Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column was initially published at


How anti-immigrant rhetoric shaped the Quebec election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on

Une place dans le cercle

Le mois de décembre passé je suis allée visiter Tunis, ma ville natale. Depuis quelques années, j’y vais tous les deux ans. C’est peut-être la vieillesse qui pointe à l’horizon et qui me rend nostalgique. Nostalgique des odeurs de mon enfance, des couleurs du ciel de l’été à la tombée du soir, après les journées de chaleur torride que je passais dans ma chambre en train de lire, presque collée au mur à la recherche, en vain, de fraicheur. Nostalgique aussi des amitiés que le passage du temps a graduellement effritées pour presque effacer. À chaque visite je regarde les photos que j’ai conservées. Comme si j’allais découvrir quelque chose de nouveau. Et pourtant je les connaissais par cœur. Les photos d’anniversaire où chaque enfant arbore un sourire, prend une pose particulière pour se distinguer. Celles de mariages, avec les robes blanches et longues, les cheveux coiffés pour l’occasion, le regard blasé, des ballons flétris qui trainent par terre. Mais la photo dont je me souviens le plus c’est celle que ma mère a prise à la veille des vacances d’été dans la cour de mon école primaire.

Me voilà avec trois autres filles. Quatre fillettes qui se ressemblent. Non pas physiquement, mais par leurs traits réguliers, les cheveux coupés à la garçonne ou tirés à l’arrière, des petites robes bien propres. Nous dégagions l’odeur de la classe moyenne, nous en exhumions le parfum caractéristique avec un sourire poli et un regard innocent. Les mêmes couleurs, les mêmes rêves, tous peints du même pinceau. C’est justement cette photo qui me revient à l’esprit quand je suis amenée à parler du Canada. Des petites filles de six ans dans une cour d’école et qui s’arrêtent le temps d’une photo.

Je suis arrivée à Montréal pour la première fois au mois de mars 1991. Ce fut pour moi une sorte de voyage initiatique de Tunis à Montréal après une escale de quelques heures à Amsterdam. Traverser l’Atlantique par les cieux. Tout est à la fois grand et petit. Le vaste ciel, les nuages à perte de vue et les terres qui paraissent comme des formes géométriques tirées d’un manuel scolaire. Montréal vue du ciel paraît si bien ordonné, des blocs d’immeubles, quadrillés è à l’horizontale et à la verticale par des rues et des boulevards. Rien à voir avec les cercles concentriques et les labyrinthes que j’aperçois de mon hublot en atterrissant à Tunis. L’ordre et la symétrie sont beaux à voir. Mais ça me faisait peur aussi. Quand on a grandi dans le chaos, on ne peut qu’être fasciné par l’ordre. Mais au bout de la fascination, il y a la peur. La peur de ce que cet ordre peut nous cacher.

C’était ma première rencontre avec des gens qui ne me ressemblent pas. Bien sûr qu’il y avait les livres et la télévisions. J’ai grandi avec les deux. Ils étaient mes guides du monde extérieur. Comprendre les autres. Comprendre ceux qui ne parlaient pas la même langue que moi et ceux qui ne me ressemblaient pas. Mais ce n’était pas suffisant. Rien ne peut remplacer le contact humain, le témoignage des yeux. Voir les rues de Montréal pour la première fois, c’est un peu comme traverser la manche à la nage. Les voitures qui arrivent par vagues successives, les feux de circulation qui commencent déjà à clignoter à peine qu’on a commencé à traverser la rue. Le plus souvent, je finissais presque en courant de peur d’être happée par la prochaine vague. Pas de marchands ambulants qui déballent leurs bric-à-brac, pas de policiers qui les guettent au bout de la rue pour leur faire un contrôle d’identité, et peut-être alors leur confisquer leur pacotille en fourrant le tout dans l’arrière d’un camion.

Quand je marchais dans les rues de Montréal, je passais inaperçue. Une étrangère parmi tant d’autres. En 1991, je faisais partie de ce 16% des Canadiens qui sont nés à l’étranger, aujourd’hui, il y en a encore plus et de toutes les couleurs : plus de 20%. C’est surtout ce mélange de cultures qui décrierait ma nouvelle vie au Canada.

En Tunisie, pendant les vingt ans que j’y ai vécu, j’ai rarement rencontré des personnes d’une autre culture ou d’une autre religion, à part bien sûr les touristes qui remplissaient les souks et à qui les « locaux » vantaient les attraits de leurs marchandises : un tapis pure laine, un plat décoratif en cuivre, une lanterne scintillante. Ces touristes étaient pour moi d’une classe à part. Un peu comme des objets exposés dans une musée. On regarde mais on ne touche pas.

Mais au Canada, les gens qu’on prendrait pour des touristes à Tunis, c’étaient mes concitoyens. J’allais à l’université avec eux. Je m’asseyais à leur côté, ils étaient caissiers au supermarché et certains étaient même mes professeurs. En Tunisie, les gens pensaient un peu qu’ils étaient le centre du monde, qu’ils avaient la meilleure nourriture au monde, bien avant de l’avènement de la diète méditerranéenne; qu’ils avaient les meilleures plages au monde même si celles-ci étaient remplies de baigneurs et de pelures de pastèques et, bien sûr, la meilleure équipe de foot au monde sans avoir une fois gagnée la coupe du monde. C’est un peu ce sentiment un peu villageois et provincial, qui fait que les gens s’aiment et se détestent à la fois et ne voient pas plus loin que le bout de leur nez, sinon de leurs frontières. J’ai grandi là-dedans. Avec des blagues sur les voisins libyens et algériens, un sentiment de supériorité éphémère pour oublier l’oppression.

J’ai rencontré une personne d’origine libyenne pour la première fois à Montréal. Tout d’abord, les mauvaises blagues me sont remontées à l’esprit mais tout de suite après je me suis rendu compte de la bêtise et la petitesse dans laquelle je me suis confinée pendant toutes ces années.
Car cette personne était l’amie d’une amie. Elle parlait français, elle entamait une maitrise en biologie et venait détruire en quelques minutes tous les stéréotypes que j’avais accumulés dans ma tête pendant des années.

Le quartier dans lequel j’ai vécu à Montréal, s’appelle Côte-des-Neiges. C’est l’un des quartiers les plus multiethnique du Québec sinon du Canada. Mais il n’y a pas d’ethnie ou de culture qui l’emporte sur une autre. Ce n’est pas non plus un ghetto où des gens s’entassent dans la misère ou la pauvreté. C’est un quartier dynamique, rempli de couleurs et de saveurs, dans lequel j’avais facilement accès au transport en commun et à l’université. J’allais à pied à l’École des Hautes Études Commerciales où je poursuivais mes études. Je pouvais aussi faire mes courses dans la multitude de commerces qui bordaient la rue principale qui porte le même nom que le quartier. Librairies, pâtisseries, marchands de fruit et de légumes, se côtoyaient en offrant des produits provenant du monde entier.

A chaque fois, que je passais par l’école du quartier, j’avais l’impression de passer par une mini-délégation onusienne. Rien à voir avec la photo avec mes amies dans ma cour d’école.
Les mêmes couleurs et les mêmes visages. Et pourtant la même ambiance bon enfant y régnait : les cris des enfants qui jouaient, les enseignants qui surveillaient de loin et les passants qui regardaient en souriant.

Même quand j’ai déménagé quelques années plus tard pour m’installer avec ma famille à Ottawa, la capitale du Canada, j’ai vécu une expérience tout à fait semblable. Le quartier Bayshore n’était pas aussi urbain que Côte-des-Neiges, mais tout aussi multiethnique. C’est un peu la banlieue où des personnes de différentes origines habitaient dans un même complexe résidentiel.

A l’époque, j’amenais tous les après-midis ma fille d’un an jouer au parc. C’est là où je voyais réellement la mosaïque du quartier : les petits canadiens de souche dans le carré de sable en train de jouer avec les petits chinois, que les grands-parents surveillaient du coin de l’œil tout en continuant leur conversation animée en mandarin. Il y avait aussi les garçons sikhs dont on essayait de faire pousser les cheveux enroulés en chignon dans un petit foulard de couleur vive. Les grands- parents jouent un rôle important dans ses communautés qui sont arrivés au Canada par vagues successives au grès des guerres qui se passaient ailleurs, des situations géopolitiques de certaines régions et des crises économiques.

Règle générale, les hommes arrivaient en premier, suivis par leurs épouses, puis les grands-parents, grâce au programme de réunification familiale. Ces grands-parents étaient un peu le point d’attache de ces communautés dans ce nouveau pays qui deviendraient ultérieurement les meilleurs « baby-sitters » de la famille.

Quand ma fille avait quatre ans, elle est entrée à l’école du quartier. C’est alors que j’ai pu voir de près cette diversité culturelle. J’allais une fois par semaine lire des livres aux enfants. Les enfants arrivaient avec des bagages différents. Ceux qui ont fui la guerre comme les somaliens et ceux qui ont été expulsés d’un pays qu’ils ont fait le leur mais qui les trouvait tout d’un coup encombrants, comme les palestiniens qui vivaient au Kuwait chassés du jour au lendemain. Il y avait ceux qui ont pu transférer leur fortune d’un compte bancaire à un autre mais aussi ceux qui malheureusement n’ont eu le temps de rien prendre, même pas une photo d’enfance. Je lisais des histoires à ces enfants qui, dépendamment de leur niveau de scolarisation, m’écoutaient les yeux avides et les oreilles remplies de cette nouvelle langue qui s’ajoutait à leur monde. Je ne comprendrais jamais leur monde. Quand j’avais leur âge, mon monde était simple, monochrome et dans un sens, prévisible. Le leur était tout autre. Un déracinement parfois involontaire, de nouveaux visages, et surtout de nouveaux rêves, multicolores.

Mais le Canada n’a pas toujours été celui que je décris, un endroit un peu idyllique où plusieurs cultures cohabiteraient dans une ambiance douce et sereine. C’est le défunt père de l’actuel Premier Ministre, Justin Trudeau, qui a introduit cette politique qui s’appelait multiculturalisme. Aujourd’hui, il y a certains qui ne jurent que par cela alors que d’autres n’y voit qu’un spectre qui va déchirer les valeurs traditionnelles européennes et chrétiennes qui ont bâti le Canada depuis sa création en 1867, et même défavoriser le Québec dans sa quête d’une identité nationale distincte.

Et même si cette politique a été mise en place en 1982 et inscrite dans la Charte Canadienne des droits et libertés, elle n’a pas été établie pour des raisons purement innocentes d’amour et de compassion. Si Pierre Elliot Trudeau possédait bien un atout, je dirais qu’il était fin politicien et excellent visionnaire. En fait, il a vite compris que le Canada ne pouvait pas perdurer politiquement si on n’y introduisait pas une politique de diversité culturelle qui garderait les communautés culturelles satisfaites et maintiendrait en quelque sorte la paix « sociale ».

En effet, ce n’est pas un secret que le Canada n’est pas seulement le fait de la colonisation française puis anglaise. Il a été construit par des communautés culturelles différentes issues de l’immigration. Les traces italiennes sont encore visibles dans certains quartiers de Montréal avec les maisons en duplex ou triplex où les propriétaires vont habiter l’appartement du sous-sol et louer le premier et deuxième étage, souvent à de nouveaux immigrants, pour rembourser un prêt hypothécaire. Toronto, une autre ville où les différentes cultures se sont succédé est aussi encore un vestige urbain de ces vagues migratoires : juifs, italiens, grecs, portugais, et polonais, tous y sont passés et tous y ont laissés leur empreinte. Le quartier chinois de cette ville constitue aujourd’hui une attraction touristique pour certains visiteurs avec ses restaurants où les nourritures coréenne, vietnamienne et japonaises se côtoient.

Mais le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une succession de mets gastronomiques ou des boutiques de saris indiens ou de marchands de fruits exotiques.

Entre 1885 et 1923, une taxe d’entrée à l’immigration fut imposée aux immigrants chinois, ceux qui ont construit le chemin de fer canadien qui relie l’Océan Atlantique au Pacifique. Ces hommes ont injustement payé pendant des années des sommes importantes pour pouvoir venir s’établir au Canada et pour ramener leurs épouses et fonder une famille. Ce n’est qu’en 2006 que le gouvernement canadien s’est excusé auprès de la communauté chinoise pour le tort qu’il leur a causé.

En 1914, le bateau Komagata Maru est venu accoster sur les côtes canadiennes. A son bord, 376 passagers d’origine indienne, tous venus chercher une vie meilleure au Canada. Mais le bateau a dû rebrousser chemin parce le Canada leur a refusé accès.

Il n’y a pas si longtemps, en 2010, un cargo, le « MV Sun Sea », qui transportait 492 réfugiés tamouls du Sri Lanka fuyant la guerre civile et cherchant un sanctuaire au Canada, a été intercepté par la garde côtière canadienne. Pire, les agents des services frontaliers canadiens sont montés à bord et ont arrêté enfants, femmes et hommes. Certains ont été détenus pendant des mois dans des centres de détention. Vraisemblablement, le multiculturalisme avait des limites.

Toutefois, depuis que je suis établie au Canada, j’ai pu voir à maintes reprises, surtout lors des visites scolaires que j’entreprends lors de certains festivals littéraires, que c’est à l’école que tout se passe.

Lors d’une rencontre avec des lycéens de Vancouver, une ville de la côte ouest du Canada qui compte l’une des plus grosses communautés asiatiques, j’ai pu parler avec des jeunes canadiens qui pour la plupart avaient visiblement des origines asiatiques. Plusieurs d’entre eux rencontraient pour la première fois une écrivaine arabe d’origine nord-africaine. Et pourtant, une fois notre conversation entamée, j’ai vite compris que nous avions des histoires à partager. Pour la plupart le Canada est sans aucun doute le pays natal mais certains restaient attachés à l’histoire d’un grand-père pêcheur d’origine japonaise à qui on a confisqué le bateau de pêche lors de la seconde guerre mondiale ou celle d’un épicier chinois dont on se moquait bien souvent de l’accent. Et pourtant, ces jeunes ont grandi en se voyant parfaitement Canadiens. Ils parlent anglais, parfois même français, ils s’habillent à la mode du jour, mais restent toujours mus par le désir de connaitre leur histoire et surtout de raconter la leur. Ce qui n’est pas toujours facile. Le multiculturalisme n’est pas la carte d’accès magique qui les y conduit automatiquement. Il faut autre chose.

Il y a deux ans, avec la fin de la Commission de vérité et de réconciliation entre le Canada et les premières nations, on a pu assister à l’affranchissement de plusieurs voix autochtones. Ses voix sont importantes car le multiculturalisme n’est pas seulement une mosaïque destinée à « vendre » le Canada au reste du monde. Mais aussi faut-il rappeler que le Canada est le pays qui appartient à des peuples qui ont permis à des « Jacques Cartier » et à des « Samuel de Champlain » de survivre les longs hivers rigoureux en leur faisant découvrir ce vaste pays et en les invitant à leur cercle. Le cercle, symbole si important chez les premières nations comme un lieu où aucune hiérarchie n’existe mais juste des places les unes à côtés des autres avec une parole autour ou bien un silence…

Un grand cercle où de voix diverses se joignent pour chanter ou se taire et contempler le ciel limpide, le fleuve qui coule et le soleil qui brille. C’est justement vers une telle image que j’aimerais voir le Canada se diriger. Un cercle de cultures. Un cercle qui s’élargit et grandit avec le temps.

Je repense encore à cette photo de la petite fille que j’étais dans sa cour d’école. Tous les enfants se ressemblaient. Aucun visage différent, aucune surprise. Rien que la vie qui passe.
Au Canada j’ai découvert la possibilité de voir le monde autrement et de le vivre d’une autre manière. Intense, complexe et surprenante. Je ne pense pas que le multiculturalisme tel que vécu aujourd’hui est parfait. Mais je crois profondément qu’il pourra le devenir un jour. Il faut juste trouver notre voix et notre place dans le cercle.

Une version courte de cet article a été publié au Magazine français, l’Express, Juin, 2018

What misogyny looks like when you wear a hijab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog was published on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it comes to Palestine, many Canadian politicians are silent

In June 2009, I joined a delegation of Code Pink to visit Gaza. The main purpose of our delegation was to build playgrounds for the children of Gaza after Israel’s brutal aerial, naval and ground attack named Operation Cast Lead. It was estimated that 1,400 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces. Schools, hospitals, universities and a major part of Gaza’s infrastructure was destroyed. The ultimate objective of our delegation was an attempt to break the siege imposed since 2007 by the Israel government on the Gaza strip — a densely populated 365 square kilometres where 1.8 million people live, many of them in precarious conditions.

Our delegation was composed of U.S. human rights activists, mostly women, and a few Canadians. We were motivated by our quest for justice and our will to see with our own eyes the conditions Palestinians were living in after the devastation caused by the military operation. Armed with patience but mostly a lot of good luck, our delegation was able to cross the Gaza border with Egypt, another country complicit in maintaining this unfair and humiliating blockade.

Since then, two other brutal military operations (Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014) targeted Gaza, and the humanitarian crisis has deepened. Last week, on March 31, Palestinians from Gaza gathered along Israel’s borders for a “Great March of Return” to demand that refugees obtain rights to return to their land. It is a symbolic but strong move, expected to continue until May 15, the commemoration of the Nakba, when Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. Israeli soldiers responded to these demonstrations by firing live ammunition and killing 17 Palestinians and injuring more than 700 hundred people. Israel claimed that the protesters killed were either violent and part of Hamas.

Last December 2017, when Donald Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, Canada issued a statement where it described itself as “a steadfast ally and friend of Israel and friend to the Palestinian people.”

One assumes that if a state is an “ally and friend” with another state, both offer condolences to each other in times of tragedy and share “good advice” or at least “restraint in using force” if an “ally and friend” has fired on demonstrators, killing 17 of them and injuring more than 700.

But this is only if the “ally and friend” is not named “Israel” and if the victims of the military operation are not named “Palestinians.” So Canada sheepishly didn’t say anything to its “friend and ally” and once again let down the Palestinian people.

This position — choose what you’d like to name it — of “cowardice” or “self-censorship” or “who really cares,” not only defines the action or inaction of the Canadian government in general, it also applies to individual members of Parliament, who in a democracy are supposed to enjoy freedom of opinion and some sort of immunity to speak their minds. But, once again, apparently this applies only to “some issues” and to “some countries” and not when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian people.

Last year, when a simple “harmless” motion, M-103, that led to another “harmless report” with no serious recommendations regarding Islamophobia was presented in the House of Commons to study the extent of Islamophobia in Canada, many members of Parliament were panicking, speaking out, and raising the spectre of the loss of freedom of expression and a creeping sharia invading Canadian streets. They were claiming that people should be able to criticize everyone — even Muslims and Islam. Over and over, we heard the argument that “no one is above criticism, we are a free country.” No one or maybe except when you kill 17 people and they happen to be Palestinians, then freedom of expression isn’t used — it is replaced by silence.

Even our Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — whose spokesperson explained her silence on the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem with the reason, “The minister does not make statements about world events before they happen” — didn’t say a word about the killing of 17 Palestinians by the Israeli army.

However, Minister Freeland was eloquent in speaking out about the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Canada, because of the alleged Russian poisoning of an ex-Russian agent and his daughter in Britain. There is not an investigation into the poisonings yet, no report yet and still she was quick to take strong actions and words. But on the killing of Palestinians, despite the flagrant casualties, the pictures on social media, the dead bodies shot by the bullets, the denouncing of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, she kept silent.

In about a year, there will be a federal election. I really hope that Canadians will remember this troubling silence and think of the MPs that communities worked so hard to elect, the ones they distributed flyers for, the ones they went door to door to help elect, the ones they helped to raise funds. These hard-working communities should remember how their MPs reacted during these moments of tragedies. Did they react with silence or did they stand up for justice, even with a simple word? I am not saying that federal MPs should be elected solely on a single issue, in this regard their positions on Israel-Palestine. But rather, these positions are very eloquent. Sometimes silence is more telling than words.

This article was originally published at

The troubling silence of the “Sheikhs” about the fate of Tariq Ramadan

I stopped going to the Revival of Islamic Spirit (RIS) years ago. I found the event super commercialized, and less and less intellectually challenging for me.

It became a big fair of many self-proclaimed sheikhs who are carefully chosen and who lined up according to certain criteria that is more linked to their gender, celebrity and popularity status.

Those same scholars were more interested in the pursuit of their “religious careers” and the building of their “fans club”. The topics were ascepticized, superficial and the speakers were very careful in the choice of their talks so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Aside from few speakers, the majority would come there and maintain a very shallow and fluffy talk about good manners, good behaviour, and most of all would avoid criticizing or denouncing unjust policies in a North American context or in the Middle East where a large part of the audience is originally from.

Not a single word about Guantanamo, not a single word about the dictatorship of the Gulf countries. No fiery political speeches, no thought provoking conversations. Just a preacher and good listeners who would come back home feeling good that they spent few hundred dollars on a hotel package and entrance fees. This is of course not to mention the shopping discounts of boxing day (the event usually takes place during Christmas period).

One of the rare speakers at RIS who defied these almost implicit rules was Tariq Ramadan. He challenged the audience with his opinions. He stopped them when they were trying to clap when he said something appealing, encouraging the crowd to be rather rational instead of emotional.

In 2014, he rightly decided to stop participating in this big fair of “halal entertainment”. My understanding of the rational behind his decision is the problematic positions of some invited “sheikhs” who kept silent, or even worse, sided with the counter-revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, in 2011, when the Arab Spring traveled from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya, to Yemen, to Bahrain and to Syria, a new era was about to open in that region. An era of fearless populations who were ready to put an end to dictatorship and arbitrary rules, the start of an era towards building a new life full of dignity.

No wonder that one of the slogans branded at the numerous demonstrations that went through the streets of Sidi-Bouzid in Tunisia or Dara’a in Syria were “The people want the system to fall”. The “system” (or the regime) means the government running these countries and the corrupt regime suffocating the lives of all the citizens.

This new era wasn’t accepted with wide arms by all. It was actually stopped with arms and blood. Among the countries that were so frightened of the changes were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both of them, with a long history of oppression and flagrant absence of civil society, had a lot to fear from this change that not only threatened their thrones but “the system”.

The whole world watched these political and social changes unfold. Youth were especially excited and optimistic. Many of the societies of these countries were composed of young population with no serious opportunities like jobs or even mariage prospects.

During this period of turmoil, very few “sheikhs” sided with the change. To the opposite, many of them sided with the statu-quo, reminding the youth of the importance of obedience of the parents and of “those who are in charge of their lives”, aka the “system”.

At the RIS, the year after the start of the Arab Spring, nobody spoke about the events in those countries. Only Tariq Ramadan did. He even wrote a book about it. Even though, I disagreed with some of his opinions about few matters, I still thought that his voice was needed and relevant. The whole world was anxiously watching the change, so why shouldn’t he be speaking and discussing it.

But the RIS organizers invited the “Sheikhs” who are officially close to the United Arab Emirates or other similar monarchies. These “Sheikhs” kept silent about the tragedies happening in the Middle East and the dawn of change that was stopped with a fierce military intervention in Bahrein and Egypt and with literally bloody wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

This was a shameful and problematic position. The history wouldn’t forgive whoever sided with the oppressors. The “sheikhs” who are supposed to have a duty to support the oppressed and speak out for their rights, sheepishly took the side of the oppressors, the one who has the money and power, basically they sided with the “system”. I am so glad that Tariq Ramadan was not like the “Sheikhs” and that he decided to stop attending what became like a “circus”.

Today, Tariq Ramadan has been accused by three French women of violent rape. In France, he was interrogated by the police and subsequently preventively arrested. For the first days of his incarceration, he was in Fleury-Mérogis, an infamous French prison where many French Muslim suspects of terrorism have been held.

This is a highly symbolic gesture by the French legal system. It is intended to humiliate one of the most known public Muslim figures. But his treatment went beyond this mere symbolism. He was denied family visits for 45 days. His medical treatment was not proper and adequate. On the other hand, his accusers were given a platform to go to all popular TV shows and tell their stories. He was kept in prison in total commnunicado.

This case came in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement where the women are supposedly liberated so they can confront their harasser and raper. In the case of Tariq Ramadan. There was no confrontation. There was one side talking about their stories and the other side was silenced. The whole principle of the rule of law was denied to him. Worse, today, we are hearing from the lawyer of Tariq Ramadan, that even the versions of some of these women have been questionable and very problematic, to say the least.

Meanwhile, faced with this complex case, the “sheikhs” who are usually very quick in condemning every thing from terrorism to bad muslim manners, have been utterly silent. An uncomfortable silence. Usually they are very prompt to have an opinion on every thing including what you wear, who you marry and what you eat. But when one of the prominent and intellectual voices from the Muslim community, whether we agree with him or not, is silenced, is denied due process, is humiliated by being transferred from one prison to another, they have nothing to say.

Actually, for me, their silence means a lot. It means that they have no intellectual courage to defend the “Right”. And we aren’t here defending Tariq Ramadan the person, as it is not our purpose. The courts can do better jobs, at least we still hope so. But we are defending every one to be treated with dignity. From terrorist suspects to any other accusations, be it allegations of rape after the #Metoo movement. Anyone has the right to defend himself. And those who are looking for the spotlight in the RIS or any other “halal entertainment” event, and would keep silent about Tariq Ramadan have miserably failed the test of the integrity.

But here’s what they don’t get: Today is Tariq Ramadan, tomorrow, it will be them.