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

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

Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

I first heard about the case of Mohamed Harkat in December 2002. It was a dark time for me and my family. My husband, Maher Arar, was detained in Syria; I had become a single mother with two young children, living on social assistance. The whole world was swept with anti-terrorism policies: if you were an Arab Muslim man, you would be at high risk of racial profiling, interrogation and eventually deportation to torture.

I learned about the case of Mohamed Harkat when I saw his wife, Sophie Harkat, on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, making an emotional plea for the release of her husband. I immediately felt a sense of sympathy for her. I felt we were fighting a similar battle. We were two women caught in the legal aftermath of 9/11, trying to bring justice to their loved ones, but surrounded by a wave of suspicion and a climate of fear.

Mohamed Harkat was arrested in front of his home in Ottawa under a security certificate. At the time, very few Canadians would have known about the controversial procedure that allows two cabinet ministers to sign a certificate ordering the deportation of a refugee or permanent resident out of Canada. This measure existed before the events of 9/11 and before the new national security legislation that followed. Nevertheless after 9/11, it became the tool par excellence to order the deportation of those deemed “dangerous” terrorists or sleeper agents. The security certificate is supposed to offer ministers a speedy way to order the deportation of an alleged terrorist. However, since 2002, these measures have been proven — through several court decisions and long public campaigns — problematic at many levels.

Mohamed Harkat’s case proved that as well. After his arrest, he was detained for a year in solitary confinement, then transferred to “Guantanamo North,” the Millhaven prison built at the exorbitant cost of $3.2 million specifically to house Arab Muslim men detained under security certificates. When Harkat was released from prison, he was put under house arrest with conditions considered to be the strictest in Canadian history. As Sophie Harkat mentioned in public speaking appearances, during this time she became her own husband’s de facto jailer, responsible for making sure he didn’t use the internet or drive outside the designated perimeter without the knowledge of Canada Border Services agents.

After 16 long years fighting his security certificate, today Mohamed Harkat is still threatened with deportation to his native Algeria. The secret evidence that led to his arrest has been destroyed by Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the informants used in this case were never cross-examined, and we learned through court proceedings that some of that “evidence” was collected through a suspect named Abu Zubeydah, who is still detained in Guantanamo Bay and who was waterboarded 83 times and subjected to torture such as sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and confinement in small dark boxes.

Mohamed Harkat escaped Algeria in 1990, at the start of the civil war that ravaged his country of birth for over a decade. He left to live in Pakistan and later came to Canada as a refugee claimant fearing for his life if he returned to Algeria. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment and treatment in Canada make him a perfect candidate for immediate arrest and detention in Algeria if deported there by the Canadian government.

According to Amnesty International, Algerian authorities “took no steps to open investigations and counter the impunity for grave human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of torture committed by security forces and armed groups in the 1990s during Algeria’s internal conflict, which left an estimated 200,000 people killed or forcibly disappeared.”

So why does the Canadian government want to send Mohamed Harkat back to Algeria? Do they want to turn him into another “disappeared” man?

After the Supreme Court of Canada deemed security certificates unconstitutional in 2007, Canada’s new security certificate legislation was modelled on the British system. Two years ago, the British government was barred from deporting six Algerian men suspected of having links with Al-Qaida to Algeria over concerns of torture.

Despite what British government lawyers qualified as “agreements with Algeria against torture,” the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that “potential future political instability in the country could undermine the assurances’ longevity.”

Why is Canada following the British model for security certificates yet turning a blind eye to decisions coming from that country — decisions that would help keep Mohamed Harkat in Canada, away from torture?

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government are under a lot of pressure from the Conservatives, who are trying to paint them as soft on terrorism. This is not new. The Conservative government has taken a hard line on terrorism — and anyone suspected of having links to it — in the past. They did it when they passed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in 2015, they did it when they refused to repatriate Omar Khadr from Guantanamo, and they do it today on the issue of the return of Canadians who travelled overseas to fight in Syria. History has proven them wrong. Prime Minister Trudeau shouldn’t bow to this political pressure. Mohamed Harkat has suffered enough. His place is in Canada. He should never be deported to torture.

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

The othering of immigrants in Canada

This summer, I was a writer in residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today’s standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly “legal” — approved by Canada’s Parliament, the country’s main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the “homogeneity of Canadians.” This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the “othering” of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn’t happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The “othering” of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants “stealing jobs” from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn’t cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today’s politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain “social harmony”? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) “think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014),” whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) “think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014),” and only a mere six per cent “think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014).”

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that “it’s hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa,” basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn’t matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other’s false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa’s family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada’s history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the “Other” as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the “Others” as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure — it won’t take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven’t learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The “othering” of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: “How did these horror stories happen?”

This article was initially published on rabble.ca

The torturers’ bargain: Crime and no punishment, but many rewards

Despite being deeply implicated in some of the worst crimes of the Bush administration’s torture regime, Gina Haspel has been promoted to Director of the CIA.

Haspel managed the CIA’s Site Green detention camp in Thailand, the blueprint for the rest of the Agency’s “black sites” around the world: a matrix of secret prisons where the captives could be brutalized with impunity.

Black site detainees were broken physically and psychologically; kept naked, beaten, hooded, waterboarded, threatened with electric chairs and military dogs, sexually abused (including through medically unnecessary rectal feedings so forceful the effects resembled those of violent rape), locked in boxes filled with insects, and forced to lie in their own excrement. One lost an eye, at least two died, and many hallucinated or begged to be killed.

Even more damningly, it turned out that almost one-quarter of the detainees had been sucked into the CIA’s system of black holes completely by mistake, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

One of the prisoners over whose torture Haspel presided, Abdal Rahim al-Nashiri, was described by a U.S. Navy reserve doctor as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen … in my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The prohibition of torture in international law is universal and absolute, and the UN Convention Against Torture requires all forms of involvement in it to be criminalized. But instead of being punished, many of the officials responsible for America’s torture program have been advanced to positions of even greater power — a tradition started by Presidents Bush and Obama, and now extended by Donald Trump.

Government lawyer Jay Bybee, for example, who helped construct the legal framework used to justify torture, was given a lifetime seat as a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bybee’s co-architect of legalized torture, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, was elevated to U.S. Attorney General.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who approved the torturous interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, went on to become President of the World Bank.

John Brennan, who endorsed extraordinary rendition and torture as a CIA official during the Bush years, was appointed first as White House Homeland Security Advisor and then as CIA Director by Barack Obama.

George Tenet, who authorized and directed the use of torture as Director of the CIA, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush — while Bush himself is now being memorialized in nostalgic hindsight as Trump’s contrast in presidential virtue and restraint, rather than his precedent in lawless brutality.

In Canada, too, individuals complicit in torture have long been rewarded instead of removed.

For instance, psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron — who conducted electroshock experiments on humans at McGill University in the 1950s, for a CIA-funded project on mind control — ascended to President of the World Psychiatric Association.

More recently, the O’Connor and Iacobucci Inquiries determined that Canadian security agencies wrongfully labelled four innocent Muslim men as terrorists on the basis of racist stereotypes in the wake of 9/11, and then took advantage of their resulting incarceration in countries infamous for torture to try to extract information out of them.

But none of the authorities inculpated have been prosecuted. On the contrary, several were promoted — among them Mike Cabana, the inspector in charge of the RCMP’s torture-enabling A-O Canada investigation, who climbed the ranks to Deputy Commissioner; and Stephen Covey, the RCMP’s liaison with the torture-mongering Syrian regime, who became a Superintendent.

At least three of the participants in the torture scandal, including Cabana, were subsequently honoured with the Order of Merit of the Police Forces for “exceptional service.”

Giuliano Zaccardelli — who was pressured to resign from his post as Commissioner of the RCMP after lying to a parliamentary committee about the torture of Maher Arar — was given a senior position in Interpol, the global police force.

Last month, Kelly Pocha was fired from her job in a British Columbia car dealership, following outrage about her racist tirade in a Denny’s restaurant denigrating a group of Muslims as “not Canadian” — while the planners and executors of a global system of abuse designed to treat scores of Muslim detainees as non-human have not only been spared punishment, but permitted to rise to the heights of institutions entrusted with enormous amounts of power.

The logic required to rationalize the apparent paradox — the bigger the scale of the transgression, the smaller the penalty — can only be described as tortured.

This article was written in collaboration with the legal analyst Azeezah Kanji and first published at rabble.ca

Public apologies serve crucial role in democratic societies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column first appeared on rabble.ca

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: The missing stories

Two weeks ago, I was in Winnipeg, invited by the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Thin Air) to speak about my latest novel: Hope Has Two Daughters.

As part of my others activities for the same festival, I was asked to speak at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. Last time I was in the city, the museum wasn’t open for the public yet, though I heard back then that some private tours were being scheduled for special guests. Obviously, I was not special enough to be one of them, so I decided that next time I would visit the museum and get to know more about its exhibitions and galleries.

In my talk, I spoke about the link between my work as a writer and as a human rights advocate. I spoke about what happened to my husband Maher Arar; the U.S. government’s extraordinary rendition program that he was victim of; the physical and psychological torture he endured while detained in the Palestinian Branch in Syria, his country of birth; the dangers of information sharing between intelligence agencies in a post 9/11 world where torture has became banal (or, to say the least, “justified”); and, of course, the role of Canadian institutions in this terrible ordeal.

As someone who trained to become a financial economics professor, I spoke about how writing came to me as a tool of activism, of justice-seeking, but (most of all) of understanding and analyzing the new global order we are living in, particularly the national security agenda pushed by the U.S. and many other countries.

I also insisted on the importance of storytelling as a powerful medium for many oppressed communities to share their struggles with other privileged groups.

In this context, as a Muslim woman who has to daily fight Islamophobia and is constantly confronted by national security policies, writing remains for me the best and only means to oppose stereotypes and these policies without necessarily victimizing myself, but rather, resisting them and liberating myself from cowardice and a sense of helplessness.

Following my talk, I tried to take a quick tour of the museum. I have to say that the great architecture of the place — shaped creatively like the wings of a dove — gives it a majestic feel that can counterbalance some of the heavy stories I was going to see exhibited.

In a short period, I couldn’t render justice to the entire seven floors of exhibits, artefacts, and interactive multi-media videos, thousands of documents, pictures and poignant and beautiful stories told through pictures and of pieces of arts. In my rush, I might have missed important things. Nevertheless, one of the most important issues I was eager to read about in this museum was the “war on terror.” I wanted to see how this ongoing war was handled and told. I consider my husband and my whole family as survivors of this war, that former American President Georges W. Bush qualified as “Our war on terror begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” 

I really wanted to know more about the “ghost planes” documented by the journalist Stephen Grey in his book with the same title. Exactly like my husband was transported from New Jersey to Amman, Jordan. Perhaps even thinking of seeing a picture of these planes. I wanted to see the name of some of the American private companies who operated them, such as Aero Contractors based in New Jersey, as well. I was also expecting to see images of the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan where my husband was kept there and many others prisoners of the war on terror.  A place that the political writer Arun Kundani described as “the Guantanamo in New York you’re not allowed to know about.”

This is a place where Human Rights Watch described the treatment of the Muslim suspects detained there in the following words: “subjected to punitive conditions, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to security measures typically reserved for dangerous persons. Most were let out of their cells only one hour per day. Although material witnesses have a right to counsel, including court-appointed counsel if necessary, some in fact did not have access to counsel.”

I was hoping to see pictures of Guantanamo inmates in orange jumpsuits surrounded by the barbed wires, not because they were a powerful reminder of the fragility of our human rights and that despite the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by several countries after the atrocities of the Second World War, more abuses are being conducted today on other groups of people without any possibility of accountability or due process.

While I was circulated on the astonishing ramps made of alabaster and feeling being literally transported in the air from one floor to another and from one struggle to another, I thought of my own struggle, knocking on politicians doors, speaking to journalists, organizing vigils in the bitter Canadian cold with other human rights activists, and speaking to media to push Canadian politicians to bring my husband home. I thought of these longs hours I spent in front of the computer, after my young children went to bed, desperately trying to surf the Internet for names of journalists or human rights organizations to cover the story of my husband. I remembered those years between 2004 and 2006 when the public inquiry was taking place and the national and international media attention that followed us all the way to our doors. I thought of the thousands of pages written by Justice O’Connor and his legal counsel Paul Cavaluzzo to understand what really happened to Maher Arar, what led to his arrest by the U.S. and his subsequent torture in the Syrian dungeon.

Seeing some these documents exposed in one of the galleries of the museum or the remarkable recommendations by Justice O’Connor being showcased would have made my trip there a personal proud moment that to share with my family and friend, but also a terrific Canadian victory of justice over arbitrariness and discrimination.

But I was clearly dreaming. Nothing of the sort was exhibited or even mentioned. No images, no press clips, no information about the black hole prisons network that swallowed the victims of renditions keeping them hidden underneath and tortured, not a single mention about the horrific treatment of Guantanamo prisoners like the waterboarding. Nothing.

Among this shameful desert of lack of information, I finally saw a newspaper picture. One that I have never seen before, showing people holding signs “Justice to Maher Arar” with the following interesting description “Maher Arar supporters, around 2008. The Canadian government has apologized to Arar, a Canadian citizen, for not protecting him from torture in Syria”. Not a single word about Canada’s role or any other similar Canadian cases of Al Maati, Al Malki and Nurredin. The picture probably taken from an American paper, threw the responsibility ball to U.S. and Syrian camps.

No picture of Guantanamo, not a word about Omar Khadr, another victim of the war on terror, and the incredible work his Canadian lawyer Dennis Edney has been doing and all the work of Canadians activists, filmmakers and human rights groups who supported the cause until the end.

I simply can’t understand these missing stories. Is it a deliberate act of self-amnesia? Is it politically motivated? I don’t know.

But certainly, Canadians have all the right to know and understand these missing stories. Human rights are not only stories that we can choose depending on our likes or political affiliations or religious affinities. For example, today, it is politically safe to criticize and hit upon countries like Iran, or Russia and North Korea. They came to represent the “evil”, the “other”, that is the total opposite of what our liberal values incarnate like democracy, and freedom of association and of religion…

But how about some of our friend or allies countries, for instance the U.S. or Israel or France. Don’t they have big skeletons in their closets? Guantanamo, the Nakba, the Algerian war? Aren’t these shameful historic moments that our children and grandchildren should learn about in an honest and transparent way?

So far the Canadian Museum of Human Rights has missed some of these stories.

This column was published at rabble.ca