The othering of immigrants in Canada

This summer, I was a writer in residence in the Marpole community of Vancouver, B.C., at the Historic Joy Kogawa House. It is a privilege to be in a place that saw some of the childhood years of one of the most important literary figures in Canada, the poet and novelist of Japanese descent, Joy Kogawa. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, that same house saw its confiscation from the Kogawa family by the Canadian government. A similar fate awaited other houses, properties, boats and farms belonging to Japanese Canadians after the Pearl Harbour attack. Joy Kogawa and her family, along with 22,000 Canadian Japanese, were banned from living anywhere within 100 miles of the Pacific Coast and were forcibly sent to internment camps throughout B.C. and other parts of Canada. In the case of Joy Kogawa and her family, they were interned in the small town of Slocan, in the Kootenays.

That decision, which by today’s standards seems arbitrary and unfair, was actually perfectly “legal” — approved by Canada’s Parliament, the country’s main newspapers and a majority of Canadians. Not only was it approved, further steps were even taken to protect the “homogeneity of Canadians.” This extra zealous attitude manifested itself in fundraisers organized in the Marpole community, where a flag harbouring the Union Jack was used by neighbours as a fundraising tool in the war and post war efforts, as a symbol of the British homogeneity of the neighbourhood. These seemingly innocent popular and populist actions fed and reinforced the “othering” of Japanese Canadians.

One of the main arguments used at that time by the government was one that I, as a Muslim immigrant after 9/11, came to know very well. National security. Basically, Canadians who happened to share the same language, culture and physical features (and in most cases those were the only common factors) as the enemy from Japan at war against the allies, came to automatically represent a threat to the security of the rest of Canadians. Their loyalty was constantly questioned to the point that their physical presence became a source of concern for law enforcement, security intelligence, politicians and by extension, the Canadian public. Based solely on their origins or the origins of their parents, these Canadians were categorized as “enemy aliens” under the War Measures Act.

What I found worth noting in this sad story is that the horrible suspicion, later followed by the forced repatriation, internment and evacuation of Japanese Canadians, didn’t happen overnight or in the heat of the action during the Second World War. The “othering” of Japanese Canadians started as early as the late 19th century when the first Japanese fishermen started immigrating to B.C. A feeling of resentment was already very common, seen in accusations of these new immigrants “stealing jobs” from the rest of the population. And those feelings of fear, suspicion and resentment didn’t cease. They led to violent riots in 1907 and culminated in the internment, dispossession and uprooting of Japanese Canadians. When the atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki on August 6, 1945, then prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.”

Many today would argue that he was a man of his time and that he was just expressing relief amid the horror of the war. I am not convinced.

What about today’s politicians who are once again raising the spectre of fear around immigrants and urging for actions to maintain “social harmony”? It reminds me terribly of sour stories from the past.

A recent survey released by Angus Reid showed that people in B.C. (and pretty much across Canada) are afraid of immigration. It showed that about half of the respondents (49 per cent) “think immigration levels should be decreased (compared to 36 per cent in 2014),” whereas about a third of them (31 per cent) “think levels should stay the same (compared to 48 per cent in 2014),” and only a mere six per cent “think levels should be increased (compared to nine per cent in 2014).”

Executive director of Angus Reid, Shachi Kurl, was very cautious in her interpretation of these numbers that I personally, as an immigrant, found very troubling. She said that “it’s hard to tell whether political discussion around immigration is driving public opinion, or vice versa,” basically making it into a chicken and egg dilemma.

It doesn’t matter who started it first: both are feeding into each other’s false rhetoric and the consequences are scary and real. The stories of Joy Kogawa’s family and other communities facing discrimination across Canada’s history are not over. Personally, I live in their shadow. For me, there is no doubt that fake news journalists as well as certain politicians are stirring this highly dangerous pot. On the other hand, what could be described as valid and legitimate socio-economic questions and concerns (for instance, unaffordable housing in Vancouver) raised by citizens are dangerously exploited by media and politicians. They portray the “Other” as the main culprit behind these complex questions and thus point to the “Others” as the evil force driving the vertiginous price increase of the housing market or stealing the jobs of Canadians.

No matter who started it first and no matter who is taking more advantage of this xenophobia, one thing is for sure — it won’t take us anywhere better. I am not trying to say that what happened to Japanese Canadians is a real possibility for other groups of immigrants in Canada today. Nevertheless it is clear to me that at least 49 per cent of Canadians haven’t learned from the story of Joy Kogawa and her family.

The “othering” of groups and communities, in this case immigrants, always starts somewhere but then moves quickly like a snowball and soon nobody is able to stop it. This is why people today may look back at sad historic events and ask themselves: “How did these horror stories happen?”

This article was initially published on rabble.ca

Advertisements

Lettre à un écrivain emprisonné

Que la paix soit sur vous cher Zuhair Kutbi.

Que la paix soit sur votre esprit et votre corps. Cet esprit et ce corps que la prison, le harcèlement, l’intimidation et l’acharnement tentent chaque jour et chaque instant de faire taire, de faire courber, d’effriter et de détruire. Cet esprit et ce corps qui résistent à l’injustice et à l’arbitraire.

Cher Zuhair Kutbi, vous ne me connaissez pas et je ne vous connais pas. Nous ne nous sommes jamais rencontrés, mais en lisant sur vous, j’ai eu l’impression de lire une histoire que je connais tellement bien. Une histoire avec laquelle j’ai grandie et que j’ai maintes fois entendue dire et redire. Une histoire ou peut-être même une berceuse qu’on chante aux petits mais qui fait peur aux grands. Ceux qui oublient qu’ils étaient un jour petits. C’est l’histoire d’un homme qui réfléchit, un homme qui pense, un homme qui lutte pour un monde meilleur pour les siens et pour les autres. Un homme qui se veut une voix de raison dans un monde déboussolé. Un homme qui a choisit l’écriture comme arme contre l’obscurité, contre la corruption, contre l’oppression.

Un homme qui n’utilise pas des bombes ou des grenades pour tuer, pour mutiler ou pour décimer ses ennemis mais un homme qui choisit des mots, de la prose et des phrases pour convaincre, partager, illuminer et rêver. Un homme qui a été injustement arrêté et emprisonné. Un homme soustrait à sa famille et éloigné de ses amis. Pourquoi? Parce que vous avez osé réfléchir dans un monde où on ne réfléchit plus. Parce que vous avez osé critiquer dans un monde où on ne critique plus. Parce que vous avez simplement aimé votre peuple dans un monde où on n’aime plus.

Cher Zuhair, je vous admire pour votre courage et pour votre témérité. Je vous admire pour avoir parlé alors que des milliers comme vous ont choisi de se taire et plutôt plaire. Je vous admire parce que vous aurez pu avoir la vie facile et devenir un « écrivain perroquet ». Oui, un écrivain qui répète ce que les Maitre veulent entendre, un écrivain qui avant même de rédiger une phrase, pense au préalable au bonbon qui lui serait offert par les Maitres. Voilà tout simplement ce que c’est un « écrivain perroquet ». Ce genre si répandu et qui ne pense qu’au bonbon qui est le plus souvent enrobé de sucre mais dans lequel se trouve un poison dangereux. Un poison qui tue à petit feu, un poison qui nous efface la voix graduellement et nous confisque la raison. Un poison qui après un certain temps, nous rend aveugle, sourd et muet. Un poison qui nous fait perdre notre capacité de discernement.

Cher Zuhair, merci de résister. Ne vous sentez pas seul dans votre prison. Il y a des écrivains comme vous qui chaque jour, pensent à vous et vous parlent de loin. Il suffit de tendre l’oreille vers le loin. Loin, du pays des ours polaire et des phoques, du pays de la foret boréal et de la toundra. Pour ces écrivains, vous donnez le courage, pour ces écrivains vous redonner l’espoir, pour ces écrivains vous offrez un des plus beaux cadeaux. Le cadeau qui consiste à trouver un but pour son écriture, un but à l’amour, un but à la vie!

Chez Zuhair, votre lutte et votre résistance nous aide aussi dans nos propres luttes. Surtout ne vous sentez pas seul. Nous pensons à vous, nous nous inspirons de vous, vous êtes un « écrivain phare ». Celui qui nous éclaire le chemin, celui qui se tient fort et debout, celui qui ne baisse pas l’échine pendant la tempête, celui par qui le changement arriverait.

Ce changement dont vous rêvez et dont on rêve tous, viendra un jour, j’en suis sure. Ma certitude, je la puise de notre humanité commune, de nos luttes communes et de nos espoirs communs. Il y a quelques années, un homme que je n’ai pas connu, mais qui a vécu dans le même pays que le mien. Un homme qui comme vous vient du désert. Le désert qui créé des hommes forts et résilients. Ce désert chaud le jour et froid le soir, c’est le lieu des rencontres, c’est le lieu des contraste, c’est le lieu de la vie et de la mort. Cet homme là, dont je vous parle a lui aussi été un incompris, un homme avant son temps, un homme de mots, un homme de rêve. Il avait dit :

Lorsqu’un jour le peuple veut vivre,
Force est pour le Destin, de répondre,
Force est pour les ténèbres de se dissiper,
Force est pour les chaînes de se briser.
Avec fracas, le vent souffle dans les ravins,
au sommet des montagnes et sous les arbres
disant :
“Lorsque je tends vers un but,
je me fais porter par l’espoir
et oublie toute prudence ;
Je n’évite pas les chemins escarpés
et n’appréhende pas la chute
dans un feu brûlant.
Qui n’aime pas gravir la montagne,
vivra éternellement au fond des vallées”.

Je sens bouillonner dans mon cœur
Le sang de la jeunesse
Des vents nouveaux se lèvent en moi
Je me mets à écouter leur chant
A écouter le tonnerre qui gronde
La pluie qui tombe et la symphonie des vents.
Et lorsque je demande à la Terre :
“Mère, détestes-tu les hommes ?”
Elle me répond :
“Je bénis les ambitieux
et ceux qui aiment affronter les dangers.
Je maudis ceux qui ne s’adaptent pas
aux aléas du temps et se contentent de mener
une vie morne, comme les pierres.
Le monde est vivant.
Il aime la vie et méprise les morts,
aussi fameux qu’ils soient.
Le ciel ne garde pas, en son sein,
Les oiseaux morts
et les abeilles ne butinent pas
les fleurs fanées.
N’eût été ma tendresse maternelle,
les tombeaux n’auraient pas gardé leurs morts”.

Aboulkacem Chebbi

Et c’est par ces mots que j’aimerai terminer ma lettre à vous cher Zuhair. Je vous laisse sur ces notes qui vous connaissez certainement mais que j’ai tellement voulu partager avec vous. Pour vous expliquer la raison de mon espoir et pour ouvrir une brèche dans votre cellule et laisser pénétrer la lumière. Cette lumière que malheureusement vos geôliers ne sauraient voir mais que seulement, vous, moi et tous pleins d’autres pourrions distinguer. C’est cette lumière qui éclairera nos chemins vers la liberté.

Que la paix soit sur vous.

Dr. Zuhair Kutbi est emprisonné, interdit d’écriture, en Arabie Saoudite pour avoir critiqué le régime et suggéré qu’il devrait y avoir une monarchie constitutionnelle. Cette lettre a été lu lors d’un évènement au Salon du livre de Trois-Rivières, Livre Comme l’Air, en collaboration avec Amnistie Internationale.

From Marois to Harper, niqab debate plays with xenophobic fire

The election is coming to an end. All the way, I resisted the urge to write about the niqab. Why? I didn’t want to create more controversy and stir the already ugly pot simmering in many people’s minds. But then, it became stronger than me. My brain isn’t as disciplined as my fingers so I found myself typing out thoughts about the niqab.
Who would have thought that “niqab” — a word not well known or used in the Muslim world — would find its way into political debates among party leaders and hundreds of articles in the North American context?! Even the U.S. and U.K. newspapers that covered the Canadian election did so from the perspective of the niqab.
For those who followed the Quebec election in 2013, Pauline Marois and her genius “strategists” (à la Lynton Crosby) introduced the Charter of Values disguised in noble arguments of secularism and gender equality, intended to ban wearing the hijab and the niqab in the public service. Now following the news during this federal election, I had the impression I was watching the same horror movie, this time in English.
The doors of bigotry and xenophobia seem to have been opened and very rare were those who stood up bravely and firmly trying to close them. It’s ironic that during Marois’ failed attempt at banning the niqab, English Canada looked at Quebec with superiority, insinuating that Quebecers were more uncomfortable with diversity and especially with the Muslim religion than the rest of Canadians.
Three years later, the rest of Canada found itself immersed in the same polarized debate à la George Bush: you’re either on the side of the niqabis (and thus you are oppressed, barbaric, misogynistic, archaic, anti-women, for Saudi-Arabia, for the Taliban, for the terrorists) or you side with us (and you are for security, for freedom, for women’s rights, for freedom, for gender equality, for universal human rights).
So Stephen Harper, following in the footsteps of Marois, started talking the niqab language. And all of a sudden, we discovered a “feminist” Stephen Harper who cared about women’s equality and who even set up a hotline for people to report barbaric practices, a.k.a., practices related to Islam.
When we were children, we were told that if we played with matches, we risked being burned. Has Stephen Harper heard this warning? Or maybe he is betting on being a superhero, a sort of inflammable one. He is playing with the fire of Islamophobia and simultaneously refuses to be blamed for it. Actually, he doesn’t even refuse: he ignores the consequences.
In this landscape filled with dangerous games, there is hope. Hope coming from women. These women don’t need men to talk on their behalf; for sure not the likes of Stephen Harper. A group of 538 women from various fields — political, academic, legal, religious, business — issued the statement “Respect Women” to denounce how the niqab issue was used in the election campaign. They stated:
“It troubles us that the current focus on the few instances of women wanting to wear a niqab during their citizenship ceremony has divided Canadians and stigmatized Muslim women. We are alarmed that this appears to have incited discrimination, and even violence, which undermines equality and respect for human rights and ignores the greater issues facing women in Canada.”
The group included prominent names like: the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Alexa McDonough, Sheila Copps, Maureen McTeer, the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, Marlys Edwardh, Dawn Memee Harvard, and hundreds of other women who joined their voices together. Their purpose wasn’t to defend the niqab. Their message was to refocus the debate:
“We are worried about the economic insecurity facing many women as we age in Canada. We are disturbed that women, on average, are not earning at the same level as their male colleagues. And we are troubled at the lack of investment in women’s empowerment and leadership across this great country. It is time to set aside the issue of the niqab and move to the issues that impact the daily lives of most women and girls in Canada.”
The journalists who were so eager to report on the niqab in the last few weeks were not as eager to report on the powerful voices of 538 women. Maybe this is not “hot” enough!

This column was previously published at rabble.ca

Toward a Two-Tier Society

When Bill C-36 — otherwise known as the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act — was first introduced in Parliament, many human rights advocates and legal experts opposed it. One of their main arguments was that Canada didn’t need a specific law to fight terrorism — that the Criminal Code was more than sufficient to allow law enforcement to bring charges against terrorists.

When Bill C-36 (later called the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2001) was first introduced in Parliament, many human rights advocates and legal experts opposed it. One of their main arguments was that Canada doesn’t need a special and specific anti-terrorism legislation; its criminal code is strong and detailed enough to allow law enforcement agencies to bring charges against terrorists.

Bill C-36 was adopted a few months after 9/11. Many thought that would be the exception because of that tragedy but today we can look back and safely say that it was only the beginning of a series of legislation specially tailored for suspected terrorists.

What Bill C-36 did to our legislative landscape isn’t “simply” the introduction of new additional invasive powers granted to intelligence and police forces but rather the fundamental idea that terrorism is a unique offence that should be fought with a fundamentally different set of tools. Basically, the new era post-9/11 allowed the creation of a new world with two parallel justice systems: one for the “usual” criminals and one for the terrorists.

When Canada fought gangs and organized crime mobs in the 90s, the police adapted their tactics to the nature of the “work” this sort of criminals were conducting. Obviously, the police techniques changed to allow more infiltration and more targeted surveillance but once the members were arrested and charged, it was still the same criminal code that applied to them and not any new law that was specifically adapted for gang members.

We do not claim that terrorism shouldn’t be opposed with adapted techniques. Indeed, it should be. But we believe the emphasis should be put on other levels: prevention, political, economical and social policies, and education. And once terror suspects are brought to justice, we believe that they should be judged according to the gravity of their actions and not whether they were labelled as criminals or as terrorists.

This parallel justice system doesn’t stop there. In 2014, the Conservative government came up with a new citizenship law, Bill C-24. Part of this bill became law in May 2015. The new law took us further down the road paved already by the first Anti-Terrorism Act : a road toward a two-tier system. The victim this time is citizenship.

Before Bill C-24, revocation of citizenship was limited to naturalized Canadians who acquired their citizenship by false representations. With the new legislation, dual citizens (naturalized citizens or citizens who were born in Canada but could claim citizenship in another country through one of their parents, notwithstanding that they may have no ties with that country) can have their citizenship stripped away from them if they commit terrorism, espionage or treason. However, if you are born in Canada and can’t be eligible for another citizenship (through marriage or through your parents or any other legitimate reason) then you can keep your citizenship, no matter the nature of the crime you committed.

The new grounds for revocation are broad and appear to be connected to the loyalty to Canada. However, as the Canadian Bar Association pointed out, it is not clear why the loyalty of dual nationals should be put into question more than that of other Canadians. And it is also not clear why our loyalty to Canada should determine our citizenship. Isn’t that another way to divide the society into the ones who seemingly loves Canada and thus do not speak out and the ones who seemingly hate Canada and criticize it. What is the fine line between criticism and hate? This is a slippery slope and we are on the top of it.

Finally, the new process of revoking citizenship doesn’t involve a judge (except in limited circumstances where the Minister decided to hold a hearing), making the system “cost and time efficient” according to the government. There is no accountability and no process to appeal the minister’s decision. Once again the government justified this new legislation by the threat of “Jihadi Terrorism”. And, once again, the end result is the creation of a two-tier system: one for “privileged” Canadians and another one for “supposed terrorists dual citizens.” including those who have been exonerated by a court but the government still consider as terrorists.

And to confirm the relevance of this new legislation, since last June, the government has sent notices of citizenship revocation to a few convicted terrorists.

One of these targeted individuals is Zakaria Amara, who was born in Jordan and has dual citizenship. He was convicted for his role in the Toronto 18 terrorism plot. In a tweet sent by Jason Kenney, the Defence Minister, after the news that Canada revoked the citizenship of Amara, Kenney mentioned that Amara hated Canada so much that he “forfeited his own citizenship” by plotting to murder hundreds of Canadians.

So the blame is not that this new citizenship act created two separate treatments for Canadians but it is the hate this person has for Canada that legitimizes stripping him of his Canadian citizenship. Kenney wouldn’t even use the words “revocation”, “exile” or “banishment”. He only used “forfeited”. As if Amara decided on his own to drop his Canadian citizenship.

This is clearly very ideological position that shouldn’t prevail in a democracy. Our love and hate for a country – our loyalty – cannot and should not determine the legitimacy of our citizenship. Amara didn’t like Canada and was ready to kill innocent people, and as a consequence he was punished with a life sentence of imprisonment. Why do we have to double the punishment and revoke his Canadian citizenship? Can’t he be rehabilitated? Can’t the hate he felt at some point in his life be replaced one day with compassion and understanding? Is sending him back to Jordan going to make us feel safer? Isn’t Canada part of a coalition to bomb the Islamic State and one of the arguments of this bombing is that we have to get rid of the terrorists over there so they don’t come to us. So how sending convicted terrorists to that region make us feel safer? And how is a country like Jordan to react at the prospect of receiving a convicted terrorist? Will they accept him or will he become stateless? Will he be tortured there as further punishment or as a way to try and get information on terrorist suspects or terrorist plots?

Terrorism is an ongoing threat, nationally and internationally. In using it as an excuse to keep us safe, the current Canadian government is creating a two-tier system of justice, a two-tier citizenship and a two-tier society. On the surface, the target is the bad terrorists who have no one to blame except themselves. But on a deeper level, it is all of us, as a divided and weakened society, who are losing the essence of our laws, of our citizenship and of our democracy.

A modified version of this article appeared on ipolitics.

History of migration has lessons for present-day refugee crisis

Of course, my plan this week was to write a column about the meanings of the announcement made by the RCMP to lay criminal charges against George Salloum, one of the torturers of my husband, Maher Arar.
Beyond the symbolism of this unprecedented action taken by the RCMP — to charge someone overseas who tortured and participated in the harming of a Canadian citizen — there is always something deeply personal about this.
Since 2002, after the arrest of my husband by U.S. authorities and his subsequent deportation to Syria, our lives as a family were so deeply affected by these tragic events; to know more than a decade later that the beginning of some accountability is happening is really encouraging. This is not about legal vengeance. This is about justice. Period.
And then in the middle of this personal turmoil came the moving story of little Aylan Kurdi and all the outrage it has caused around the world, and the ripple effects that reached our faraway shores.
It would have been selfish on my part to keep talking about myself while the whole world is watching one of the worst humanitarian crises unfolding in front of us. So I decided to speak about the refugee crisis. But I wanted to do it from a different.

I wanted to understand why these people are leaving their homes, their place of birth and walking thousands of kilometres on foot. Why are they risking their lives on small boats in a wild sea? Why are they giving away their meagre savings to greedy smugglers to go to Greece or to Hungary in order to finally arrive in Germany, their preferred destination? Don’t they know about austerity policies in Europe? Didn’t they watch, on their satellite TV, the ugly incidents of racism, discrimination and Islamophobia taking place in these locations, including those in Germany? What about Pegida? Aren’t they afraid of the neo-Nazi groups that attack Muslims residing in Germany? Why don’t they go to Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed “protector” of Islam and Muslims? Don’t they share language, religion and culture with the rich Arab monarchy?
Stephen Harper would probably answer my question by saying these people are running for their lives because of ISIS. Let’s bomb ISIS and things will be better, seems to be his motto. But this answer is no good for me. It is demagogic, over simplistic, and totally misleading.
And then I remembered the Crusades.
The first Crusades started to happen over a thousand years ago. A massive migration of people called the Franks, from German and British towns, took place. They travelled to Jerusalem, considered to be the heart of Christendom. The reasons for this migration were multiple and complex. The best known one was: religious. These armies of men, women and children walked, rode horses, sailed the Mediterranean sea from “European villages.” They were supposed to deliver Jerusalem from the “infidels” (it is somehow worth mentioning this same word used at that time to designate Muslims, is today being used by a group of Muslims to designate Christians or Jews).
The Pope and the kings of that time knew very well how to use religious rhetoric to convince the crowds and push them to take action. But beyond the religious discourse of delivering Jerusalem from the “infidels,” horrible economic and political contexts pushed these families to travel to the Middle East. What is called Europe now was struggling at that time from disease, famine, oppressive monarchs and indefinite wars that ravaged every village and town. Yes, Jerusalem meant a lot to the hordes of believers but economics meant much more. Jerusalem, Antioch, Tripoli, Damascus… represented the land of opportunities. It represented the opulence of the Levant, the palaces, the harems and the exuberant food.
In other words, these people went to the Middle East for better opportunities.
This massive migration that happened one thousand years ago ended in horrible wars, in holy places being destroyed and lives lost and atrocities committed. But after the end of the Crusades, two fundamental things happened: many “Europeans” came to stay in the Middle East with many new communities emerging from their intermarriage and mixing with the indigenous people of those new lands.
The second is that the Europeans who decided or were forced to go back to Europe, brought, according to many historians, the seeds of the Renaissance to Europe. It is that same Renaissance that took Europe on the path to centuries of enlightenment, spreading the principles of justice, equality and freedom. These are solid pillars of today’s Europe.
So to all the voices who are opposing the coming of the refugees: labelling them terrorist threats, considering them job-stealers or welfare addicts — think twice about what you are saying. Remember what happened in the history of humanity. The refugees’ despair and their suffering will bring undoubtedly new challenges to the lands that welcome them but it will also likely bring enrichment and wealth. And who knows, maybe one day bring a reversal of the pendulum, and real justice in the Middle East.

This column has been published at rabble.ca

perspective.

Reflections of a Muslim Woman in a post 9/11 World

These are difficult times for all of us. Difficult for the non-Muslims because all of sudden they find themselves in front of people that they don’t know. They found themselves in front of concepts, vocabulary, ideas they have not paid attention to them before. They found themselves participating in military conflicts in far away countries. Countries on which they ignore almost everything: the language, religion, culture even the geography.

This is also an extremely difficult time for people of Muslim faith. Many of them came to Canada to flee war, famine, persecution, and oppression… Today, many of these Muslims find themselves obliged to take sides in complex wars. Sometimes they see their own children going back to the wars they themselves fled. And many of them find themselves going through discrimination and fear.

Faced with this painful situation, one is conflicted:

  • do nothing
  • keep watching the news with a passive attitude
  • live in fear
  • despise the other
  • surround yourself with people like you

Or instead:

  • be proactive
  • learn about the other
  • understand the other
  • surround yourselves with people different than you

I came to Canada in 1991 in the middle of the first Gulf war. I was against the war. In Tunisia, I participated in my first demonstration to show my disagreement with it. Many of my friends, my family, everyone around me didn’t want to see the Americans drop bombs on Iraq. I didn’t like Saddam Hussein. I thought he was a ruthless dictator. He killed his own people with chemical weapons. He persecuted Shias but also he persecuted Sunnis who didn’t approve of his crimes. But I saw in that war a huge injustice to the Iraqis people. I saw in this injustice a continuation of the imperialistic attitude the American government have been implemented around the world for many years in South America, in Asia and in the Middle East.

When I came to Canada I lived several years in Montreal in Quebec. I was one of the few who wore a hijab, or scarf over my hair. I was exotic and people rarely paid attention to me. I was an invisible minority.I barely heard programs on TV or radio about Islam. Internet as we know today was inexistent. And then there was the huge debate in France about the “foulard”. The media in Quebec picked upon that issue. Some journalists started reporting about it. Questions were being asked whether to introduce such a measure of banning the Islamic scarf in school like France did or not.

And the glances at me in the streets started to change. From an exotic creature, I became to represent the veil of the Muslim French girls that were presented on TV. I became to represent Islam with all the unanswered questions about it. People started asking me questions like:

“What is this on your head?”

“Do you wear it by choice or are you forced to wear it”

With a smile, I answer back that “I wear it by choice” and all of a sudden the face of the person asking me the question became so radiant. They were happy that I am able to choose. As if my simple words reassured them about something. But what if I was lying to them? May be I was oppressed at home. What if my brother beat me everyday so I can wear it. They didn’t want to know anything else. My words sufficed.

But one at home I would ask myself : “why did these strangers think that a scarf can’t be worn by a woman with her own choice?” What made these strangers stop me in the middle of the streets or in the halls of my university worried about my well being and about my own decisions or lack of it?

Personally, I wore the veil when I was 20 year old after 8 years of intense reflection. For me, hijab had a strong sense of religious identity. It defines me, it gives me what we call today confidence.

When I hear some women saying that I can’t get out of the house without make-up. I am surprised. And then they elaborate and they say make-up gives me some confidence then I am still surprised but I understand better. However, when I go out with my hijab people look at me as an alien. They think I am oppressed. I tell them this is my religious identity. And they don’t get it. I try to be smarter and tell them that this is my confidence and then they laugh at my silly argument.

But despite all this incidents, anecdotes happening in North America, Muslims and non-Muslims kept ignoring each other. Each group burying its head in the sand with the hope that God or Allah, will intervene. So for the main stream society, everyone dream of the day when all the Muslims can became less religious, less oppressed, less invading or more westernized and on the other hand, many Muslims lived with the hope that one day all the non Muslims will become with beards and hijab!

And unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks came. The dreams and hopes of both groups were shattered. The war began and the two groups started looking at each other with defiance and suspicion.

After 9/11, two new wars were declared: one in Afghanistan and Iraq. And another one, very insidious, off the radar, was conducted all over the world. This other war is called: war on terror.

Both wars were ugly devastating and with many victims. But on TV, only pictures of Muslims women in burqa were shown and coffins of soldiers being sadly brought home.

As if the message conveyed was the following:

“The men who went there to liberate women in burqa are killed by the horrible terrorists”

But the reality is far more complex than this easy cliché.

Today who still cares about women in burqa in Afghanistan? Who still care about the thousands of refugees, orphans, displaced because of the war? The TV doesn’t show any of their pictures.

What about children elders bombarded? What about men arrested for being suspected as terrorists? What about drones attacks killing civilians? Those were not mentioned they are called collateral damages.

Today the whole word seems to care only about ISIS, the Islamic State. Everyone confuses the Islamic State with Islam. Equally everybody seems to confuse terrorism with Islam.

Personally, I think this is the time where each one of us has some serious homework to do.

As a Muslim, I condemn all sort of violence. As a Muslim I try everyday to answer questions about my religion. I try to educate my own children about their religious identity but I try also to inform people around me about my faith. I don’t pretend to be the only true Muslim or the best representative of my faith. I don’t want to be called a moderate Muslim. I don’t want to be named an extremist Muslim. I am neither a liberal Muslim nor an oppressed Muslim. I am just a Muslim. I am a human being with some strength but also with a lot of weakness. So why do I have to be always the defender of Islam?

If you are a Christian, can I blame you for all the sexual abuse scandals that happened inside the church? No! If you are a German can I blame you for all the horrors of the world war II? Of course not! Today, as a Muslim I can’t be always denouncing and denouncing and denouncing the crime of a group that I don’t have any control on. I can have an opinion yes and I can act upon it.

Also I can have some little control or at least some influence over my family, my friends and my community. I can build strong bridges between people of different faiths. I can explain what Islam requires me to do and I can choose arguments to discuss with the others.

But this can only works if the other is listening. This can only work if the other doesn’t feel superior over me. This can only work if we do it together. This is like a marriage. It can only work with communication and consensus.

Also what I think is important for me to do is that I can give my own narrative. I can speak of Muslim women as I understand them as I see them. I can write books about them to show them like human beings and not simply like beings in cages or in boxes being oppressed. This is how we can eliminate the solitude between us.

Yes we are different but at the same time we are close to each other in our humanity.

 This was the speech I gave on March 3, 2015 at the Emmanuel United Church.

The false debate between freedom of expression and religious extremism

Reading news coverage about the recent attacks on the French satirical magazineCharlie Hebdo left me with many unanswered and uncomfortable questions. A very complex French, European and international event was summarized with simplistic headlines such us: “How remarkable that a humour magazine has led the fight against fanaticism” or “Paris attack illustrates the power of mockery.”

After the deadly attack, many cartoonists reduced the event to a confrontation between an armed, bearded jihadist and a pen. A simple representation, yet it is both powerful and misleading.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush and many like-minded politicians and media outlets confined the attacks to a fight between evil (the “Islamic terrorists”) and good (the United States and its allies), or between the free world (led by the United States) and oppression (led by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban).

When Bush famously proclaimed “you are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” he truly believed that he had received a divine message to liberate Muslim countries from oppression. He consequently built all of his political and war strategies around this sort of “prophecy.”

Meanwhile, all the dissident voices that denounced this dangerous war were silenced, labelled anti-patriots, and accused of siding with the extremists (remember the “Taliban Jack” label satirically attributed to the late Jack Layton by the Harper government).

Today, after many years of a failed “war on terror,” numerous scandals about abuse of political power, torture and indefinite detention, people have come to realize that this dichotomy is false and that security for all can’t be achieved without respect of human dignity for all. 

Unpacking the layers of a tragic event

Following in the footsteps of Bush, French President Francois Hollande, his friends, as well as many media outlets, want to reduce tragic events to a fight between the enlightened French freedom of expression and barbaric fighters affiliated with Islamic groups. Even if this seems the case from outside, there happen to be many layers behind the event that shouldn’t be ignored if one wants to conduct a serious and honest analysis.

Without giving any reason or excuse for the use of violence against journalists — which is not acceptable under any circumstances — one should remember that France is at war in many Islamic countries: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Mali… Even if the human costs of these wars are not always clear to the French masses, as civilian casualties are not always reported in the headlines, there is a lot of resentment within the local population with regard to these policies. This resentment travels very well within the French Muslim community.

Moreover, France has a heavy colonial, racist and violent past with Muslim countries like Algeria, for instance (one can only state here the assassination and torture campaign against Algerian dissidents). The large wounds of the Algerian war of liberation — a struggle that ended costing Algerians a million lives — never healed, even more than half a century later.

Furthermore, the relationship between France and its Muslim population, estimated today to be close to 10 per cent, has never been an easy one. The ghettos surrounding Paris and other big cities, the violent riots between police and unemployed youth from marginalized North African communities, speak for themselves.

The concerns raised recently by some French politicians with respect to French prisons that are crowded with Muslims, a number estimated to be around 40,000 prisoners representing 60 per cent of the prison population, are real. Many see in these prisons the breeding ground for a new class of resentful and disillusioned Muslim groups that are vulnerable to political violence.

It is not a simple coincidence that about 700 French citizens travelled to the Middle East to join the ranks of the Islamic State. One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is the counter-reaction expressed by some youth to their lack of integration and their marginalization by French society.

But most importantly, the powerful concept of secularism, used so well by many French politicians as a political tool to justify controversial policies, is at the heart of the issue. When banning the religious veil worn by Muslim girls in public school was introduced by the French government in the ’90s, secularism was widely evoked. The Muslim French population’s concerns with respect to freedom of religion were brushed off. Later, when another related law was introduced to ban the burqa in public spaces (even though the estimated number of women wearing it in France was estimated to be around 1,900 in 2009), once again, the “sacred” principle of secularism was evoked and the many voices who tried to argue with this controversial law were mocked as defending the oppression of women and obscurantism.

Defending ‘freedom of expression

Freedom of expression, a noble concept, came to be perceived by many marginalized French Muslim youth as an empty slogan used by the powerful elite to justify the silencing of Muslims and to allow the right-wing to bash Muslims at will. This in turn created a feeling of victimhood among many disfranchised youth.

The debate should not be about freedom of expression and extremism. The real debate should be about France and how it deals with its Muslim population. Attacking and killing journalists is highly symbolic, as was the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Why are the media and politicians pushing us to choose a side: liberty or oppression, freedom of expression or violence, secularism or religion?

In their pursuit to make us choose the “right” option, politicians and media pundits create a new holy entity called freedom of expression. It becomes another sacred, holy, untouchable “cow.” Another religious concept which if you’re “killed” promoting, you become a “martyr.”

When Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents that implicated the United States and its allies in many scandals, the concept of “freedom of expression” was completely rejected by these governments. Many journalists in the U.S., and even some in Canada, sided with their governments and were not sympathetic to his plight.

The freedom of expression that everyone nowadays rushes to defend is not as simple to understand or to practice. The same thing can be said about religion. Why do we have to choose between one or the other, or accept a self-serving version of both? 

This column has been first published with rabble.ca