Canada is still in denial about Islamophobia

Islamophobia is real. It crawls under many skins. It kills people.

I clearly remember the attack on the Quebec City mosque. It was January 29, 2017. I was scrolling my Twitter feed and some of my friends shared with me the horrible news: a shooter killed six men and injured several others. I couldn’t find sleep that night until I wrote something that expressed my fear and anger.

I still remember Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tears trickling down his cheeks, attending the funeral of the six men, who were husbands, fathers, sons, immigrants who came to Canada for a better life and ended up in coffins in front of thousands of mourners.

I thought that these images would be our “never again” moment. In a desperate attempt to find hope, I wanted to believe that this was the last time the Muslim community in Canada would be attacked for our faith, for our hijabs, for our brown skin. I was in denial.  

Sunday, another young man added his name to the long list of Islamophobic perpetrators in Canada. He turned his car into an arm of destruction. He killed four members of the same family: Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and Salman’s mother, 74.

Their son Fayez is recovering from serious injuries, and it looks like he will win the fight for his life.

That family could have been mine. I wear a hijab, I have a daughter and son, my mother lives with us and since COVID-19, I started to go on short walks in the evening with my husband in our neighbourhood. Four lives taken away, one life hanging on, and millions of Muslims in Canada and around the world watching the news, living in constant fear, thinking: who will be next?

Immediately after the Quebec City mosque shooting, MP Iqra Khalid introduced M-103 — a non-binding motion to the House of Commons to study the growing trend of Islamophobia in Canada.

It was met with backlash from other MPs who denied the existence of Islamophobia and wrongly linked it to an attempt to silence any criticism about Islam.

Some pundits and commentators latched onto this misleading argument. Some others contested the use of the term itself, turning it into a semantic fight.

From victims of Islamophobia, Muslims were made out to be some sort of fifth column suspected of changing the values of the liberal democracies.

Needless to say, the motion didn’t pass unanimously.

When the resulting committee report on Islamophobia was released in 2018, it barely contained any concrete recommendation on how to effectively tackle Islamophobia. It was a waste of time and energy.

Meanwhile, the attacks kept happening, specifically targeting Muslim women wearing hijab. Over the last few months in Edmonton, there have been so many attacks on the city’s Black Muslim women that I almost lost count. Strangers outside of shopping centres and transit stations pushing them, trying to remove their veils, swearing obscenities at them in front of their children. There have been at least six such instances since December.

Usually, these attacks are not taken seriously by the police nor by politicians and when they are they don’t result in any significant arrests nor any rigorous change in the laws or any change in attitude by politicians.

Even worse, in the same province where the Quebec City mosque attack happened, a law targeting Muslim women wearing hijab was introduced passed in 2019. Premier François Legault used the notwithstanding clause to prevent any constitutional challenge to it. Prime Minister Trudeau sheepishly shied away from criticizing this political manoeuvre, fearing the electoral consequences on his party in Quebec. He kept a neutral position.

We cannot remain neutral towards racism and Islamophobia. We have to take a strong stance and choose our side.

Overall, the core narrative remains untouched: Canada is a polite and compassionate country; we don’t do these things at home; we are shocked by these acts of violence.

Well, I am not anymore surprised by these acts and unfortunately, I expect more to come.

Canada is a country where anti-terrorism legislation was passed in record time after 9/11 even when we were not personally affected by the attacks.

It’s a country that kept five Muslim men detained for years in solitary confinement while threatening to deport them to other countries where they would be tortured.

This is a country that for over a decade, kept one of its own citizens in the shameful Guantánamo Bay prison since he was 15, and refused to repatriate him until forced to do so.

It’s a country where once, its prime minister used the term “Islamicism” to criticize Islam and insinuate that Muslims conduct shadowy and terrorist business in the basement of their mosques.

Canada is a country where the actions of one troubled man — the Parliament Hill shooter –were used as an excuse by the former prime minister to introduce even stricter anti-terrorism legislation.

This is a country where, in one province, Muslim women can’t become teachers or Crown prosecutors if they wear a hijab.

This is a country where a Muslim woman and friend of mine asked her husband in the morning: are we safe in Canada?

For years, Canada, its politicians and media refused to look at the past and acknowledge the genocide conducted against its Indigenous people. They chose to look away.

Today, despite evidence upon evidence of Islamophobia, some still want to convince themselves and their children that we are a “good” country. Well, sorry to say, we are a country inherently built on injustice. We have a history of racism and a present still full of racism toward many communities.

The least we can do today is acknowledge the harm and slowly work together to heal the wound and avoid more tragedies in the future.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Hassan Diab’s long, harrowing struggle for justice

If there is such a thing called luck, I am sure it has never crossed the path of Canadian professor Hassan Diab.

He was arrested in 2008 by the RCMP when France requested his extradition for alleged involvement in the 1980 Paris synagogue bombing. His controversial extradition verdict in 2011 made headlines. In this verdict, Justice Robert Maranger stated that “the prospects of conviction in the context of a fair trial seem unlikely.”

However, as “confusing” and “convoluted” (to use the exact words employed by Justice Maranger) the evidence was, it didn’t prevent Diab’s subsequent extradition to France, where he was held at the infamous Fleury-Mérogis high security prison.

The case is old, complex and, frankly, political. It happened 40 years ago, when a bomb exploded in front of the Rue Copernic synagogue in Paris. This tragic terrorist attack took the lives of four people and injured many more. The culprit was never found — that is, until the French authorities suspected Diab’s involvement.

From the outset, Diab’s case was clearly a political one. It has also been a case of failed legal attempts to convict him. The continuation and eventual dropping of this legal vendetta would deeply rely on the whims, moods and political wills of both Canadian and French authorities.

When Diab was first arrested in Canada in 2008, it was under the Stephen Harper government. It was an era that today we can easily qualify without hesitation as an unfriendly era for Arabs and Muslims.

Hassan Diab was not only an Arab-Muslim Canadian but also a terrorism suspect. Let’s not forget that it was the same Stephen Harper who introduced Bill-51, a bill that later became Canada’s anti-terror legislation 2.0.

The law gave expanded powers to police and to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). For years, the Muslim community felt besieged by these new powers. The atmosphere was not favourable to challenging a narrative that linked terrorism to Islam.

Diab’s case continued on through those heavy years. He became the collateral damage of this bad witch-hunt scheme. Rob Nicholson, then minister of justice, ordered the extradition of Diab to France. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear his appeal. All doors and avenues were shut in Diab’s face.

Fear and tension in France

In France, the stars were not aligned in favour of Diab’s case, either. Soon after his arrival in French prison, two major terrorist attacks were carried out by French citizens of Muslim descent: the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the Bataclan theatre rampage.

These two attacks shook Paris — and the whole of French society. It is not a secret that tension and suspicion have characterized the relationship between France and its Muslim citizens.

The radicalization of French youth from suburbia who went to train at Islamic State camps in Syria and Iraq came home to haunt secret intelligence services. These young foot soldiers eventually conducted those terrorist attacks.

French society and its political class were unanimous in condemning these acts. On the other side of the spectrum, the Muslim community came to represent the “evil from within.”

Once again, Hassan Diab, through the nature of the suspicions around him, through his ethnicity and religious affiliation, found his case trapped in a dangerous dichotomy of us vs. them. Once again, a heavy atmosphere of suspicion and fear had no exception, even in the courtrooms.

Some light emerged in this long tunnel of successive unlucky events. Justin Trudeau defeated Stephen Harper and became the new prime minister, promising that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” thus rejecting any form of discrimination in legally treating Canadians according to their ethnic background.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, a fresh era began with the 2017 election of Emmanuel Macron, who, in an attempt to appease the tense relationship between the former colonies and their citizens established in France, once famously declared that “colonialism was a grave mistake.”

But most importantly, Diab was ordered to be released eight times during his French imprisonment. Each time he would find the decision appealed, remaining in prison until 2018, when the charges against him were finally dropped by French legal authorities. Diab was finally free and able to reunite with his family and children, who he had not seen for years.

The nightmare continues

Unfortunately, his nightmare didn’t come to an end. Last week, a French judge ordered him back to court to face the French justice system and stand another terrorism trial.

Needless to say, the atmosphere in France isn’t allowing for any “tolerance” towards Arabs and Muslims, or “justification” of any violent act committed by one of “them.”

The horrific killing of French teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen refugee was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Macron’s claim that Islam is in crisis and his bill to outlaw “Islamist separatism” (i.e. place mosques under greater control) prompted many observers to declare that France scrutinizes its own Muslim citizens.

Today, Hassan Diab is perhaps “lucky” as he is in Canada and a second extradition to France seems to be unlikely. However, living with the past trauma of those years and the precarity of the years to come is no luck.

Finding someone after so many decades to hold accountable for the horrific attack in 1980 is laudable. But finding them at any cost is highly problematic. Putting Diab’s life on hold and destroying whatever semblance of normality he tried to rebuild since his release in 2018 is appalling.

It is time for the Canadian government to put an immediate stop to this terrible travesty of justice.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Should the Proud Boys be labelled terrorists?

I hate the word “terrorist.” It is hard for me to pronounce; it brings back painful flashbacks of the wrongful arrest and consequent imprisonment and torture of my husband Maher Arar. It brings back years when the mere pronouncing of this word signified mobilization for human rights, activism against security certificates, pushback against Bill C-51, and the physical and emotional drain these campaigns meant for me and many activists. When you have been labelled a terrorist, you are usually a Muslim man — and by all legal standards it is one of the worst accusations, if not the worst, to have made against you.

It doesn’t matter much if your name has been cleared (a very rare occurrence, anyway). Once labelled a terrorist, you will be one forever. That is the power of stigmatization. That is the power of some words.

Since 2002, I have written many columns and spoken to audiences across the country denouncing successive anti-terror legislation adopted by Canada and by countries around the world. I still stand up today to denounce these laws. They unfairly target Muslim communities; they rely on racial and religious profiling. I consider them unconstitutional and our struggle should continue to denounce them.

Guantanamo — a whole island in the middle of the ocean — was used by the United States 19 years ago to indefinitely imprison Muslim men. Without due process, they were branded terrorists. They were waterboarded, tortured, forcefully fed, scared by dogs, and mentally and physically abused by guards.

All of this is still accepted by much of the public in the name of fighting terrorism.

Canada isn’t any different in all of this. It kept Omar Khadr in that shameful prison since he was 15 years old. Successive governments refused to repatriate him. Political parties played partisanship games to use Khadr as an example of vigour and rigour in fighting terrorism.

To this day, Mohamed Harkat, a refugee from Algeria, cannot get his permanent resident status, despite living in Canada for over 20 years, only because he was arrested under a security certificate accusing him of being a “sleeper cell” or terrorist.

In the aftermath of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by hordes affiliated with white-supremacy — who illegally entered the building, breaking, destroying offices and terrorizing elected officials with weapons — Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, started a petition to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “to immediately ban and designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization.”

The Proud Boys are a group of men who pursue “anti-white guilt” and “anti-political correctness” agendas.

A few days ago, the federal government revealed that it was examining information about the Proud Boys and seriously looking into the possibility of declaring the group a terrorist organization.

My initial reaction was against such labelling. I strongly disagreed with the whole idea of creating different, specific sections of the Criminal Code to deal with politically and ideologically motivated violence. Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation is rotten at its core. So how can we make it more legitimate by making cosmetic changes or enlarging its scope to other groups, in this case non-Muslim groups?

Does a correct move change an initial wrong move into a correct one? No, absolutely not.

Anti-terrorism will remain a politically motivated tool that governments around the world use to silence dissent, create division within their own populations, and give the public a false sense of security at the expense of vulnerable (Muslim, racialized, Indigenous) groups.

Nevertheless, today I think that we should label the Proud Boys a terrorist group. Not because I like the labelling, but because it is a matter of simple coherence. Up to now, white-supremacy violence was hidden and protected by mainstream institutions — until it exploded in the world’s face in front of the U.S. Capitol.

For the sake of legal coherence in Western democracies, Proud Boys and other white-supremacist groups should be labelled terrorists. Their monetary and financial channels should be tracked down; their social media should be scrutinized; their members should be imprisoned.

Alexandre Bissonnette, the 27-year-old Canadian who killed six Muslim men and injured 19 others in the Quebec City mosque attack, was never charged under anti-terrorism legislation. I thought he should have been. I even remember some racialized activists insisting that we couldn’t be against terrorism legislation while at the same time calling for terrorism charges against him. It was a serious mistake.

Not only did he recieve less harsh sentences than what he would have under Canada’s terrorism law, but when the time came to challenge his consecutive sentencing a few months ago, Bissonnette successfully appealed.

The same dilemma came to haunt Muslim activists: should we call for consecutive sentences, knowing that our own people would be the majority suffering under this harsh punishment? Or should we adopt a more “civilized” approach and accept the fact that a killer will be able to apply for parole in 25 years?

In both cases, Bissonnette won because to start with, he was never charged under terrorism legislation.

White supremacists should feel the pain of racialized groups. They should navigate the unfair legal system; they should understand what it feels like to be labelled a terrorist.

I have no sympathy for the Proud Boys nor for the Three Percenters, deemed to be the most dangerous group in Canada, nor for all the other white-supremacist Islamophobic groups roaming freely across Canada, recruiting former or current police and military officers.

They should face the consequences of their actions — even if it means that one day we fight together against the same system that, at its origin, has created this oppressive, racist, Islamophobic legislation.

Years ago, Audre Lorde, the black feminist, writer, and civil right activist, wonderfully framed this crucial situation: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She was a brilliant visionary.

Anti-terrorism legislation is the wrong tool. It overwhelmingly targets racialized people, Muslims in particular. We will forever call for its abolishment. But in the meantime, and while it remains in place, can we use it to eliminate violence done by white supremacists against marginalized groups? Yes, I totally think we should. It is a matter of survival. Until the “master’s house” is dismantled, until that day, I see no other choice than to use the “master’s tools” to protect ourselves and our communities from white-supremacist violence.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Legal and political agendas asserted on the backs of Quebec’s Muslim communities

Last month, Quebec’s Court of Appeal reduced Alexandre Bissonette’s life sentence without parole from 40 years to 25 years.

In 2017, Bissonette — who was 27 at the time — attacked the Quebec City mosque, killing six men and injuring 19 others, including Aymen Derbali, who became paralyzed for life.

When Justice François Huot delivered Bissonette’s sentence in 2019, he described the acts as “premeditated, gratuitous and abject,” and motivated by “visceral hatred toward Muslims.”

Justice Huot sentenced Bissonette to five concurrent 25-year life sentences and a 15-year term for the sixth count, to be served consecutively.

However, legal scholars described that sentence as “innovative” and “complex.” Some predicted, correctly, that it would be challenged.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper — motivated by a “law and order” agenda that appealed to his base and its near-obsession with anti-terrorism legislation — introduced the “consecutive sentencing” principle in 2011.

But luckily for Bissonette, he lives Quebec and isn’t a Muslim.

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the actions of Bissonette as a “terrorist attack,” there was always subtle but persistent pushback from Quebec politicians and media.

They viewed Bissonette’s actions not as being symptomatic of systemic islamophobia, but rather as an “isolated” incident. It is by this same logic that Bissonette’s father wrote an open letter to French and English media asking Trudeau to stop calling his son’s action a “terrorist” attack.

In my opinion, the decision to reduce Bissonette’s sentence carries four meanings:

  • It reinforces the notion that Quebec’s legal system is somehow aligned with the ideals of second chances and rehabilitation for criminals, according to the principles of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” of the French Revolution.
  • It appeases the idea that Bisonette is one of “ours,” and that he doesn’t deserve a heavy-handed punishment.
  • It sends a subtle message to the Muslim community: to give them a “lesson” in “civility” and teach them how to remove vengeance from their hearts.
  • It sends a clear message to Justin Trudeau, daring him to appeal the judgement with the knowledge that it could have implications for his electoral chances in Quebec.

It is both interesting and ironic to see how in two very publicized and controversial cases, the Muslim community in Quebec became the perfect “guinea pig” for the province to assert itself legally and politically.

Take the example of “Bill 21,” or the Laicity Act. It prohibits public employees from wearing religious symbols at work.

The bill was introduced despite everything that was said against it, and despite what several Muslim women described as a blatant discrimination against them.

In my opinion, the arguments that attracted most Quebecers weren’t the “feminist” or “secularist” ones, but rather the notion, subtly reiterated again and again by Premier Francois Legault and his supporters, that “in Quebec, we do things differently.”

This can be understandable. After all, Quebec has a unique status. Nevertheless, it has become clear that some Quebec politicians are asserting a new brand of “sovereignty” on the backs of immigrants, racialized communities and, in particular, the Muslim community.

With Bill 21, Muslims in Quebec are once again caught between a rock and a hard place. The Laicity Act attempts to send several messages:

  • The idea that Quebec is a progressive province that is serious about women’s rights, despite the fact that Bill 21 removes some women’s rights to take certain jobs.
  • A hidden message: to prove to the public that “chez nous” — we decide on things the way we want to.
  • A third message, directed to the immigrant Muslim community: if you want to prove your loyalty to “our values,” you must leave your traditions in your country of origin.
  • A final message to Justin Trudeau that was repeated during the 2019 federal election: if you legally challenge our law then you are automatically against us. 

To be sarcastic, Legault and his supporters should thank the Muslim community for unwillingly serving as pawns to achieve his political ambitions. 

More seriously, it is undoubtedly time for action. It has started already with challenges of the constitutional legality of Bill 21, and the likely appeal of Bissonette’s reduced sentence.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

French state’s demand that Muslims forget colonial history shows double standard

During a first and symbolic visit to Algeria — a former French colony — in 2017, Emmanuel Macron was asked by a journalist about the crimes the French colonial regime committed in Algeria that included killing and raping the local population for more than a century.

The French president, looking annoyed, replied that he knows the “Histoire,” but that he is not a hostage of the past and argued “both of us [France and Algeria]” should be looking into the future. 

A few days before, Macron tweeted an excerpt from an interview he had with an African journalist. In it, the French president gave the same patronizing advice to a young woman who asked him about the crimes against humanity committed by France in Africa.

Implying that she didn’t live through colonization because she was young, Macron reiterated his call for “neither denial nor repentance” and stressed that “we cannot remain trapped in the past.”

Taken at face value, those words seem to fit the attitude of a dynamic, pragmatic and young president who wanted to build new business relationships with the old French colonies. I would have understood this attitude, without necessarily agreeing with it, that in order to build new and better relationships, the past should be moved on from, but from both sides.

According to this distorted logic, France should embrace its French citizens originally from former colonies — without rejecting their religions, cultures and traditions — and on the other side, French citizens from the former colonies should embrace France, without holding grudges for their painful past.

However, this erasure of the past and “looking-towards-the-future” attitude seems to be very selective — mainly to the advantage of the French state, the former colonizer, serving its interests when needed, and dropped when not.

Only the colonized seem to be expected to forget their past. The colonizers have the luxury to bring it up or hide and erase it whenever they see fit. The “forgetting-the-past” approach is always on the French state’s terms, and never on the terms of its citizens originating from former colonies.

Indeed, this same past was brought up recently by Jean Castex, Macron’s prime minister, in order to appease the insecurities of the French political and intellectual class.

Speaking about the fight against Islamist terrorism, the French prime minister insisted that “the first way to win a war is for the national community to be united, or united, or proud. Proud of our roots, of our identity, of our Republic, of our freedom.”

So why can the past, with its crimes against humanity, become a source of inspiration for some politicians, whereas this same past should supposedly be forgotten by French Muslims?

France has a long history with “la problématique islamique.” It didn’t start with the recent trial of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. It didn’t start with the debate about the “Islamic veil” that has been ongoing since the end of the 1980s — before being eclipsed by the more recent burkini ban controversy on French beaches.

With over five million Muslims, France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. And yet Muslims’ relationship to the French political class and media is extremely tense.

Every time there is a tragic event, committed or claimed by Muslim extremists on French soil (regardless of whether the perpetrator is of French descent or from a different country), the media and political machines start a cycle of blaming and targeting Muslim citizens with laws — like the planned “Islamist separatism” bills that Macron announced a few days before the recent horrifying beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty in Paris.

And each time, the debate is simplistically described as a fight between “good and evil,” where evil is always attributed to French Muslims with terms like “Islamism,” “Jihadism,” “terrorism,” “separatism” and “barbarism.” The “good,” meanwhile, is always attributed to French republican values described by words like “laïcité,” “civilité,” “liberté” and “égalité.”

Yet none of these ideals ever seem to be adopted to embrace French Muslims.

After Abdullakh Anzorov, a young Chechen refugee living in France, brutally murdered Paty — who had shown his students the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the prophet Mohamed — voices in the media and political class were very quick to pinpoint an imaginary link between this appalling act of violence and Islam — and by extension, between terrorism and French Muslim communities.

The mental state of the killer was largely unquestioned. Only his religious affiliation seemed to matter. And, by association, so did the faith of French Muslims.

The government cracked down on more than 50 Muslim organizations, while vigilante groups attacked mosques. A French minister proposed a ban on the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) — an association that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes — prompting opposition from academics and civil society groups.

French republican values are anchored in a controversial past: a past where the powerful party is always the French state and the weak are those who were colonized — a past that Macron urges Algerians and Africans to forget, but one that the French state is eager to remember and be proud of when it suits them.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

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

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

Imagine Canada’s response if the B.C. murder suspects were Muslims

During the last two weeks of July, two young Canadian men kept people in Canada and around the world in a state of terror, holding their breath for what would be next. First, the pair went missing from their native town of Port Alberni, British Columbia. Then they were formally charged by the RCMP for the killing of a sessional lecturer in UBC’s botany department and became suspects in the killing of two tourists in northern B.C. Then they disappeared into the wilderness of northern Manitoba.

For weeks, the residents of the surrounding community in Gillam, Manitoba were scared. They kept their children inside. The entire population in the area was waiting for the RCMP to catch these fugitives and presumable killers. But they weren’t captured. It was as if they vanished. It was an embarrassing failure for the national police and military forces who used drones, special gear and satellite GPS in a failed attempt to track the two men. Their bodies were finally retrieved near the same search area. A report from the autopsy concluded that the pair died by suicide.

It is a sad and troubling story. First, it’s sad for the families and friends of the victims affected by this tragedy, as it seems very unlikely that they will learn the real motives of the killers. And it’s troubling because it is a story that’s happening more and more often in these days filled with hate, violence and misinformation.

I followed the story and found myself asking, what if these two young men had names with Arab or Islamic connotation? How would the media be reporting about the tragic case? Would they still publish nice mug shots of them? Would they call them “teenagers” and describe them as avid video game players (a way, in my opinion, to diminish the gravity of their acts), despite the fact that both of them were adults? How would the families of the accused be treated in the eyes of the public? And most importantly, how would police and law enforcement be reacting to these violent murders and the consequent escape of the perpetrators?

First and foremost, I believe that this tragic case showed that the RCMP and CSIS have no mechanism of surveillance when it comes to “lone wolves” with family names like McLeod or Schmegelsky, sympathizing with violent groups like neo-Nazis or holding a fascination with violence. Some reports mentioned at least that one of the men had a picture of himself in military attire holding Nazi paraphernalia and yet they were left alone, unbothered. No CSIS visits to their parents, no surprise visits to their workplaces. At least nothing of that sort that was reported in the media.

A few days ago, we learned from the news that several Muslim student leaders had been visited by CSIS and asked questions about their fellow Muslim students. In that news report, an RCMP spokesperson explained that the motive behind this obviously racially profiled act was “to build a relation of trust and educate them on different forms of criminality,” including “radicalization signs and behaviours.” When I was the national coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group in 2016, I got a phone call from a Muslim student leader. He explained that he had been harassed by CSIS agents who even approached him at his relative’s house where he was living. They wanted to ask questions probing what he knew about other Muslim students on campus.

Imagine today if CSIS agents had done the same thing with the two B.C. murder suspects. What if they visited the pair at the Port Alberni Walmart where they both worked and asked their coworkers what they knew about them? What video games did they play? What were their ideologies? Were they sympathizers of neo-Nazis groups? Did they have intentions of going on a killing rampage?

When the father of one of the suspects was interviewed by the TV program 60 Minutes, he unashamedly mentioned that he once offered his son a replica gun. He didn’t feel at all complicit in feeding his son’s fascination with guns and violence.

It is a known fact that in France when a Muslim man commits or is suspected of having committed a terrorist act his parents or siblings may be arrested, interrogated and in some cases even convicted. Here in Canada, the parents of Alexandre Bissonnette had the guts to publicly call on Prime Minister Trudeau to stop calling their son a terrorist, despite the fact that he has been convicted of killing six Muslim men in a place of worship.

Imagine for a second a Muslim parent saying the same thing to the media. Omar Khadr’s mother and his sisters both dared to publicly criticize Canadian society and explain the motives behind their decision to live in Afghanistan. They were vilified in public opinion and never forgiven. Khadr paid the price with 10 long years of incarceration in Guantanamo for being the son of his father and his mother, and being the brother of his sister.

It is not a secret among young Muslim men that going to play paintball can lead to a visit by CSIS agents and a profile as a suspected terrorist. A passion for martial arts by certain young men can also be seen as a “sign” of radicalization or sympathy for “jihad.”

Why as a society do we tolerate certain actions when it comes to spying on Muslims or other marginalized groups, but groups like neo-Nazis, white supremacists or incels get a free pass no matter how violent the acts they applaud and even commit, and no matter how violent the ideologies they espouse?

In 2015, when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a Canadian soldier at the National War Memorial, and despite an emotional public plea from his mother explaining how her son suffered from the divorce of his parents, drug addiction and mental health problems, no mosque accepted Zehaf-Bibeau’s body for burial. Everyone was scared that by giving a final service to the killer, they would be accused of “sympathizing with a terrorist.” He was buried in Libya.

Today, in the media, the community of Port Alberni is portrayed as being in solidarity with the families of the suspected killers and no media reports accused anyone there of sympathizing with the killers.

On the contrary, it is understood that this is a sign of a good, tight-knit community. And most of all, there is no word about who is giving the final service for these two young men suspected of terrible murders.

Until the racism and double standards of surveillance and law enforcement agencies are denounced by Canadians and until the media adopts the same scrutiny of “white” terrorism as they do of “brown” terrorism, we will not be a just and fair society. Our silence and complacency for some will send the wrong message to elements who will kill and spread terror and fear.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca