There’s No Justifying Canada’s Flawed Counter-Radicalization Plan

In his mandate letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included the creation of an Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator.

In the 2016 federal budget, the Liberal government pledged to spend $35 million over five years to set up such an office. So far, the Liberal government hasn’t made any official announcement about the office, although Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale hinted to some news outlets that the so-called office would focus on “radicalization to violence of all kinds,” as opposed to the previous Conservative government’s strategy of exclusively targeting Muslim Canadians.

According to some media reports, it seems that the Canadian government’s counter-radicalization model gets its inspiration from what the British government has already implemented in recent years: the Prevent strategy, a program that proved to be a failure at many levels and by all standards.

Two NGOs, the U.S.-based Open Society Justice Initiative and Rights Watch U.K., studied Prevent and its sister program, named Channel, and found in 2016 major flaws with them both. One of the main criticisms is that these programs are based onprofiling and targeting Muslims, particularly in schools, in kindergartens and in health institutions. But most importantly, there is a lack of consensus among academic experts that these counter-radicalization programs are scientifically reliable.

The notion of certain “indicators” identified as risk factors that would draw individuals to terrorism has been discredited by many scholars: “Indeed, the claim that non-violent extremism — including ‘radical’ or religious ideology — is the precursor to terrorism has been widely discredited by the British government itself, as well as numerous reputable scholars.”

The creation of such a program relies on several false premises. It wrongly assumes that Muslim youth are prone to espouse violent ideologies or perpetrate violent crimes more than their peers. Recently, Statistics Canada released the disturbing figuresabout hate crimes in Canada that happened in 2015. In summary, the new figures convey to us two main points:

  • That Muslims communities are among the groups that saw the highest increase of hate crimes perpetrated against them.
  • That the perpetrators of these heinous acts are young men between the age of 18 and 24.

These figures are not surprising to say the least. Many grassroots groups have in the last couple of years shown and documented the rise of Islamophobic acts. Simultaneously, academics brought attention to the rise of violent right-wing extremist and racist groups in Canada.

Neither the provincial or federal governments took these indicators or studies seriously and never acted upon them to present new legislation to fight this phenomenon. The narrative that “Muslim youth are attracted to violence and Jihad” remains very widespread. Meanwhile, groups like Pegida, La Meute, Soldiers of Odin and the Jewish Defense League, to name only a few, are thriving and gaining in popularity and seeing their membership increase. Their protests are also becomingmore public and more provocative. Up until today, an investigative piece reported about a new violent anti-Muslim group — III%, or the “three per cent,” — which claims that they are heavily armed and ready to wage a war on Canadian soil.

After the attack on the Quebec City Mosque, last January 2017 and the assassination of six Muslim men, federal, provincial and local politicians denounced the attacks and said some comforting words to the Muslim communities across the country. Nevertheless, no concrete action was taken to tackle Islamophobia. No extra funding (of very little) was given to schools to fight Islamophobia through education programs. No new measures were adopted by local police to make arrests and ensure that prosecutions of hate crimes are successful.

The only concrete initiative that was undertaken was the introduction of motion,M-103 in the Parliament by Liberal Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid. One of thepurposes of the motion was to “study how the government could develop a government-wide approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia, and collect data to provide context for hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities.” The motion was never intended to be a piece of legislation, but simply a proposal to draw attention about an increasing phenomenon.

The media and political backlash that ensued after this initiative couldn’t be justified by the real impact this motion proposed to have. Indeed, it created a huge controversy among politicians; some of them hid behind the classic pretext that the use of the word “Islamophobia” would mean the end of freedom of expression and free speech, and the destruction of our democracy and liberal values.

In 2014, when two Muslim individuals attacked and killed two Canadians Forces members, one in Saint-Jean in Quebec and the other near the Parliament Hill in Ottawa, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced Bill C-51, which became the Anti Terrorism Act 2015 — one of the most intrusive pieces of legislation threatening the civil liberties of all Canadians. It was widely denounced by several law professors, former judges and human rights activists. Some of the politicians who last February vehemently opposed M-103 voted in 2015 for Bill C-51 and weren’t that concerned about the real impact the legislation had on the freedom of expression and civil liberties.

Moreover, there has never been a public debate about the root causes of terrorism in Canada. Citing Canada’s successive military missions in the Middle East — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria — as one of the reasons that push some young Canadians to join violent groups is practically taboo. Linking these attacks to mental-health issues, drug addictions or social and economical marginalization are brushed off as legitimization of violence. Rather, the general public is made to believe that these violent acts are solely explained by the faith and religious beliefs of the perpetrators, which happened to be Islam.

This reductionist approach to define, tackle and explain terrorism continues to justify the creation of a $35-million public office. Rather, the money could have been spent on development of education programs in schools to fight hate, on special training for law enforcement forces to understand racial profiling and on NGOs that offer mental and economic support to marginalized youth.

This article was published on the Huffington Post 

Omar Khadr’s Case A Black Stamp On Canada’s Human Rights Record

Canada is in celebratory mood this year, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Confederation. The Canadian government has been funding cultural initiatives here and there to promote the diverse communities living together and to bring the multicultural aspect of Canada.

Internationally, Canada is portraying itself as an open country, accepting refugees from war ravaged countries like Syria. A sort of the antithesis of the American policies recently announced by U.S. President Trump to ban refugees. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes himself as a feminist, taking selfies with young Muslim girls in hijab. A sharp contrast with the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, whodefunded the Ministry of Status of Women and dehumanized Muslim women by fomenting the niqab debate.

However, amidst this festive and open atmosphere, there is a dark cloud that keeps the rays of the sun from reaching everyone. The case of Omar Khadr is a black stamp on Canada’s human rights record.

Omar Khadr was a child when he was imprisoned by the Americans in the military base of Bagram and later airlifted to Guantanamo Camp, where he was forcibly kept for over a decade. He was subject to physical and psychological abuses. He was betrayed by successive Canadian governments: Liberal and Conservative alike wanted him to stay in jail, far away from the public eye and TV cameras. No other western country dealt with its citizens detained in Guantanamo like Canada shamefully did.

Along these years, some prominent Canadian voices rose up to denounce the treatment of Omar Khadr, but they were not enough to deter the Paul Martin government, and later the Harper government, in refusing to call for the repatriation of Omar Khadr. In fact, then-prime minister Harper and his cabinet ministers kept justifying Omar Khadr’s incarceration by the fact that he was convicted in the killing of a U.S. paramedic. Needless to say, this conviction came as the result of a plea bargain Omar Khadr had made with his American jailors to gain his transfer out of the Guantanamo prison.

Even when Omar Khadr was returned to Canada after the insistence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was immediately imprisoned and kept there for three more years.

These days, the case of Omar Khadr has slipped under the radar. Even some human rights activists think that the return of Omar Khadr back home would mark the end of his tragic story. But it wouldn’t. Omar Khadr never received any apology for the treatment he was subjected to in Guantanamo.

For instance, in 2008, Canadians officials flew to Guantanamo specifically to interrogate him and were never interested in his well-being. They offered to buy him a burger and some treats to get information out of him. When he understood that they were there for their own professional interests and not for helping him, Omar Khadr, became uncooperative with them. The Canadian officials pushed him to say what he clearly didn’t know. This behaviour is reprehensible and should be denounced. Unfortunately, Canada never distanced itself from the actions of its officials despite the reprimand of the Supreme Court ruling declaring that Omar Khadr’s rights were violated under the Charter of Rights.

Dennis Edney, the Canadian legal counsel for Omar Khadr, has been a hero in defending his client. Not only did he defend Omar Khadr under difficult circumstances, but he also accepted him in his home and protected him as one of his own children. Recognizing the work accomplished by Dennis Edney on behalf of Omar Khadr should be celebrated by all Canadians and not fought or hidden.

Recently, Omar Khadr had to undertake a 19-hour-long surgery on his shoulder as a result of bullet wounds he suffered when he was shot in the back by the U.S. military. This serious surgery will undeniably delay Omar Khadr’s efforts to progress in his studies and life.

Omar Khadr was stripped of his rights as a child, as a teenager and later as an adult. Today, he is trying hard to put his life back on track and get the education that was denied to him all these past years. As long as Omar Khadr file is still lingering, Canada won’t be able to hide its dark face and celebrate its record on the world scene. It is time for the Canadian government to act swiftly and let the sun shine on Omar Khadr’s life.

This article was published on the Huffingtonpost: 

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/monia-mazigh/omar-khadr-canada_b_15948786.html

Lettre à un écrivain emprisonné

Que la paix soit sur vous cher Zuhair Kutbi.

Que la paix soit sur votre esprit et votre corps. Cet esprit et ce corps que la prison, le harcèlement, l’intimidation et l’acharnement tentent chaque jour et chaque instant de faire taire, de faire courber, d’effriter et de détruire. Cet esprit et ce corps qui résistent à l’injustice et à l’arbitraire.

Cher Zuhair Kutbi, vous ne me connaissez pas et je ne vous connais pas. Nous ne nous sommes jamais rencontrés, mais en lisant sur vous, j’ai eu l’impression de lire une histoire que je connais tellement bien. Une histoire avec laquelle j’ai grandie et que j’ai maintes fois entendue dire et redire. Une histoire ou peut-être même une berceuse qu’on chante aux petits mais qui fait peur aux grands. Ceux qui oublient qu’ils étaient un jour petits. C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui réfléchit, un homme qui pense, un homme qui lutte pour un monde meilleur pour les siens et pour les autres. Un homme qui se veut une voix de raison dans un monde déboussolé. Un homme qui a choisit l’écriture comme arme contre l’obscurité, contre la corruption, contre l’oppression.

Un homme qui n’utilise pas des bombes ou des grenades pour tuer, pour mutiler ou pour décimer ses ennemis mais un homme qui choisit des mots, de la prose et des phrases pour convaincre, partager, illuminer et rêver. Un homme qui a été injustement arrêté et emprisonné. Un homme soustrait à sa famille et éloigné de ses amis. Pourquoi? Parce que vous avez osé réfléchir dans un monde où on ne réfléchit plus. Parce que vous avez osé critiquer dans un monde où on ne critique plus. Parce que vous avez simplement aimé votre peuple dans un monde où on n’aime plus.

Cher Zuhair, je vous admire pour votre courage et pour votre témérité. Je vous admire pour avoir parlé alors que des milliers comme vous ont choisi de se taire et plutôt plaire. Je vous admire parce que vous aurez pu avoir la vie facile et devenir un « écrivain perroquet ». Oui, un écrivain qui répète ce que les Maitre veulent entendre, un écrivain qui avant même de rédiger une phrase, pense au préalable au bonbon qui lui serait offert par les Maitres. Voilà tout simplement ce que c’est un « écrivain perroquet ». Ce genre si répandu et qui ne pense qu’au bonbon qui est le plus souvent enrobé de sucre mais dans lequel se trouve un poison dangereux. Un poison qui tue à petit feu, un poison qui nous efface la voix graduellement et nous confisque la raison. Un poison qui après un certain temps, nous rend aveugle, sourd et muet. Un poison qui nous fait perdre notre capacité de discernement.

Cher Zuhair, merci de résister. Ne vous sentez pas seul dans votre prison. Il y a des écrivains comme vous qui chaque jour, pensent à vous et vous parlent de loin. Il suffit de tendre l’oreille vers le loin. Loin, du pays des ours polaire et des phoques, du pays de la foret boréal et de la toundra. Pour ces écrivains, vous donnez le courage, pour ces écrivains vous redonner l’espoir, pour ces écrivains vous offrez un des plus beaux cadeaux. Le cadeau qui consiste à trouver un but pour son écriture, un but à l’amour, un but à la vie!

Chez Zuhair, votre lutte et votre résistance nous aide aussi dans nos propres luttes. Surtout ne vous sentez pas seul. Nous pensons à vous, nous nous inspirons de vous, vous êtes un « écrivain phare ». Celui qui nous éclaire le chemin, celui qui se tient fort et debout, celui qui ne baisse pas l’échine pendant la tempête, celui par qui le changement arriverait.

Ce changement dont vous rêvez et dont on rêve tous, viendra un jour, j’en suis sure. Ma certitude, je la puise de notre humanité commune, de nos luttes communes et de nos espoirs communs. Il y a quelques années, un homme que je n’ai pas connu, mais qui a vécu dans le même pays que le mien. Un homme qui comme vous vient du désert. Le désert qui créé des hommes forts et résilients. Ce désert chaud le jour et froid le soir, c’est le lieu des rencontres, c’est le lieu des contraste, c’est le lieu de la vie et de la mort. Cet homme là, dont je vous parle a lui aussi été un incompris, un homme avant son temps, un homme de mots, un homme de rêve. Il avait dit :

Lorsqu’un jour le peuple veut vivre,
Force est pour le Destin, de répondre,
Force est pour les ténèbres de se dissiper,
Force est pour les chaînes de se briser.
Avec fracas, le vent souffle dans les ravins,
au sommet des montagnes et sous les arbres
disant :
“Lorsque je tends vers un but,
je me fais porter par l’espoir
et oublie toute prudence ;
Je n’évite pas les chemins escarpés
et n’appréhende pas la chute
dans un feu brûlant.
Qui n’aime pas gravir la montagne,
vivra éternellement au fond des vallées”.

Je sens bouillonner dans mon cœur
Le sang de la jeunesse
Des vents nouveaux se lèvent en moi
Je me mets à écouter leur chant
A écouter le tonnerre qui gronde
La pluie qui tombe et la symphonie des vents.
Et lorsque je demande à la Terre :
“Mère, détestes-tu les hommes ?”
Elle me répond :
“Je bénis les ambitieux
et ceux qui aiment affronter les dangers.
Je maudis ceux qui ne s’adaptent pas
aux aléas du temps et se contentent de mener
une vie morne, comme les pierres.
Le monde est vivant.
Il aime la vie et méprise les morts,
aussi fameux qu’ils soient.
Le ciel ne garde pas, en son sein,
Les oiseaux morts
et les abeilles ne butinent pas
les fleurs fanées.
N’eût été ma tendresse maternelle,
les tombeaux n’auraient pas gardé leurs morts”.

Aboulkacem Chebbi

Et c’est par ces mots que j’aimerai terminer ma lettre à vous cher Zuhair. Je vous laisse sur ces notes qui vous connaissez certainement mais que j’ai tellement voulu partager avec vous. Pour vous expliquer la raison de mon espoir et pour ouvrir une brèche dans votre cellule et laisser pénétrer la lumière. Cette lumière que malheureusement vos geôliers ne sauraient voir mais que seulement, vous, moi et tous pleins d’autres pourrions distinguer. C’est cette lumière qui éclairera nos chemins vers la liberté.

Que la paix soit sur vous.

Dr. Zuhair Kutbi est emprisonné, interdit d’écriture, en Arabie Saoudite pour avoir critiqué le régime et suggéré qu’il devrait y avoir une monarchie constitutionnelle. Cette lettre a été lu lors d’un évènement au Salon du livre de Trois-Rivières, Livre Comme l’Air, en collaboration avec Amnistie Internationale.

Islamophobia: an entire system and not few isolated acts

It is sad that it took a tragic event to gather to denounce what has been normalized in the last long 15 years.

It took the killing of six good fathers, hard working men, to start talking about what has described the lives of Muslims communities across Canada.

Today, some people are saying that this happened in Quebec because it is a closed society or because they have trash radios that incite all day to hate and racism. These are simplistic explanations; they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Racism, xenophobia, discrimination has been rampant in the past years in Canada and specifically after 9/11. They have been normalized by some media and some politicians and legislation.

It is a general problem. It is not only specific to Quebec City or the province of Quebec; it has been growing in many cities across Canada:

Remember the two Muslim girls who were threatened last fall in Edmonton by a man who was singing the national anthem and showing them a noose. Today this man has not been charged.

Remember the Muslim woman wearing a scarf who has been attacked in the supermarket in London Ontario by a screaming and violent woman. Last June 2016

Remember PEGIDA, this xenophobic anti-Muslim group that was able to hold a protest in Toronto last June 2016.

Remember the Mosque of Peterborough that has been burned last November 2015.

Remember the Muslim woman here in Ottawa who found an offensive and racist note telling her to go back home also in November 2015

But most of all remember what Canada has done since 2001:

The introduction of Bill C-36 the first antiterrorism legislation that took many of our rights away and most of all demonized Muslims as if they are a threat to the security of Canada.

Remember all the security certificates cases that targeted Arab Muslim men: Mahjoub, Jabalah, Almari, Charkaoui, Harkat. Whose wife, Sophie was speaking at teh begining of the rally and who is until today still threatened by imprisonment and torture if deported? If the treatment of these men is not the culmination of Islamophobia to its ugliest form, how else can we justify their imprisonment without due process, the spying on them, their harassment, the stigmatization of their children and their families forever?

We shouldn’t forget the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015.

It was introduced by Harper with the blessing of Trudeau and the liberals. What was described as a lone wolf attack was followed by the most invasive, the most discriminatory and most likely unconstitutional piece of legislation that targeted Muslims, First Nations, environmentalists groups and many other activists.

But that was not the only islamophobic shameful legacy left by Harper and his government:

Remember The Barbaric cultural practices act, The Niqab ban at the citizenship ceremony, the use of the word mosque as an example where terrorist plots are being plotted and what Harper called “Islamicism” as the biggest threat to Canada.

My friends, this is what we are fighting today. Not some isolated acts. Not few bad apples. But a system. A whole system that dehumanized entire communities, a system that created two classes of citizens and two sorts of laws. One for the criminals and one for terrorists aka Muslims. One for citizens and one for refugees. One for the strong and wealthy one for the poor and the vulnerable.

Our solidarity today is needed more than any time before. Working hand in hand with groups and communities will be our path to victory. Today more than any time before, we need to talk to each other, get to know each other and support each other.

And please remember that all is not dark and depressing. There are people around us who are not filled with hate. There are people around us who do not believe the fake news and won’t accept the dehumanization of the Others. The won’t accept there is us and them. There is only US together. Those people are here today and we will not give up until things will be better and until injustice stops.

This is my speech given at the rally held in Ottawa against the Islamophobia and for the refugees on February 4, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

In an age of celebrities, intellectual honesty is a scare commodity

Recently, I followed through social media two controversies about two individuals: one from Canada and the from the US.

The first is a famous novelist and short stories writer, Joseph Boyden, who describes his bloodline including Indigenous ancestry. For Joseph Boyden, this association with the Native people and First Native groups, wasn’t only a matter of cultural pride or reclaiming his roots, he, de facto, became one of the most popular representative of the Indigenous affairs, when it comes to media, culture and politics.

This connection, whether genuine or not, became a sort of a “branding” that the author used, rightly or wrongly, to build his media persona. And I think, here is where Native groups had all the right to dispute this “fake representativity” or to be frustrated with his celebrity becoming a silencing tool for them. I am not sure, if we can still use the expression of “native informant” here as Joseph Boyden is somehow sympathetic to the Indigenous issues, but he played the perfect role of the “successful native” who  silenced the rest of the Native voices, their diversity, their multiple issues and specially their visibility.

It is fascinating to see how, a respected investigative journalist Jorge Barrera, looked into the aboriginal ancestry claims of Joseph Boyden and found more questions than answers. What Jorge Barrera did is a perfect exercise that many journalists would do for celebrities and public figures to try to answer questions but mainly to dig further down into the motives of these celebrities.

Recently, a Canadian journalist, broke off the story that Mariam Moncef, a newly elected Liberal MP and Minister of Political Reform, wasn’t born in Afghanistan but rather in Iran. Even though, I personally found the story irrelevant and borderline “anti-refugee fishing expedition”, it got a lot of media attention and Minister Moncef was put under the spotlight to explain her other birth narrative. At the opposite, for Joseph Boyden, many journalists from the establishment are trying to save his credibility and insinuating that those questions about Boyden’s origins are futile and unnecessary. Moreover, Joseph Boyden, did not take the time to refute the allegations against him. His statement was very confusing to not say useless.

For me, this controversy is the sign that Indigenous people are rising up quickly to the challenges and that imposed voices or “appropriated voices” won’t be imposed on them anymore. This is a sign that a community is fighting for its rights to be heard and to decide who can be one theirs or not. Being an Indigenous isn’t a brand that one can sell and make profit out of it.

The Muslim community in Canada has been facing similar challenges in the last years. Where some self appointed “Muslims” would speak on behalf of the whole community and would be automatically considered as media darlings. As a community, we have a lot to learn from Indigenous struggles and their ways of refusing to be infantilized or silenced. When some people with Islamic sounding names or with some ancestry link to Islamic countries, are used by the media as the “enlightened” ones, we should be courageous to question these people and questions the media complicity in making them icons.

The other controversy that I followed is the one dealing with Hamza Yusuf. A prominent US Muslim scholar when asked at the “Revival Islamic Spirit” RIS 2016, a conference held every year in Canada, about the Black Lives Matters, answered the following:

“The United States is, in term of its laws, one of the least racist societies in the world. We have some of the best anti-discriminatory laws on the planet… We have between 15-18,000 homicides a year, 50 per cent are black on black crime… There are twice as many whites that have been shot by police but nobody ever shows those videos. It’s the assumption that the police are racist and it’s not always the case…

“I think it’s very dangerous to just broadstroke any police that shoots a black as immediately being considered a racist, sometimes these are African American police officers. The police aren’t all racist.”

I am glad that I stopped going to this event years ago. After few years attending, I noticed that this is becoming a sort of “religious entertainment” event where some scholars are there mainly for building their celebrity status rather then denouncing injustice, or intellectually challenging the youth and the audience. Political questions are most of the times non discussed or if it is discussed it is done in an apologetic way that would make the Muslim individuals feel and behave not as full citizens but rather as “grateful” immigrants or refugees who should behave themselves.

The last year I attended RIS, I heard Hamza Yusuf, denouncing the moral depravity of America and denouncing people watching “Minions” movie, as for him, the one-eyed devilish creatures are a sort of a worship of the “Anti-Christ”. I found these comments so shallow and so dangerous that immediately after, I took the decision not to attend the event anymore.

It is insulting to our intellectuals to hear how Hamza Yusuf would worry about the spiritual wellbeing of Muslim youth watching “Minions” and meanwhile having doubts and reservations about a social justice groups like Black Lives Matters. This attitude turns Islam into a religion of stupid details, whereas Islam is a religion of big ideas and standing with the right issues.

 

Banning the Burkini in Cannes: Continuing Oppressing Women Under the Name of Liberation

So recently, the mayor of Cannes in France issued a ban on burkinis. Burkinis is a made-up name for special full-body swimming garment: a hybrid between Burqa and Bikini. In reality, a burkini is a swimming suit composed of leggings and a sort of a short dress worn on top of it. Some burkinis have a hoodie attached and with some other you add a hijab that would cover the head.

I didn’t grow up knowing burkinis. I used to go to the beach and wear a bathing suit. Later, when I decided to wear hijab, I used to put a long dress and hijab. In water, this can be so uncomfortable and heavy and when you go to sit on the beach it collects tons of sand and you feel you instantly gained extra pounds of weight.

At some point I decided to stop swimming, as I felt so much annoyed by the sand and the curious looks. An experience that was supposed to be fun and joyful turned to become itchy and embarrassing. I had the impression everyone would like at me.

And then, I started hearing about some nice suits that modestly cover the body but are made of appropriate fabric that wouldn’t keep the water and would dry as soon as you are out of the water. At that time, no body called these suits burkinis. We didn’t have a specific name for them. We just called them bathing suit for hijabis.

I think they first appeared in Turkey and Malaysia ( I also read somewhere that it was originally designed by an Australian designer of Lebanese descent, Aheda Zanetti) and I remember one of my friends borrowed a suit from another friend who bought it from Turkey and took it to a seamstress and asked her to do something similar.

In Tunisia, Burkinis made their appearance in beaches in the early 2000s. Before then, many women swam either in bathing suits; some others in bikini but many women would wear long dresses or didn’t swim at all. The contact of the long dresses with water and by the effect of pressure and water, they inflate like balloons so women have to keep burst these bubbles of air each time they stand up in the water. Needless to say, that with a long dress, you can’t really swim and move fast. You just dip in the water and stay there. Moreover, once outside the water, the wet dress becomes so tight on the body revealing the shape of the woman and thus defeating the purpose of modesty that a full body suit is supposed to achieve.

Burkini came as the ideal creation. It gave women the opportunity to enjoy water, beach, swim with her friends, kids and family without necessarily looking like an alien.

I remember the first time I went to buy a burkini in Tunisia, it was like trying to buy alcohol in Canada when you are underage. It was in 2008, the dictatorship of Ben Ali was still in place and all sign of religious symbols were suspicious to say the least. Burkini, like hijab, was of course considered in Tunisia as a sign of affiliation with Islamic groups and thus selling them would mean for the regime encouraging women to join these mouvements. So I went to the souk and I asked some store about them. The seller would look at me and assess my real intentions and then once I passed the “test”, he would bring from, literally under the table, one or two packages with a burkini inside them so I can see the models.

But after, the Arab Spring, burkinis were freely sold even in large supermarkets and women who whished to buy one, could freely do so.

It is interesting to note that Tunisian beaches today are full of women wearing burkinis. Even some women, who are not wearing hijab, would go for a burkini.

(It must be mentioned here that women in bathing suits are not harassed but it is very common in these societies that men would stare at women so burkinis is a way to keep some of these unwanted stare away or limited. By no means, burkini would become a way to control to opposite sex attitudes, as this is a matter of education that has never been tackled)

Of course, for people who still consider women covering their bodies as a sign of oppression, burkinis joined the list of words and clothing that linked Muslim women to the world of darkness. For many Muslim women who didn’t want other people commenting on their bodies or showing off their skin for public consumption, burkini achieved the total opposite. It combined liberation with modesty: the best of two worlds!

The recent decision of France to ban burkini from the beaches in Nice is another example of anti-Muslim attitudes wrapped under the disguise of women liberation and combatting religious extremism. All what it will do is: to alienate French Muslim women furthermore and of course prevent them from a nice refreshing swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

What bothers me even more is the total silence of Western feminists. Their silence is disappointing for this is a perfect example of male interference with female choices.

When women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, all western feminists would mobilize and stand up (rightly so) to denounce the arbitrariness, abusive and patriarchal nature of such decision. When women in Iran are punished for showing more hair in public or going out with make up, the outrageous reaction of Western feminist is so intense ( and yes we should be outraged) but when Muslim women are banned from going to the beach wearing a burkini, all you hear is silence or whispers. The burkini ban perfectly fits the old equation, so why bother?

Islam= Women oppression

How can a country, considered as a beacon of rights and freedom go so low and do this to its won citizens?

In France, it isn’t a secret that women are allowed to go topless on beaches. There are even some beaches especially designated for nudists. But to prevent women to swim because of the length of their swimming suit is a silly and a simply revengeful reaction. Once again, one of the most vulnerable groups of a society have to pay for the incompetence and failures of the politicians.

At least, and for a small temporary confort, we have some powerful words from Arundhati Roy who commented about the banning of burqa in France in 2010:

“When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burqa rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. It’s not about the burqa. It’s about the coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It is what allowed the US government to use western feminist groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve their problems.”

 

What Does it Mean to be a Muslim Woman in a Secular Democracy?

This is a dangerous and ambiguous question. Why?

 It implicitly assumes that there is one definition of “Muslim’, one understanding for “woman” and one sort of “secular democracy”

 In reality, all theses words are evolving today very fast. They can have not one particular meaning but several.

 I met many people who drank wine, don’t pray, don’t fast and still consider themselves Muslims.

 On the other hand, when you hear in the news that “Muslims” commit terrorist acts, very often, the perpetrators abused their wives, drank wine, were not particularly religious. But still, they are associated with Islam. Their violent actions come to represent Islam.

 So who is Muslim and who is not? Is it a question of rituals? Is it more about actions and attitudes? Is there a typical Muslim model that all Muslim should adopt and embrace? I don’t know.

 As far as I am concerned, I consider myself a woman. But today, there is an ongoing discussion about gender. What is to be a man and what is to be a woman? Does the sex only define femininity and masculinity? Some people consider themselves “gender neutral”.

 For years, women have been calling for equality and for more rights. We still live in a society where women are still behind compared to men in terms of pay equity, job promotion, political representation…

 So how can Muslim women fit in these discussions?

 Muslim women are only “visible” when it comes to the “scarf” issue or the “veil”. As if they live to represent “oppression” that the rest of the society fought to overcome. But they are rarely included in these discussions affecting women in general.

 Our vision about Muslim women in “secular democracy” is still fixated around the hijab as a symbol of oppression.

 Meanwhile, Muslim women, at least from what I know from them, in Canada and in North America, who decide to wear the hijab, went beyond “the symbol of oppression”. A hijab is a fashion statement, a political statement, an identity statement, a feminist statement, or all of that at the same time! So why can’t we go beyond the hijab when it comes to Muslim women?

 And now, what does we mean by “secular democracy”.  Do we really live in “secular” and in “democratic” societies? It is not a secret that the mainstream culture in Canada is influenced by Christianity and Christian symbolism and references. Statuary holidays are inspired by Christianity. So are we really secular? Why is secularism is used today as the saviour of Islam?

 Take the example of France, a country that considers itself the champion of secularism or rather “laicité”. France came to ban the scarf to preserve the “laicité” of the school institution. That means restricting individuals rights to save the right of the state.

Is this democratic?  A majority imposing laws on a minority, under the name of “laicité”? Is secularism, or laicité, becoming the new “religion” of modern times? I am still wondering.

More and more cracks are appearing today in the meaning of “secular democracy”.

Movements like “Idle No More”, “Occupy Wall Street” or “Black Lives Matter” are showing today how these cracks in the system are growing and becoming fault lines, evidence of “democracy” failure.

 Muslim have been accused and constantly put on the defensive by “Orientalists” commentators and pundits to apologize about the actions of terrorists groups.

This is never done to other faiths. Buddhists in Burma who kill Muslims. Israeli who kills Palestinian. Christians in Africa who kills Muslims. No religious communities are held accountable for the actions of what violent groups associated to their faith have committed. Except for Muslims.

We often hear that there must be something inherently violent in Muslim DNA or religion that make Muslims incompatible with democracy.

But, most often these voices tend to forget that all the recent attempts by some Muslim countries to use democracy instead of dictatorship have been defeated by “western” countries. Example: Algeria (1992), Palestine (2006), Egypt (2013) and even as of yesterday Turkey (2016).

 Leaving it for most of the Muslim countries to choose either between “ terrorism” or “dictatorship” both experience filled with violence and oppression.

 So to go back to the initial question: what does it mean to be a Muslim woman in a secular society?

 This means to be constantly looking for answer to all these words. To reflect on all these definitions and not simply accept on side or the other. “Good” versus “bad”, “black” versus “white”, “us” versus “them”. Truth is somewhere in between.

Finding an answer is an act of balance that keeps changing with time, with gender, with economic and social situation, with spirituality.

 I shouldn’t be the only person asked to reply to that question. Rather, we should ask ourselves the following question:

 “What does it mean to be a secular democracy today?”