On repatriation and separation: how Canada is moving forward with its unjust policies

On January 20, 2023, after weeks of deliberation, Justice Henry Brown wrote an incredible ruling; a ruling that spread hope among many families of Canadians still detained in Northeast Syria. Justice Brown ordered the Canadian government to repatriate six women, 13 children and four men who are languishing in horrible conditions, detention camps and prisons Justice Brown described as “… very poor. In my view they are dire.”

The positive impact of this ruling didn’t last long as the federal government announced its intent to appeal. Then followed the shameful news regarding some other Canadian children, not included in this lawsuit (therefore not affected by the ruling), who have been vetted to be repatriated by the federal government without their non-Canadian mothers. One step forward ten steps backward.

Rights and freedoms of Canadian detainees

During the hearings to repatriate the Canadian detainees overseas, the Government cited the dangerous situation on the ground and its lack of resources (understood here as human resources) as barriers to repatriation. More so, the Government’s position is that those who went to Syria and got arrested have no constitutional rights and thus Canada has no binding legal obligations towards protecting their extra-territorial rights, per the Charters of Rights and Freedoms.

Clearly, those arguments didn’t impress or convince Federal Court Justice Brown who relied on previous Supreme Court decisions to emphasize the rights of citizens to leave and enter their country of citizenship. Justice Brown went even further, citing an example of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt who in the aftermath of World War II observed that a ‘right to have rights’ flows from citizenship and belonging to a distinct national community.

What is interesting and explicit in the ruling is the reference to this alleged ‘exile’ and ‘banishment’ that seems to be veiling the inaction of the Canadian government. Justice Brown wrote:

“To begin with, the Supreme Court of Canada established three decades ago that subsection 6(1) is aimed at prohibiting the banishment or exile of Canadian citizens by their government. It is aimed at preventing the Government of Canada and any and all of its emanations from severing or interfering with the right of Canadian citizens to leave and return to Canada.”

We thought that these past inhuman and cruel practices were gone with the emergence of the rule of law and the establishment of constitutionally-protected rights and international conventions. However, unfortunately these same laws and constitutions are used today by government lawyers to justify keeping their fellow citizens, in this case Canadian-Muslims, abroad, away from their families, and  depriving their children from education and health care.

I was extremely relieved that Justice Brown reminded the Canadian government of its obligations and insisted on the ongoing injustice that these Canadians detainees were subjected to and urged their repatriation.

Unfortunately, this ruling was appealed by the federal government despite several human rights advocates pushing the government to accept the ruling and move forward with the repatriation.

Repatriation and the so-called ‘War on Terror’

It is not the first time Canada opts to appeal rulings urging it to correct its blatant human rights violations. In the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen detained in Guantanamo for over a decade, the Canadian government, in 2009, appealed to the Supreme Court (and later, bitterly lost) when it upheld a lower court ruling that required Ottawa to repatriate Khadr, the only Western citizen still being held by the United States at its Cuban military base.

Perhaps some would interpret this stubbornness and use of public funds to fight the repatriation of Canadians justified by the ‘fight against terrorism’ and as protecting the Canadian population from dangerous and suspicious individuals. Assuming that this is true, protecting national security should never be done at the expense of violating the rights of others. The rule of law should prevail and playing politics with the rights of some, who are already demonized in the media, isn’t morally acceptable and should have legal consequences.

Canadian children, non-Canadian mothers

Some mothers, living in the camps, were informed by Global Affairs Canada that their children will be repatriated to Canada without them. These women who married Canadian men don’t hold Canadian citizenship and will most likely never set foot in Canada, whereas their children would automatically be considered as Canadians given their fathers status. With their fathers dead or disappeared, the children have no other families than their mothers. But despite these tragic circumstances, the Government gave the mothers a deadline of a week and a half to decide whether they will send their children back to Canada alone. What should we call this other than a ‘barbaric practice’?

We thought the federal government’s systemic separation of Indigenous children from their mothers, their community elders, their culture and their customs was something of the past – that Canada apologized for and committed to end it with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

How did the mothers feel when they learned of this heart wrenching decision of separating them from their children to be safe in Canada or keeping them in horrible conditions, together. Is it really a choice?

Hope pending with ongoing legal battles

Some critics would say that these women might not be ‘good mothers’ or that simply can’t come to Canada since they’re not citizens.

As for the first argument, I think it is important to quote Justice Brown who said that he is not judging the Canadians who went to Syria. He reminded us that every Canadian is entitled to have a different opinion even if this opinion turns out to be unpopular by the majority: “Canadians are entitled to have political opinions, no matter how abhorrent they may be to other Canadians.”

As for the second argument that these women aren’t Canadian citizens, there is always a solution to keep children with their mothers. Other countries did it, so why not Canada?

Faraz Bawa, a Calgary-based lawyer representing one of the women, said he and other lawyers are now working on getting their clients temporary resident permits so they have permission to enter Canada with their children. Simple solutions exist but they need moral courage and political will to be implemented.

Exile, banishment and separation should never be part of any governmental solutions or policies. Justice Brown  ruled on the unjust practices of the Canadian government to keep its citizens in Syrian camps. As for separating children from their non-Canadian mothers, we are still waiting for other legal decision.

It is sad and troubling how fundamental human rights are caught in the meanders of the geopolitics of wars or considered as a luxury. Strong legal decisions, like Justice Brown’s, are needed to anchor these rights into the centre of our democracies.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca


Feds engaging in double-talk on Canadians detained in Syria

Last week, a two-day court hearing took place at the federal court in Ottawa to bring back Canadians detained in Northeast Syria. A group of families representing some of those detainees filed a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge for the inaction of the Canadian government to repatriate their loved ones home.

I watched some of these hearings online and I was terribly disappointed if not shocked by the attitude and the arguments presented by the Canadian government lawyers.

Before going any further, I feel that this matter is merely a political case and shouldn’t have been brought in front of a judge. The legal arguments for repatriation are pretty obvious and compared to them the counter arguments advanced by the government looked so out of place if not ludicrous.

However, if it wasn’t for the unwillingness of the government to act, perhaps wishing the matter to magically disappear on its own, the legal challenge wouldn’t have existed. But the matter didn’t go away, and it is coming to haunt Canada, and it will continue to do so, as long as these Canadians citizens are not repatriated back.

Watching some excerpts of this legal challenge brought me back 20 years ago to my own family ordeal when my husband, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kept in Syria in a dungeon tortured by his Syrians interrogators. Many times, during his imprisonment, I repeatedly pleaded with the Canadian officials working  at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bring my husband home. They kept telling me that once in Syria, his Syrian nationality prevailed and that Canada couldn’t do much. That argument, despite its weakness, would assume of course that my husband had arrived in Syria of his own will, which is wiping out the fact that he was rendered to Syria by the American authorities (even worse, later we would learn about the complicity of Canadian officials). Even when the Canadian government didn’t tell me explicitly that they didn’t want to repatriate my husband, behind the scenes some part of the government acted in a way to prevent his repatriation. This double-talk by the Canadian government made my husband stay in horrible conditions for over a year, until the political decision by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, came and delivered him from his torturers and his subsequent return in October 2003.

After months of campaigning and advocacy by activists, some by politicians and human rights organizations, the Canadian government ordered, reluctantly, a commission of inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Maher Arar. That was in March 2002. In 2007, a fact finding report was released by Justice Dennis O’Connor, head of the commission, as well as a list of recommendations for the government so the ordeal wouldn’t happen again.

Few weeks ago, I was invited to testify at the Senatorial committee on human rights regarding Islamophobia in Canada and I was asked by Senator Ratna Omidvar if anything had changed since the repatriation of my husband and the reports submitted by Justice O’Connor. A part of me wanted to simply reply “No” but I quickly changed my mind and gave a more nuanced and elaborate answer pointing to some minor changes that occurred since.

Nevertheless, watching these two days of hearings, I am more and more convinced that a more accurate answer to the senator would have been “nothing really changed”.

The picture is bleak and frozen in time: a number of Canadians, mostly children, arbitrarily detained in awful conditions documented by Human Rights Watch. Their families are being kept in the dark, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or not, and their government is fighting in front of a judge and stubbornly arguing that these Canadians can’t claim their Charter Rights so thus do not need to be “fetched” by their own government.

Almost exactly the same cold attitude, the same circular arguments and the same stubborn inaction that I was facing two decades ago and that is still making Canada look so bad internationally and even at home.

At the hearing, the government lawyer kept bringing legal cases that have nothing in common with the current cases, except perhaps that they are happening to other Canadian citizens. The same government lawyer tried by all means to argue that these 23 children, 19 women and eight men have basically no Charter Rights and Canada has no responsibility in repatriating them. Worse, the lawyer argued that Canada was not responsible in detaining them and did not request their detention. According to her, they were detained by Kurdish forces – “we are not part of the causal chain” and should not be compelled to intervene to repatriate.

No wonder why it is the same government who had to apologize to Maher Arar when they implicitly applied the same faulty reasoning to his case and told me that his Syrian citizenship superseded his Canadian citizenship while in detention in Syria and thus Canadian laws couldn’t “reach” him. This sort of legal gymnastics didn’t convince Justice O’Connor when he wrote his report criticizing the in-action of the Canadian government and its complicity in keeping one of its own in detention.

When the legal counsel Barbara Jackman, representing Jack Letts one of these Canadian men detained in Syria, opened her statement in front of judge Russel Brown, she rightly reminded him and the audience about her participation not only in the Arar Commission but also in the Iacobucci judicial inquiry that was ordered to determine what happened to four other Canadians who were also arrested and tortured in Syria and Egypt and as expected the Canadian government refused to bring them back to Canada until years later. By invoking that history, Barbara Jackman implicitly reminded the government lawyers of the flaws in their previous legal judgements and their ongoing mistakes in assessing the current situation.

Why is Canada is becoming serially stubborn and complicit in the torture and the neglect of its citizens, specially Muslim citizens?

What is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau afraid of by ordering the repatriation of all the Canadians detained in Northeastern Syria?

As a flagrant evidence of the incompetence of the government is, and its dismissal of basic human rights of its own citizens became the policy Global Affairs Canada (GAC), adopted in November 2021. In this policy, shared with the families of the detainees and their lawyers, the government cited a list of six conditions that the detainees should meet so they can become eligible for repatriation. They were called “threshold criteria.” Needleless to mention that none of the detainees met these criteria except Kimberley Polman, a woman from British Columbia who was since successfully repatriated and is under a peace bond. All the other detainees didn’t meet these criteria.

In November of 2022, GAC would contradict its own written policy by informing some of the detainees (some women and some children) that they are eligible for repatriation. What looks like good news, is clear evidence of the weakness and arbitrariness of this policy.

First writing it to prevent their return and suddenly overturning it a few weeks before the court hearing in an attempt, in my opinion, to prove to the judge that they are working behind the scenes. This looked so amateurish, and I don’t believe that the judge would be impressed by these last-minute moves.

At the end of the two days in federal court, Justice Brown stated that the hearings would need to continue at a date to be determined. It was a big disappointment for all the families who were hoping for some quick decisions that would deliver their loved ones from their ordeals and unfortunately more delays means for the prisoners the continuation of their limbo; they will not be able to leave any time soon. However, one ray of hope appeared in this ocean of darkness and abject manoeuvres to “deny” some citizens their basic rights to security, education, and justice.

According to a tweet by CBC journalist Ashley Burke, Justice Brown stated “he was disappointed because Canadians are at risk of dying every day the matter is adjourned.”  This simple statement restores my faith in humanity and in the justice system, after being so disappointed and shocked by what Canada has been doing upfront to deny some of its citizens their fundamental rights.

This article was initially published at rabble.ca

Racial bias and profiling in security intelligence: what we’re learning from the Rouleau Commission

For decades, Muslim and Sikh communities in Canada were considered the primary threats to national security. They were consistently identified as such in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) annual reports.

Not only is this a flagrant example of racial and religious profiling, but it is doubly problematic since it humiliates members of these communities and misleads Canadians with biased assessments of security threats.

Who is considered a threat?

Terms like ‘Shia Islam’, ‘Sunni Islam’ and ‘Sikh (Khalistani)’ extremism, were commonly, if not frequently, used in the elaboration of these reports until 2018. The 2011 report employs the words of Vic Toews, the then-Public Safety Minister who summarized the situation as: “violence driven by Sunni Islamist extremism is the leading threat to Canada’s national security.”

These type of references remained present in national security reporting until 2018 when Ralph Goodale, the then-Minister of Public Safety, declared: “Words matter. We must never equate any one community or entire religions with extremism.”

While Muslim and Sikh communities were unjustly targeted over the years, the increasing number of violent white supremacy-motivated attacks, and neo-Nazis, incel (short for involuntary celibate) and other anti-government groups, were rarely mentioned or described as posing real threats to our national security.

The Toronto van attack inspired by incel ideology killed 11 people and injured 15 others; the Islamophobic attack at the Quebec City mosque killed six men and injured 19 others; the London, Ontario van attack killed four Canadian-Pakistani Muslim family members.

These are clear and tragic outcomes of ideologies that flourished when left undisturbed while the full scrutiny of the security apparatus was directed at so-called Sunni, Shia or Sikh terrorism.

Before going any further, I want to be clear. I am not trying to argue that dangers posed by some individuals associated with the aforementioned religious denominations should be taken less seriously than other groups or individuals with violent ideologies. My point is to emphasize the reckless attempts by some intelligence agencies in shaping the narrative of who Canadians should fear, while their neglect gave other violent groups an implicit ‘carte blanche’ to operate.

Coded language persists

In a 2019 move to distance itself from its past, CSIS introduced new terminology. The word ‘terrorism’ which was mainly understood by the agency, and even the media, as violence committed by Muslims, was changed to ‘violent extremism.’ The Service came up with three separate categories: religiously-motivated violent extremism, politically-motivated violent extremism and ideologically-motivated violent extremism. Even though I personally find this terminology a better description of the threats we are facing, it still carries some heavy and obvious racial and religious connotations.

What is the line between religious, political and ideological threats?

Many times, we can see how one easily slips into another or how one feeds into another. Take the example of white supremacy, considered by CSIS as politically motivated violent extremism. It isn’t a secret that this ideology has been historically associated with some extremist Christian groups where some white Christians are considered morally superior to Black, Indigenous, Jewish, and Muslim people. So why is it considered politically motivated violent extremism rather than religiously or ideologically motivated?

The same blurry line applies to religiously motivated violent extremism. If CSIS is targeting individuals belonging to Al-Qaeda or Daesh, as they claim, they must know that for these groups, religion, as counterintuitive it may appear for some, isn’t the sole motivation for violence. It is rather an ideological or political interpretation of religious texts that is their lethal engine.

Osama Bin Laden, the former leader of al-Qaeda in his speech following 9/11, explicitly linked his ‘fight’ to the occupation of Palestine and the illegal and violent presence of American forces in the Middle East. Whether he was being transparent about his motives or not, it is clear that the delineation of what is religious and what is political can be very misleading. So why do we stick the ‘religious’ motive on Muslim groups and categorize other acts of violence differently?

Clear instances of bias revealed in the Rouleau commission hearings

A prime example of this coded terminology at play in reports about the three-week long week occupation of Ottawa earlier this year.

The Public Order Emergency Commission investigating the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the protests, headed by Judge Paul Rouleau, began a few weeks ago. Newly-public information reveals and confirms that police services and intelligence agencies are very biased when it comes to detecting national security threats from groups that are not Muslim or Sikh. Indeed, for years, they have been allocating human and financial resources to target Muslims and as a result they left other threats, coming from white supremacist violent groups in Canada and the United States, unperturbed. Worse, they assessed them with leniency, if not sympathy.

In a video played at the Rouleau Commission, a pastor delivers a fiery sermon to a crowd in a saloon in Coutts, Alberta. He tells them they should be willing to die for their cause, understood here as the vaccine mandate set by the federal government. Wouldn’t that qualify as violent religious extremism? Why didn’t we see any red flags raised or repercussions for this incitement of violence? Why wasn’t this included as an example of religiously-motivated violence extremism?

Moreover, even when the risk is flagged by some intelligence agents, there is no action taken. Steve Bell, the top-ranking police officer who replaced the embattled Ottawa Police chief during the convoy, was not able to explain, during his testimony at the Rouleau Commission, how his office failed to foresee the risk that was already flagged by some intelligence reports.

I dare to assume here that because the protesters were white and seemed ‘harmless,’ the Ottawa Police Service assumed they would mostly obey the law and leave after the first weekend.

Ottawa convoy assumed to be harmless, at first

Giving protesters the benefit of the doubt should be the norm. However, insisting on giving the occupiers the benefit of the doubt, even when the intelligence reports are indicating otherwise, is hugely troubling.

What is even more concerning is that the chief of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) testified at the inquiry that he saw no ‘credible’ information of a national security threat or extremist violence during the convoy.

The same investigation revealed that the RCMP top chief and her OPP counterpart were exchanging texts on how to “calm unnamed cabinet ministers about the situation unfolding in Ottawa.” Would they have the same discussions if the protesters were Muslims, or Sikh, or land defenders from Indigenous communities? I highly doubt it.

The commission heard that a police officer, from the Ottawa Police Service prepared a security intelligence report relying mainly on an editorial by Rex Murphy, a columnist at the National Post. The report reads: “at the time of writing, there is no critical intelligence to suggest any sort of violent actions or concerns for violence.” Though it notes that due to the “vast number of vehicles” involved, protesters “will be able to stop and effectively shut down movement if they desire.”

The attempts to downplay the convoy and its impacts on the city and its residents are very clear. No inflammatory words like ‘terrorism’ were used not even the softer language of ‘ideologically motivated violence extremism.’ Just the neutral and objective word ‘protestors.’

The reports concludes as follow: “no adverse intelligence or any information concerning a specific threat towards this event has been determined at this time.” It is only until after the hearing at the Rouleau Commission that we learned that the officer, who wrote the report, is under review.

Law enforcement officers entangled with convoy

But worst of all, during the Rouleau Commission, we learned that a former member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s security team (and RCMP officer) may have leaked the Prime Minister’s schedule to the convoy organizers. That officer resigned because of the vaccine mandate but his name hasn’t been made public. We don’t even know if he is being investigated. We don’t even know his religion, nor his ideology nor his political view.

He wasn’t the only police officer implicated in leaks. Keith Wilson, the counsel for some convoy organizers, admitted that the convoy regularly received leaks from sympathetic police officers about the operational plans.

These examples clearly show that our intelligence agencies should come clean about their biases and their negligence in determining the real threats to national security. Amplifying some threats when they are coming from Muslims, and downplaying others or keep qualifying them as ideologically motivated without a full analysis is not fair.

Our social cohesion and democratic principles deserve better.

This article was initially published at rabble.ca

La démocratie ou Carthage

En décembre 2010, je me suis tenue sur le trottoir en face de l’ambassade de Tunisie à Ottawa. Ni les températures glaciales de l’hiver ottavien, ni la peur du régime de l’époque, ne nous ont dissuadé, une poignée de canadiens d’origine tunisienne, d’afficher notre solidarité avec le mouvement de contestation qui a pris le gouvernement de Ben Ali par surprise et qui a déferlé à travers toute la Tunisie.

C’était le début de ce que nous appelons aujourd’hui le printemps arabe, né du fin fond de la Tunisie, à Sidi Bouzid, une ville de l’intérieur connue pour l’esprit indomptable et révolutionnaire de ses habitants et de leur marginalisation par le pouvoir central de Tunis depuis presque toujours.

Ayant quitté la Tunisie sous le régime de Ben Ali en 1991 pour terminer mes études au Canada, je n’ai jamais cessé de m’intéresser à la politique de mon pays natal. Un pays géographiquement petit, certes, mais connue depuis des siècles comme carrefour des civilisations. Nichée entre des puissances géographiques et économiques comme l’Algérie et la Libye et aux portes de la rive nord méditerranéenne, la Tunisie reste un incontournable de la politique du Maghreb, et du bassin méditerranéen.

Depuis, nos manifestations de solidarité se sont transformées en des marches pour soutenir la démocratie naissante tunisienne. Au mois de janvier 2011, nous étions une centaine à marcher depuis le parlement Canadien à Ottawa jusqu’au Monument des droits de la personne en passant par les bureaux du premier ministre pour démontrer notre soutien à ce changement que nous chantions tous avec ce slogan arabe « Le peuple veut la chute du système » devenu depuis le célèbre slogan scandés par les foules dans les rues du Caire, de Daraa, de Sanaa, de Tripoli et d’autres villes arabes.

Il est sous-entendu que le système dont il était question est le système politique, c’est-à-dire la dictature sous laquelle nous avons tous vécu : un régime policier où les arrestations des opposants politiques, le népotisme, la corruption et les atteintes aux libertés civiles étaient monnaie courante.

Avec la fuite du Président dictateur, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, sous les chants furieux de la foule qui répétait « dégage, dégage » devant la terrifiante bâtisse du Ministère de l’Intérieur où plusieurs tunisiens ont été torturé ou humilié, le peuple tunisien n’avait désormais qu’un seul rêve : construire une nouvelle ère de liberté, de dignité et de prospérité.

Cette nouvelle ère a commencé de 2011 jusqu’à nos jours. Le 25 juillet dernier, une journée symbolique dans l’histoire tunisienne, puisqu’elle marque la naissance de la première république tunisienne après son indépendance de la France, le président tunisien, Kaïs Saïed, élu en 2019, a décidé de geler les travaux du parlement tunisien, de démettre le premier ministre de ces fonctions tout en s’octroyant le pouvoir exécutif.

Ce fut un tremblement de terre dont les ondes de choc se font sentir jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Après l’annonce, plusieurs tunisiens sont descendus dans les rues désertes pour exprimer leur joie avec cette décision que plusieurs qualifient de courageuse et de « coup d’éclat », en contraste à ce que certains ont qualifié de « coup de force » ou carrément de « coup d’état ».

Mais après l’euphorie vient le temps du ressaisissement et de la réflexion.

Personnellement, je suis restée sceptique pour ne pas dire craintive. Les dérives populistes qui prennent d’assaut plusieurs démocraties sont devenues un peu trop familières, surtout avec un exemple assez proche de chez nous. Rappelons-nous le Président Trump qui a régné à coups de Tweets en parlant directement à sa base et en faisant fi aux lois et aux institutions démocratiques centenaires. Bien evidemment, la Tunisie n’est pas les États-Unis. Toutefois, avec sa démocratie bourgeonnante, elle n’est pas à l’abris de ces dérives de plus en plus courantes.

Mais la question qui revient sur les lèvres est pourquoi la Tunisie en est arrivée là.

La crise sanitaire de la COVID-19 est la goutte qui a fait déborder le vase. La pandémie a fait des ravages dans ce pays qui est devenu malheureusement le pays le plus endeuillé du monde. Une mauvaise gestion de la crise sanitaire, une infrastructure sanitaire précaire, des politiciens incompétents, une communication avec les citoyens presque inexistante dont certains sont restés sceptiques quant à l’importance de la vaccination et des médias sociaux qui ont fait circuler des théories du complot qui ont accentué la peur des citoyens. Mais c’est surtout une crise de confiance entre la population qui a perdu une grande partie de son pouvoir d’achat et la classe politique qui n’a pas cessé depuis les balbutiements de cette révolution à jouer les cartes politiques tout en oubliant leur raison d’être primordiale : travailler pour le bien de ceux qui ont voté pour eux et améliorer le sort des plus démunis.

La crise économique : depuis la crise mondiale de 2008, la Tunisie n’a pas pu se relever de cette crise financière qui a touché en pleins fouets des pays comme l’Italie l’Espagne et la Grèce. Une économie dominée par un tourisme vieux et archaïque, une industrie minière à la discrétion des marchés mondiaux, une administration lourde et bureaucratique qui n’a pas pu se moderniser et faire miroiter des avantages fiscaux face aux investisseurs internationaux comme ce fut le cas dans les années 70. Bref, une économie sclérosée qui a pu relativement s’en sortir sous le régime de Ben Ali mais qui a connu sa mise à mort par les guerres intestines entre Ennahda, le parti d’inspiration islamiste et les autres partis et la corruption qui a gangrénée tous les secteurs clés économiques.

Un système électoral et politique hybride et compliqué est resté presque méconnu et incompris par la population en générale. Depuis l’indépendance en 1956 jusqu’à la création d’une nouvelle constitution en 2014 et l’émergence d’un système plutôt parlementaire, la Tunisie a été gouvernée par un système présidentiel : « l’homme fort de Carthage ». Dans la mentalité populaire, le « sauveur » de la nation est toujours un homme, Monsieur le Président, qui prend les « bonnes » décisions pour nous sortir des crises successives. Très rares, étaient les fois où ce sont les institutions qui ont pris le dessus sur ces hommes forts de Carthage.

En 2010, c’est le peuple qui est sorti dans les rues pour prendre le dessus.

Le 25 juillet 2021, c’est un homme de Carthage qui tente de reprendre sa place en sein de l’histoire de ce pays en s’appuyant sur cette volonté populaire. Mais cette fois-ci en mettant de côté ces mêmes institutions qui l’ont porté au pouvoir.

En 2020, lors de mon voyage en Tunisie, je suis allée rendre visite à un cousin de mon père. Un homme de grande culture et qui s’est toujours intéressé au fait politique. Je voulais connaitre son opinion sur la situation politique du pays. Je m’attendais à une longue diatribe sur les partis et sur les politiciens. A ma grande surprise, il m’avait brièvement répondu : « La Tunisie s’en sortira. Nous nous en sommes toujours sortis depuis Hamilcar jusqu’à aujourd’hui! »

En faisant référence à cet ancien général militaire carthaginois du deuxième siècle avant Jésus Christ, qui s’est battu contre Rome, mon cousin paternel me rappelait à juste titre, qu’au-delà des hommes forts et de leur visée hégémonique, c’est la résilience des populations qui survivra. Ce n’est pas moi qui le dit, ni mon cousin, c’est l’histoire qui nous le rappelle.

Une version courte de cet article a été publié sur le site de La Presse.ca

Canada is still in denial about Islamophobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

‘Alexa!’ chronicles the life of a feminist, politician and trailblazer

“It is Alexa McDonough calling…” Those words still resonate in my ears, almost 20 years after I heard them, following the first click and the brief silence that accompanied every overseas long-distance phone call.

Alexa was the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada. I was the young mother whose Canadian husband was deported by U.S. authorities to Syria. I was in Tunis, my hometown, looking for answers on the inaction of the Canadian government in this case. Alexa was in her Ottawa Parliament office promising to help me find some.

This is a glimpse of who Alexa McDonough is. Throughout the 286 pages of the book that author and journalist Stephen Kimber wrote about her, I discovered and understood better the daughter, wife, mother, and most of all, the politician Alexa was.

Not only did Alexa stand by me when many let me down, fearful of my husband’s alleged “terrorist” ties, she also encouraged me to run for politics, a thing that I never imagined myself doing.

But what Kimber’s book made me understand the most is that I wasn’t the only person whose life was impacted by Alexa’s actions. There is a pattern of behaviour. She was a “dangerous” recidivist. A woman who never stopped believing in people and changing the world around her — starting with her own self.

A daughter born to a wealthy and well-established family in the deeply conservative and men’s-club-dominated circles of Nova Scotia in the period after the Second  World War, she could have easily become a “good girl,” raising funds for charities, or travelling the world, or pursuing a ballet career. She could have become a good wife and filled her time with noble social causes.

But that simply wasn’t Alexa. Those were not good enough objectives for the teenager who, with some school friends, ran summer camps in Africville, a community where Black Nova Scotians were dumped with little support from local politicians and in total disregard from the mainly white Halifax population.

Later, when she entered the political arena in the late ’70s, she could have been a Liberal candidate, and perhaps gained more votes by conforming with the norms of her time, but she looked at her roots and they were undeniably “socialist,” or, rather, as she came later to describe them, “socio democratic.”

Even if today it is laudable and somewhat easy to qualify someone as a feminist, Alexa wasn’t shy about fighting battles to gain rights for women when no one wanted to give or acknowledge their rights — starting with some staunchly conservative men’s club politicians, or deeply religious groups, or simply with a system that didn’t think of women as deserving.

Alexa fought for pregnant woman to get maternity leave while she was still a social worker working for the city of Halifax. She fought for women’s right to choose when Dr. Henry Morgentaler was threatened with prosecution and deemed unwelcome by the government of Nova Scotia. She fought for disadvantaged men and women to get dignity and respect when the government showed bias at every instance toward the poor and blatant favouritism for the rich and powerful.

Donald Marshall was a Mi’kmaw man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1971. In 1983, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia acquitted him of murder but absolved the local police of any blame. Alexa, who was an MLA in Halifax, was one of the few politicians who advocated on his behalf.

“Alexa had been quietly working behind the scenes…to pressure the Buchanan government [in Nova Scotia] to deal fairly with Marshall and to appoint a royal commission to investigate the miscarriage of justice,” chronicled Kimber about this sad episode of the Canadian justice system. In 1989, a royal commission on Marshall’s prosecution concluded that the justice system was really a two-tier system, with one justice system for the poor and one for the wealthy.

About two decades later, Alexa, now a federal politician, became one of the strongest voices pressuring the Canadian government to launch a commission of inquiry into the arrest, deportation, and imprisonment of my husband Maher Arar.

It paid off. In 2004, an inquiry was reluctantly ordered by the minority government of Paul Martin. Alexa and I hugged each other when we heard the news on TV.

The same year, I run for politics in Ottawa South, representing the colours of the NDP.

Alexa came and campaigned with me, knocking on doors. She was always cheerful and optimistic. I remember the image of her: pamphlets in her hands, a big smile on her face, and a long talk to convince the hesitant voter to cast their vote for a woman, let alone a Muslim woman in hijab, after 9/11.

And I wasn’t the only candidate Alexa recruited. She did it with many others — especially young women who sometimes doubted themselves or looked down at their chances to win. Women candidates, who some newspapers would qualify as “a sacrificial lamb,” like they did to me, or others who they would evoke with a “new, stylish haircut (that) has brightened her greying hair to an attractive blond,” as a Toronto Star columnist described Alexa when she run for the leader of the federal NDP, as Kimber reminds us in his book.

Alexa knew about sexism in politics and encouraged other women to make the jump. Several succeeded, including herself. But the success came with a huge toll.

On a personal level, Alexa found herself several times without a long-term partner. The strong commitment to politics and staunch desire for independence from a woman seems to attract men at the beginning but later make them fearful and distant. Despite those setbacks, Alexa continued her journey while still believing in social justice and, of course, politics.

Kimber’s book is a wonderful and detailed account of Alexa’s rich life, that Nova Scotian woman who broke a glass ceiling of her time, just for being a woman.

Her political career is a role model for any woman looking for true stories of struggles and success. Alexa, in her cheerful, graceful and stubborn way, moved heavy bureaucracy, proved her critics wrong, and most of all, made her way as a feminist, politician, and trailblazer.

This article was published at rabble.ca

Hassan Diab’s long, harrowing struggle for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and tension in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nightmare continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Should the Proud Boys be labelled terrorists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was first published at rabble.ca