Thursday, 08 June 2017 05:47

What to do About Afghanistan?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

I have come to know the journalist Michael Petrou over the past few years.  He would sometimes call me to seek my views on terrorism when he was with Macleans magazine and I relied heavily on his book ‘Renegades’ – the story of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War – for a section of my second book on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.  I happen to think he is a great writer and a solid scholar.

In a recent piece of analysis on the CBC Web site Michael noted that Afghanistan is ‘teetering on the edge of a dark abyss’ and that Canada, which lost 158 soldiers in its decade-long post 9/11 deployment, ‘should join its closest allies and return to Afghanistan.’  He argues that much progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 (infant mortality, a fledgling democracy, female school attendance) but that true advancement will be measured over decades.  For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be leaning towards a peacekeeping mission in West Africa (possibly Mali) although even there the government is waffling.

And so the question remains: should Canada recommit to Afghanistan?  Great question with no easy answer, especially in the context of the bombing in Kabul on May 31 that killed over 150. I will play the classic Canadian card and straddle the fence (joke: why did the Canadian cross the road? A: to get to the middle), providing views to supporting both a yes and a no response.  It is not that I am normally wishy-washy: it’s just that there are solid arguments on both sides.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.[/quote]

I fully believe that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We tried that once – after the ragtag mujahedin kicked Soviet ass (with oodles of outside help it must be added) – and look where that got us.  Warlordism, brutality and the arrival of the Taliban, which in turn played genial Afghan hosts to Al Qaeda.  Afghanistan became a de facto failed state (it is hard to describe the Taliban regime as a ‘state’) and we know that failed states are prime real estate for terrorist groups (Somalia, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).  If we don’t want to see the rise of yet another terrorist organisation on the scale of AQ we might want to keep our presence there robust.

Besides, don’t the Afghan people deserve a normal life? Given that the Afghan government appears incapable of providing the conditions for one shouldn’t we offer, on humanitarian grounds if nothing else?  We will still run into the problem of Western ways clashing with Afghan culture but surely there are universal principles we can help maintain.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is not known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.  Many have tried to tame and control the country and none have succeeded.  In addition there is the problem of how long. We were there for more than ten years and while, as Michael points out, some progress has been made the place is still a mess and may be getting worse. Will we need to establish an open-ended mission? How much will it cost?  Are Canadians willing to accept more casualties in a country far away and little understood?  Is the Canadian military equipped (materiel and human resource-wise) to continue multiple tours for our men and women in uniform?  What is the end game?  How do we measure our success?  What is our exit strategy?  Does anyone have an answer to these?  Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has an interesting blog on lessons learned the first time around.

I fear that this conundrum falls into the ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t category’.  We cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan even if we seek to measure it solely through the lens of national interests and security. Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

And yet those questions are still there.  Furthermore why Afghanistan and not Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic?  Aren’t they as worthy?

Canada may be taking its time with this decision, and that may be frustrating to some, but a sober second thought is indeed required in this instance. If we are both to honour the deaths of those 158 soldiers and prevent 158 more we need to think this through.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 23 April 2017 16:15

We Can Choose Not to be Afraid

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

We live in a world where fear is easy to spread.  There is no shortage of evidence that bad things happen and that there are some bad actors in a lot of places. 

The rise of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media have a lot to do with this. Sometimes, this fear is disproportionate to reality. The fear of violent crime is a good example: statistics in this country and others show pretty convincingly that violence of this nature is at historic lows and yet people still rank fear of violent crime high on their list of anxieties.

Terrorism fits here as well, as I have often said. 

While there is no doubt that terrorism exists and we are reminded of it daily (less so in the West and more so in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia), we still have to maintain an objective perspective.  Even if terrorism occurs more frequently today than it did, say, 40 years ago (although historical analysis might even differ on that point) it is still a rare event. 

It is impossible to claim that terrorism is more rampant than non-terrorist crime for instance (shootings, domestic violence, etc.) let alone other kinds of death (disease, car accidents, etc.).

"Manufactured" fear

Terrorism is different from other forms of violent deaths because of its inherent ability to cause fear. That is why we call it terrorism – it instills terror and fear.  That in essence is what the terrorists are trying to achieve, making us afraid of what they can do so that we will make decisions about things (foreign policy is a primary goal) under duress, decisions we would not normally make.

Some fears are natural – fear of snakes or spiders – and may go back a long way in the history of humanity. Others are manufactured. War and terrorism would fit here. If a fear is manufactured there must be a manufacturer and an audience (or recipient) of that fear.  The audience, I would argue, has a choice of whether to accept or embrace the fear. It is as simple as that. 

In other words, we play an enormous role in our own freedom from fear. We can simply choose not to be afraid.

Defeating terrorism

I am not trying to oversimplify the terrorist threat or the challenge in dealing with it.  This is indeed a hard problem that has always defied, and will most likely always defy, simple solutions. We will not 'defeat' terrorism anymore than we will 'defeat' crime in general. 

But we can 'defeat' the goal of the terrorists by refusing to be cowed by their actions and their propaganda.  We can decide not to allow them to make us afraid.

I'd like to end with a quote by the Swedish Prime Minister in the wake of this month's terrorist attack in Stockholm (an Uzbek terrorist drove a stolen beer truck into a pedestrian mall, killing four and wounding 15) as it really sends a strong message about fear: "I believe today’s [gathering] was a clear message from Stockholm and Sweden that we intend to keep our open, warm and inclusive society. That was the message. Terrorism will never defeat Sweden.”

Would that we all elected to not give in to fear and terror and tell the terrorists that they will never win.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

The surprise – at least to some – victory by Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton in Wednesday’s U.S. presidential election has already led to speculation over what a Trump administration means at both the domestic and international level.

At home, he has been hawkish on immigration and may try to deport millions of undocumented American residents. Outside the U.S., he has vowed to tear up trade agreements like NAFTA and impose tariffs on trade partners such as China.

On the environment, he has expressed skepticism about global warming and threatened to cancel the US commitment to the Paris Accord.

But what about terrorism? What can we expect from a Trump presidency on the international and U.S. “war on terrorism”?

Future policies are difficult to determine and much can change, although we can guess some of the incoming administration’s moves based on statements made and positions outlined during the campaign, even while recognizing that these are rife with inconsistency.

A few of Trump’s possible approaches will have a near-term positive effect on our collective battle against violent extremism, but on balance they will make things worse. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • On defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS), Trump vowed to go on the cyber offensive and recruit NATO to “invade IS strongholds in the Middle East and ‘knock the hell out of them’”. Assuming that he orders a more robust military response to the terrorist group, the effectiveness of that response will depend on the precise measures deployed. Special forces raids on identified high priority targets – think the successful killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011 – are the least likely to result in collateral damage or raise much objection. After that, it gets less easy. Drones are one tool, although the effect on innocent bystanders is probably higher than reported. Airstrikes are even less targeted. The worst scenario is a boots on the ground invasion as in the case of Iraq in 2003, which would give IS or others a new base of support (invasions tend to do that). In the short term, terrorist groups lose territory and influence but, in the longer term, the ideology underpinning these groups simply finds a new home. IS has already celebrated the Republican’s victory and stated that the “billionaire fool” will ruin the US and allow IS to take control of the country.
  • On allying with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Trump could leverage combined assets to speed up IS’ demise. The down side is that Russia is also targeting groups with which the US is allied. More importantly, Russia is trying to keep the Assads in power and a continued Alawite regime will invite more terrorist opposition down the road.
  • On immigration, Trump has vowed to stop the immigration of Muslims “until we figure out just what the hell is going on” and to refuse entry from countries associated with terrorist groups. He has also criticised any intake of Syrian refugees and would submit those who do come to “extreme vetting”. While this policy could prevent some terrorists from infiltrating the U.S., it does not cover those who come from otherwise “safe” countries such as France, Germany or the U.K.. It should be stressed, however, that the number of terrorists using the immigration/refugee system is dwarfed by the true “homegrown” threat of those born and radicalized to violence entirely in the U.S .(and for which there is no immigration or citizenship revocation “solution”). Furthermore, Trump has essentially made Muslims, including those born in the U.S., feel like unwanted citizens and this helps to feed the extremist narrative that the West hates Islam and does not allow Muslims to practice their religion freely (hence the call for hijrah to Muslim areas such as IS’ Caliphate).
  • Current U.S. President Barack Obama was big on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and even convened a summit on this issue in February 2015. It is highly unlikely that President Trump will have much time for CVE, seeing it as “wimpy”. This is unfortunate as CVE, while not a panacea, is an important part of counter terrorism strategy. Conversely, were the President to support CVE, it is hard to see how American Muslims buy into the administration’s efforts in light of Trump’s vilification of them.
  • On the domestic terrorism front, Trump has actually paved the way for an increase in the threat level, but not in a direction assumed by most Americans. The greatest terrorist menace in the U.S. comes not from Islamist extremists, whether foreign or domestic, but from a variety of right wing groups ranging from sovereign citizens to radical militias to white supremacists. The Trump campaign gave voice to these actors and it is likely that we will see a continued spike in the activity of such groups. It is ironic that a huge increase in the existence of these extremist organizations during the Obama years, as reported by the U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, may be surpassed under a Trump administration. This, together with Trump’s avowed support for the Second Amendment and desire to protect gun rights, could make the U.S. a much less safe country. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have already welcomed a Trump presidency and are likely to feel emboldened under his rule.

All in all, it is difficult to see any long-term pluses on counter-terrorism under President Trump. Initial successes against IS and others through military action will more than adequately be offset by his propensity to provide ammunition for future supporters and groups through his position on Islam and immigration.

The Trump presidency – whether one or two terms – will possibly leave us in a worse position vis-a-vis terrorism than the one we find ourselves in now.

Should he choose his advisors wisely and build on existing successful approaches, we may collectively be better off. And yet, a significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil attributed to a foreign actor – inspired, planned, directed or executed – would create a whole new set of variables and responses. Let us hope that such a scenario does not transpire.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Commentary

by Maria Assaf in Oxford, England

Imagine being a child bride in pre-revolutionary Iran – suffering abuse on a daily basis, being forced into a joyless marriage and having children at the age of 13. There is no law or organization that can protect you, as the entire affair is perfectly legal.

Now, imagine having a beautiful husband and children, a mother and father, and then losing them all in a genocide.

What hope could remain in a human heart after enduring such calamities?

Could an intense desire to right the wrongs or change the world bring back life to a suffering soul?

In Amity, author Nasreen Pejvack makes her reader wrestle with such questions, page after page, as she recounts both the painful and happy memories that form the lives of her two main characters: Ragusa, a survivor of the Yugoslav ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, who is on the verge of taking her own life, and her unknowing rescuer, Payvand, who is an Iranian activist with a tragic life story of her own.

Paradox of the West

Amity shows that there are moments in some peoples’ lives in which hope does not materialize from suffering. There are times when the soul has been so utterly shattered, that the mere suggestion of finding meaning within its pain is insulting.

Pejvack presents a panorama of a Western world – with its affluence and the seeming peace of its clean streets – which hides many truths and stories of refugees or others who have fled conflict and reached what seems like a safe haven.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport.[/quote]

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport or British citizenship. The marks that their pasts have left on their souls will accompany them forever, like a shadow surrounding the most trivial moments of their lives.

Yes, many of them have been saved; the lucky few have even re-married in their new countries and found jobs and successful careers. But who can take away the pain of the memories, the tears, and the nightmares that keep survivors trapped in their minds as if in a prison of their pasts?

Pejvack’s book is heartfelt throughout. It is honest and direct and her phrases are simple, clear, and concise.

For those readers who are fortunate not to have suffered the misfortunes of war, oppression and tragedy, this book will provide insight into the lives of the millions of people worldwide who are experiencing similar fates as Ragusa and Payvand.

Understanding each other, and the world

Amity is a testament of sympathy with victims and the experience of sharing an understanding of tragedy and pain; of expressing empathy towards those who feel that no one could possibly understand the depths of their suffering. 

This book grabs the audience’s attention rapidly, with its strong life stories and its vibrant political, economic and historical debates, made intentionally easy to read.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.[/quote]

The writer’s political debates illustrate the evils that have plagued Iran and the nations that formed the former Yugoslavia, creating strong sentiments between two women who shared impassionate days and brought joy to each other in their pain.

The book succeeds at making the audience care about global politics and the way it creates wars that lead to the kinds of crises that have made these two protagonists suffer so much in their lives.

As Payvand tries to pull Ragusa back to life by telling her stories, this book also grabs the reader’s attention and curiosity from the beginning by making us want to learn more about the fascinating characters Pejvack describes in each chapter.

For those interested in the histories of the places where conflict has struck recently, this book embarks on detailed accounts of Iran’s recent past, explaining how the country came to be what it is now.

Pejvack’s explanations are nuanced and politically knowledgeable. Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]… Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.[/quote]

Call to action                        

Each of Pejvack’s characters is an activist in her own right.

Ragusa, a Croat, married a Serb – something inconceivable during tense times in which Croatian and Serbian populations were at war.

Payvand, an Iranian revolutionary, had to see her comrades die and experience the disappointment of witnessing the onset of what she calls an ignorant revolution.

From the portrait of violence Pejvack presents comes a call for revolution. Formerly a writer and poet for an underground activist publication in Iran, Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

The call for unity regardless of nationality and other differences is one of the most beautiful premises this book proposes. This work is a must-read for inspired young citizens of the world, as Pejvack appeals to those who are trying to make a difference and are in need of some accessible guidance on how to contribute positively to the world.

Maria Assaf is a Colombian-Canadian freelance reporter who writes for Latin American, Filipino and other immigrant publications in Canada, including New Canadian Media. She completed her bachelor's degree in journalism at Ryerson University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in development and emergency practice at Oxford Brookes University, where she is researching refugee freedom of expression.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books

by Susan Korah in Ottawa 

“We’ve never had a wide-ranging public debate on what kind of immigrants we need in this country,” says Valerie Knowles, author of Strangers at our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540 to 2015. “It’s something that’s long overdue,” she adds. 

Originally published in 1988, the fourth edition of Strangers at our Gates was recently released by Dundurn Press. Knowles explains that while researching the subject of immigration, it became obvious to her that successive governments have made announcements – for example on the number of immigrants that Canada would accept - without ever engaging the public in a discussion that is so critical to the very fabric of the nation. 

“It’s an emotionally charged issue and a difficult portfolio for any [immigration] minister,” she responds, when asked why Canadian politicians and policymakers have shied away from such a public debate. 

Leading source on immigration history

Knowles’ book, however, is not a critique of any one government’s immigration policy or practices. Nor does it deal with the stories of individual immigrants or refugees, fascinating as many of them are. Nevertheless, it is a highly readable book. 

A wide-ranging survey of Canadian immigration history from a public policy perspective, it is a cross between an academic thesis and a popular narrative. Written in a reader-friendly, high-end journalistic style, its content is substantiated by an extensive bibliography, endnotes, and interviews with key policymakers and academics. 

“It’s the standard reference tool and the textbook of choice on immigration,” says Mike Molloy, President of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society. Molloy notes that the book – unlike many others on the same subject – is remarkably free from bitter arguments over minute distinctions or moral judgements taken out of historical context. 

Indeed, Knowles is as objective as possible on a subject that can be a political and emotional minefield, carefully avoiding direct criticism of any government’s policy or practices. 

Originally published in 1988 in response to a publisher’s request for a ‘survey’ history of Canadian immigration in 200 pages, the latest edition, released in 2016, is intended to cover the years since 2006 under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“I will give Jason Kenney credit for making a concerted effort to woo the ethnic community.”[/quote]

Too early to assess Trudeau 

Knowles says that she failed to get an interview for the new edition with Jason Kenney, who was Immigration Minister from 2008 to 2013, despite sending him a copy of the earlier version of her book. 

Questioned about her opinion on the differences between the Conservative government and the newly elected Liberal government’s approach to immigration, she says carefully: “It’s early days and too soon to form an opinion. I’d like to have a clearer picture before I make any judgement. However, restoring health benefits to refugee claimants is a positive move.” 

“I will give Jason Kenney credit for making a concerted effort to woo the ethnic community,” she says. “Kenny embraced the portfolio with an enthusiasm that few immigration ministers ever did. It’s a difficult portfolio to fill.” 

Kenney’s successor, the “controversial” Chris Alexander was not interviewed either. 

The diversity divide 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“These trends, which have transformed Canada into a truly global village, are now too strong to turn back.”[/quote]

The last chapter of the book entitled, “Issues in the Twenty First Century,” is a balanced presentation of pro and anti-immigration advocates’ arguments. Indeed, it could be an effective launching pad for the very debate that Knowles says has been a glaring gap in Canadian public discourse. 

One myth that Knowles firmly debunks is the contention that immigrants “steal” jobs from established Canadians. 

“Research indicates that immigration does not cause unemployment, although the now-defunct Economic Council of Canada suggested that very rapid increases in immigration may lead to temporary rises in unemployment,” she writes. 

Another equally significant question she raises in the same chapter relates to how we manage diversity. 

“For the last four decades we have welcomed a steady stream of newcomers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, most of whom have settled in Canada’s largest cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. These trends, which have transformed Canada into a truly global village, are now too strong to turn back.” 

With this statement, Knowles highlights a point that is rarely discussed. She quotes Larry Bourne, a University of Toronto geographer and urban planner who observed; “We are turning a half-dozen cities into intensely multicultural and multilingual places and creating these fantastically vibrant, but under-serviced, cities while the rest of the country remains homogenous with a declining and aging population.” 

Knowles goes on to report that in Bourne’s view, these two demographic solitudes are more important than the East-West divide. 

Knowles modestly disclaims any “expertise” on the subject, pointing out that she is not an academic. Her research, however, is meticulous and her facts are well documented in her endnotes. 

Indeed, Strangers at our Gates: Canadian Immigration Policy, 1540-2015 Fourth Edition, deserves a wider audience and could serve as a useful starting point of research for all those who shape Canada’s immigration and refugee policies.

Susan Korah is a Canadian journalist and communications professional of South Asian descent with over 20 years of experience. Her work has appeared in The Toronto StarSoutham News Services, Catholic Register, Anglican Journal, The Intelligencer and The Trentonian. She has worked in communications for the Parliament of Canada, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office and for Initiatives of Change International.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books

by Melissa Shaw in Vancouver 

The latest instalment of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Muslim Heritage Series aims to provide a deeper understanding of Shia Islam, the Muslim religion’s second-largest community. 

About 100 people gathered at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., for the launch of the series’ fourth volume, The Shi'i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Department of History professor Derryl MacLean said the essay collection explores the memory of tradition, present influences, and implications for the future. 

Dr. Bashir Jiwani, honourary secretary for the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for Canada said the book helps fill a knowledge gap. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed,” Jiwani said. 

Reinventing old traditions 

The Shi'i World's cover features a painting depicting a music lesson from a Persian book of philosophical ethics, the Akhlaq-i Nasiri. One of the book’s co-editors, Dr. Amyn B. Sajoo, said this image was chosen because religion and culture are entwined. 

Sajoo said the observance of Ashura, a day of mourning for the murder of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn during the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century, is an example of how culture can be linked to religious expression. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed.”[/quote]

Caribbean Muslims have a culture of celebration and observe Ashura through private recollection followed by a party involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and atheists. In parts of Europe and North America, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom through a blood drive, he said. 

MacLean introduced Pomona College religious studies professor Zayn Kassam's essay, “Remembering Fatima and Zainab”, as an example of Shia identity linked to memory. 

Sajoo said after Saddam Hussein's repression in Iraq, Iraqi women in Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed mourning circles, similar to the ceremonies held during Muharram to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a relative of two female figures in Islam, Fatima and Zainab. 

“They imagine what Zainab must have felt when she lost her family at Karbala,” said Maclean. “So you are now going to empathize with her and then you will mourn what you lost in your country because of the dictator in Iraq.” 

Challenging stereotypes 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni.”[/quote]

In The Shi'i World, University of Edinburgh Persian and Film Studies professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz analyzes how religious themes challenge society through film. 

The 2001 film Baran tells the story of a girl who dresses as a boy to work on a construction site in Tehran. 

Pak-Shiraz argues that the scene where a boy accidentally sees the girl's long hair has the spiritual meaning of unveiling and accessing the individual behind the screen. Sajoo said the film is a comment on women's roles in Iranian society. 

He said another example is the 2004 Iranian film Marmoulak, which is a comedy about a prisoner pretending to be a priest who fools the guards into listening to his fabricated sermons. 

Sajoo said the film was banned in Iran a week after its release due to its “tough social commentary,” which contributed to its popularity amongst the Muslim diaspora. 

“[Globalization is] empowering the periphery. It doesn't work anymore to say the centre is Iran and Lebanon and so on, and everybody else is out there in the margins,” Sajoo said. 

According to a 2009 study from the Pew Research Centre, 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population are Shia Muslims, while 87 to 90 per cent are Sunni Muslims. Over 60 per cent of the global Muslim population lives in Asia and about 20 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa. 

SFU student Shazia Nanjijuma said events like the book launch engage with the history of Islam, addressing the knowledge gap and challenging people's assumptions and stereotypes about the faith. 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni,” said Nanjijuma. “That makes it easy for us to kind of grapple with it, but the truth is there's so much more behind that.” 

Addressing centuries-old rifts 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.”[/quote]

Sajoo's essay in the book discusses the creation of Aligarh Muslim University in India. He said the community criticized a Shia imam, Aga Khan III, for advocating and fundraising for the creation of a university instead of a Shia college. 

“He was arguing, ‘Why don't you make the case for respecting pluralist Muslim identity within Aligarh?’” Sajoo said, adding that the Aga Khan expressed similar thoughts during his speech to Canadian Parliament in 2014. 

“What he was saying is, you are not more or less Canadian if you are a Muslim or Shia. That your Shia identity essentially has to be part of your Canadian identity and vice-versa.” 

Sajoo adds that Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.” 

“It's a genuine acceptance of other people's ways, ethical ways, of looking at the world,” he said.

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story as the previous one contained factual errors. NCM regrets these errors and apologizes for any inconvenience.

{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Books

Commentary by Michael Harris

In the wake of Brussels — at least for now — we’re back in the bad old days of the War of Civilizations narrative.

In the face of terror most foul, fury and vengeance are once more in the air. It’s not quite Christianity versus Islam, but it’s close.

Some anecdotal evidence. Two comments on a story in The Independent, worlds apart, suggest that two great swaths of humanity are once again on an unnecessary and tragic collision course.

Bobby said: “All the whole Mideast and ALL their ilk are Hated by me and mine.”

Ceycey replied: “Is your humanity only for Europe?”

Both commenters were responding to a story in the British newspaper written by Yasmin Ahmed in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Belgium.

Ahmed pointed out that just before ISIS operatives set off bombs in Brussels, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks detonated a car bomb in Turkey near a transportation hub, killing 37 and injuring 70 more. A closely-timed second attack killed four more people. In fact, Turkey has been beset by a spate of bombings by Kurdish separatists and ISIS, who in 2015 alone killed 141 and injured 910 others.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Do you not see that this indifference to the non-Western lives is EXACTLY what is creating and feeding terror organizations like ISIS?"[/quote]

In both Brussels and Ankara, innocent people were killed indiscriminately by fanatics who believe political causes sanctify murder.

But what struck Ahmed was the profound difference in the Western reaction to these atrocities. In social media there were safety check-ins on Facebook, hashtags on Twitter, and shared cartoons in response to the bombings at Zaventen Airport and Maelbeek metro station. In fact, “Brussels” garnered 17.5 million more Google news results than “Ankara”.

Global media funerals for some, mute indifference for others

While the world mourned Brussels, Ankara was treated as a mere regional event. Case in point: After this week’s Brussels bombings, European countries raised the Belgian flag above their national monuments — a fitting tribute. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in the colours of the Belgian flag, as was One World Trade Center in New York (though in truth, the colours looked more like red, white and blue). So Yasmin Ahmed posed an awkward question: Why didn’t Downing Street raise the red and white Turkish flag after the atrocities in Ankara?

Ahmed’s unease was mirrored by a young woman who knows a thing or two about being victimized by terrorism. Malala Yousafzai blazed to international fame after standing up for education for girls in Afghanistan and getting shot by the Taliban for her defiance.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Has the West’s accusatory finger moved from ultra-extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaida to designate the members of an entire religion — again?[/quote]

She too has spoken out about the dangers of dividing the victims of terrorism between East and West, providing global media funerals for some, mute indifference to others.

“Do you not see that this indifference to the non-Western lives is EXACTLY what is creating and feeding terror organizations like ISIS? … If your intention is to stop terrorism, do not try to blame the whole population of Muslims for it, because that cannot stop terrorism,” she said.

And that raises an interesting question. Is the West mute on the subject of innocent lives lost to terrorists in Turkey because the motivations behind those attacks were different from the reasons behind the killing in Europe — or because Turkey is 98 per cent Muslim? Has the West’s accusatory finger moved from ultra-extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaida to designate the members of an entire religion — again?

In this season of presidential politics in the United States, the answer is, sadly, ‘Yes’.

Trump and anti-terrorism: Zero experience

CNN, which fielded carpet-coverage of the Brussels bombings in a way that repeated rather than advanced the story for three gruesome days, has already come up with a poll showing that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is now the first choice of Americans on anti-terrorism matters.

That is astonishing for a few reasons. First of all, Trump has zero experience in fighting terrorism in any official capacity. He has never held public office, and his chief advisor on foreign policy is The Donald. Trump has been widely denounced by military, national security and senior police leaders for his unconstitutional, illegal and flatly dangerous approach to some of America’s deepest problems.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Trump] has added that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS. That’s right — nuclear weapons.[/quote]

The list is well known. So far Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, deporting 12 million illegal aliens, building a wall on the Mexican border, bringing back torture and instituting racial profiling in Muslim communities in the U.S. Now he has added that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS. That’s right — nuclear weapons.

In the flash of two bombs, the world is suddenly standing back in the rubble of 9/11 with President Bush repeating his With Us or With the Terrorists ultimatum. All the old, familiar and — I might add — failed solutions are once more being put forward by a real estate mogul who is being embraced as though he were King Solomon.

Though there are many particulars to the new fundamentalism for defeating terror, it comes down to the familiar mantra of guns, gates and guards. If the police just had enough unconstitutional powers, if free citizens just gave up enough civil liberties, if the West could just exert enough hard power against Islamic terrorists, if only there could be more forced regime change, if only Muslims would begin denouncing the evil-doers in their communities, the world would never have to see the cities of Europe and the United States burning again.

Those answers have been tried for 15 blood-soaked years and all the West has to show for it is millions of deaths, trillions in squandered treasure — and ISIS.

The time has come to recognize solidarity with all the victims of terror. As James Taylor, a U.K. citizen living in Ankara, posted on Facebook, “You were Charlie, you were Paris, will you be Ankara?”

Apparently not.

Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His nine books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare Ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His new book on the Harper majority government, Party of One, is a number one best-seller and has been shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language non-fiction.

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Published in Commentary

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver 

Near the old Jewish quarter of Baghdad, at Al Rasheed Street, there is a meandering alley named after the Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi,” read Shawk Alani, the organizer of the ninth Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” reading in Vancouver. 

The reading, quoting Phillip Robertson’s 2005 report, “The death of Al Mutanabbi Street,” was the first of many during an evening in commemoration of Iraqi literature. 

On Mar. 5, 2007, a car bomb devastated the famous bookselling street. Since 2007, writers, activists and artists have marked the anniversary of the attack with literary readings as part of a project called “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” Spearheaded locally by the Pandora’s Collective at the invitation of founder Beau Beausoleil,  the annual event has  included readings from Vancouver writers like Bonnie Nish and Hadani Ditmars.

This year, readings were held in over 20 cities across North America, Europe and the Middle East. 

“I think the idea of Al-Mutanabbi Street ‘starting here,’ is to put context to history, and to say that these issues are not just issues that are local,” said Shawk, who prefers to be referred to using her first name. “These politics cross borders, there is relationships between what happens here and what happens in Iraq.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded.[/quote]

Recreating Al-Mutanabbi 

The evening at Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus was an immersive experience, where guests were greeted with a classical Iraqi playlist as they entered and offered cardamom tea. 

Alani introduced the historical and political significance of the event, reminding the crowd of the pitfalls of the literary culture that was being celebrated. During Saddam Hussein’s reign, writers and intellectuals were servants of the state who produced literature praising the regime, for which they were rewarded. 

The readings included the original and translated works of the 10th century poet, Al-Mutanabbi, read by Wadood Hamad, adjunct professor in chemistry at the University of British Columbia. 

Hamad also read the poetry of one of Iraq’s most famous and influential poets of the 20th century, Muzaffar Al-Nawab, who wrote on the themes of love, politics, philosophy and existentialism. 

Iraqi writer Dima Yassine and Palestinian filmmaker and songwriter Sobhi Al-Zobaidi performed original works that reflected on their lived experiences and memories of their homes. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain."[/quote]

Sara McIntyre read an excerpt from Inaam Kachachi’s American Granddaughter, a novel about a young Iraqi-American who serves as a translator during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the passage, the protagonist must stage a raid of her own grandmother’s house, as it’s the only way she is allowed to see her. 

Alani issued a trigger warning prior to reading from journalist Anthony Shadid’s book Night Draws Near. 

The excerpt, titled “A boy who was ‘like a flower’” dealt with the funeral of two teenaged boys who were victims of an unattributed attack. The scene addressed a raw, intimate moment of sorrow, anger and frustration that was all too common during the Iraq War.           

In addition to the readings, Shawk showcased a short film by Iraqi creative director Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie, featuring the rebuilt Al-Mutanabbi street today, and played Walid Gholmieh’s Symphony No.2, “Al-Mutanabbi” B. Flat Major. 

Shawk’s grandfather collaborated with the Lebanese composer to produce the piece, which was meant to provide listeners with an auditory experience similar to that of reading Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry. 

Readings provide healing 

“I think it’s important to make spaces that are critical, events that are a bit more involved, bringing more critical thought into people’s consciousness,” said Shawk of her involvement in the initiative. 

She said that bringing the story of Al-Mutanabbi Street into consciousness and awareness was the first step, but she also felt the need to give people an opportunity to act upon this knowledge. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.”[/quote]

To inspire action, Shawk screened a video clip featuring Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal: 168:01, an art installation in Windsor, Ont. that includes a 12-metre bookcase filled with 20,000 blank books. Bilal hopes to swap each of the blank books for a real book that will be donated to the University of Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts. 

Shawk said the significance of hosting this reading is about saying, “I’m here, I’m a part of this city now, and I want to bring to people’s awareness things that are happening in the other place where I also belong.” 

She indicated that for members of the Iraqi and Arab diaspora, the event also represented an opportunity for “dealing with the emotions, the crisis, the trauma, all in a way that’s productive.” 

Shawk noted that the Iraqi diaspora is quite diverse and unique in that there have been multiple conflicts over the past 50 years during which large populations emigrated, either as refugees or by choice. 

“Art is an outlet; it is a place where we put our pain. You take the pain, you externalize it in a piece of art, and then you can step back and look at it and deal with it in a different way, and you can share it with other people,” said Shawk. 

“Doing readings by other people is kind of like sharing that thing that has been externalized, and realizing that actually there are so many ways in which we have the same experiences.” 

Shawk added that “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here,” enables Iraqis — a group that has been historically victimized and portrayed as weak, unhappy and constantly being killed — to partake in creating an alternate history for themselves. 

Reflecting on her own birth in Baghdad in the wake of the first Gulf War, Shawk explained, “You can create a space in literature where you can celebrate life, resistance, and existence.”

Publisher's Note: This report has been updated to correct the history of this initiative: this was the ninth – not the first – edition of the reading. We regret the error. 

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Published in Books

by Diba Hareer in Ottawa 

Lack of language skills, community support and cultural constraints prevent many immigrant and ethnic women from fleeing abusive relationships and seeking help.  

The most recent figures from Statistics Canada show that one quarter of all violent crimes are domestic in nature and in nearly seven out of 10 cases women and girls are the victims. 

Although there are no specific numbers for the demographic, shelters in urban centres say they are seeing a growing number of immigrant/ethnic women using their services and fear many others aren’t seeking help because of cultural barriers. 

Seeking refuge 

Elmas, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is an 18-year-old, born and raised in Canada by immigrant parents. She was abused by her parents who, she says, sought to control every aspect of her life, imposing what she calls the lifestyle of a ‘traditional Middle Eastern woman’ on her. 

She currently lives in a women’s shelter and is concerned her parents might find her.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Elmas] fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage.[/quote]

Elmas says that she fled her parents’ home after they tried to force her into an arranged marriage, which she refused. 

Even though she was raised in a Middle Eastern culture at home, she valued her Canadian identity and wanted to be in charge of her own life. She says that’s what led to her parents abusing her.  

“My parents act as [if] they’re dictators in the house, whatever they say must happen ... They have anger issues,” she explains. 

Elmas says her parents worried they would become the “laughing stock” of their social circle and that they valued their image in the community above her welfare and happiness. 

Although they did not like being married to each other, Elmas says they chose to continue the relationship because divorce was considered taboo. Elmas desired to choose her partner herself, rather than be pushed by a culture she could not understand.  

Elmas explains her parents constantly yelled at her and subjected her to harsh criticism. They began controlling her contact with her friends and restricted her social get-togethers.  

“It was getting to an extent where I wasn’t having a choice in anything.” 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][T]he women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French.[/quote]

A common story  

Elmas’ story is one that staff at women’s shelters often hear from immigrant and ethnic women. 

Keri Lewis, the executive director of Nelson House in Ottawa, says more than half of the women staying at the shelter are immigrants and/or ethnic women. Lewis says the immigrant women specifically that she sees are often quite isolated due to language barriers.  

The trend is similar in Toronto. About 55 per cent of the women staying at Sandgate Women’s Shelter in York region are immigrants and/or ethnic women, according to Jehan Chaudhry, Sandgate’s executive director. Of that number, 35 per cent are of Middle Eastern descent. 

The types of cases both shelters handle are similar and include women fleeing physical and emotional abuse, forced or arranged marriages, and honour-based crimes.  

According to Chaudhry, the women who most often don’t seek help are the ones who don’t speak English or French and aren’t aware of the services offered by shelters.

Another factor barring women from running to safety is their concern about the impact of being separated from their children. Sometimes a woman who tries to leave her husband gets pressured by her community to stay.  

Economic dependency and fear of further victimization are other factors that force immigrant women to stay in abusive relationships. 

Priya Kharat, a counsellor at the Students’ Union Wellness Centre at the University of Calgary, found in her research that new immigrant women compare Canadian law enforcement with law enforcement in their native countries, which are often corrupt and unfair, so they fear seeking help.  

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”[/quote]

Difficult to leave  

Elmas had many second thoughts about running away.  

“I felt that it wasn’t right for me to leave if I didn’t give them a full chance,” she says. But her parents didn’t change their approach. They continued to emotionally and physically abuse her, and often would inflict the same pain on her younger siblings.  

“It was against my religion,” says Elmas, who is Muslim. “What they were doing was wrong, no matter what they said, I knew it was wrong.”  

The day she left is seared into her memory. She remembers feeling nervous and nauseous. “But I knew it was the direction that I had to go on,” she explains. 

Elmas had a friend who helped her leave home and find a shelter and a lawyer – support many women do not have. According to Chaudhry, one of the main challenges abused immigrant women face is not knowing how to navigate the Canadian system. 

Chaudhry says that’s why it’s important for shelter staff to provide facilities for women based on their specific cultural and language needs.  

Sandgate has Arabic and Farsi interpreters, a room designated for prayers and halal food options, for example.  

Now that she is at a shelter, Elmas says she feels safe. Her goal is to enrol in university once more and pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.  

Her advice for women and girls going through a similar experience is not to run unless they are committed to following through. 

“You’ll end up wanting to go back and if you go back, it’ll be even worse than before.”

Journalist Judy Trinh mentored the writer of this article through the NCM Mentoring Program 

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Published in Health
Saturday, 20 February 2016 21:31

Iraq is a Quagmire and Trudeau Knows It

Commentary by Firas Al-Atraqchi in Cairo, Egypt

Despite the partisan brouhaha and accusations of weakness and betrayal directed at the Liberal government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision last week to withdraw jet fighters from the international anti-ISIS coalition was the correct one. 

True, the Liberals may not have been particularly bright or assertive in how they sold the idea of the CF-18 pullout, but the facts on the ground support Trudeau. 

In fact, his decision was the sanest yet in a conflict that no longer makes sense. 

The coalition’s campaign of bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria has produced little. It has failed to significantly cripple ISIS’s military capacity or its ambitious recruitment drive. 

The extremist group not only still controls Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and much of the north and centre, but it has expanded into Libya and Afghanistan. 

Coalition airstrikes had even failed to fully dislodge ISIS fighters from all of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, until earlier this week. 

Then there’s the collateral damage. 

Coalition air raids have, as claimed by many Iraqi and Syrian civilians in the past 18 months, led to a number of civilian casualties 

That’s not exactly protecting civilians from ISIS, is it? 

Canada does not need to have blood on its hands, whether directly or by association. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Canada does not need to have blood on its hands, whether directly or by association.[/quote]

Other types of war brewing 

While the war for hearts and minds has not been particularly successful, there’s also the war of perceptions which rages in the Middle East and on social media. 

And the U.S.-led coalition appears to be losing that one, too. 

For more than a year, various Middle Eastern voices have accused the U.S.-led coalition of actually aiding ISIS 

On social media, various videos purport to show airdropped U.S.-made supplies falling into the hands of ISIS fighters. Whether these were seized from the Iraqi army or not is largely a moot point. 

Canada does not need the negative publicity that accompanies accusations of aiding ISIS. 

It’s also rather confusing. The U.S.-led coalition is comprised of predominantly Sunni states who are opposed to the Alawite (Shia) rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. 

Assad is supported by Iran. 

Iran is in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen. 

Elements within these Sunni states are accused of supplying the Islamist rebels, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS, with weapons and funds – whether directly or not. 

And it could get messier. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]And it could get messier.[/quote]

Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged to send up to 100,000 troops to remove Assad’s government. 

They already moved their air force assets to Incirlik air base in Turkey. 

Why does Canada want to get caught in the middle of a proxy sectarian war 

It doesn’t, but Canada cannot stand on the sidelines. 

A country with a tradition of humanitarian global assistance, Canada will up its efforts to host refugees and assist others left in the Middle East. 

In the meantime, it is boosting its military advisory role in Iraq, increasing the number of trainers and experts who will help the Iraqi army enhance its capabilities and reach from 69 to 207. 

Strengthening Iraq’s core 

By stating that airstrikes alone do not produce long-term stability, Trudeau is not only drawing on lessons from Canada’s moral experience in Afghanistan, but also correctly reading the situation on the ground. 

Iraq has been bombed, re-bombed and over-bombed more than any other country since World War II. 

The country has gone from bad to worse, sinking into a medieval state of disrepair. Despite shock and awe and tens of thousands of sorties – using the most advanced smart and dumb technology of warfare – the country has failed to stabilize. 

[quote align="center" color="#999999"][Iraq] has gone from bad to worse, sinking into a medieval state of disrepair.[/quote]

There are more than 60 organized, battle-hardened and fully-equipped militias operating beyond the scope of the government in Iraq.  

They have wreaked havoc throughout the country, adding to the sectarian tensions already about to burst. 

During the effort to liberate Anbar capital, Ramadi, three months ago, the Iraqi government – at least on the surface – appeared to acquiesce to Western pressures not to use these militias in the campaign. 

That these militias were heavily used 10 months earlier to liberate predominantly Sunni Tikrit is a testament to the weakening of the country’s centre; Baghdad has had a token fledgling national army since the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military in 2003. 

Many see this as having been a mistake with deadly consequences, which ultimately led to the rise of sectarian militias that now dominate the landscape. 

By training Iraqi national forces, Canada will be strengthening the country’s core and signalling that the international community backs a united country led by the government in Baghdad.

Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, he currently teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor. He is a member of New Canadian Media's editorial advisory board. 

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