Commentary by Phil Gurski
On rare occasions I pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or World Weekly News when I shop for groceries. It's not that I am particularly a fan, but they are strategically located at the checkout counter with their flashy, outrageous headlines. Some are truly unbelievable. I think my all-time favourite was 'Titanic survivor found on ice floe, vows never to eat fish again.'
These periodicals deal in what we now call fake news, albeit with a difference: the stories were never intended to be taken seriously and it is hard to believe that anyone could be influenced by their stark departure from the truth.
We are now living in a very different time where outright lies are taken seriously and they do affect the views and opinions of some people on very serious issues. The claim that crime is up (when it is down in many places) has led to calls for 'law and order' campaigns. The belief that vaccinations lead to autism (this was debunked years ago and the scientist making the claim shown to be a fraud) has made some parents eschew life-saving vaccines, causing outbreaks of diseases we thought we had beaten, like measles.
In Canada, there is another onslaught of fake news that centres on our Muslim communities and supposed links to terrorism and clandestine efforts to take over our country. Several Canadian cities have seen demonstrations that appear to have coincided with a motion by a Liberal backbencher to call on the government to look into and report on Islamophobia and other forms of hate. Among the allegations made by some of those demonstrating in Canadian streets are:
One of the great things about living in this country is that we are all free to express our views and opinions to a tremendous degree. There are limits, though, and these limits are both legitimate and necessary. If someone calls for violence, whether against a specific group or in general, that constitutes a crime (we'll leave aside the difficulties in prosecuting these offences). Incitement to beat another person to a pulp should not be ignored and I am confident that all Canadians would agree with this.
No, M103 is not a blanket on free speech, it is a reasonable call for looking into a worrisome rise in hatred online and on certain radio shows. Neither is it focussed solely on Islamophobia, although the highlighting of this particular form of potential hatred is not surprising in the wake of the awful massacre at a Quebec Islamic Centre a few weeks ago. The State has both a right and a duty to investigate individuals and groups who, through their actions or their language, can reasonably be seen as urging others (or themselves) to use violence against anyone. To ignore these actions would constitute State negligence.
While I support the fundamental right of the Islamophobes and the anti-immigrant lobby (thankfully small) in this country to voice their opinions, I also feel it necessary to address the 'alternative facts' they use to make their arguments. I will limit my comments to three here:
a) no, immigrants are not a drain on the system, commit more crimes than native-born and they do not steal 'Canadian' jobs. Study after study after study has shown that immigrants are a net bonus to their adoptive societies and that most integrate within a generation. Those that veer towards criminal acts will be dealt with by the same authorities that deal with all others who engage in crime.
b) no, there is no 'creeping Sharia' campaign in Canada. The last time a government (the Ontario Liberals back in 2004) considered allowing limited Sharia for some family issues, the greatest opponents were Muslim women. In the end the McGuinty government changed its mind and also got rid of other forms of religious arbitration, noting that there is 'one law for all Canadians'.
c) no, the Muslim Brotherhood is not taking over Canadian mosques and planning a stealth terrorism offensive. Reports alluding to this are comical at best, bad analysis at worst.
Canada is proudly a land of immigrants and it is those immigrants who have built this country and will continue to do so. The vast majority are just average people looking to better their lives as well as those of their families. Yes, there are bad apples, and we will deal with those.
To conclude, here is a great quote I read in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs. I could not have said things any better:
"Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities."
Amen to that.
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).
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
Commentary by Fred Maroun in Ottawa
Kellie Leitch is one of the candidates seeking the leadership of Canada’s Conservative party, and she attracted much attention with her proposal for “screening immigrants, refugees, and visitors, for anti-Canadian values”. There are two parts to Leitch’s proposal.
First, there is the concept of Canadian values then there is the screening.
Leitch is simply advancing widely accepted principles. She lists six values, which belong in three categories:
· Nice-sounding but unenforceable character traits: “helping others”, “hard work”, and “generosity”.
· “Freedom and tolerance”, which she elaborates to mean “equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”. These values are already covered in further details in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution.
· “Equal opportunity”, less a moral value than a political belief because it affects the functioning of government rather than the actions of individuals.
Canadian values are not a Conservative or even a Liberal idea even though we owe our charter to former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The term “Canadian values” is not widely used, yet the values are widely accepted by Canadians and even enshrined in our constitution.
On this basis, Leitch’s proposal should not be controversial, but it has become a lightning rod because there is the suspicion that it targets Muslims.
Are Canadian Values Islamophobic?
If Canadian values are seen to be hostile to Islam, it is because they are, at least when it comes to Islam as practised today by the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries. Those countries have no democratic freedoms, lesser rights for women and some ethnic groups, limited freedom of religion, and limited legal rights for non-citizens.
Islam is often used as justification for terrorism and other forms of violence in many parts of the world.
It is natural to be concerned about whether Muslims who come to Canada will negatively affect our values in the long term by adopting some of the same practices used in their countries of origin. This fear exists among much of the population of the Western world, including Canada, yet few mainstream politicians dare raise it or, even less, propose solutions.
Although Leitch does not state it, it is clear that her proposal is a way of addressing the fear of Islam. Her refusal to make the connection may be an attempt to avoid being labelled anti-Muslim. Leitch insists that her proposal is not anti-Muslim, and she is correct. Leitch is addressing legitimate fears of Islam in a positive way, by promoting Canadian values, which are consistent with the values of many individual Muslims, and not in a negative way, which would be to single out Islam as U.S. President Donald Trump has done through his recent executive order.
Our charter contradicts some of the widely practised Muslim principles, but it also contradicts some Christian and Jewish principles. For example, some Christian and Jewish denominations do not support gender equality.
If our Charter, and by extension our Canadian values, were anti-Muslim then they would also have to be considered anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, which is not the case. The Canadian Charter explicitly protects freedom of religion, while it expects Canadians to abide by our Canadian values. This is a recognition that individuals can think for themselves and can believe in a faith without blindly applying each of its stated principles.
Highly Desirable Policy
In this light, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Pierre Trudeau’s son, should be even moral vocal than Leitch in promoting Canadian values, but instead, he is choosing to support a motion that condemns “Islamophobia”. Muslims and all other minorities must be protected against discrimination and violence, but politicians are hypocritical when they pretend that Islam is not a legitimate concern for many Canadians.
Canadian values should be a source of pride, not a source of partisan debate. If newcomers to Canada can be screened to protect our values, such a policy should be welcomed by everyone, including by Muslims who are here to escape the tyrannical regimes of their countries of origin.
Leitch’s proposal is still at a very early stage, and there are valid questions on how it would be implemented to avoid discrimination on the basis of religion. It is on such practical aspects that the debate should center. It may turn out that her proposal is not feasible, but it does not necessarily follow that this is a needless debate.
Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton
I believe it is fair to say that since 9-11, Islamophobia has been on the rise in North America. With the rise of ISIL and attacks in this country and other nations, terrorist movements have given rise to a greater distrust of all refugees and immigrants, most of whom are Muslims fleeing the violence in the Middle East and North Africa.
As an immigrant myself, perhaps I feel the impact of this trend more than my fellow Canadians whose journey to this country may have been many generations in the past. As I watch the news, and particularly the fledgling and, to a degree, struggling administration of U.S. President Donald Trump I am growing even more troubled.
Trump’s recent Executive Order banning Muslim refugees or travel to the U.S. from a select list of seven countries has run afoul of the nation’s constitution and its courts. But as Trump searches for a new way to achieve what his executive order has failed to do, I believe there will be long-term consequences. I believe Trump’s actions will encourage otherwise constrained and silent movements within the U.S. and in countries around the globe who have long wished for a legitimate platform to express their racist or xenophobic views in the hope that these views become the policy of their governments.
Meanwhile, here in Canada, we have two recent, troubling incidents that illustrate a very different response from our government. First of all, this past weekend in Toronto, anti-Semitic notes were found on the doors of several units at a Willowdale condo building in Toronto. In addition, notes with the statement “No Jews” were found on the front doors of several Jewish residences in a building on Beecroft Road, close to the Yonge Street and Park Home Avenue area.
Some of the notes contained anti-Semitic slurs and some neighbours reported that their mezuzahs – blessings traditionally posted on the doorways of Jewish homes – had been vandalized. Mayor John Tory condemned the hate-motivated vandalism and said those actions do not reflect the city's spirit. “Anti-Semitism has no place in Toronto."
This comes after the recent tragic murder of six Muslims at prayer in a Quebec City Mosque. Our government’s response to this tragedy was to debate Motion 103 in the Canadian Parliament. Introduced by MP Iqra Khalid, the motion asked MPs to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.”
Locally, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie is strongly supporting Mississauga-Erin Mills MP Khalid in her push to end systemic racism in Canada. Mayor Crombie also said “Eliminating systemic racism, religious discrimination and Islamophobia is a national call to action. No one should ever have to think twice about calling Canada home.”
Substance, not symbolism
While I feel this a well-meant act in the face of unspeakable violence and tragedy, racism affects a broad spectrum of people and it is short-sighted of our government to single out Islamophobia in their motion. Racism is in itself an act of violence and the murder in that Quebec City Mosque is that racist violence made manifest. It is an act of extreme cowardice, and an insult to God.
Our government should condemn all racism equally, and with total conviction. Symbolic acts like Motion 103 should be backed up with a new, comprehensive review of the legislation and enforcement powers that can give meaning and force to such well-intended symbolic gestures.
I know from personal experience the sting of distrust, disrespect, and prejudice that racism inflicts on those who are new, or different, or who worship in a different way. Racists ignore the reality that you cannot judge a race or a religion, but that if we are judged at all, it is based on our own behavior, our own actions.
President Trump’s anti Muslim, anti-immigration and refugee rhetoric may not, in itself, lead to the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia, but the fact that a sitting President has stoked such sentiments should be reason for great concern for us all. The response of our Canadian government should be one of substance, not symbol.
by Jooneed Jeeroburkhan in Montreal
The cold-blooded shooting of six Muslims following evening prayers on Jan 29 at a Québec City mosque has, predictably, amplified the acrimonious debate over racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia in Quebec – as the suspect, who also injured a dozen others, is a 27-year-old white Québécois university student.
Calls for an Inquiry Commission on “Systemic Racism in Québec” quickly redoubled and political leaders, responding only piecemeal, did not hesitate to label the mass killing an “act of terrorism” – although “terrorism” is not among the six counts of murder the Québec City police have charged Alexandre Bissonnette with.
Never to miss an opportunity, militant secularists, including Muslim ones, chimed in, accusing political leaders, from Quebec’s Philippe Couillard to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, of “Islamizing Canadian Democracy” – while progressive secularists, Québécois mainly, complained some people were heaping collective guilt on all Québécois for the crime of one individual – a role reversal since all Muslims are usually held responsible for each and every terrorist act committed by Takfiris/Salafis, ISIL/Daesh, Al Qaeda…
Skewed against immigrants
And, as usual, familiar noises came from the English North American media about Quebec being “more racist” than the rest of Canada – and the Quebec National Assembly unanimously condemned a Washington Post article, penned by Vancouver-based J.J. McCullough, saying exactly that, adding Quebec’s “history of anti-Semitism” and “religious bigotry” leads to “more massacres” like this one.
The motion was moved by the opposition Parti Québécois, the party whose ethno-centrist “Charter of Values” bill died on the order paper as the PQ was resoundingly defeated by the Liberals (41% to 25%) in the 2014 elections. The Bloc Québécois proposed a similar motion in Ottawa denouncing the newspaper article as “hateful”, but the House of Commons refused to debate it.
As everywhere else throughout the hegemonic, and increasingly isolationist, West, the playing field, and the rules, remain heavily skewed against immigrants, refugees and all minority communities, yet the ruling communities paint themselves more and more as victims. And this trend has become noticeable in Quebec too in the wake of the Jan 29 shooting.
Re-igniting "reasonable accommodation"
To be fair, a huge mass of Québécois remain committed to an open and plural society, welcoming of diversity and militant in solidarity, as tens of thousands made it clear by attending a public meeting next to a mosque, and in snow and deep sub-zero temperature on Jan 31, in the heavily immigrant neighbourhood of Park Extension in Montreal, home of our very own Little South Asia.
Heart-warming as this demonstration was, it is highly unlikely that the discourse resulting from the Québec City shooting will help in putting to rest the old debate over “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec. If anything, it has re-ignited it. And police and media secrecy and selective leaks have only fed suspicion and distrust.
In the early hours following the massacre, media reports quoting informed sources, even witnesses, suggested there were two masked gunmen, and they shouted the Muslim cry of “Allah o Akbar”. The first-named suspect was a Muslim from Morocco, and stories suggested it may have been a settling of accounts between two neighbouring mosques of rival denominations.
The police then announced the Muslim man was “only a witness” and that the prime suspect was Alexandre Bissonnette – who apparently called police himself and gave himself up on the bridge linking Québec City to Orléans Island. The media then posted the photo of a suited and clean-cut boyish looking Bissonnette – who we were told was known in local social media circles as a pro-Fascist, anti-Feminist, anti-Immigrant, Islamophobic admirer of US President Donald Trump. But the police remains silent – and the media has stopped digging.
Appearing Feb 6 before the Senate committee on national security, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson refused to give details of the inquiry into the Québec City shooting. He instead voiced concern that the “caustic tone” of “political discourse” in Canada may contribute to “radicalize criminal extremists”. For its part, CSIS has warned of the recent development “of a Canadian online anti-Islam movement, similar to ones in Europe.”
As in the US and Europe, Quebec and Canada are in the throes of a major global re-balancing of power, marked by a decline of century-old global Western hegemony. The rise of xenophobia, particularly Islamophobia, and of right-wing populism and fascism, is a by-product of this momentous crisis – and the Québec City shooting, like the election of Donald Trump to the White House and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, are its symptoms.
The trials and traumas are bound to get worse before they get better.
Jooneed Jeeroburkhan, 70, is a journalist, writer, human rights activist, feminist and grandfather living in Montreal. He came to study in Canada, on a Commonwealth scholarship, 50 years ago from Mauritius. He retired from the Montreal daily La Presse in 2009 after 35 years as a reporter and analyst on international affairs, visiting some 60 countries in the process. He published a book of essays, in French, on his native country, in 2010, titled Un autre Maurice est possible (Another Mauritius is Possible).
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Commentary by Phil Gurski
Commentary by Tasha Kheiriddin
Most of Islam’s leaders present their faith as one of peace. That, unfortunately, is not how a majority of Ontarians see it these days.
According to a study commissioned by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), “only a third of Ontarians have a positive impression of the religion and more than half feel its mainstream doctrines promote violence (an anomaly compared to other religions).” Of Canada’s six major religions, Islam is the one most likely to be viewed by respondents as an incubator of violence. The report concludes that “there is an epidemic of Islamophobia in Ontario.”
There is, of course, also an epidemic of radical Islamist terrorism in the world, playing out nightly on the video screens and smartphones of the globe. Just this weekend ISIS slaughtered 200 people in a Baghdad market. According to Le Monde, in the first eighteen months after it established its “caliphate” in 2014, the terror group killed 1,600 people in 83 terror attacks and hostage events in 20 countries. And whatever the Orlando shooter’s true motivations, he claimed to have killed fifty people at a gay nightclub in ISIS’ name.
Many religious Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia, oppress their own people, particularly women, in the name of Islam. They mete out violent punishments for “crimes” such as adultery, blasphemy, pursuing same-sex relationships and criticizing the government, punishments which include lashes and death by stoning. When the Saudi government attempts to justify these punishments as consistent with or Muslim religious law, it doesn’t make Islam look like a faith that likes to turn the other cheek.
Asking the average person to ignore this — to completely separate violence practiced in a religion’s name from the religion itself — is a tall order. While it’s true that the vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with ISIS, abhor its practices and are far more likely to be its victims than its accomplices, the fact remains that its atrocities cause the Muslim faith to be viewed with suspicion and fear.
And as long as countries like Saudi Arabia continue to follow a form of religious law that runs completely counter to Western values of equality, freedom and minority rights, Islam will have a hard time being seen as a religion of peace.
Islam isn’t the first faith to be linked to violence, of course. The Crusades saw Christians and Muslims wage war in the Holy Land from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The Catholic Inquisition saw thousands of Jews expelled from Spain and thousands of other “unbelievers”, including Muslims, tortured and killed. In 19th and 20th century Canada, up to 6,000 First Nations children died in residential schools run by Christian priests and nuns; countless others were abused. Between 1969 and 2002, 5,000 people died in Northern Ireland due to sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. In 1985, Sikh terrorists bombed Air India Flight 182 out of the sky, killing 329 passengers. Religious violence in India between Hindus and Muslims continues to claim nearly a hundred lives a year.
And as with many ‘religious’ movements, many of ISIS’ motivations are rooted not in faith — or even in a perversion of faith — but in power, money and territorial control. In war-torn regions where legitimate employment is hard (or impossible) to come by, many recruits join the organization purely for the income. Nevertheless, at the root of ISIS lies a fundamentalist, extremist version of Islam. Here’s how writer Graeme Wood described it in his fascinating, in-depth profile of the terror group for The Atlantic last year:
“Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.”
Until ISIS is defeated, Islam will continue to be viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Until Islamic governments treat women, minorities and LGBT individuals as equals, the faith will be seen as discriminatory and out of sync with Western values.
And all the public education campaigns in the world, such as those currently playing out across Toronto, won’t change the fact that fundamentalist practitioners of Islam maintain a worldview very different not only from those held by non-Muslims, but from those held by moderate Muslims as well.
As with any extremist religion-based movement, it’s the latter group that holds the key to transforming the faith and the way it is perceived. Moderate Muslims need to speak out against extremism, from the mosque to Main Street. Otherwise, radicals and their actions will continue to feed the fires of prejudice, help elect Donald Trump to the White House, and undermine the very principles of tolerance and equality which Western countries — including the millions of Muslims who call them home — hold dear.
Published under arrangement with ipolitics.ca
Commentary by Shenaz Kermalli in Toronto
Followers of Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda may never admit it, but the election victory of Sadiq Khan as mayor of a city as great — and in their eyes Islamophobic — as London was a slap in the face.
Like the time Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would welcome one million Syrian refugees, and when the Pope called on Europe’s Catholics to open their homes to refugees, Islamists are at risk of losing all credibility.
The success of these extremists, after all, thrives on disproportionate military reprisals, sectarian discord, and deeply engrained Islamophobia in Western societies. So the mere thought of a Muslim winning (Khan was born to parents who immigrated to London from Pakistan) over the most hearts and minds of a non-Muslim population, or of Christian ‘infidels’ opening up their homes to Muslims, challenges their narrative.
It’s worth recalling that a big part of ISIS’s recruitment strategy is posting lectures and videos online with ideologues dictating that killing the enemies of Islam— meaning the United States and its allies — is a religious duty for every Muslim. Often, they cite U.S. military action in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel as evidence of America’s strategic ‘war’ with Islam. They also play on the insecurities of young recruits by telling them that Muslims in the West would never be accepted into mainstream society.
And given the rise of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – and increase of far-right parties coming to power across Europe — it’s not impossible to see how vulnerable, disaffected youth could fall into that sort of warped mindset.
2005 London bombings
But while Trump anti-Muslim rhetoric has never been louder, so too have the voices of ordinary Muslims, though not necessarily in the way one might expect.
Many Canadians will remember the anger, confusion and backlash that Muslims, South Asians — literally anyone who even remotely resembled a Muslim or Arab -- faced from their own friends, neighbours or colleagues after the September 11, 2001 attacks in America. A deep climate of mistrust against the community ensued, which for some only gets worse with every new terror attack on Western soil.
I recall that it was amid this climate that Sadiq Khan first entered the political scene in Britain as an elected MP for Tooting in east London.
As a graduate student in London in 2005, the year four British-born Muslims bombed the London Underground, I heard pundits all wanting to know the same thing: Where are all the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims? Why aren’t all the so-called peace-loving Muslims living in London condemning these barbaric attacks?
I also heard voices like Sadiq Khan and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (then the Vice Chair of the Conservative Party) fiercely condemn the attacks and disassociate them with the actual tenets of the faith, to no avail. As much as people demanded answers from the Muslim community— and Muslims responded in the same unequivocal voice of condemnation every time – it made no difference. The terrorists still seemed to be louder.
11 years on
What’s changed, 11 years on? Some would argue nothing.
Terrorists continue to slaughter innocents and billionaire conservative politicians continue to incriminate an entire global community for the abhorrent actions of a few. What has changed in the most profound sense is that Muslims are no longer seen (or at least solely) as a fifth column.
The voice of the ordinary, ‘moderate’ Muslim is heard more than ever — not as spokespeople who can denounce the ways terrorists justify their acts through the Quran — but as engaged citizens and leaders paving the way forward in a world that we all want to become more inclusive and tolerant.
Last year, we saw Canadian Muslims unite strategically for the first time in a non-partisan, grassroots organization to achieve a single goal: Increasing the participation of Canadian Muslims within the democratic process.
This, along with the opposition’s crude anti-Muslim strategy not unlike Zac Goldsmith, Sadiq Khan’s competitor from the UK Conservative Party, played a key role in bringing Justin Trudeau’s pro-immigration party to power.
Drop ‘Muslim’ descriptor
We’ve also seen Maryam Monsef, who came to Canada an as Afghan refugee, sworn in as Minister of Democratic Institutions in Trudeau’s cabinet, and Ginella Massa, a hijab-clad journalist, become an on-camera reporter for Toronto news network CityTV.
Britons, too, have seen a rise in British Muslims taking centre stage, from national baking contests to professional sports.
None of these people ever condemned the abhorrent actions of the so-called Islamic State during their moments in the spotlight, simply because it wasn’t their place. They are all skilled professionals or athletes in their own right, recognized as Muslims, but celebrated for their extraordinary skills that contribute to all of society.
That’s the way it should be.
Muslims are no different from anyone else, and for that reason, their successes should be commended no more, nor less than anyone else’s. Perhaps, the next step in fostering genuine equity in society is for news outlets to drop the ‘Muslim’ reference altogether.
Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and journalism instructor at Humber College. She holds an MA Middle Eastern Studies and has previously worked at BBC News in London, Al Jazeera English and CBC News.
by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver, British Columbia
Identity determines how we value ourselves and how others perceive us. Its significance has increased with globalization, migration and technological advancements. Many people today consider themselves to have multiple identities, while others are happy with a single identifier.
In The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self, a book edited by Nurjehan Aziz, 12 authors grapple with the idea of Islamic identity in Canada.
Panel discussions on the book have been held throughout Canada, including in Vancouver.
The book documents the everyday lives of several Canadian Muslims. Some authors write about their own experiences, others about the Muslim community in Canada. Some essays are written in an academic style, while others are personal narratives.
Islam in post-Harper Canada
Almost every chapter criticizes the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for “targeting” or “scapegoating” Muslims for political gain.
Haroon Siddiqui’s chapter, “Anti-Muslim Bigotry Goes Official — Canada’s Newest Dark Chapter,” deals with the experiences of Muslims under the Harper government.
He presents a list of what he calls “Islamophobic” actions, speeches, policies or legislation undertaken by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, immigration ministers Chris Alexander and Jason Kenney, and other Conservative members of Parliament and senators.
Authors debate Muslim identity
In some instances, one author in the book responds to the concerns or questions raised by another. Safia Fazlul says she “lives on the fringe of being ‘somewhat liberal Canadian’ and ‘somewhat conservative Muslim South Asian.’”
Her inability and unwillingness to live strictly in one category led her to be discriminated against and excluded by “both liberal and secular Canadians and traditional Muslim Canadians.” People do not accept her even though she is comfortable with her multiple identities.
Ameen Merchant, on the other hand, raises a valid point about subjectivity and somewhat ignores the opinions of others about his relationship with Islam.
“My sense of Muslim identity may not be another’s definition of what a Muslim ought to be and it also may not be in line with scripture and sacred text,” he writes. "Then again, my subjectivity is also not anyone else’s. It is multifarious absorbent, and always subject to change. And it is my own.”
Mohamed Abualy Alibhai’s suggestion that Muslims in North America “abandon the belief in the verbal revelation of the Qur'an,” mirrors arguments raised by activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, mainly that the literal understanding of the Qur'an must be “reformed or discarded.”
Furthermore, Alibhai advocates for a conscience-based Islamic denomination, as if it does not exist. However, a look at Karim H. Karim’s chapter illustrates how Aga Khan, the Imam or spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, has been doing what Alibhai argues is needed.
“The Islamic leader presents the concepts of ethics, democracy, development, meritocracy, pluralism and quality of life as some of the ‘brides that unite’ ways of understanding that are religious and secular,” writes Karim about Aga Khan.
The Ismaili leader’s ideas of the Qur'an underlie his discourse, but he rarely makes overt religious references in his speeches.
At the same time, Alibhai is dismissive of Muslim reformist thinkers who reinterpret the Islamic texts to accommodate the realities of modern life. Monia Mazigh’s chapter, for example, illustrates how Islamic discourses can be invoked to disprove the notion of men’s perceived superiority over women.
Interpreting modern Islam
There are different ways to convince different people of the same issue. You can argue that robbery is socially unacceptable, morally reprehensible, illegal, or against your religion. Each one of those arguments is valid depending on the audience. The argument based on religion is more appealing to a religious person.
In the same vein, we need Muslim reformist thinkers to use Islam to fight against radical interpretations of the religion.
Some of the authors identify as “inconsistent Muslim” or “cultural Muslim,” however, we do not see a representation from an “observant Muslim” – those who may imprecisely be called conservative or traditional Muslims.
These are the proud Canadian Muslims who follow all Islamic laws and traditions and believe that they can also be civically engaged Canadians.
Furthermore, three of the authors are of Arab origin and the rest are South Asian. The Muslim community in Canada is much more diverse and the overwhelming majority of them are not represented in this book.
Overall, Aziz’s book is a success as it represents a segment of an underrepresented group of Canadian citizens: Muslims who are spoken, about but rarely given the chance to speak for themselves.
Alireza Ahmadian is a Vancouver-based writer and researcher. He has a Masters of Arts in International Affairs and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian to discuss world affairs and is published on online forums such as New Canadian Media, BBC, and foreign policy blogs.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver
Five months after Harper’s Conservatives made a pre-elections pledge to establish a controversial "barbaric cultural practices" tip line, a group of lawyers and legal organizations in Vancouver have launched a different kind of phone line — a hotline offering free legal advice for victims of Islamophobia.
“The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is a free and confidential number that people who experience Islamophobia, or hate crimes related to Islamophobia — whether you’re Muslim or perceived to be Muslim — can call,” explains lawyer and activist Hasan Alam.
The concept for the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, launched on March 9, emerged from what a group of local lawyers observed as a “significant increase” in Islamophobia in Canada.
Alam defined Islamophobia as, “the fear of and hatred toward Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslim.”
“Especially under the Harper government,” says Alam, “we noticed that there was very specific fear mongering happening, that utilized Islamophobia to justify Harper’s policies, such as Bill C-51, and all of that translated into an increase in hate crimes.”
In response to a question on the anti-terrorism legislation, Harper implied last fall there was an opportunity for radicalization in mosques: "It doesn't matter what the age of the person is, or whether they're in a basement, or whether they're in a mosque or somewhere else."
The statement was followed by an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric leading up to the elections, with the niqab being lauded by the former Prime Minister as a primary concern in relation to gender equality and Canadian values.
Rise in incidences of violence
The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a human rights and civil liberties advocacy group that endorsed the project, has been tracking anti-Muslim incidents across Canada since 2013. They have recorded a rise in alleged incidents corresponding to events where Muslims have been portrayed negatively in the media.
Vancouver-based lawyer and chair of NCCM’s Board of Directors, Kashif Ahmed, spoke to the significance of this new resource in B.C.: “We had 61 anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2015, and already had 12 reported in 2016.”
Ahmed identified a number of different forms of Islamophobia-related hate crimes, including “cases of people who are being assaulted on the street, victimized in their workplace and denied promotions, verbally abused, verbally harassed, mosques being vandalized, cases of schools not providing anti-bullying services to Muslim students or allowing bullying to continue, or even teachers being the ones doing the bullying.”
The hotline is operated by Access Pro Bono, an organization committed to providing “access to justice” in BC for individuals and non-profits unable to afford legal fees. Their volunteers are currently able to assist callers in seven different languages — English, French, Farsi, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, Punjabi, and Urdu.
“In a lot of instances people who experience Islamophobia are new immigrants, they don’t speak much English, they don’t know where to turn to for legal advice, or help in general, and they’re scared to turn to law enforcement agencies a lot of the time because of their precarious legal status,” says Alam.
Personal experiences of Islamophobia
Alam has a personal investment in the initiative, as a Muslim and a lawyer who has actively advocated against Islamophobia.
“I get calls from people, a lot, saying that they have experienced Islamophobia, and that they need help. Oftentimes, I myself can’t help them. I don’t have the area of expertise in that specific instance that I can give them legal advice,” he explains.
Alam spoke to the first time he experienced Islamophobia himself.
“I remember being the president of my Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Simon Fraser University, and getting a call from a government agency, who left a message for us at the interfaith centre.”
The message was from a woman requesting to meet with him, “to better understand the needs of your community.”
Eager to discuss the needs of the MSA, Alam agreed to meet the woman at a Starbucks. After he arrived, shook her hand, and allowed her to buy him a coffee, the woman revealed that she was a Canadian Security Intelligent Services (CSIS) agent who had questions about the activities of the MSA and his community.
Although the questions were not targeting him personally, Alam expresses, “For me, that was Islamophobia, and it was coming from the government. Why was I subjected to being interrogated by CSIS agents, simply on the basis that I was a Muslim and involved with a Muslim student group?”
Usefulness in lobbying efforts
Alam explained that another important element of the project is the recording of Islamophobic hate crimes.
“Being able to use that information to better advocate to government, and to lobby government to do more about Islamophobia and racism in general [. . .] and pushing the government to do more about that, and more advocacy, and having people’s voices heard is something that is really important for me.”
Alam hopes the Islamophobia hotline will send out a clear message to those who perpetuate Islamophobia that there are repercussions for their actions, while at the same time making those who appear to be Muslim feel safe.
“I think we’re still living in a fairytale world, thinking ‘this is Canada, not the United States, these things doesn’t happen here,’ and I think a big part of this is recognizing that Islamophobia and racism are real," he says.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit