Canada is still in denial about Islamophobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Hassan Diab’s long, harrowing struggle for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and tension in France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nightmare continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

Should the Proud Boys be labelled terrorists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

It is time to bring Little Amira back to Canada

Last year, on February 19th, 2019, Prime Minister Trudeau, on the International Day against the use of child soldiers, declared the following:
“All children deserve a safe space to learn and grow. As part of our G7 Presidency last year, Canada and international partners announced a historic investment of $3.8 billion – the single largest investment of its kind – to support education for women and girls in crisis and conflict situations. Canada has also endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration to protect schools, teachers, and students during armed conflict.”

The words of Prime Minister Trudeau are crystal clear. Canada is serious and committed to protect, schools, teachers and students during armed conflict.

But what if the child is born to Canadian parents who allegedly went to fight in Syria? How if the parents went to fight with radical Islamic groups ( knowing that there are about 40 Canadians who went fighting with Kurdish militia. Their actions were met with somehow a sympathetic public opinion, as if some violence can be accepted depending on who is using it and who is receiving it)? And finally, what if the parents who fought with the wrong side, died and the children are left orphans? Would Prime Minister Trudeau be still committed to protect them?
Until now, the answer is a resounding no. At least for the troubling case of little Amira.

She is a five-year-old Canadian girl, whose Canadians parents went to fight in Syria, and she was born there. Unfortunately for little Amira, her parents and other siblings were killed ( was it during an air bombing by the Russian planes? The American planes or the Syrian regime), and sadly she was left alone in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in eastern Syria earlier. By 2019, the camp population was estimated to 74,000 people, mainly women and children, guarded by the US Kurdish forces.

So far, the Canadian government refused to repatriate little Amira so she can live with her uncles, cousins, grandparents and extended family in Canada. It didn’t want to provide her with travel documents so she can fly home.

There are about 900 children from western countries, including Canada in different refugee camps in Syria, run by the Kurdish forces. Even France who has 270 children from French nationals and in which the public opinion is adamantly against any sympathy towards French Muslims travelling abroad to fight, decided few weeks ago to repatriate 10 of the French children stranded in some of these camps.

These kids didn’t take the arms against anyone. They are not even close to the definition of child soldiers. Thus, they should be, at least benefit from the definition and treatment reserved for child soldiers. Because assuming they are child soldiers, through the actions of their Western parents, wouldn’t they be the “perfect” candidates to be included under the protection reserved for child soldiers?

Recently, the uncle of little Amira decided to go after the Canadian government and sue it because he considered that the Canadian government has been negligent in dealing with the case.

I personally think that this is the best thing to do. “Playing nice” is always interpreted by the government as a lack of means, or lack of determination… By going after the government, I think the family of little Amira is sending a clear message to the Canadian government and to the Canadian public that the right place for little Amira is Canada where her family loves her and wants her among them, despite the circumstance that led to the departing of her parents to Syria.

Despite the alleged acts her parents did or didn’t. She is only five. She needs to be loved, nurtured and most importantly start go to school.

Last week, we read in the news that CSIS, the Canadian intelligence agency has been lying to judges, using illegal methods to obtain warrants against Canadians who went fighting abroad. This is an explosive news. Not surprisingly, it was met with almost no shame by the government and a sort of indifference from the public opinion.

What if some or most of the information obtained about Canadians fighting in Syria is flawed, biased and even false?
Judge Gleeson, found that CSIS has engaged in illegal activities such as “provision of money” and “provision of personal property” to a person “known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorist activity.”

Judge Gleeson said that, in a case of a Canadian who went abroad to Syria, CSIS paid someone known to be facilitating or carrying out terrorism an amount totalling less than $25,000 over a few years.

Who is the guilty and who is the innocent? Relying on the “false” information gathered by CSIS through person who has been conducting terrorism themselves, has been misleading and damaging to the Canadian government and to Canadians. Judge Gleeson wasn’t outraged because of one isolated case. He talked about a “pattern” over years. Personally, I wouldn’t believe any information after hearing from a Canadian judge that CSIS lied on judges so why wouldn’t they lie on all the government and Canadians.

A public inquiry should be announced and getting to the bottom of this should be the right thing to do by Prime Minister Trudeau and his government.

Last May, sixteen independent human rights experts at the United Nations have called on Canada to repatriate little Amira and have described the repatriation of children as “a humanitarian and human rights imperative”.

The Canadian government should correct the wrong, fulfill its promise of protecting children in zone of conflicts and what is better today than bringing little Amira home.

A slightly modified version of this article was published at rabble.ca

COVID-19 and the war on terror

The COVID-19 pandemic is still claiming lives around the world, sending many people to crowded hospitals and putting medical systems under unbearable strain. It is a scary, concerning and tragic situation.

However, with many of us confined at home, it is also a time to reflect on the fragility of the systems we live in, and perhaps learn from the mistakes and bad decisions that have been guiding many of the governments around the world, including Canada.

After the attacks of 9/11, the United States convinced its allies that the world is threatened by the presence of the terrorists, and urged them to join its “War on Terror.” On September 20, 2001, in a national address, then-president Georges W. Bush famously declared: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make … Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” First came the attacks on Afghanistan and then followed the war in Iraq. The whole region never recovered from the military presence of the American troops and their allies.

Bush even incited Americans to “go shopping” and visit “Disneyworld.” In a very simplistic and false dichotomy, he wanted to summarize those attacks as an attack on the way of lives of Americans — an attack of “barbarism” on civilization, an attack of people who hated freedom on those who cherished it. Every intellectual or commentator who tried to situate those attacks in a more geopolitical and multilayered context linked to American politics and interference in the Middle East was criticized and attacked as unpatriotic (remember the backlash against Susan Sontag).

The majority complied and the U.S. Patriot Act was passed to give extraordinary powers to the state for policing, surveillance and imprisonment of the most vulnerable groups, like immigrants and Muslims. Very rare were the voices who opposed this onslaught on the civil liberties. The motto was ‘less liberties for more security.’

From a mocked and belittled president when he was first elected, Bush became a sort of national hero, a semi-divine figure who would lead his country’s people to war: “This battle will take time and resolve, but make no mistake about it, we will win.”

Today, eighteen years later, it is somehow ironic but worth noting that when the peace deal agreement between the U.S. government and the Taliban started to make its way through the media, COVID-19 was accelerating its mortal pace around the world, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. It was as if the implicit message to the U.S. government was that with one threat gone, a new one appeared.

In a report prepared by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, released last fall, we learned that the war on terror cost the U.S. economy US$6.4 trillion. 800,000 people died due to direct war violence, and several times as many died indirectly. Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting.

The figures for Canada are not easy to find. Nevertheless, the same report indicates that “Canada spent an estimated $18 billion on fighting and reconstruction in Afghanistan, but there is no comprehensive figure on other costs.”

Also, the same report notes:

“a Parliamentary Budget Office report estimated in 2015 that the cost of providing financial support to Afghanistan veterans would total $157 million by 2025, discounting (in part due to lack of data) health care, pharmaceuticals and rehabilitation services. Disability benefits to Canadian combat veterans for a single year of military operations were projected to cost $145.2 million over nine years.”

Canada was not as directly impacted by the attacks of 9/11. Among the 2973 victims, only 24 were Canadians. Of course, these are lost human lives and their families were devastated, but it wasn’t a direct terrorist attack that hit Canada. Despite this matter, the Canadian parliament hastily passed in 2001 the Antiterrorism Act that mainly and tragically affected the lives of Canada’s Muslim community (representing barely 3 per cent of the population). It affected their jobs, economic situations, travels, civil liberties, families, children and integration in the Canadian social fabric.

The Canadian government also joined the war on terror because of the pressure from the U.S. government and because the RCMP and Canadian intelligence institutions understood that their lack of cooperation with their American counterparts would put their existence and relevancy in jeopardy. In the last two decades, those institutions saw their budgets and powers increase. In 2008, and because the Canadian government didn’t want to reveal the cost of extra security measures introduced after 9/11, CBC found that $24 billion was spent by the federal government on security measures since 9/11. In 2008, the RCMP’s annual budget rose by close to $1 billion since 2001, and the budget of Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, nearly doubled.

Were those increase justified? Not as much as they were portrayed by some politicians. There was never any evidence that showed those additional funds helped secure the lives of Canadians. In Canada, terrorist risks, understood here as emanating from the Muslim community, were not particularly higher than in any other part of the world. In 2018, Public Safety Canada wrote in its annual assessment “the principal terrorist threat to Canada and Canadian interests continues to be that posed by individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ).”

Despite the increasing violence and the flourishing of white supremacist groups, those institutions are still frozen in the post-9/11 mentality, trying to milk the threats posed by the ‘usual suspects.’

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments accepted those increases in defence, surveillance and police budgets. But there was never an open public debate about the relevance of the Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan that cost at least $18 billion, the death of 158 soldiers and more than 1,800 wounded. It is still a taboo. The late Jack Layton, former leader of the New Democratic Party who courageously dared to suggest in 2006 in the House of Commons that Canada should negotiate with the Taliban was derided by other political parties as “Taliban Jack.”

False and misleading parallels were always drawn in the media and by politicians between the role of Canada in the liberation of Europe in the Second World War, and its implication in the war in Afghanistan. There was nothing in common between those two conflicts: the stakes were totally different. Unfortunately, the media and some politicians used the same rhetoric to justify a bad decision dictated by American politics and not by the interests of Canadians.

The war on terror in Canada and in the U.S. wasn’t financed through higher personal taxes or more contributions from business. Rather, it was funded through additional borrowing and higher debts and interests. Over the last decades, Canada’s public finances kept worsening and federal and provincial governments kept slashing health budgets, education and social programs. Everybody was asked to make sacrifices. They sold us an illusory sense of safety by looking always at the same misleading source of danger, terrorism, while ignoring other dangers.

Our participation in the war on terror gave us tunnel vision, where the threats were artificially maintained and inflated, while all other dangers were dismissed or diminished. Health budgets, education funding and support for infrastructure, social housing and scientific research were always the last of the priorities of our governments. Those services were the sacrificial lambs in order to participate in the war on terror.

Today, with the high spread of COVID-19 and the increasing number of fatalities, provincial governments wake up to a sad reality. The hospitals are in need of masks and ventilators; nurses and doctors are overworked; schools are not equipped with online resources that would have made it easier to keep children educated while schools are closed.

COVID-19 is revealing the naked priorities of our governments. When Trudeau announced money to help Canadians laid off because of the crisis, and to give a fiscal break to small businesses, he is not being nice and charitable. These are overdue measures that should have been taken decades ago. Perhaps the situation of Canadians today would have been less vulnerable, and our health systems would have been more prepared to face this pandemic.

If COVID-19 has any positive message, I see it as making us reassess our personal priorities and policies as a country. Maybe it is time to tell ourselves — without being accused of being a terrorist apologist, a socialist or just naive — that the war on terror was a bad decision, and that instead we should have invested those billions of dollars in health, education and the most vulnerable in our society.

This column was first published on rabble.ca

Kingston arrest shows terrorism charges are exclusively for Muslims

A few weeks ago, seven teenagers were taken into police custody after a lockdown at a high school in Milton, Ontario. One was released, and six others were arrested. No one was injured but a knife was recovered, as well as two weapons believed to be firearms.

This incident was reported by a few media outlets in Ontario. It isn’t clear whether the teens were charged or not. A simple search on the internet brings up dozens, if not more, of such incidents happening across Canada. Bombs threats, possession of weapons, and threats of violence, all the work of Canadian teenagers and all happening right here in Canada, probably near one of your neighbourhood high schools.

Despite the gravity of the acts, there were no RCMP press conferences, no terrorism charges laid against these teenagers, no security experts invited by the national media to analyze the phenomenon, and no politicians asking for an overhaul of the refugee screening program. The language spoken by these young perpetrators didn’t interest any commentators. And Opposition leader Andrew Scheer hasn’t asked any questions about the incident in Milton, and didn’t call for a tightening of firearms legislation, even knowing that his predecessor Stephen Harper dismantled the federal long-gun registry in 2012. No special aircraft was used for surveillance of these neighbourhoods and no FBI tips to the RCMP about any of these incidents were shared. Nothing like this happened. Basically, no one cares.

But when the protagonist of similar acts is a teenage boy, most likely of Muslim background, and came to Canada as a Syrian refugee, it is a whole different story. The RCMP is involved, the FBI — previously implicated in an operation that led to the killing of Aaron Driver, a young Muslim-Canadian who was a supporter of ISIS, in obscure circumstances — are now in the loop. A Pilatus PC-12 RCMP aircraft was surveying the teen’s Kingston neighbourhood for days before his arrest. A press conference was held by no less than the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team of the RCMP. Even financial monitoring agency FINTRAC, which has so far been inefficient in stopping major money laundering and gave anonymity to a Canadian bank found guilty of not respecting the rules, joined the efforts. And of course, Scheer was so worried that he asked for a re-examination of the screening process for refugees coming to Canada.

From this Kingston arrest, we learned that explosives were found in the teen’s house and that initially two young people were arrested. One young man was later released and not charged, even though he had been named by the media. The other person turned out to be a teenager and was subsequently charged.

According to the RCMP, explosives were found in the house; however, by his own admission, the RCMP superintendent told the media that “there was no specific target identified.” Nevertheless he was adamant in saying that “there was an attack planned.” Despite all these confusing statements, the teen was charged with “knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity,” and “counselling a person to deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive or other lethal device in a public place.”

This week, I was at a vigil on Parliament Hill to commemorate the killing of six Muslim men by a young Canadian man, Alexandre Bissonnette. Despite the planning of his heinous crime, and his clear intent to spread fear and terrorize Muslims in a place of worship, Bissonnette was never charged with terrorism. He was described as a bullied and troubled teenager, and as a “lone wolf,” but never as a terrorist.

The Crown psychiatrist for his case said Bissonnette “didn’t promote any type of ideology in carrying out actions” (understanding ideology as Islam).

In opposition, the recently arrested Kingston teenager, even though he was not charged with belonging to a terrorist group and thus would have been a good candidate for the qualification of “lone wolf,” was still charged with terrorism.

Today, I have not a single doubt in my mind that this teen is Muslim. Today, I have the deep conviction that terrorism legislation in Canada is made to indict Muslims and Muslims only.

During that vigil, there were Liberal politicians present. They all condemned Islamophobia and hate. And that is commendable.

Looking at the centennial flame, and thinking of the widows and orphans and victims with life-long injuries left behind by the actions of Bissonnette, I wondered in silence if any of those politicians ever thought that the same legislation their own party voted for is responsible for stirring the pot of Islamophobia.

When Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale candidly “urges people not to jump to conclusions based on early reports” and accuses Scheer of “talking as if he knows the outcome of a police investigation,” doesn’t he realize that these same mediatized arrests by his own law enforcement agencies, and their problematic collaboration with the FBI (found guilty of entrapment many times) are responsible for this climate of fear and the “jumping to conclusion” attitudes that he is denouncing? Couldn’t the case of the Kingston teen have been dealt with differently? He could have been charged on the basis of the Criminal Code, like in the other teenagers’ arrests across the country — teenagers, frequently found with weapons and firearms, and who no politicians, no security experts, no RCMP, no FBI, no national TV, are there to talk about and care about.

This article was originally published at rabble.ca

In 2019, Canada can act with courage in global affairs

I don’t believe in simple annual reviews. They aren’t very useful or relevant to people’s lives or countries’ politics. A year is a relatively short period of time when it comes to detecting patterns or deducing trends in human lives and politics. I believe that a longer period of time can be more useful in trying to establish observations and determine where we seem to be going.

Today I look back seven years ago, to 2011, and remember the beginning of the Arab Spring. It started in Tunisia, the country where I was born and the country for which I gave up any kind of hope for political change since I came to Canada in 1991. But what happened there in 2011 had a huge impact on international affairs — it impacted the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Europe, the U.S. and even us, here in Canada.

The spark that started in a small poor town in the interior of Tunisia was ignited by huge economic and regional disparities, police brutality and corrupt government. Those are the prevalent ingredients in many countries of the region and they are, I believe, a fertile ground for social and political unrest.

In 2011, the entire region of the Middle East was swept by a wave of street protests, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and followed by Yemen, Bahrein, Libya and Syria. Unfortunately, only Tunisia was able to get out with some mitigated positive changes: a newly written constitution, a free press and free democratic elections, but challenges are still hanging over the country and the threat of economic turmoil and political collapse are real.

Similar protests on the streets of other countries calling for political change have miserably failed. Even worse, they were quashed in bloody repression and in the case of Syria and Yemen, swirled into tragic civil wars fuelled by sectarianism, geopolitical interests and international foes.

The initial legitimate calls and movements asking for dignity, better living conditions, and an end to police regimes and military dictatorships were generally first met with silence, then carelessness and later with the active participation of Western democracies and Russian intervention to crush these movements for change. Western countries and Russia may have different reasons to stop these changes, but they wanted the same results: the status quo. This element is crucial for Israel’s security in the region (an argument that always comes first in Western capitals) but also for Saudi Arabia’s sake (since it is providing lucrative arms deals to many Western countries). Silencing and destroying these calls to democracy was possible with Canada selling arms to Saudi Arabia and with Russian President Putin selling arms and lending colonels and commanders to defeat the Syrians rebels and save their friend, Bashar al-Assad, preserving his power in Damascus, and consequently, the Russian presence in the region.

The consequence of this military intervention was a flow of refugees crossing to Europe, the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS and the crushing of all hope for any genuine democratic change in the region.

Some countries, like Germany, accepted one million refugees but many others refused to do so; instead countries like Hungary and Italy established entire political platforms to prevent the acceptance of refugees.

In Canada, we aren’t immune to the impact of the wars in the Middle East, even if many Canadians are not aware of them. Alexandre Bissonnette, the young Quebecer who killed six Muslim men and seriously injured five others in the Quebec City mosque shooting, justified his gesture through fear of refugees coming to Canada.

In 2018, hate crimes soared across Canada, with Quebec recording the highest number. Xenophobic and Islamophobic groups like the Three Percenters have flourished in Canada, increasing their memberships and spreading false news targeting Muslims and refugees on social media. They have organized protests in Canadian cities to create a sense of urgency and incite the population to fear “others.”

In 2019, there will be a federal election in Canada. Already, populist MP and founder of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier (who showed very poor judgement when it came to choosing a romantic partner, once dating a woman with ties to criminals while he was foreign affairs minister, and leaving highly secret documents with her), is now claiming that he wants to save Canada from all the immigrants who are undermining “Western civilization’s values.”

Since he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shy about fighting Islamophobia. Even when one of his MPs introduced a motion to study Islamophobia, its causes and impacts, the Conservative Party of Canada waged a “holy war” against that initiative. Quickly, the move turned into a purely partisan issue and the report that came out afterward was weak, with almost no recommendations.

At an international level, the Trudeau government kept a similar line to its predecessor, the conservative government of Stephen Harper. Trudeau kept the Harper government’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, until recently, when he started looking for a way out — but not before the gruesome assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, most likely ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the debacle of the tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, where she raised the fate of Saudi women activists and was immediately viciously attacked by Saudi government officials on Twitter and threatened with economic reprisals.

All these examples bring me to my initial point: our internal politics are not isolated from external politics, and vice versa.

I hope for this coming year, 2019, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is courageous both at home and abroad — supporting democracy by finally cancelling the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, promoting peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict (instead of equating the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to anti-Semitism), and supporting the development and construction of Yemen. In this way, he can leave a real legacy as prime minister. Canada is a small player when it comes to international affairs but with the erratic behaviour of the U.S. president and America’s international decline, there is a vacuum that Canada can fill with ethical political decisions.

This article has been originally published at rabble.ca

Mohamed Harkat should never be deported to torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This column was initially published at rabble.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When reporting competes with fake news, journalism is the first victim

The recent van attack in Toronto has left 10 people dead and 14 injured. It is deeply shocking, and as with all the other attacks around the world in recent years, very troubling.

Beyond the human tragedy, this attack has convinced me that journalism, as I have understood and read it since I started paying attention to the news (about 30 years ago), is on the way to becoming extinct. In the last decade, many newspapers have gone bankrupt and several newsrooms closed. Analysts blamed the situation, rightly so, on the internet or digital media and social media, as well as the lack of a viable business model that would allow journalism to survive. But the social media and the polarization that is turning these virtual places into warzones between “supporters” and “enemies” are not the only factors to blame.

Mainstream journalism and some journalists are increasingly reproducing the quick, biased reporting widespread in social media. What we publicly despise in others seems to be a reflection of our own mistakes. The result is a slowly erosion of what makes journalism a strong pillar of democracy, intended to keep the public informed in an objective and accurate manner.

Here, I use examples to show how some “mainstream” journalists are falling into the trap of sensationalism and quick scoops, thus following in the footsteps of what their competitors are already doing.

Each time a tragic event takes place, a new narrative is quickly shaped and spread, and many journalists run to embrace it, without realizing that each time they are digging a bigger hole in the “seeker of truth and objectivity” grave.

When in 2015, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, journalists reported that there were snipers on building roofs and that the suspect had accomplices. That created a tremendous climate of fear. The “terrorist” label was quickly attributed to the perpetrator and a “hero” was made of Kevin Vickers, who was later appointed as an Ambassador to Ireland by then prime minister Stephen Harper. All these news stories, comments and decisions were made within a matter of days, giving the impression that there were no other versions of events and no other plausible explanations.

Zehaf-Bibeau was portrayed as a monster to the point that, fearing the backlash of being considered guilty by association, not a single Muslim place of worship was willing to bury him in Ottawa and his father had to take his body for burial in Libya. His mental health and drug addiction struggles, as described by his mother in a letter to the media, weren’t taken seriously in his public representation. A mug shot of him with either unkempt hair or harbouring a Palestinian keffiyeh to cover his face made the headlines. Despite all the questions about his real motives, the RCMP Commissioner concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau was a “Mujaheed,” a terrorist affiliated with “international” terrorism, a newly introduced term to describe what I guess should frankly be labelled “Muslim terrorism.”

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American security guard, attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. The narrative that came out immediately was that Muslims (Omar Mateen’s faith) are haters of LGBTQ communities and that Mateen went on a rampage as an attack on the sexual orientation of nightclub visitors. Another narrative, widely circulated, went on to describe Omar Mateen as a self-hating closeted homosexual. It took only a few hours and days for these narratives to be circulated in social media and endorsed by “mainstream” journalists. It took more than two years of investigation, legal procedures and thorough journalism to quash these erroneous stories. Last month, Glen Greenwald from the Intercept wrote an investigative piece exposing that the real motives of the perpetrator were related to the U.S. wars and killings of Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a young Canadian man, killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. Some media outlets, quickly followed by a number of national columnists on social media, reported that Bissonnette had accomplices and that his accomplice was a Muslim man of Moroccan descent. Bissonnette’s motives were not rapidly disclosed. A general unease made some journalists less eloquent about the linking of this man to white supremacy movements. Bullying and mental health kept emerging as the main “known” motive of the cold-blooded murders. A clean-shaved picture of him was also shown in the media and his history of anxiety and depression history was repeatedly mentioned. A hero was even found in the actions of Azzeddine Sofiane who was killed in the course of trying to save some of the other worshipers. A heroic act, indeed, but in my opinion, another attempt to positively distract us from the narrative of the horrible actions of the perpetrator.

Alek Minassian, the man arrested and charged with killing 10 people this week by driving a van onto the sidewalks of Toronto, also “benefited” from a narrative quickly shaped by social media, and endorsed by journalists looking for sensationalism and a bit of “market share” in this new model of news.

A reporter from CBC declared on Twitter that the perpetrator was “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern,” trying to associate the attacker with the now classic narrative of “another Muslim or Middle Eastern violent guy.” Later, after this narrative made its way into many news outlet and websites, some journalists quickly jumped and kept asking — was this case not related to “international terrorism”? How did they know? Is it the mere religious affiliation of the perpetrator that makes you a terrorist? Or rather, through negation, “if you are not a Muslim, a.k.a. a terrorist, then you can be anything else.”

Soon after, another narrative came to be built by reports (once again gleaned from social media) indicating that the attacker was a misogynist belonging to an “incel” group — men who are angry about their involuntary sexual inaccessibility to women. As quick as the police and journalists were to “clean” the attacker of accusations of terrorism, they were not as quick to corroborate this troubling news. Maintaining fuzziness in this case makes all explanations plausible and none true. What is supposed to be a rule of objectivity is becoming a fluid argument that some journalists use when it suits them, to refute some claims and accept others.

And once more, a hero is instantaneously found — in this case, the police officer who didn’t shoot at the killer. It’s a gesture that we have seen many times in other situations, especially when the suspect is clearly identified as a person of colour. What should be a rule is unfortunately portrayed and accepted as the exception. A heroic gesture that we cheer despite the real tragedy being lived by people, and the human and social damage created by the attacker in the community.

These examples illustrate how both social media and mainstream reporting are shaping dangerous and misleading narratives that, in the long run, are slowly causing the erosion of the real work of journalism.

This article was first published at rabble.ca