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

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

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

How anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the Quebec election

It was a strange election in Quebec. I followed it from afar but with a lot of interest and a certain dose of skepticism. Since arriving in Canada and living in Montreal in the early 1990s, I found that during provincial and even federal elections, the question of Quebec independence occupied a big portion of the political debate. Usually Quebec independence came as a final threat launched by the “federalist” Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ) to dissuade the last batch of hesitant voters from siding with the “sovereigntist” Parti Québécois (PQ). And this polarization worked relatively well, at least to a certain extent, for the PLQ. But over the last two decades, the referendum on Quebec independence has been losing ground, especially among younger voters, but even baby boomers, usually supporters of the idea, have been showing signs of tiredness.

Over the years, the focus of polarization in Quebec politics has shifted from independence to identity. It was Mario Dumont, forefather of today’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), who was instrumental in bringing the inflated “reasonable accommodation” debate to Quebec political affairs. Political fear-mongering stopped targeting federalist Anglos, who supposedly threatened French culture with their imperialistic language, songs, movies and powerful economic institutions. Instead, it was directed — skilfully, with media complicity — at a new threat: immigrants.

CAQ leader François Legault and his team ran much of their election campaign on the backs of immigrants. They spoke on their behalf — only about 12 per cent of their candidates are from racialized groups, a similar percentage to the other parties — and they demonized them. They created a dangerous rhetoric and repeated it until they won the election on October 1, 2018.

Throughout their campaign, the CAQ insinuated that there are “good immigrants” — the ones who arrive from certain regions of the world, look like Québécois de souche in skin and hair colour, don’t speak barbaric languages, don’t cook with garlic and smelly spices, and accept the jobs that are left over. They have some children — one or two, just enough to keep the jobs in the family — and don’t leave the province of Quebec, as a sign of loyalty. Those are the jackpot of immigrants, the ones Mr. Legault and his supporters want.

But there are also “bad immigrants,” the ones no one likes. They are loud. They have many children, who don’t behave themselves and end up being shot by the police. They complain a lot, they live in ghettos, they don’t want to integrate, and most of all, they wouldn’t hesitate to leave the province after benefitting from its social programs. Even worse, they have barbaric cultural practices, they oppress their women, and they want to change the culture of the majority with their backwards habits.

Clearly, this is the kind of immigrant Mr. Legault and his supporters were thinking and speaking of during the election when they promised to reduce the annual number of immigrants coming to Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000.

Otherwise, how can we explain the fact that on the day after his election, Mr. Legault — instead of acting as premier to all Quebecers — continued with the dangerous, divisive rhetoric of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants.”

He didn’t shy away from invoking the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a prohibition against public employees wearing religious symbols such as as hijabs or kippas in the workplace.

I wish he was a little more honest and clearly stated that by religious symbols, he meant only “hijabs.”

Because, let’s be clear, the PQ’s target, when they first presented their “Charter of Values” in 2013, was women wearing headscarves and niqabs, even though they claimed that they were ready to ban all religious symbols. There was a tacit public understanding that the main targets were Muslim women. When the PLQ won the election in 2014, the Charter of Values was buried but the PLQ produced another legal chef d’oeuvre by introducing Bill 62, which ended up targeting another tiny group: women wearing niqabs. Even though no one in Quebec was capable of answering the very simple question of how many women were wearing the niqab in Quebec, the bill passed and became a law that is currently being challenged by a niqab-wearing Quebecer.

But what Mr. Legault and his team are not getting is that many “good immigrants” are choosing to leave Quebec. Indeed, according to University Laval political science professor Thierry Giasson, 25 to 40 per cent of French immigrants to Quebec decide to leave the province.

And on the other hand, many “bad immigrants” are fighting for their right to stay in Quebec and feel safe in their jobs, offering a great lesson on civic engagement to the new premier and his team.

These nuances show the dangers of polarization and the instrumentalization of “immigrants” in gaining votes. But one thing is for sure. Even if Mr. Legault and his team were able to exploit fear, ignorance and racism to get power in this election, they won’t have an easy time implementing their proposed agenda. This time, they found in immigrants an “alibi” to win. Next time, real problems like climate change, health care and education will catch them.

This article was published on rabble.ca

What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

Last week, I was on the bus travelling from Gatineau to Ottawa. I was taking that bus line for the first time and wasn’t familiar with the route and stops. Assuming that my stop was coming, I rang the bell, signalling my intention to get off. It turned out that I was wrong and that I was still far from my intended stop. The bus stopped anyway, and I didn’t get off.

A middle-aged man standing beside me asked, “why you didn’t get off?” Taking his question at face value, I replied, “it was a mistake.” To my surprise, he was quick to fire back: “Next time, don’t do it!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The bus driver didn’t say anything to me and here is this man, a simple rider, who feels entitled to talk to me in a patronizing tone to teach me how to behave on the bus. “Don’t talk to me like this,” I replied to him, fuming. “Shut up,” he ordered me angrily. “You shut up,” I replied back. “I am going to report you to the bus driver,” I continued.

In the midst of this heated interaction, a white lady stood up, got closer to me, and moving between me and the man, asked me, “is there anything I can do to help?” The whole dynamic changed. Until then, I was the “isolated” Muslim woman facing her white male bully, and now this white woman decided to break the “domination” relationship and turned it into an allyship. In matter of seconds, a Black woman joined the circle and said, lightly, “what is the problem here? I always make mistakes when requesting bus stops.” Another racialized man, who so far had been watching quietly, became encouraged and said to the white man, “why are you behaving this way?” The white man was isolated and started to retreat.

No longer on the offensive, he started saying he was “just wondering.” “No,” I corrected him, “you were simply mean.” He didn’t say a word. I was still shaken, but because of the solidarity I felt surrounded with, I decided to go to the bus driver and tell him about what happened. He was very cooperative. “If you want me to report him, I can do it immediately; I can even kick him off the bus.” I was not on a power trip. I was just trying to go home. I told the bus driver that this time I will let it go and then I got off. The white and Black ladies who stood by me both got off the bus; I thanked them for their actions and words, and each one of us went on her way.

This incident might look trivial, but shook me to the core, physically and morally. I thought I was much stronger than this but obviously I was not. I thought that words would come more easily to my rescue, but they were trembling and slow. I speak three languages: Arabic, my mother tongue, and French and English. It is known that in tense and emotional circumstances, when a person is at risk or in a situation of fear, she finds it easier to communicate her emotions in her mother tongue. Not only did I have to reply to this man in English but also in a manner that accurately reflected my emotions. I became so overwhelmed. Once at home, I felt I needed to cry.

Crying would help ease the tremendous anger raging inside me but also would bring me to my humanity — the simple humanity I constantly have to prove exists under my hijab.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve felt insecure on the street; I am not exaggerating. As a woman wearing a hijab, I became an easy target for glares, rude behaviour, bigotry, and Islamophobic comments. I don’t claim that I am constantly a victim. Nevertheless, fears are always in the back of my mind, and unconsciously or consciously, they shape my actions and my attitudes, my words and even my silences. The hypervigilant state I am always in drains me emotionally, and nothing can calm me down until I am at home.

Despite who I think I am or describe myself to be, my appearance speaks more quickly than me in public spaces. The decade-long hammering about the question of “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, followed by the failed attempt to ban “religious symbols” specifically targeting women in hijab by then premier Pauline Marois in the 2013 provincial election, later taken over by former prime minister Stephen Harper during his “niqab ban” in 2015, created this atmosphere of a vigilante attitude by some Canadians.

These tactics of identity politics are not merely political experiments that magically disappear once an election is over or after a politician is defeated. They are not merely words that fade away with time; they have a long-lasting impact on people and they can lead inevitably to actions.

The dehumanization that Muslim women are subject to — either through classic Orientalist depictions in paintings like The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Eugène Delacroix or through stereotypes like the cute Jasmine character in Aladdin by Hollywood — is ingrained in people’s imagination. The common, simplistic and wrong perception that the hijab is a symbol of oppression is still alive and thriving, even though many books have been written by Muslim women to declare otherwise.

I don’t know what exactly pushed that man on the bus to ask me that question and to treat me the way he did. Is it just the fact that I was a woman? That would be misogyny. Or is it the fact that I was wearing a headscarf that invested him with the mission to “teach me a lesson”? I can’t ever know for sure. However, as someone who lived through that experience, looked into his eyes and saw his expression, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn’t have talked to me if I wasn’t a woman wearing a headscarf.

As someone who just read that “one in four Muslim women wearing a headscarf in New York City has been pushed on a subway platform,” I do not have the luxury to give that man the benefit of the doubt. I have every right to feel insecure.

My headscarf “told” him that I was “oppressed” anyway: most likely, my husband, my father or my brother are already oppressing me, so why wouldn’t he be able to do it, too? My hijab allows him to oppress me.

Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist, coined the term “misogynoir” to describe misogyny towards Black women, where race and gender both play a role in bias. “Misogynijab” would perhaps be a term to use in those cases where both misogyny and hijab-wearing meet intersectionally.

I believe that populist politicians, with their simplistic and dangerous rhetoric, empower their bases to act upon their words. The dangers of populist politicians like Donald Trump or Doug Ford are not “simple talk” or “controversial tweets” shared in virtual platforms. The impacts of these politicians are what happens to vulnerable people in the streets, on public transit, or in detention centres. Their words are calls for actions. Their words act as green lights for some to “defend” their territories from people who seem weaker than them.

I have never considered myself oppressed. In fact, I think I am privileged. I came to Canada to pursue my graduate studies. I have a family. I have a house and I drive a car. If I didn’t take the bus that day, this incident wouldn’t have happened to me and I would have thought that the world is still a wonderful place and Canada the most “tolerant” city. But obviously, it is not.

Imagine I was a Syrian refugee or any other hijab-wearing woman who doesn’t speak a lot of English, on the bus in the same place. What would have happened? What if the two women who offered support were not there? What if everyone else behaved like bystanders, felt unconcerned by what was happening? What if the bus driver wasn’t cooperative, or worse, indifferent? Most likely, the white man would have been more empowered and even more invested with missions to defend his “public space.”

When I give presentations about Islamophobia, people wonder how it concretely happens. I usually share statistics with them or refer them to examples from the media. Next time, I will tell them this story.

This blog was published on rabble.ca