New Canadian Media

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary

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. 

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

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 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni.”

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 

Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.”

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.


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

A row over the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia is deepening sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

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Published in Arab World
Tuesday, 07 October 2014 09:55

Military Response Will Enhance ISIS's Lure

by Firas Al-Atraqchi (@Firas_Atraqchi) in Cairo, Egypt

Canada has not thoroughly addressed all aspects and ramifications of its proposed contribution to the U.S.-led coalition to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The current debate raging in Parliament and in newspaper columns is healthy for the country and provides an opportunity for different voices to examine different avenues to deal with the ISIS threat.

However, there are crucial questions that have either been inadequately addressed or have never been raised.

The first involves ISIS's origins.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not only completed the process of deconstruction initiated by the sanctions, but led to a gradual decentralization of power, which helped to foment sectarian and ethnic divisions that would quickly take root and threaten the country’s sovereignty and unity.

Both the Baghdad government and its U.S. backers should have learned a valuable lesson that only inclusive politics could defeat sectarian and extremist ideologies.

The first decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Paul Bremer was to disband the Iraqi military – a costly and deadly mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men were now left with no jobs, no pay and no prospects. With Iraq’s national institutions – such as the military – crumbling or being voided, these men dissolved back into their ethnic constituencies. In the years to come they would prove to be fertile recruiting ground for the militias and extremist groups that ran rampant in Iraq.

It was as if administration of Iraq, first by the U.S. military and CPA and later by Baghdad governments, was based on a how-to list published in an Extremist Militias for Dummies handbook.

Economic, political and military disenfranchisement pushed Iraq very close to a full-out civil war in 2006 as extremist militias, including ISIS's precursors, committed waves of atrocities and murder.

Both the Baghdad government and its U.S. backers should have learned a valuable lesson that only inclusive politics could defeat sectarian and extremist ideologies.

Rise of ISIS

Unfortunately, this was a lesson lost: Between 2010 and 2014, former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki appropriated control of ministries based on sectarian affiliations and political loyalties.

The Iraqi army remains largely sectarian, and Sunni Sahwa militias, which were credited by U.S. commanders as having played a pivotal role in stabilizing the country, were discouraged and barred from joining national security forces.

It was during this political jockeying that ISIS – then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – started to mobilize. Believed to have been an Al-Qaeda affiliate originating in Anbar Province, the group moved to the Nineveh province in 2007 and began a campaign of attacks, intimidation and fear.

Sunni frustrations were slowly growing and eventually culminated in ISIS’s routing of the Iraqi military and expanding control over western and northern Iraq this summer.

Canadian debate

The Canadian debate must at this point acknowledge that former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was entirely right to stay out of the 2003 war which created this quagmire to begin with.

Despite repeatedly being told that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world (based on manipulated intelligence and bogus Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMD claims), Chretien and his government believed a military solution was the wrong one.

Today, Canadians are being told that ISIS is a threat to the world and their security.

Let us agree once and for all that ISIS is the most ruthless, merciless, uncompromising extremist group to ever emerge in the Middle East. Unlike Al-Qaeda, their strategy focuses on consolidating territory under their control and constructing an Islamist state, with an administration, court system and economic policy.

The Canadian debate must at this point acknowledge that former Prime Minister Jean Chretien was entirely right to stay out of the 2003 war which created this quagmire to begin with.

They have brutally killed Shia and Sunni alike in both Iraq and Syria, as well as persecuted and murdered minority Christians, Yazidis and any group they can easily label as "apostate". Even former Iraqi resistance fighters have not been spared.

ISIS commands fighters from Bosnia, Chechnya, Libya, Afghanistan and a host of other countries considered Western allies; their numbers are growing – as thousands of politically disenfranchised flock to their ranks.

If unchecked, they will continue to grow, slowly making a mockery of one Arab military after another; they are an acknowledged threat to Muslim and Arab countries. 

That perhaps explains why Arab countries that had previously provided support to ISIS and other Islamist militant groups to overthrow the regime of Syria's Bashar Al Assad have now awakened to the fact they cannot control the beast they helped create.

Déjà vu

It's Afghanistan all over again; Western-backed mujahideen morphing into Western-opposed Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

And just like in Afghanistan, battle-hardened jihadists will return home one day -- the question then becomes whether they will turn on their home societies and attempt to create Islamist states there?

In the 1990's (and some argue well into 2014), Egypt fought its war with ideological and militant jihadists returning from Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Could Canada face such a challenge? It is not improbable. But Muslims in Canada would probably be the first to stand up to returning jihadists, much as mainstream clerics in the Middle East have condemned ISIS's ideology and practices, and forbade young men and women from joining them.

The examination of ISIS's rise to power leads us to the second question that has not been addressed in this passionate debate: What happens once ISIS is defeated and destroyed?

(Did anyone ask what happens in Iraq after Saddam Hussein is removed from power?)

Iraq is in a state of disrepair and needs international scrutiny and efforts to set it on the right course.

But Muslims in Canada would probably be the first to stand up to returning jihadists ...

Any military consideration to deal with ISIS must be in parallel with a focused and persistent political dimension that ensures a post-ISIS Iraqi government is inclusive of all sects and denominations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has hinted that Washington will pressure Baghdad to reverse the course of the past eight years and make concerted effort to bring Sunnis into the fold.

But hints and 'ahems' are simply not enough.

Staying out

Yes, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is right to call for humanitarian assistance in Iraq and Syria, but that, too, falls short.

Iraqis and Syrians don't want to be given Happy Meals, refreshing toiletries and tents to inhabit in the desert. They want to go home and live in their neighborhoods safe and secure without the fear of a sectarian militia towering over them swords and Kalashnikovs in hand.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) came closest to highlighting the crux of the ISIS issue when Tom Mulcair said that Canada should use “every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource” to respond to the human tragedy unfolding on the ground, and “strengthen political institutions in Iraq and Syria”.

Events this past weekend should serve notice to those seeking to rush Canada into a war it cannot win militarily. On Monday, ISIS fighters in Syria continued their sweep of Kurdish villages in northeastern Syria by gaining control of most of the town of Kobani near the Turkish border. Kurds in Syria say coalition air strikes have not worked. A week earlier, ISIS seized control of 60 Kurdish villages forcing nearly 160,000 people to flee to Turkey.

In Iraq, local authorities in the city of Hit in the western Anbar province said that at least 18 civilians were killed and many injured in U.S. air strikes targeting ISIS positions.

A few days earlier, U.S. Apache helicopters were used in combat operations against ISIS fighters who were reported to be nine kms. from Baghdad.

Mission creep is all too real a possibility in the weeks and months ahead. With every errant missile that kills Iraqi and Syrian civilians, ISIS gains sympathy and fresh recruits.

Chretien's decision to stay out of the last coalition reaped Canada considerable global dividends.

“The dark clouds of terror are gathering in Iraq and Syria, threatening to strike their thunder from India to Spain,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told parliament on Monday.

“We must not let this storm descend on Canada, and we know that it will if left unchecked," he said of Ottawa's mission in Iraq and Syria.

Stopping ISIS is not in debate here; the issue is how.

Chretien's decision to stay out of the last coalition reaped Canada considerable global dividends.

Canada's mission must, therefore, build on these dividends and carry an equally powerful diplomatic and political component. No military strategy will ever resolve the crisis in Iraq. The more militant the response the greater ISIS's lure becomes.

Firas is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. In April 2010, he left Al Jazeera's English-language website, where he worked as a senior editor since 2004. In September 2010, he joined the American University of Cairo as an associate professor of practice at the Journalism and Mass Communication department. He is a member of New Canadian Media's Editorial Board.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

By

Opposition parties are accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper of snubbing them for an event in Toronto Friday meant to mark the visit of Shia Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader the Aga Khan.

The controversy comes one day after the NDP and Liberals criticized Harper for refusing to include them in Canada’s official delegation to Ukraine this week.

“We’ve got to learn to work together,” said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.

But the NDP and Liberals were not invited to an event with the Aga Khan at Toronto’s Massey Hall Friday. According to the Canadian Press, at least two Conservative cabinet ministers and one senator are on the guest list.

“The Aga Khan is a model for working together and reaching out to other people, so it’s a shame that for that event tomorrow in Toronto no one else seems to have been invited,” said Mulcair.

Liberal Foreign Affairs critic said the government’s decision to not invite opposition members is “highly-partisan.”

Harper’s Director of Communications Jason MacDonald said that both opposition leaders were invited to join the prime minister for a meeting with the Aga Khan before he addressed the Commons Thursday.

“The event in Toronto will be an opportunity for thousands of Ismailis and non-Ismailis to hear His Highness speak,” MacDonald said in an email to the Canadian Press. “Invitations were extended to thousands of people from the community, as well as senior executives from the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Quebecor Media, Postmedia, and other media organizations _ to say nothing of CEOs and charitable sector leaders.”

Speaking to a packed House of Commons Thursday, the Aga Khan called on the world to pay more attention to civil society groups who are demanding more from their governments.

The spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims highlighted the fact that 37 countries have adopted new constitutions over the past decade and that 12 are at an “advanced phase” of modernizing their constitutions.

“This movement involves a quarter of the UN member states. Out of that 49, 25 per cent have a Muslim majority,” said His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan and 49th Imam of Nizari Ismailism. “This shows that there is no turning back from the demand by civil societies for new constitutional structures.”

He pointed to the recent constitutional changes in Tunisia as a success story for civil society, calling the new constitution “the outcome of a responsible pluralist debate.”

Three years after a massive internal uprising that is widely thought to have inspired the Arab Spring, Tunisia’s government signed a new constitution in January. The new constitution does a number of new things including guarantee equal rights for women and men, divide executive power between the prime minister and the president, and require the state to deal with corruption.

The Aga Khan said the world needs to pay more attention to the potential role of civil society groups, especially in places such as Subsaharan Africa, Egypt, Iran and Bangladesh.

“There are too many societies where too many people live in a culture of fear, condemned to a life of poverty. Addressing that fear and replacing it with hope will be a major step to the elimination of poverty. And often the call for hope to replace fear will come from the voices of civil society,” he said.

While there is no indication the Aga Khan picked his words with any intent of allusions, his choice of phrase bore striking resemblance to a well known sentence of late NDP leader Jack Layton. The Aga Khan’s repeated references to “fear” and “hope” echoed the most referenced quote from Layton’s final letter to Canadians.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world,” wrote Layton in August 2011 shortly before his death.

The Aga Khan said Canada can help civil society by continuing to support three key underpinnings: a commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy, and to a “cosmopolitan ethic.” In order to empower civil society, he said the rise of religious hostility and intolerance must also be addressed, citing threats in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar and the Philippines.

He also expressed concern about the growing tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world. He said the the failure of non-Muslim states to communicate with both Sunni and Shia is like ignoring the difference between Catholics and Protestants during the civil war in Northern Ireland.

“What would have been the consequences if the Protestant-Catholic struggle in Ireland had spread throughout the Christian world, as is happening today between Shia and Sunni Muslims in more than nine countries?” he said. “It is of the highest priorities that these dangerous trends be well understood and resisted.”

The Ismaili spiritual leader emphasized his fondness for Canada’s pluralist values during his more than 40-minute speech to Parliament. He praised the work of the Global Centre for Pluralism, an Ottawa-based education and research centre jointly funded by the government of Canada and himself. He also recognized the work of Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom, which was established about a year ago, saying its contributions will be “warmly welcomed.”

According to the Aga Khan, Thursday marked the first time in 75 years that a spiritual leader addressed both the Senate and House of Commons as part of an official visit. The Aga Khan was introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who referred to him as a “great friend and partner of Canada.” He and Harper later signed a Protocol of Understanding, committing to regular, high-level consultations on a variety of global and regional issues.

Canada is home to about 100,000 Shia Ismaili Muslims. In his introduction of the Aga Khan, Harper said the Ismaili population in Canada, which originated as refugees from Uganda, has become one of Canada’s most successful immigration stories. Their leader, the Aga Khan, was granted honorary Canadian citizenship in 2010 and is a member of the Order of Canada.

With files from the Canadian Press

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michellezilio@ipolitics.ca

Re-published with permission.

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