Our society’s double standards in the application of due process

We live in a strange era. An era of deep polarization of views. An era of flagrant contradictions. An era of erosion of principles of justice.

My husband, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born and raised in Syria, faced a public trial in 2002 while he was the victim of extraordinary rendition initiated by U.S. authorities with the complicity of Canadian law enforcement as well as Jordanian and Syrian authorities, official and de facto allies of the U.S. war on terror.

When my husband was given a paper in his U.S. cell stating that he had been arrested because of his alleged association with Al-Qaeda, he didn’t get a lawyer or day in court. He was transported in the middle of the night to an airport where a private jet, known as a ghost plane, flew him to Amman, Jordan. But many people in Canada believed that the U.S. couldn’t be mistaken, people who included politicians, journalists and regular Canadian citizens.

When former U.S. president George W. Bush infamously said in 2001, “you are either with us or with the terrorists,” he knew that many people would fall into the new fault line he created. Indeed, despite many disagreeing with Bush, many also listened to him. He created a clash of civilizations, and in a way he succeeded.

If Twitter and Facebook existed at that time, I have no doubt there would have been campaigns calling my husband a terrorist and demands to keep him in Syria to “rot with the terrorists.” Actually, even without social media, those “calls” were relayed by politicians, and journalists and media.

Amidst all this confusion and cacophony, one thing saved my husband: the principle of due process. Not that it was offered to him — I fought with supporters to bring it back to him.

I kept telling people around me that if my husband was guilty of any wrongdoing, he should be brought back to Canada and face justice. Deporting him to a Syrian prison and keeping him there wouldn’t serve any justice.

The notion of due process allowed the most skeptical to listen. Applying the argument of due process to a “suspected terrorist” helped my husband escape a possible death and a very likely life of torture and misery in a Syrian gulag.

There are two direct and serious implications of the 9/11 attacks. The first is the justification of torture as a tool for extracting information from Muslim suspects, with the normalization and “branding” of the ticking bomb scenario by the likes of Alan Dershowitz. The second is the entrenchment of the “war on terror” narrative in public discourse, leading to the disappearance of the principle of due process for Muslim suspects.

From the moment the suspect is arrested until the time he faces the justice system, he has already been tried in the public arena by politicians, journalists and pseudo experts, who most of the time make speculations that are presented as absolute truth. When the time comes for a trial, public opinion has already chosen its side: usually incrimination of the terrorist suspect.

When Hassan Diab, a Canadian citizen suspected of participating in the 1980 bombing of a synagogue in Paris, was arrested in 2006, the notion of due process was not held up for him.

For many, he was already considered guilty. His descent as a Muslim Arab from Lebanon made him a culprit before getting a fair and open trial. Even when a Canadian judge in Ottawa examined the extradition demand from Canada to France, and admitted that the evidence were shaky and flimsy, he still ruled for his extradition. Many blamed it on our extradition laws. They claimed that the judge had his hands tied by the low threshold for extradition in Canada. I concede that point. But not totally. I would argue that the whole anti-Muslim, anti-Arab climate paved the way for such a decision. Why do we gamble with the innocence of someone who has everything working against him, for whom public opinion is shaped by the narrative of terrorism and being “either with us or the terrorists,” and judge him guilty or just ignore his plight?

Today, even the #MeToo movement seems affected by this terrorism fault line.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent, Swiss-born theologian and scholar of Islam, was accused by two French women of rape. Despite going on his own volition to the police and being cooperative with the investigation, he was immediately arrested and put in prison without even visits from his family. Clearly, due process wasn’t deemed necessary in this case. In my opinion, his ethnic background and religion stripped him of this legal principle. His legal and media treatment today is very similar to what Muslim terrorist suspects would receive. Even his incarceration in solitary confinement in Fleury-Mérogis prison is highly symbolic since this is a prison where many Muslims suspected of terrorism have been held, including Hassan Diab.

Yeas ago, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and poised at the time to be a strong candidate for the French presidency, was accused by a Manhattan hotel worker of sexual assault. Many of his social and political connections stood by him, defended him publicly and claimed that his sexual misconduct (and other later discovered crimes) were a sign of his virility and sex appeal. Later he was acquitted of all accusations of pimping, rape and sexual assault, and now some even speculate about his political comeback.

In 2012, Glen Greenwald, wrote a book entitled With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. In the book, Greenwald focuses on cases of financial fraud, domestic spying and torture in the U.S. and how some corporations and individuals are evading justice and accountability because of their power and money. Today, the same can be seen not only in the U.S. but also around the world when it comes to terrorism or sexual accusations. Your ethnicity, religion and social status will determine whether the same legal principles are applied to you.

This article was already published at rabble.ca


Hijabs, feminism and hypocrisy

When it comes to women’s wear, everyone has an opinion — from fashion designers to mothers-in-law, to boyfriends, to politicians, to random people on the street.

For Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf) or the niqab (a face-covering veil) these opinions may be even more unsolicited and can become subjects of books, movies, laws, heated family discussions, slurs on the street and even federal election campaigns like the one we had in Canada in 2015. If you think I am exaggerating, you need only go back four months in time and read about Bill 62, introduced and passed in Quebec’s National Assembly, which prohibits women from receiving public services while wearing a niqab.

And if you still have doubts, you can read about the “burkini ban” in France during the summer of 2016 when Muslim women wearing burkinis (swim attire consisting of leggings and a dress with a hoodie) were banned from beaches.

These political decisions, whether made in Quebec, Canada, France or elsewhere, are justified by two main arguments. They are either seen through the “holy” lens of secularism or through the noble objective of women’s liberation and feminism.

As far as the “myth of secularism” and how it brought more rights to women in Western societies, I leave it to Joan Wallach Scott, who wrote extensively about the topic and who demolishes the secularism argument in her recent book, Sex and Secularism.

As for the feminist argument, let me share some personal experience and thoughts to show how it has been wrongly used.

Even when Muslim women strongly and loudly voice their disagreement that they are not oppressed and that wearing the hijab or niqab is their own choice, they are not taken seriously or they are not heard at all.

Personally, I have heard many comments directed at me, especially from women, telling me that I am oppressed without knowing it or that I have been brainwashed by patriarchal Islamists (understood to be my father, brother and/or husband) without noticing it (perhaps while I was busy writing my PhD thesis).

Today, in the era of the #MeToo and “Time’s up” movement, it is time to trust women’s stories when they are facing all sorts of adversity. It is unacceptable that we still have issues with trusting women’s intelligence and decisions, especially when those decisions happen to run against other people’s desires and counter the mainstream narratives of women’s liberation.

We live in a time of hypocrisy, where double standards are commonly used, especially by those who use feminism whenever its suits their personal agenda.

Last week, about 29 women decided to stand up publicly in the streets of Iran and remove their hijabs. They were protesting the compulsory hijab imposed on women since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

On social media, these women were described as “heroes” and their protests branded as “courageous.” Even though I strongly believe that these spectacular actions play into the Western obsession with the hijab and Muslim women’s bodies, I consider these actions courageous. However, on the other side of the spectrum, when Zunera Ishaq legally challenged the Harper government to be able to take the citizenship oath while wearing a niqab, she was not called “courageous” on social media. On the contrary, then prime minister Stephen Harper jumped to a simplistic justification for the hijab ban and described the niqab as “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

Another example of the hypocrisy of those using feminism when it suits their agenda is the treatment of Amena Khan, the first Muslim model hired by L’Oréal, to star in a campaign selling hair products. A few hours later she was fired after old tweets surfaced in which she made harsh criticisms towards Israel and its policies vis à vis Palestinians. Even though I have tremendous reservations about how the hijab is being used by multinational corporations and thus becoming another marketing tool used, for instance, by l’Oréal or H&M, to get customers and profits, I was dumbfounded by how the loud voices using feminism here and there didn’t find it outrageous that a woman was silenced for her opinions.

Some would argue that in Iran or in Saudi Arabia (another country where women are obliged to cover their heads and bodies), when women decide to remove their hijab, chador or niqab in acts of defiance, they stand to lose their freedom and this could put their life in danger, in contrast to Amena Khan losing her job in the U.K. or women unable to take the bus and visit the public library in Quebec. I agree. We should compare apples to apples and not to oranges. However, we should also keep in mind that consequences are relative to the state of the democracies we live in and if women are removed from jobs and public spaces for their appearance this will lead to their social and economic marginalization, which is not a minor fact.

During the ’90s, women in Tunisia, the country where I grew up, were persecuted because they were wearing the hijab. They were raped, verbally and physically assaulted by police officers, put in prison and some even died. Last year, the truth and dignity commission listened to some of the survivors’ horrific stories. All these years, these women have been suffering in silence. France, one of the main allies and supporters of the regime at that time, never called these women “brave” or “heroes” or used feminism to defend them. They were left to their fate.

Homa Hoodffar, a Canadian scholar originally from Iran who was arrested in 2016 by the Iranian regime and later released, wrote about how Iranian women lived under the Shah dictatorship before the Islamic revolution, and explained how many Iranian women suffered when the Shah banned the veil in an attempt at “modernization.” Many women stopped going out because they didn’t want to be uncovered. They stopped socializing and were deprived of going to places such as public baths or even working outside, thus losing social and economic status.

My point isn’t to defend some choices over others or to claim that wearing a hijab is harder or more courageous than removing it. Both are difficult and dangerous decisions depending on the countries where women live. However, it is how the same “feminism” is used to justify some actions and denounce others that deeply bothers me. I believe that “time’s up” to have all women’s decisions and stories taken seriously. We can’t pick and choose which women are worth listening to and whose stories are braver than others.

This article was initially published at rabble.ca

Islamophobia continues to fester in wake of Quebec City mosque shooting

On January 29, 2018, Canada will commemorate the first anniversary of the horrible and shocking killing of six Muslim men, shot by Alexandre Bissonnette in a Quebec City mosque.

Beyond the unanimous condemnation last year (rightly so) of such a violent and terrorizing act by politicians from all level of governments, I believe that nothing was achieved in fighting Islamophobia and stopping the wave of hate sweeping across Canadian cities.

Even the recent symbolic proposal to declare January 29 an official day of remembrance, initiated by more than 70 Canadian organizations, was met with staunch opposition from political parties in Quebec’s National Assembly — the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec — and tergiversation and non-committal replies from both Liberal parties in Quebec and Ottawa.

Like classic arguments used in France or by some conservative politicians during the debate around anti-Islamophobia motion M-103 last winter, each time the issue of hate against Muslims is evoked, it is turned into a semantic debate about the exact meaning of the word “Islamophobia” and about the imagined threats that such initiatives would pose to freedom of speech. As if the killing of six hard-working citizens in a place of worship came out of nowhere or the statistics revealed by Quebec City police last December were just another case of “crying wolf” by victimized Muslims interested in muzzling free minds.

Meanwhile, groups propagating hate, reinforcing stereotypes and ignorance, and inciting violence are left unbothered — or worse, they are growing in intensity and virulence.

During the summer of 2017, a controversy was falsely created about an organized trip at the Parc Safari zoo near Montreal. A group of Muslim families prayed on the lawn, a practice that as a practising Muslim I have been seeing in North America since I first arrived in Canada in 1991. On Facebook, some individuals criticized and attacked the park management, accusing them of allowing Muslims holding prayers in a public space and spreading their religion. With the administration standing by their decision to accommodate visitors as long as they don’t violate park policies, this manufactured crisis became another one added to the long list of incidents in which Muslims are portrayed as threats to the public order, and thus fuelling Islamophobic reactions and fear.

More recently, a Montreal mosque found itself in another fabricated controversy when a TVA journalist alleged that there was provision in the construction contract between the mosque and the builders working for them, barring women from the site on Fridays. Quebec politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the “misogynistic behaviour” of Muslims. There were no second thoughts, no calls to be cautious; every politician had a piece of wood to add to the fire. This time it was not the freedom of speech argument that was raised; instead the principle of gender equality came in handy for some.

Even when the news turned out to be plainly wrong, there were few calls for investigation, no serious reprimand and a very shallow apology by the media outlet.

The accumulation and repetition of these “stories” build on a suffocating atmosphere many Muslim communities breathe across Canada.

A recent media report showed that Toronto is another city where Islamophobia has been growing and left unchallenged by politicians. Anti-Muslim rallies have been held regularly in front of mosques, the Quran was torn in a Peel District School Board meeting about religious accommodation and a Toronto Imam has received death threats because he is helping the board with religious and accommodation issues.

Last December, Pamela Geller, a U.S.-based Islamophobic blogger who once described President Obama as a “third-worlder and a coward,” and said that “[h]e will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords,” was invited to speak by the Jewish Defence league in Toronto, and Ezra Levant joined her at the event.

Once again, freedom of speech was a fine pretext for allowing a blatantly Islamophobic event to take place and hate speech to flourish and become normalized.

I believe there are three categories of people responsible for this troubling situation.

The first are politicians. Many of them have been playing with identity politics for a long time while others have remained sitting on the bench. Not long ago we had a prime minister named Stephen Harper who said that “Islamicism is the biggest threat to Canada.” The uncommon word “Islamicism” amalgamates Islam, fundamentalism and terrorism, making the terms interchangeable. Later, he even gave the example of a mosque as a potential place of youth radicalization, immediately making a connection in people’s minds between Islam and violence.

Even if Justin Trudeau considered the Quebec City killings a terrorist act, his government took very little initiative to help provinces and cities come up with education campaigns in schools, in hospitals or public transit to fight Islamophobia. He didn’t make any changes to hate crime laws to dissuade white supremacist groups, that are on the rise in Canada. Instead in 2015, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals voted for the anti-terrorism legislation introduced by Stephen Harper, formerly known as Bill C-51. Once again, they used laws to create two specific kinds of crimes: ones committed by Muslims and ones committed by other people whose faith doesn’t matter.

Here, it is ironic to remember that Alexandre Bissonnette won’t face anti-terrorism charges.

Even the recently passed amendments to the anti-terrorism law keep the heavy feeling that Canada is constantly under threat by terrorists, a.k.a. Muslims, allowing for secret trials to take place, a practice so far only applied to Muslim suspects.

The second group is media. Some media outlets have also been dangerously playing the card of fear against Muslims. They choose which incidents to report and over-represent, like the issue of the niqab during the 2015 federal election. That was not the only time. In 2008, during the reasonable accommodation crisis, many media outlets in Quebec inflated and distorted the cases of religious accommodation demands, making them seem overwhelming. In Ontario, during the “Sharia debate” crisis, some media invited only extremist views from each side, helping to polarize the debate, and leaving the population with more fear than real answers.

And finally, the third group is the general public. When violent events committed by Muslims occur around the world, the onus is placed on Muslims to distance themselves from violence, from their faith, and from the violent ideologies espoused by some Muslim groups. I lived through that and I keep going through it each time a terrorist act is committed in Western countries (mind you that when terrorist attacks happen in other places in the world, they go almost unnoticed).

I wouldn’t expect people to condemn every single Islamophobic act committed as this is not possible and it isn’t fair to make people guilty by simple association. However, I think that there is a huge duty for self-education about Islam and Muslims, and to make an effort to get out of our comfort zone and make new friends who are Muslims. They can be good or they can be bad, as anyone else. But the effort is worth it. Critical analysis of the news and of politicians’ words and actions should not only matter when it comes to work, health and the economy but also when it comes to national security too. Fear shouldn’t blind us and give a blank cheque to politicians. It should rally us to fight darkness and hate.

This article was first published at rabble.ca

My writing, my political activism, and the power of stories

Below is an interview I did with Zehra Naqvi, from B.C,  for the blog Nineteenquestions.com

Zehra Naqvi is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in The TalonSchema Magazine, and Jaggery. She was the winner of Room Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest.

When did you realize you wanted to be writer? You have a PhD in Finance. Was writing something that came to you later in life, or was it something you were always pursuing?

I always wrote. I always loved writing. It was a part of my education, but also a part of my own life. I have always had a journal. I didn’t have a particular idea about writing for others, but for me writing was one of the best ways to express my feelings and to share my ideas with others. Yes, I went to a field that is far from writing. It is assumed to be in a way contradictory or in conflict with what I am doing right now. And there’s truth there. But also, my life is not only my academic background. I think writing came to me, probably as a rescue when my husband was arrested. This is where I started writing opinion pieces, and sharing them with newspapers—basically writing publically. Later on, when I decided to write a memoir about this period of my life, I think this is where I decided to take writing as not just a hobby, but as a tool for me to just survive in this world.

How much have your political experiences been the motivating factor behind your writing? Your first book was a memoir about your husband’s arrest and detainment, your second novel is about Muslim women in Canada, and then this latest one is about the 1984 Tunisian Bread Riots and the 2010 Jasmine Revolution. What is the impulse behind your writing? Why do you write?

I write, first of all, especially with these two latest novels, to tell stories. To tell stories, principally, and very specifically, of Muslim women. It’s very important these days, more than at any time before, to put our stories out there, in the public sphere.  For centuries and till now, we have always been talked about. Stories have been told about us. And I don’t personally identify with a lot of these stories. Some of them are nice; some of them are horrible. I do not want to be portrayed as an oppressed, passive, Muslim woman. If I don’t say anything about this, it means I agree or it doesn’t bother me. So for me, writing is also a political tool. Not only to survive, but to say to people around me: “Look, I exist. I’m here. And there are many other women here as well, and they have different stories. Let’s read about them and let’s know about them.” Yes, it’s political activism, but I think the power of stories is very, very important. And I don’t want only one story to define Muslim women, or women in general. I want multiple stories and I want mine to be also shared.

And I suppose there are challenges that come with that. I was at your book launch for Mirrors and Mirages in 2014 at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember you had come to talk about this book, but a lot of the questions you were receiving from the audience were Islam 101 questions, about sharia law, why you wear the hijab, about banning the niqab—

And this hasn’t changed—

Is that frustrating? How do you deal with often not being able to actually talk about your books, the stories you have written, and talk about yourself as a writer?

I have to tell you something.  You’re right. I have always been struggling as an author with this. But also my background in finance—people rarely ask me about things going in finance, and always just see the hijab and focus on that. By the mere fact, that I am Muslim, I am supposed to embody all the knowledge about Islam. This is also part of the ignorance. However, I think, by continuing doing what I’m doing, in terms of writing these stories—these are Muslim characters, but I don’t really talk about hijab in my books. Yes, I do in Mirrors and Mirages, but it is only one aspect. I also don’t specifically talk about religion. Religion is a detail in the background. So by continuing I’m humanizing Muslim women, whether they have hijab or not, and also introducing this religion to the readers, without those stereotypes. Making it more like a learning experience, rather than a traumatizing experience about violence, and women being raped, and Muslim women being oppressed, and things like that. And yes, we really have a long way to go, but I can already see little changes. Recently, I have had a few interviews about my book in the mainstream media, and there was a story that was focused on the book and about the women in the books. That was really refreshing for me. There will always be questions on the side, which I find totally fine. We are not living in a bubble of only Muslims. We live in the world, and we are affected by everything happening. But I can tell you that the more we try to tell these stories, different ones, not just stereotypical stories about Muslim women, and as diverse as possible, one day people will realize.

Thank you for taking that on.

Well, someone has to.

Yes, as a writer I can count on one hand actual wholesome representations of Muslim women, whether in TV shows or books or literature. There are so few.

Absolutely, and we need more. Not just, you know, “for diversity,” but to be taken seriously for who we are, for what we are, and for what we are saying. Not just as a symbol or a token. We also need solidarity between women. We cannot only talk about oppression happening overseas, and not really talk about what’s going on here. We need intersectional stories, of women, of their struggles. Muslim voices are definitely important today, need to be taken very seriously, to fight what’s going on around us right now, xenophobia and islamophobia. We can’t just count on having open mosque events. These things have been happening for years, many people are still stuck in this narrative of hate. So literature, art, media, and TV are very important in changing these misinformed realities.

You’re also quite involved in the political sphere. You ran in the 2004 Federal elections as an NDP candidate. You’re a human rights advocate. You recently spoke at a rally about islamophobia and xenophobia after the Quebec mosque shooting. What do you think about the term literary activism? Do you see your writing as literary activism?

I am totally fine with that term. I think that’s a very noble thing to do.  Writers have been always been doing this. I don’t pretend to be inventing this sort of activism. Basically, every writer has a message in his or her work. This is something that has been done since the beginning of time. Aristotle, Plato, they used writing to convey their philosophical ideas. Here in Canada, there are authors who focus on feminism. Or take the example of Lawrence Hill, who is an author who writes about Blackness and Black lives, either historical or present. There are many, many authors who do this. I am very privileged to be able to insert myself somehow within these diverse voices and complex stories to open a window into stories about Muslim women, or what’s going on in Tunisia, for example. At this moment this is what I am best at and what I would love to continue to do. If you can change things with books, then I’m happy to do that. 

Muslim women writers often have to put on these different hats. There are so many things going on around us, that we are asked to or compelled to address, whether what’s in the news, the latest thing targeting our communities—the racism, the politics, the everyday. How do you maneuver between these different roles?

Well, I think first of all, each of us has to focus on our strengths. My strengths are more in writing and speaking about things that I feel passionate about, such as social justice, human rights, and accountability for politicians. I have those issues that I’m fond of, and feel strongly about. I keep educating myself about them, and thinking and writing about them. It can be overwhelming too. We cannot really change the world on our own. Nevertheless, I think each one of us has some value. I see some continuity in the work that I do. If we talk about fighting islamophobia. I don’t think it will be enough to just make a speech and go to a protest, and then go back to normal. There has to be continuity and work done at different levels. We cannot just fight islamophobia and remain silent about other injustices. We have to understand what other groups have been going through and also develop networks of solidarity. It’s a holistic approach. We also have to keep the big picture in mind: we need to speak out against every sort of injustice that we encounter, and this is where I try to basically find intersections among all these issues. We should have a broad approach if we are serious and really want to change the actions of some of the people we are seeing around us. 

So it’s more about taking a holistic approach, rather than seeing each role as separate?

Absolutely. The other thing I also wanted to add that also affects me personally is the whole idea of national security. The discourse about national security that has been normalized and accepted by many politicians participated in the creation of islamophobia and this fear that many have. So we cannot just fight against islamophobia and forget about this climate of fear that was installed after 9/11. It became the norm for many Canadians and for many people around the world, without questioning what will happen to people who are targeted by abusive and intrusive laws that allow surveillance, spying on people, and arrests without due process. So all these things have different layers and intersect, and we have to understand all these forms of injustice.

There are so many op-eds out there, including about national security.  People are talking about it.  Yet these issues persist. Will writing more articles about it actually help? I’m wondering what’s needed and what’s absent when it comes to writing about issues such as national security?

First of all, yes, we think that maybe writing wouldn’t be enough. Or maybe, as you said, there are plenty of papers and books about it, but we also have to look at the other side. We are fighting this mentality of imposing surveillance on citizens or arresting citizens because of their cultural or religious background. The amount of money, time, and books involved on that side is really huge and incredible. We cannot think, “I’ve done my share, and that’s it.” This is a continual struggle. I guess there are many voices, but we need more, as long as things don’t change, as long as our voices don’t reach the politicians. Writing today is often seen as being powerless. But remember, many revolutions in the world, the French revolution for example, they happened with words and ideas. A lot of philosophers at the time shared their ideas, and their ideas brought people up.

We live in a world of instant results. We want to see the results right away. Results and changes do not happen over night. Sometimes not even during our lifetimes, but maybe later on, through generations. So whatever we can do today to plant those seeds, more generations will be coming and watering them.

You mentioned the power of story. You have written op-eds, you’ve written a memoir. You’ve written novels. How do you determine which genre or which format is the best for a story?

I like stories—fiction or non-fiction. But you know, this element, where we have characters that are not necessarily from the reader’s time, but there is a connection between the reader and those characters, that’s the kind of story that I like. I like biographies and I also like novels where I can really put myself into the life of those characters created by the writer. I try to share these kinds of stories with the reader. Even if you don’t like some aspect of a character in a book, I think the humanity should always be there. I try to create this in my books.

I see that in your books. It’s so much more interesting to learn about the Tunisian revolution through characters like Nadia and Lila.  It’s so much more engrossing. You enter a reality; it becomes your world, more so than when reading a newspaper article. 

Exactly. You have a love and hate relationship with the character. We discover a friend or someone we don’t like or a new reality. I think we can read about a woman with a niqab and not necessarily be scared of her or judgmental of her. We can sympathize. We can dislike. But we cannot hate the person in it. What I really don’t want to happen is this feeling of superiority: “Look, I’m here, privileged, having all these rights, and over there they have none and we should go and save them.” This is what I would love to avoid and I try to find an alternative. To see the human side of people regardless of their religion, how they look, how they dress or don’t dress. To focus on what they think, how they react to those situations. That’s very important for me.

Did you always consider writing fiction, or was it something you considered after you wrote your memoir?

I loved fiction, but I didn’t start with fiction. After I finished that memoir, I wanted to continue writing, but I wanted to try something different, and create imaginary characters based on my observations and reality. So, in a way, you don’t know what is really reality, what is really imagination, but develop a bond with the characters and it creates empathy. I found writing fiction closer to who I am. I can write another memoir and it would be different focusing on other aspects. I think with these fictional stories we can go wherever our imagination can take us. With non-fiction, we are more limited to facts and reality and we cannot just make things up. With fictional stories we can make things up but they can still be very close to reality.

Would you then say your fiction is autobiographical mixed with imagination?

Yes, I think all authors do that. They don’t live in Mars and then come write the stories here. They live here, on Earth, surrounded by parents and friends, and they always get inspired by things happening around them. Some things are going to be written in a way that is very far from reality, but some others are going to be very close. I do both. In Hope has Two Daughters, I speak about growing up in the 80s in Tunisia. I grew up in the 80s in Tunisia. There are a lot of similarities with that political climate. But I am not Nadia. She’s not me. Many things happened to her that didn’t happen to me, but I have seen some Nadias around me. And this is how I got the idea to write and put them in one character and create this story.

What is your writing process like? How do you begin and finish your book?

I’m not an author who has a plan before writing. I have ideas and I put these ideas together and they evolve. For this book, I knew that I wanted to write about those two times. And then later on I started thinking about these two women. And then the mother and her daughter. Things evolved and unfolded gradually. The same things with Mirrors and Mirages, I wanted a story about four different Muslim women living in Canada, from different backgrounds, and I wanted to create these multiple images of Muslim women, but I didn’t know what would happen to each one of them. I don’t want to confine my stories in a plan. I would rather let it flow slowly.

So there must be surprises along the way, as well.

Yes, for sure. This is something I love. I like to surprise myself, and it gives me more joy in continuing writing because I discover things.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in the publishing industry?

Publishing is very challenging. I write in French, so my books are translated in English. Even for me, writing in French has not been easy, because it’s hard to find a publisher. In French Canada, it’s mainly Quebec, and mainly Montreal that has monopoly of promoting books. For someone living in Ontario, writing in French, I am a minority within a minority. To be accepted by a publishing house is a challenge. It’s easier when you have something published. And then later on, to get translated is another challenge. I think it’s important to write good stories. And each time look for the best and hope for the best. There are many, many good authors who do not get published just because of the logistics.

What advice would you give to young writers, particularly from marginalized communities?

I think we should start somewhere. I don’t think it is easy to come from certain backgrounds and penetrate this place called Canadian Literature. But I think it’s important to believe in ourselves, because we can easily be discouraged. Continue believing in the power of words and ideas, believing in the capacity to bring change for ourselves and others. We should start. Writing blogs is very important for me. They are short-term projects. A book can take over a year or even more. Blogs can keep us reading and thinking about what’s going on. They can also sharpen our writing skills. Sharpen our capacity to come up with short stories that make sense. Keep us in the business. We don’t want to get rusty. It’s easy to lose our capacity to write and summarize our complex ideas into two or more pages. I think blogs are very helpful. Other people are good at poetry, or spoken word. I see a lot of marginalized young people using poetry or songs. Whatever we are good at, we have to continue doing it and sharing it with others. That is my advice.

Thank you so much for talking to me. What’s next for you?

Well, I have been writing another book. I’m working on it. That’s going to take me some time. I don’t want to stop.

Is there anything you can tell me about the book?

This book is going to be also about women. I’m going to have something more historical. A woman growing up in the 30s in Tunisia in a Muslim society so different from today. I want to revisit those times, see how people lived, behaved, especially women. It is another attempt at going beyond simplistic stereotypes and diving into the lives of women of that time.

Faith and Perspectives

My biggest challenge in Canada is being recognized and living as a Muslim woman.

There are two key words here: Woman and Islam. It should be emphasized that my struggles today as a Muslim woman in Canada are different from the ones faced by a Muslim man. Also as a woman wearing a headscarf, my challenges are different than women not wearing one.

Societies, cultures and traditions in general have usually put women down, despised women and treated them unfairly compared to men. I am very lucky to be born in a family where I was loved and respected and most of all always intellectually challenged. I never felt that I was less than a man. However, this attitude would stop at the doorstep of our home. Outside the house, the society is full of disrespect towards women.

When I chose to wear a headscarf as part of my personal growth and my spiritual journey towards God, I found in the message of the Quran, a message of fairness, a message of divine equity and a message of justice.

This message is very hard to transport into the world we live in. Not only in a non-Muslim context but also in a Muslim environment.

In Muslim countries, it is very difficult for women to be taken seriously at home, at work and in the street. They struggle when they marry, they struggle at work, they struggle when they divorce, and they struggle when they want to inherit their parents or relatives. Their lives are a series of struggles. Some of these struggles are found elsewhere and some others are justified under the name of Islam.

The patriarchal societies where many Muslim societies lived and developed for centuries kept those deep roots of suspicion towards women even though the Quran brought a message of liberation from all sort of form of injustices and worship including patriarchy or tribalism or traditions.

Patriarchy isn’t just a form of decision-making process and financial hegemony inside the family unit but it goes deeper than this. It creates a sort of dictatorship inside the house and that dictatorship would allow other forms of dictatorships to flourish at the level of legal and political institutions.

Islam brought a very special form of management of public affairs: the “shura”. That mean: consultation or moving forward through consensus. Ironically and interestingly, it is a woman who God chose to show us the path in the Quran: Queen Sheba or Saba. There is a whole chapter dedicated to her in the Quran and the following verse tells us about how she dealt with a message sent to her by a powerful man: King Solomon, peace be upon him:

 “She said Oh Chiefs! Advise me in this affair. No affair have I decided except in your presence” Chapter 27, verse 32

Sadly many of these “empowering” and “liberating” stories from the Quran are today unheard of by many young Muslim women and by the societies in general.

I think that the challenges I live aren’t particular to a faith or to an ethnic group. The problems we face today emanate from the attitude that societies have toward faith and spirituality in general. We turned everything into consumption and religion became the cheapest good or the one with the worst customer service. We live in a world that in its path to Enlightenment, Science and Rationality, it ditched Religion, pushed it aside and tried to hide all signs of religiosity from the public sphere. This erasure becomes so obvious and entrenched when the religion is different and called: Islam.

The biggest misconception I would like to clear about Islam is that women are unfairly treated or oppressed. This task is huge and gigantic as I am fighting centuries of ignorance, an industry of entertainment that perpetuate the myths of the oppressed Muslim women, and a lucrative industry of islamophobia that is well funded and that keeps spreading those lies like implementing Sharia in the US like polygamy legalized or women stoned to deaths. Moreover, it is always a daunting task to fight the propaganda around those military expeditions like the war in Afghanistan or the war on Terror that are conducted under the name of liberating Muslim women but that would make them worse with more devastation, less economic opportunities and more social economical problems. Those wars are not anyhow different than the colonization of Egypt and Algeria for instance where women’s welfare became the justification of the foreign presence and the confiscation of the natural resources of those lands.

I would like to remind you that Lord Cromer, who was the first Pre-consul British in Egypt:

“The position of women in Egypt, and Mohammedan countries generally, is, therefore a fatal obstacle to the attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation”

You would be surprised to know that the same Lord Cromer was an active member and one-time president of the UK ‘Men’s League for Opposing the Suffrage of Women’ campaigning AGAINST giving British women the vote.

When you don’t know anything about a topic or a group of people or a culture, you always think that everyone from this group looks the same, eat the same and behave the same. It is a sort of defence mechanism to make us feel smart about ourselves and worry less about our ignorance. My mother thinks that Chinese people look all the same and my Syrian mother in-law thinks that Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan dialects are all the same and as a Tunisian I can assert you the opposite.

In fact, the more you know about something, and more details and discoveries you will make. The same thing applies to Islam. The diversity within Islam is of languages, cultures, religious interpretation, clothing, architecture, cuisine…

In my work as an author, I try to tackle this issue of homogeneity by having very subtle and nuanced characters:

  • A woman wearing a Niqab and so attaching to her smartphone and computer
  • A woman not wearing a headscarf but still very attached to her religion and helping others to understand Islam.


Many years ago, I came to understand that I can never change these attitudes by only being nice but rather by embracing my civic duties fully and that means that I start considering my self as a full citizen not only when paying my taxes, or sorting my garbage for recycling or holding the door to others but by having political opinions, advocating for rights for the most vulnerable of out society, advocating for social justice, speaking out and challenging injustice around me.

It is actually this common path between my faith and my citizenship that make me overcome the daily struggle and make me continue…forever








En politique, il n’y a pas de “Best Friends Forever”


Malheureusement, il semble que pour plusieurs groupes musulmans du Québec, le travail de lobbying ou de représentation des droits des musulmans est souvent confondu avec la notion de tisser une amitié avec certains politiciens.

Heureusement que le premier Ministre Philipe Couillard, considéré par plusieurs de ces groupes comme un ami « raisonnable », est venu leur rappeler que dans la vie d’un politicien ce qui compte le plus ce sont les sondages et les caisses du parti et que les gentils mots échangés pendant certains festivals de « couscous » ou de « chameaux » ainsi que les quelques larmes sincères ou non, versées lors des funérailles des six musulmans assassinés à la mosquée de Québec, sont éphémères, rapidement séchées dès la publication du premier sondage qui dirait par exemple que la Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ), deviendrait un concurrent dangereux dans certaines circonscriptions électorales.

Ce n’est pas un secret que la CAQ, depuis des années, fait de la surenchère politique sur le dos des musulmans, des immigrants, en attisant la peur des citoyens et en leur faisait faussement croire que le terrorisme est un phénomène local et que les musulmans ont tous une part de responsabilité dans les actes violents commis par chacun qui s’appellerait « Mohamed », « Abdullah » ou porterait un prénom à connotation arabo-musulmane. Le premier ministre Couillard, dans sa crainte de voir le tapis lui être tiré sous les pieds par ses adversaires politiques, a haussé le ton et a soudainement laissé tomber ces « amis musulmans » qui tels que rapporté par certains médias sont sous encore le choc, comme si cela n’était pas prévisible à quelques mois des élections provinciales.

Mais, sarcasme mis de côté, les propos du premier ministre du Québec sont graves et erronés pour deux raisons principales.

Tout d’abord, le premier ministre s’est inspiré des propos du président français, Emmanuel Macron, alors que la situation en France est plus complexe et certainement distincte de celle du Québec. La France est en crise depuis des décennies avec ses concitoyens français de foi musulmane, dont les parents ou grands-parents sont d’origine maghrébine, issues des anciennes colonies comme le Maroc, l’Algérie ou la Tunisie.

Que vient faire le Québec là-dedans? Certes, il y a une grande communauté musulmane au Québec (environ 300,000 personnes) dont 63% sont originaires de l’Afrique du Nord, toutefois c’est une communauté issue d’une immigration relativement jeune (début des années 90), appartenant à un groupe socioéconomique, qui malgré les défis de chômage (taux aux alentours de 18%), n’est pas concentrée dans des HLM ou des ghettos ethniques comme c’est le cas de la France, et constitue l’une des communautés les plus éduqués au Canada (48% détiennent des diplômes universitaires).

Par ailleurs, la France, a vu les deux dernières années, une vague d’attentats se déferler sur son territoires. Ces actes ont été commis par des français musulmans. En deux ans, le nombre de victimes de ces actes s’est élevé à 239 victimes. De plus, il y a environ 900 français qui sont partis combattre en Syrie et en Iraq.

Au Québec, il n’y a pas eu de vague d’attentats terroristes. En 2014, il y a le militaire de Saint-Jean sur Richelieu qui a été tué par Martin Rouleau, un jeune qui s’est converti à l’islam et qui faut-il le rappeler souffre de plusieurs troubles mentaux. Et bien sûr, l’histoire des jeunes québécois qui ont quitté le Québec pour aller renflouer les rangs de certains groupes combattants en Syrie. D’après ce que rapportent certains médias, entre 2012 et 2015, il y aurait eu six jeunes qui sont partis et dix autres qui ont été arrêtés par les autorités policières pour avoir essayé de joindre les rangs de certaines organisations terroristes en Syrie. Et malgré ces chiffres statistiquement non significatif, un centre pour la prévention contre la radicalisation menant à la violence a été mis en place à Montréal en grande pompe avec l’aval du maire Denis Coderre et de toute la classe politique. Aujourd’hui, la question qui se pose: « pourquoi, il n’y a pas eu un centre pour la lutte contre l’islamophobie après que six pères de famille soient tués dans leur lieux de prière, le mois de janvier passé? »

Deuxièmement, le premier ministre Couillard, a utilisé dans ses propos une rhétorique dangereuse souvent utilisée par certaines personnes en position de pouvoir et de privilège pour critiquer les demandes de certaines victimes. Ce qu’il a dit serait semblable à critiquer une femme qui a subit une violence sexuelle en lui rétorquant que c’est la façon dont elle s’habille qui est la cause de son malheur.

Et pourtant le premier ministre n’est pas fait une sortie le jour où les chiffres de Statistiques Canada ont révélé que ce sont les musulmans qui sont ceux qui ont subi l’augmentation la plus considérable d’actes haineux.

Non seulement les musulmans ont vu le nombre de crimes haineux contre eux augmenter d’une manière fulgurante mais que cette violence est généralement l’œuvre d’hommes âgés entre 18 à 24 ans.

Pourquoi, alors le premier ministre Couillard ne s’est-il pas adressé à ce groupe démographique et lui faire la leçon de morale, comme il l’a fait avec les musulmans, et lui demander de se distancer de ces crimes haineux et de reformer leur idéologie violente?

Les représentants de la communauté musulmane ont cru qu’en étant gentils et dociles avec le gouvernement, les choses s’amélioreraient d’elle même.

Malheureusement, en politique et quand il s’agit de revendiquer ses droits, il faut crier haut et faire, il faut faire beaucoup de bruit, il ne faut pas mâcher ses mots, il faut des demandes claires et il faut du courage pour poursuivre la lutte.

Après la mort de six hommes tué par un terroriste québécois dont on ignore presque tout sur sa religion et ses croyances religieuses et ses opinions politiques, aucune action concrète n’a été mise en place par le gouvernement Couillard pour éduquer la population et prévenir les actes de haine et d’islamophobie.

Il est temps que les musulmans du Québec, et du Canada aussi, sachent qui ni les Couillard, ni les Lisée, ni les Legault, ni les Nadeau- Dubois, ni même les Trudeau, ne sont des amis pour la vie. Ce sont des hommes politiques qui cherchent à se faire élire et gagner des élections. Le droit à la dignité, le respect et la liberté ne seraient jamais obtenus par des poignées de main, des sourires laconiques ou des « égo portraits » pris avec des politiciens opportunistes, mais plutôt par des luttes sociales, de l’éducation et surtout du travail militant intelligent et courageux, sur le terrain et de longue haleine.






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published on the Huffington Post