslim woman who is wearing a hijab (hair covering) decides today in those circumstances to wear a face cover for religious reasons, a niqab, how can we in all honesty distinguish between “good respiratory etiquette” and what someone might call “religious etiquette”? What would make a face covering switch from a benign or even useful thing to a malign or degrading one? Would the meaning of the mask depend on the identity of the person wearing it, to make it either dangerous or harmless? Wouldn’t that be called racial profiling? Is a face covering worn by a white woman is commended as good etiquette and good citizenship, while the same face covering worn by a brown woman is automatically portrayed as misogynist and degrading?

The same question would be relevant if asked about a man wearing a face cover. For Legault, this is a sign of prevention from disease and civic duty, but for a Black or other racialized man wearing a face mask, it would be most likely portrayed as a sign of suspicion, danger and potential attack.

In France, from where most of the secular debate is imported to Quebec, the hypocrisy is so blatant these days.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy once declared: “Citizenship should be experienced with an uncovered face. There can be no other solution but a ban in all public places.”

However due to COVID-19, the tables have flipped. The French government recently made face masks mandatory. The fine for not wearing a mask on public transport is 135 euros, whereas, since 2011, the country’s law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the niqab in public imposes a fine of 150 euros.

In the last decade, France, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and many other Europeans countries introduced legislation to ban the niqab. Those legal bans were preceded by toxic public debates that fueled Islamophobia, especially against Muslim women, despite the fact that the number of Muslim women in these Europeans countries is small and doesn’t justify the introduction and passing of these bills.

Even in Canada, in 2015, prime minister Stephan Harper ran a federal election campaign trying to polarize public opinion by creating a wedge issue around the case of Zunera Ishaq, a Muslim woman wearing the niqab that Harper at that time wanted to stop from taking her citizenship ceremony while wearing a face covering.

One argument claims that a niqab worn for religious reasons and a mask worn for health purposes are two totally different things. For some, the former is a symbol of women’s subjugation (some people went further, calling niqab wearers “bank robbers”) whereas the latter is intended for protecting individuals and assuring their safety — no questions asked about the security issues posed by a mask or the importance of liberal values.

Assuming this is true, how can we differentiate between the two? By looking at the person wearing them? Wouldn’t that be further evidence of racial profiling, suggesting the same object has two distinct meanings depending on who is wearing it?

Another argument would state that a niqab poses a threat for national security, whereas a health mask doesn’t. This is not true, since all women who wear a niqab agree to remove their niqab to show their face at airports, and for security reasons. There are no known incidents that indicate national security incidents happened with women wearing a niqab, but what will happen for people wearing face masks once the airports start operating again? Will the face masks be allowed? Why wouldn’t they be considered a national security threat?

This is another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic shows the hypocrisy of some politicians, and how a narrow and misleading definition of secularism was used against the rights and liberties of certain Muslim women in many democracies that most of the time pretended to be champions of freedom — except when it came to face coverings … Well, until face coverings became strongly recommended or mandatory!

This column was originally published at rabble.ca

COVID-19 and the war on terror

The COVID-19 pandemic is still claiming lives around the world, sending many people to crowded hospitals and putting medical systems under unbearable strain. It is a scary, concerning and tragic situation.

However, with many of us confined at home, it is also a time to reflect on the fragility of the systems we live in, and perhaps learn from the mistakes and bad decisions that have been guiding many of the governments around the world, including Canada.

After the attacks of 9/11, the United States convinced its allies that the world is threatened by the presence of the terrorists, and urged them to join its “War on Terror.” On September 20, 2001, in a national address, then-president Georges W. Bush famously declared: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make … Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” First came the attacks on Afghanistan and then followed the war in Iraq. The whole region never recovered from the military presence of the American troops and their allies.

Bush even incited Americans to “go shopping” and visit “Disneyworld.” In a very simplistic and false dichotomy, he wanted to summarize those attacks as an attack on the way of lives of Americans — an attack of “barbarism” on civilization, an attack of people who hated freedom on those who cherished it. Every intellectual or commentator who tried to situate those attacks in a more geopolitical and multilayered context linked to American politics and interference in the Middle East was criticized and attacked as unpatriotic (remember the backlash against Susan Sontag).

The majority complied and the U.S. Patriot Act was passed to give extraordinary powers to the state for policing, surveillance and imprisonment of the most vulnerable groups, like immigrants and Muslims. Very rare were the voices who opposed this onslaught on the civil liberties. The motto was ‘less liberties for more security.’

From a mocked and belittled president when he was first elected, Bush became a sort of national hero, a semi-divine figure who would lead his country’s people to war: “This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win.”

Today, eighteen years later, it is somehow ironic but worth noting that when the peace deal agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban started to make its way through the media, COVID-19 was accelerating its mortal pace around the world, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It was as if the implicit message to the U.S. government was that with one threat gone, a new one appeared.

In a report prepared by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, released last fall, we learned that the war on terror cost the U.S. economy US$6.4 trillion. 800,000 people died due to direct war violence, and several times as many died indirectly. Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting.

The figures for Canada are not easy to find. Nevertheless, the same report indicates that “Canada spent an estimated $18 billion on fighting and reconstruction in Afghanistan, but there is no comprehensive figure on other costs.”

Also, the same report notes:

“a Parliamentary Budget Office report estimated in 2015 that the cost of providing financial support to Afghanistan veterans would total $157 million by 2025, discounting (in part due to lack of data) health care, pharmaceuticals and rehabilitation services. Disability benefits to Canadian combat veterans for a single year of military operations were projected to cost $145.2 million over nine years.”

Canada was not as directly impacted by the attacks of 9/11. Among the 2973 victims, only 24 were Canadians. Of course, these are lost human lives and their families were devastated, but it wasn’t a direct terrorist attack that hit Canada. Despite this matter, the Canadian parliament hastily passed in 2001 the Antiterrorism Act that mainly and tragically affected the lives of Canada’s Muslim community (representing barely 3 per cent of the population). It affected their jobs, economic situations, travels, civil liberties, families, children and integration in the Canadian social fabric.

The Canadian government also joined the war on terror because of the pressure from the U.S. government and because the RCMP and Canadian intelligence institutions understood that their lack of cooperation with their American counterparts would put their existence and relevancy in jeopardy. In the last two decades, those institutions saw their budgets and powers increase. In 2008, and because the Canadian government didn’t want to reveal the cost of extra security measures introduced after 9/11, CBC found that $24 billion was spent by the federal government on security measures since 9/11. In 2008, the RCMP’s annual budget rose by close to $1 billion since 2001, and the budget of Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, nearly doubled.

Were those increase justified? Not as much as they were portrayed by some politicians. There was never any evidence that showed those additional funds helped secure the lives of Canadians. In Canada, terrorist risks, understood here as emanating from the Muslim community, were not particularly higher than in any other part of the world. In 2018, Public Safety Canada wrote in its annual assessment “the principal terrorist threat to Canada and Canadian interests continues to be that posed by individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ).”

Despite the increasing violence and the flourishing of white supremacist groups, those institutions are still frozen in the post-9/11 mentality, trying to milk the threats posed by the ‘usual suspects.’

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments accepted those increases in defence, surveillance and police budgets. But there was never an open public debate about the relevance of the Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan that cost at least $18 billion, the death of 158 soldiers and more than 1,800 wounded. It is still a taboo. The late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party who courageously dared to suggest in 2006 in the House of Commons that Canada should negotiate with the Taliban was derided by other political parties as “Taliban Jack.”

False and misleading parallels were always drawn in the media and by politicians between the role of Canada in the liberation of Europe in the Second World War, and its implication in the war in Afghanistan. There was nothing in common between those two conflicts: the stakes were totally different. Unfortunately, the media and some politicians used the same rhetoric to justify a bad decision dictated by American politics and not by the interests of Canadians.

The war on terror in Canada and in the U.S. wasn’t financed through higher personal taxes or more contributions from business. Rather, it was funded through additional borrowing and higher debts and interests. Over the last decades, Canada’s public finances kept worsening and federal and provincial governments kept slashing health budgets, education and social programs. Everybody was asked to make sacrifices. They sold us an illusory sense of safety by looking always at the same misleading source of danger, terrorism, while ignoring other dangers.

Our participation in the war on terror gave us tunnel vision, where the threats were artificially maintained and inflated, while all other dangers were dismissed or diminished. Health budgets, education funding and support for infrastructure, social housing and scientific research were always the last of the priorities of our governments. Those services were the sacrificial lambs in order to participate in the war on terror.

Today, with the high spread of COVID-19 and the increasing number of fatalities, provincial governments wake up to a sad reality. The hospitals are in need of masks and ventilators; nurses and doctors are overworked; schools are not equipped with online resources that would have made it easier to keep children educated while schools are closed.

COVID-19 is revealing the naked priorities of our governments. When Trudeau announced money to help Canadians laid off because of the crisis, and to give a fiscal break to small businesses, he is not being nice and charitable. These are overdue measures that should have been taken decades ago. Perhaps the situation of Canadians today would have been less vulnerable, and our health systems would have been more prepared to face this pandemic.

If COVID-19 has any positive message, I see it as making us reassess our personal priorities and policies as a country. Maybe it is time to tell ourselves — without being accused of being a terrorist apologist, a socialist or just naive — that the war on terror was a bad decision, and that instead we should have invested those billions of dollars in health, education and the most vulnerable in our society.

This column was first published on rabble.ca

Justin Trudeau lectures others about human rights while forgetting issues at home

An old Arab proverb says “If a camel tries to look at its own hump, its neck might break.” Basically, looking at one’s own back (or own problems) might be painful, so instead many people decide to look away.

In his recent visit to African countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been trying to convince African leaders that Canada deserves their support. Observers note that African countries increasingly vote as a monolithic bloc in international bodies like the Francophonie, the United Nations and the Commonwealth — hence the importance of Canada seeking their support in its bid for a seat at the UN Security Council.

In a revised memo obtained through an access to information request by Global News, the Liberal government has adopted two objectives, among others, for its foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa: promoting human rights and inclusive governance, and supporting poverty reduction.

So, it comes as no surprise that Trudeau, while touring African countries, emphasized these two particular issues. Meanwhile at home, Trudeau’s own record on these two objectives came to haunt him and perhaps damaged his carefully constructed image.

In Senegal, Trudeau boasted to journalists that he was “a great defender of human rights” (an insinuation that same-sex marriage is legalized in Canada whereas homosexuality is criminalized in Senegal).

In photo-ops, Trudeau was pictured at the House of Slaves on Gorée Island, a very emotionally and historically charged place where African slaves were shipped to America by European slave-merchants.

Similar places should be a strong reminder to Trudeau that slavery and colonialism were horrific acts of genocide, and that posing for photo-ops is obviously not enough.

While reminding Senegal President Macky Sall of the importance of human rights, Trudeau must have forgotten that in Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia, the militarized RCMP raided and arrested land defenders for peacefully opposing the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline that would run through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.

On top of siding with corporate interests, the RCMP went even further by limiting and even threatening to arrest journalists who were trying to report on the situation. This is an affront to freedom and democracy in this country.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a surprise. The RCMP, since its inception has had a long history of oppression and violence against Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. Indeed, the creation of the RCMP by prime minister John A. Macdonald was mainly to “control” the Western part of Canada, and that meant fighting Indigenous resistance and establishing full control over the economic resources of the newly established country.

In former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Bill C-51 (the Anti-terrorism Act), which was slightly amended by the current Liberal government, the activities of Indigenous and environmental activists were among many activities described as posing a threat to Canada’s national security.

In 2016, the RCMP tracked 89 indigenous groups that were considered threats for participating in protests.

This week, the Assembly of the First Nations (AFN) launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government because, they said, Indigenous children “have been discriminated against by the government’s child welfare system.” The AFN argues the federal government’s actions increased Indigenous child poverty levels.

In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the government systemically discriminated against on-reserve First Nations children by providing inadequate services.

So far, the government has already spent upwards of $8 million in legal fees in its efforts to fight the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, as documented by First Nations Child and Family Caring Society executive director Cindy Blackstock, who started the challenge years ago and has kept track of efforts by the government to fight the ruling.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to pay these sums to the First Nations children so they can have decent schools like other children in Canada?

In a tweet this week, Trudeau wrote: “Every child, no matter who they are or where they live deserves to enjoy their childhood.”

And what if the child is First Nations and living in Canada? Does this tweet apply to her? Or is it only when Trudeau comes to give lessons to other countries that we are champions?

Trudeau’s diplomatic charm operation has so far cost $2 million, and there is no guarantee that Canada will end up getting the Security Council seat. Canada might lose the seat to one if its competitors, Norway and Ireland, who are doing much better respectively in terms of foreign aid and siding with the Palestinian cause. These issues matter tremendously to African countries, but Trudeau has kept silent on them or has at least shown he isn’t ready to take a leading role on them.

This article was originally published in rabble.ca

Prison, Mental Health and Racism

Philosopher Michel Foucault once asked the following rhetorical question: “What is so astonishing about the fact that our prisons resemble our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals — all of which in turn resemble prisons?”

People may agree or disagree with this interjection.

I would like to bring forward the cases of two young men, one Muslim and the other Indigenous. Both individuals struggled with mental health issues and yet both were treated by coercive and punitive institutions rather than hospitals. That led to the tragic death of the former and to the indefinite detention of the latter.

In both cases, one can strongly argue that prisons and hospitals became interchangeable with disastrous effects on the lives of these individuals.

The fact that both individuals are racialized, one a visible Muslim man and the other a Dene man from northern Saskatchewan, adds another layer to the already existent oppression found in the carceral system.

The story of Soleiman Faqiri has been in the Canadian media since his death on December 15, 2016.

Faqiri was arrested 11 days prior to his death for attacking a neighbour with an “edged weapon.” Since he was a person with a documented mental health history, he should have been taken to a doctor as it is stipulated under Ontario’s Mental Health Act. But not on that day when he was arrested. Instead he was taken to a prison: the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. Even worse, he was incarcerated in solitary confinement.

Why was he put in jail instead of being taking to a hospital? Why was he put in solitary confinement when it was known that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia? Wasn’t Foucault then right in this case? Prisons are equal to hospitals? Maybe the officers who decided to put him in jail thought a jail is like a hospital, with the only tragic difference being that the jail killed Soleiman Faqiri instead of saving his life.

Beside the mental health issues that Faqiri suffered from, he was a visible, racialized Muslim man. How much did his beard, the kufi on his head and his long cultural dress play a morbid role in his treatment by jail guards? We don’t know.

Ryan Williams, a religious studies academic at Cambridge University’s prison research centre, has examined the role of Islam in three U.K. maximum security prisons. He writes that there is a muddling of “issues around extremism, religious identity, and the specific conditions that bring about certain interpretations and enactments of Islam. Within prisons, everyday Muslim practices of praying, reading the Qur’an, or even reading commentary from Muslim scholars about God’s creation and evolutionary theory can raise concerns over extremism.”

Why would guards at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay be different from those in the U.K.? Why would they be immune to an international Islamophobic climate, where people mix their own prejudices and fear of Islam with their attitude towards the aggressiveness or resistance shown by some Muslim inmates?

Some would consider this last question a serious accusation against public servants who are supposed to be objective in conducting their duties. But unless this hypothetical assertion is thoroughly taken into consideration in any investigation of the case, the public and Faqiri’s family may never know why he died while resisting the incredible amount of physical force exerted by the 20 to 30 officers who were called to subdue him.

Despite the sad ending to Faqiri’s case and the pain his horrifying death brought to his family, we shouldn’t look at it as an isolated case. It should be seen through the lens of the ongoing racism and colonialism still affecting many Canadian institutions. The carceral system in Canada, at both federal and provincial levels, has been filled with disturbing, tragic cases of Indigenous prisoners with mental health conditions requiring urgent care but for whom the long incarceration, segregation and neglect instead led to self-inflicted injuries or suicide.

Joey Toutsaint, a Dene inmate from northern Saskatchewan with serious mental illness who, by his own count, has spent more than 2,180 days in isolation, is the “perfect” example to describe this travesty of justice. His Indigenous background has a lot to do with the harsh treatment the prison system has reserved for him since he entered it for criminal offences.

Some perhaps well-meaning voices have been asking for more Indigenous representation within the prison system, such as the appointment of a deputy commissioner for federally sentenced Indigenous offenders.

A similar call was made in the aftermath of 9/11 when a wave of Islamophobia swept up many Muslim men and wrongly charged them with terrorism. At the time some of these voices recommended that the RCMP and other police bodies go through culturally sensitive training in Islam and Muslims customs.

In my opinion, this cultural sensitivity training or “Indigenization” of the prison system are merely cosmetic changes. They “help” the institutions that conduct them look good more than they help the affected individuals. The core problem remains — that those law enforcement institutions and prisons are based on old, persistent and racist views towards racialized groups, mainly the Indigenous population. The “offender” is generally represented as a racialized person who is lazy, dirty, oppressed and violent, regardless of their socioeconomic background and most importantly, regardless of their mental health situation. Only a restructuring through decolonization can help in stopping this epidemic of high incarceration and the subsequent killing of Indigenous populations and other racialized minorities suffering from mental health issues.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Remembrance Day for the Rohingya Genocide

Last August 25, 2019, I was at the steps of Parliament Hill with human rights activists and several people gathered in solidarity with the fate and the terrible situation the Rohingya people are going through.
It is sad to keep bringing this topic about what this marginalized and oppressed community is going through and the total silence of the rest of the world.
Below is my speech from two years ago. Almost nothing has changed, except that more Rohingya are in refugees camps in Bangladesh and Canada has not done much to bring any Rohingya refugees to the country. Also, on a symbolic level, Aung San Suu Kyi was stripped of her Canadian honorary citizenship. More need to be done!

IMG_20190825_144243744_HDR.jpg

“We are gathering this afternoon in solidarity with the horrible plight of the Rohingyas people from the Myanmar Rakhine region, who are being chased from their homes, burned, slaughtered and killed by the ultranationalist military forces of the Myanmar.
On Thursday, Amnesty International said that fresh satellite imagery, fire detection data, photographs and videos along with eyewitness accounts showed “an orchestrated campaign of systematic burnings” of the villages of the Rohingyas people.
This is what the Burmese military call “Clearance operation”. This is what the United Nation human rights chief calls “ethnic cleansing”.
And this is how a teacher in a Burmese village named Maung Nu who escaped and recounted her last hours in their homes and the long journey that followed ddescribed it this week, to the Washington Post:
“I can’t count how many…We were all watching what the military did. They slaughtered them one by one. And the blood flowed in the streets.”
And this is just one horrible story.
By now, there are about 400,000 Rohingyas, mainly women and children, almost a little bit than half of the entire population that lives in Myanmar, that fled their hometowns to the borders with the Bangladesh.
Despite the international condemnation, the Burmese military and their “new friend” the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, are not budging and are not stopping the massacre. Instead, they are calling this an internal issue and a national security matter. She even recently declared that the Burmese government is fighting “militant insurgency”. One can only wonder, who is fighting who?
The Rohingya, are considered to be among the world’s most persecuted people. They are denied the right to citizenship in Myanmar despite having lived there for generations, making them effectively stateless.
The Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu wrote a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi urged her to condemn the violence committed against the Rohingyas
“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”
Malala Yousefzai, the young Nobel Laureate urged Aung San Suu Kyi to
And even the Dalai Lama spoke and denounced what some are doing under the name of Buddha, he said:
“They should remember, Buddha, in such circumstances, would have definitely helped those poor Muslims. So, still I feel that (it’s) so very sad … so sad,”

It was overdue that our Prime Minister Trudeau spoke few days ago with Aung San Suu Kyi and shared his “deep concerns” about the massacre of the Rohingyas and other ethnic groups but obviously this is not enough. We need to do more.
So what can we do, as Canadians:

– We should sign petitions, one of them, is to ask Prime Minister Trudeau to revoke Aung San Suu Kyi from her honorary citizenship
– Send donations to humanitarian groups that help Rohingyas in Bangladesh
– Require from our government, that our Canadian Ambassador to Myanmar, Karen MacArthur, visit the afflicted Rohingya villages. Her presence will show the Myanmar government that Canadian people care and are closely watching the situation,
– Canada should send more humanitarian aid to Bangladesh so they can help all the refugee influx. The $2.55 millions in additional aid, the Canadian government just announced is so little and won’t be enough. Canada can do better.
And finally, Prime Minister Trudeau should be speaking to his American and Chinese counterpart and share his deep concern about the Rohingyas people. The US and China are the most powerful governments that would make the generals of Rangoon listen and stop the ethnic cleansing that being conducted these days on the Rohingyas.”

Credit: Pleas note that the picture above was graciously and generously taken by Zulf Khalfan/Aptword

Never forget: Yes, there was a genocide. Why don’t we correct the wrong now?

In the 1950s, Frantz Fanon, the famous psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, reported on the French colonial administration officials discussing the Algerians and quoted them saying, “if we want to strike Algerian society in its structure, in its faculty of resistance, we first have to conquer its women, we have to look for them behind their veils, where they hide themselves and in their house where the men hide them.”

What Fanon reported was not a simple and harmless note between French bureaucrats, it was an entire structured policy that was implemented in the French-colonized land of Algeria since 1830. The policy that clearly targeted women, seen as the carriers of the Algerian culture, was accompanied on the ground by tanks and artillery targeting men. It was only in 1962, that Algeria gained its independence from France, after a long, brutal and violent war.

Last week, in Ottawa, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, submitted its long-awaited report. Years ago, already, in 2004, Amnesty International Canada called the disappeared and murdered Indigenous women, the “Stolen Sisters.”

In 2012, the RCMP reported the number of Indigenous women and girls who disappeared or were murdered as 1,182.

The new report speaks of thousands of women with a similar fate. Unfortunately, we will never know exactly how many. As if neither the lives nor the tragic deaths of these women and girls really mattered. Many other women were probably murdered and killed with no one reporting their disappearance, or worse, their disappearances were probably hidden.

The inquiry found that Indigenous women and girls are “12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada and 16 times more likely to be slain or disappear than white women.”

Despite the cultural and geographic differences between Algerian women and Indigenous women, both groups were victims of brutal and ruthless colonialist administration. The French in the case of Algerian women, and the Canadian in the case of Indigenous women. Both were abused by police officers; both have seen their native languages banned from being taught at homes and in schools and both were targeted as they were seen as the heart of the Algerian and Indigenous family, respectively.

Under the pretext of liberating women from the oppression of their male relatives and pretending to welcome them into the world of civilization and legal rights, many Algerian women were forced to remove their veils. Their religion, Islam, was identified by the French colonialist institutions as the main source of their oppression and backwardness. Many Algerians grew up not learning Arabic, or being ashamed of speaking it.

In the case of Indigenous women, many who were fleeing domestic violence from some men in their communities (another product of colonialism and difficult economic factors) were taken advantage of by either police officers or on the road by white men who would sexually abuse them and then would kill them. Many Indigenous women would be described as “loose” or “drug addicts” or “submissive” so according to this highly biased and discriminating description, who would be bothered by their deaths anyway?

In the case of Algeria, up to today France has never admitted its war crimes in Algeria. The word genocide was never pronounced by any French politicians. The closest French politicians came was admitting to the killing and torture of Maurice Audin, a French communist who was supporting the fight for independence.

Today, Canada has a choice. It can continue to look away and praise itself as one of the best places in the world and quietly put the report on the shelf like it has in the past for all the previous reports (the Royal commission on Aboriginal peoples, and the public commission of inquiry into missing women in B.C. in 2012).

Or, it can decide to be courageous and brave and start decolonizing its institutions starting from stopping the abusive and racial profiling practices used by some local police forces, to overcoming the general apathy and complacency of the RCMP, to repealing the mother of all evil, the Indian Act.

Like any radical change, this decolonization process wouldn’t be easy or popular to adopt. Already, most of the major newspapers in Canada are, since the release of the report, aligning with editorial after editorial and opinion after opinion against the word “genocide” used in the report. Many have been acting offended and choosing to focus on the word genocide, while all the crucial issues discussed in the report have seemed already to be once again forgotten.

Kingston arrest shows terrorism charges are exclusively for Muslims

A few weeks ago, seven teenagers were taken into police custody after a lockdown at a high school in Milton, Ontario. One was released, and six others were arrested. No one was injured but a knife was recovered, as well as two weapons believed to be firearms.

This incident was reported by a few media outlets in Ontario. It isn’t clear whether the teens were charged or not. A simple search on the internet brings up dozens, if not more, of such incidents happening across Canada. Bombs threats, possession of weapons, and threats of violence, all the work of Canadian teenagers and all happening right here in Canada, probably near one of your neighbourhood high schools.

Despite the gravity of the acts, there were no RCMP press conferences, no terrorism charges laid against these teenagers, no security experts invited by the national media to analyze the phenomenon, and no politicians asking for an overhaul of the refugee screening program. The language spoken by these young perpetrators didn’t interest any commentators. And Opposition leader Andrew Scheer hasn’t asked any questions about the incident in Milton, and didn’t call for a tightening of firearms legislation, even knowing that his predecessor Stephen Harper dismantled the federal long-gun registry in 2012. No special aircraft was used for surveillance of these neighbourhoods and no FBI tips to the RCMP about any of these incidents were shared. Nothing like this happened. Basically, no one cares.

But when the protagonist of similar acts is a teenage boy, most likely of Muslim background, and came to Canada as a Syrian refugee, it is a whole different story. The RCMP is involved, the FBI — previously implicated in an operation that led to the killing of Aaron Driver, a young Muslim-Canadian who was a supporter of ISIS, in obscure circumstances — are now in the loop. A Pilatus PC-12 RCMP aircraft was surveying the teen’s Kingston neighbourhood for days before his arrest. A press conference was held by no less than the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team of the RCMP. Even financial monitoring agency FINTRAC, which has so far been inefficient in stopping major money laundering and gave anonymity to a Canadian bank found guilty of not respecting the rules, joined the efforts. And of course, Scheer was so worried that he asked for a re-examination of the screening process for refugees coming to Canada.

From this Kingston arrest, we learned that explosives were found in the teen’s house and that initially two young people were arrested. One young man was later released and not charged, even though he had been named by the media. The other person turned out to be a teenager and was subsequently charged.

According to the RCMP, explosives were found in the house; however, by his own admission, the RCMP superintendent told the media that “there was no specific target identified.” Nevertheless he was adamant in saying that “there was an attack planned.” Despite all these confusing statements, the teen was charged with “knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity,” and “counselling a person to deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive or other lethal device in a public place.”

This week, I was at a vigil on Parliament Hill to commemorate the killing of six Muslim men by a young Canadian man, Alexandre Bissonnette. Despite the planning of his heinous crime, and his clear intent to spread fear and terrorize Muslims in a place of worship, Bissonnette was never charged with terrorism. He was described as a bullied and troubled teenager, and as a “lone wolf,” but never as a terrorist.

The Crown psychiatrist for his case said Bissonnette “didn’t promote any type of ideology in carrying out actions” (understanding ideology as Islam).

In opposition, the recently arrested Kingston teenager, even though he was not charged with belonging to a terrorist group and thus would have been a good candidate for the qualification of “lone wolf,” was still charged with terrorism.

Today, I have not a single doubt in my mind that this teen is Muslim. Today, I have the deep conviction that terrorism legislation in Canada is made to indict Muslims and Muslims only.

During that vigil, there were Liberal politicians present. They all condemned Islamophobia and hate. And that is commendable.

Looking at the centennial flame, and thinking of the widows and orphans and victims with life-long injuries left behind by the actions of Bissonnette, I wondered in silence if any of those politicians ever thought that the same legislation their own party voted for is responsible for stirring the pot of Islamophobia.

When Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale candidly “urges people not to jump to conclusions based on early reports” and accuses Scheer of “talking as if he knows the outcome of a police investigation,” doesn’t he realize that these same mediatized arrests by his own law enforcement agencies, and their problematic collaboration with the FBI (found guilty of entrapment many times) are responsible for this climate of fear and the “jumping to conclusion” attitudes that he is denouncing? Couldn’t the case of the Kingston teen have been dealt with differently? He could have been charged on the basis of the Criminal Code, like in the other teenagers’ arrests across the country — teenagers, frequently found with weapons and firearms, and who no politicians, no security experts, no RCMP, no FBI, no national TV, are there to talk about and care about.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

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

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