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.

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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 

Is there such a “thing” called a Muslim Writer?

This question kept swirling in my head after I attended the Festival of Literary Diversity, FOLD, organized in Brampton, Ontario, between May 4 and May 7.

First of all, the festival was super well organized. Jael Richardson, its director, and her team were welcoming, smiling, funny and making sure that the authors guests were taken care of, picked up from the airport, driven to their hotel and arriving on time to their panels. During the time I was there, I met and listened to many emerging writers, poets, spoken word artists who belonged diverse communities: Indigenous, Metis, Black, LGBTQ, South Asian and many others groups and subgroups. Within these communities, cross-sectional identities were also represented and celebrated. I participated in two panels. The first one was around the theme of immigrant women from racialized communities. I was one of the editors and contributors to an anthology named: “Resilience and Triumph: immigrants women tell their stories”. In my contribution, entitled: “Random Thoughts about Feminism”, I wrote about my upbringing in Tunisia and my distaste that I developed through he years to the “State Sponsored Feminism” that became another political propaganda used to “sell” the country abroad specially within institutions like International Monetary Fund or the World Bank. Gradually, I came to associate feminism with privilege, elitism and one-party politics. Later, this repulsion shaped my political and even religious opinions until I left my hometown for Canada.

 

The second panel was about writing fiction and we were four Canadian authors with different ethnic backgrounds. Many times, as a Muslim woman writing novels, I asked myself whether my Muslim identity can be dissociated from the topics I write about. The fact that I am a practising Muslim woman, does it confine me in one identity that I can’t exist outside it? Are there any specific “Islamic” topics I should be writing about? And if yes, how can I tackle them in an “Islamic way”?

 

I remember some years ago while discussing book titles in a book club (where the members were Muslim), I suggested to read “The Yacoubian Building”. I defended the book for its literary merits but also for bringing very “controversial” topics to be discussed in predominantly Muslim society. One member of the book club demolished all my arguments and told me that these sorts of books encourage depravity and bad morals. I was shocked by her strong reaction as I considered myself as a “good Muslim” with some sense of morality. However, this incident made me realize that I crossed a red line, at least for some.

 

When I wrote my first novel, I really wanted to create stories about Muslim women, but not in any way similar to the ones of “Pulp Fiction” as described by Lila Abu Lughod in her book “Do Muslim Women Need Saving” where Muslim women are usually portrayed as victims of their religion, husbands or fathers and end up finally being rescued by the “West”. I wanted stories that describe the lives of women I see around me. Muslim women who struggle within their faith, within their workplace, within their families but also women who love their faith, cultures and studies. Muslim women who look for love and find it or perhaps do not. While doing so, did I have to explain the rituals of Islam? Did I have to be decent? Not always unless needed by the story or its context. Did I have to convey in my writing any sense of morality specific to Muslim or Islam? Not as far as I am aware of. Do I have to avoid describing “depravity” or bringing it forward? Not necessarily. As a writer, my ultimate objective was to be able to bring stories as I imagine them as close to reality as possible.

 

My second novel was about revolutions, women, and political awakening. The protagonists are Muslim women and their relationship to their faith isn’t taking any prominent place in their lives. This choice isn’t deliberate, it is rather natural. This is what I feel around me and this is how I was able to capture in the stories.

I consider writers as the photographers of the communities they belong to. They take multiple shots of the lives of people they meet, talk to, befriend, hate or simply interact with. These shots are not done with a particular intention of voyeurism and judgement but with the objective of artistic sharing. Sensitivity, subtlety, emotions are my guide. I try to follow this approach in my writing without preaching, without proselytizing without any “Muslim agenda” with one objective in mind: humanizing Muslim women as much as possible.

But the stories I bring to the readers are not the ones that makes the best selling titles, are not the ones that would be picked by Heather Reisman of Chapters. They are not the ones that would be chosen by the mainstream media, as they are nuanced, and most importantly defiant of the cliché about Muslim women.

Today in a world where even “hijabi” Muslim women are objectified, sexualized and made into another class of consumers, the writing of a “Muslim women” has become another category to create additional barriers to limit its widespread accessibility and restrict it to another confined space.

 

 

 

Quand les mots tuent

Hier le Centre Islamique de Québec a été le théâtre d’un acte terroriste. Peu importe les motifs et l’origine des terroristes, ils sont entrés dans un lieu de culte et ont tué des gens qui priaient. Les lieux de culte partout dans le monde sont considérés comme des sanctuaires. Un endroit pour méditer, réfléchir, se protéger des maux extérieurs de la société, oublier, s’oublier. Apparemment, ce n’est plus le cas au Canada, du moins depuis hier. Une mosquée est devenue une cible sanglante. Une cible pour des attaques haineuses qui ont été nourries depuis des années par les radios poubelles du Québec qui vomissent leur venin enrobé de liberté d’expression dans les oreilles des populations. Nourries aussi par la cupidité sans borne de certains politiciens qui veulent se faire une carrière politique sur le dos des plus vulnérables. Voici, où nous en sommes arrivés. Au bord du gouffre, sinon, en plein dedans.

Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, le mot islamophobie n’est que rarement utilisé par les médias du Québec soit-disant de peur de jouer la carte des islamistes et d’exagérer un phénomène qui n’existe même pas. Alors que des islamophobes comme Djemila Benhabib, Mathieu Bock-Côté, pour ne citer que ceux-la, se cachent derrière des airs sophistiqués de laïcité à géométrie variable pour ne pas dire carrément asymétrique sont toujours les bienvenus sur les scènes publiques. Plus que ça, ce sont les chouchous de certains médias, les fous du roi. Comme quoi, le soucis d’objectivité est tellement important à préserver. Une objectivité pour certains sujets, uniquement.

Je suis venue au Canada au début des années 90 pour fuire l’intolérance et l’asphyxie que la politique française a léguée en Tunisie: la pseudo-laïcité. Une laïcité qui sous prétexte d’empêcher la religion de s’emparer du pouvoir, est devenue le test ultime de la citoyenneté. Tu fais partie de la Cité si tu rejettes la religion ( surtout une en particulier). Ainsi, si tu pries, tu es un islamiste. Si tu portes le voile, tu es une opprimée ou un dangeureuse soldate qui veut influencer toutes les femmes du monde à le porter, si tu as des opinions politiques qui s’opposent au régime autocratique, alors tu es un islamiste et dois aller en prison. La liberté ne se mesure plus par l’illumination de l’esprit mais par les centimètres de peaux dévoilées ou par la couleur des cheveux et leur beauté. Voilà ce que j’ai fui.

Je me suis établie au Québec pour deux simples raisons: la langue et la quête de liberté.
Malheureusement, au fil des années, j’ai compris que les choses n’étaient pas aussi simple que je les entrevoyais. Ma langue française ne semble plus suffire alors que tout le débat identitaire depuis la révolution tranquille au Québec a principalement porté sur l’importance de la langue française. Ma langue était prise pour acquise, il fallait montrer une autre patte blanche: mon amour de la laïcité. Une certaine laïcité. Evidemment, le fait que j’ai décidé de porter un foulard à l’âge de vingt ans pour des motifs spirituels et religieux, ont fait de moi la candidate de l’oppression par excellence. Le Québec n’était pas aussi libre que je le pensais, le Québec voulait retrouver sa liberté et les personnes qui montraient un signe religieux contribuaient à son oppression: du moins c’est ce qui était dit et répété sur toutes les tribunes depuis les vingt dernières années. Le vote ethnique dérange. Le voile islamique dérange. Les centres islamiques dérangent. Le stationnement des musulmans dans les quartiers devant leur lieux des prière dérangent. Les musulmans qui mangent halal dérangent. Les musulmans qui ne mangent pas les fèves au lard dans les cabanes à sucre dérangent. Le niqab dérange. Les femmes d’origine maghrébines qui sont bardées de diplômes et qui travaillent dans des garderies parce qu’elles n’ont pas trouvé d’autres emplois plus qualifiés sont folles: elles dérangent.

Je me suis toujours retrouvée en train de me défendre: défendre mon choix vestimentaire, défendre ma religion, défendre mes idées, défendre mon intelligence. Et cela n’est pas venu dans un vase clos. Il y eu les attaques terroristes du 11 septembre 2001 aux Etats-Unis. L’invasion de l’Irak, puis l’Afghanistan, le printemps arabe, l’émergence de l’état islamique et la liste est longue. A chaque fois, il faut faire la démonstration que je suis loyale et à chaque fois ma loyauté est mise en doute. Car même si je dis la vérité, ce n’est pas la vérité qu’on veut entendre. Et après tout, un musulman ne dit pas la vérité: ça fait partie de sa foi.

A chaque fois qu’il y a un incident violent qui surgit dans le monde ou une attaque terroriste dans lesquels des musulmans sont impliqués: le débat devient: la violence de l’Islam ou de l’idéologie islamiste. Les pseudo- experts sont invités dans les médias non pas pour expliquer la complexité des politiques au Moyen-Orient mais plutôt pour créer plus de confusion et surtout pour brouiller les cartes. Les débats sur les accommodements raisonnables est devenue une plateforme légitime pour que les gens affichent leur ignorance mélangée à la peur exagérée des étrangers. Rares sont les politiciens et les journalistes qui ont résisté à la tentation d’y gagner des cotes d’écoute ou des votes. C’était la curée: chacun voulait sa part.

Malheureusement: on y a tout laissé une part de notre humanité.
La grande farce qu’on a appelé la charte des valeurs québécoises a rajouté à cet état des lieux: une xénophobie assumée, une peur de l’islam, une ignorance qui réconforte, un opportunisme et un calcul politique plus que machiavélique.

Jusqu’à dernièrement, cet été, le débat importé fraîchement de Fance sur le burkini a encore une fois attise les peurs des gens et personne ne s’est demandé combien de femmes vont porter des habits pareils dans les piscines québécoises. Peu importe les faits. On n’est plus dans le rationnel, on est dans le feu de l’action.

Entre-temps, des groupes racistes d’extrême droite, comme la Meute trouve le terrain propice pour augmenter et racoller des adhérents. Des blogues, qui étaient considérés comme marginaux, en l’occurence Point de bascule, continuent en toute impunité à déverser leurs mensonges dans la population et même chez certains politiciens. De l’obscurité vers la lumière. De la marginalisation vers la normalisation. Voilà ce qui a été fait pendant les dernières années. La déshumanisation des musulmans: ce ne sont pas des personnes qui méritent des droits. Leur Dieu est Allah, ce n’est même pas notre Dieu. Leur femmes sont opprimées alors pourquoi on leur donnerait plus de droit chez nous. Vous n’avez pas de droit chez vous, alors pourquoi vous voulez qu’on vous en donne ici. Ces répliques sont aujourd’hui normales, elles peuplent les médias sociaux.

La tragédie d’hier soir doit être un moment de ressaisissement. Un moment de la dernière chance pour ne pas sombrer dans la violence et dans la haine. Les six personnes qui ont été tuées hier soir et celles qui ont été blessées ont perdu leur vie ou luttent pour leur vie parce que d’autres personnes quelques part derriere un écran d’ordinateur, ou dans un centre de tir, ou dans un jeu vidéo ont jugé qu’elles n’avaient pas le droit de vivre parce qu’elles étaient musulmanes. Les politiciens Canadiens et Québécois n’ont rien fait de concret pour dire haut et fort que nous sommes tous des Canadiens et des Québécois. Que les noms Mohamed, Oussama et Ahmed sont des noms Canadiens et Québécois, que les filles qui portent un foulard sont aussi des filles Québécoises. Cela ne suffit pas d’être tolérés. Il faut aussi savoir accepter. Dans la différence mais accepter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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