Love and Loss in Manchuria


Earlier this month, I visited family in Northeast China for the first time since 2002. The following are some personal reflections I’d like to share.

“Between memory and reality there are awkward discrepancies, producing a solemn but subtle agitation, an intense but as yet indefinable struggle.”—Eileen Chang, Liuyan (1968)


The last image I have of my grandmother disappears somewhere down a dusty road leading out of an open-air market. She holds my hand and carries a plastic bag of groceries in the other. It’s 2002 in Shenyang, China and we’re about to say good-bye.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you next,” she says. “It’s only been these few days.”

I’d take a train the next morning with my father to Beijing and then back to Vancouver, BC where I’d lived for the past five years. My parents took me out of school for three months that year to visit extended family in Shenyang, the city of my birth. I had the time of my life.

And so parting ways at the market was like being initiated into real-life melancholy. The market’s coarseness, my grandmother’s hand and voice, the dust. Everything faded into the background.

“There’s no telling about next time,” she says.

13 years later, I’m sitting in a diner in downtown Toronto and Shenyang is a lifetime away. I’d long shelved all the discoloured memories—not deliberately, just with time.

Then my mother calls.


“Hi, erze.”

“Hi mazenmoyang?”

“I need to tell you something…Your laolao died. In her sleep.”

A long pause.


The words make their way like a gust of wind into my mind’s attic, long unvisited but left ajar. The images and memories are tucked somewhere in a dark corner, barely touched.

Then, a slow resurrection: dust flies, resolving itself into the past and landing on the same parting scene all those years ago. Same unpaved road, same market. It feels photographic, sepia-tinged with ripped edges. I feel a lump in my throat.

Another three years go by and now I’m in front of a tall, grey tombstone with my mother, father, sister, and distant relatives I’ve never met. I kneel on the cold earth as my forehead hits the ground softly three times. I feel nothing but distance.

A plot of land full of graves for my mother’s family. The dead going back 150 years in a Chinese village.

It’s winter and the dust flies.


Shenyang isn’t known for much–a heavily industrialized city of over 8 million people in China’s cold and somewhat desolate Northeast region (or dongbei). The Chinese mostly avoided it until the last imperial dynasty fell in 1912.

The region had long been associated with warring nomadic tribes known as the Manchus (thus, Manchuria). Part of the Great Wall was built to keep them out as the Ming dynasty played one tribe against another.

Then a young chieftain from the Aisin-Gioro clan named Nurhaci united old rivals and declared war on the Ming dynasty early in the 17th century. A series of astounding successes paved the way for his descendants to take the heart of China soon after his death. They ruled the empire for almost 300 years as China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912). Today they’re one of China’s 55 designated minority groups.

Their initial capital Mukden is present-day Shenyang. My father’s father moved into the area in the 1940s from Hebei province with his parents. My mother’s parents moved in from Shandong province. My own parents were born in Shenyang and grew up there in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I came along, dongbei was starting to fill up with car exhaust and lots of coal. Declining industry shaped the area into China’s “rust belt.”

I remember Shenyang mostly for the bitter cold and hickish accent. It’s where I lived for the first year of my life, in a now boarded-up housing unit with my maternal grandparents.

When I was four, my parents moved over 300km south to Dalian, a historically pivotal port city nestled between the Bo and Yellow seas, about halfway between Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea.

A highly coveted seaport, Dalian was first occupied by the Japanese in 1894, then by the Russians, and then again by the Japanese at the turn of the century. The two powers fought the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) partly for control of the city. Japan won and became the first East Asian country to beat a European power in a major confrontation, destroying most of the Russian naval fleet in the famous Battle of Tsushima (1905).

Today, all history gives way to smog and restlessness in the Northeast. A thin blanket of see-through gray and white wraps every mall, square, and building in an ersatz modernity. The land and air match today’s man-made structures as well as fancy tuxedos match ripped jeans. I fit into Dalian about as well after more than 16 years away. It’s early 2019 and the cold air smells familiar—like burnt coal.

It would’ve transported 14-year-old me into a cauldron of love and reclamation. Today, there’s not much to say. “I’ve smelled this before.”

So much time and so much change. Tall pink apartments with deliberate European designs. Giant shopping malls with next to no parking. Streets lined with hundreds of redundant restaurants. And cars. Lots and lots of cars.

This outer estrangement isn’t supposed to bring forth memories but scenes from my childhood rush forward. I can’t validate these images with what I see in front of me: the fallen places of my past. Expectations for congruence fall flat; an incomplete intimacy.

And yet, the ever-lingering task of a divided person: to live right here.


The distance between Shenyang and Dalian defined my mood as a child. Northward meant reprieve from school and time with grandparents. Southward meant the opposite. One felt like the retreating into the past. The other felt like dread.

The bullet train took just over an hour. I sat on it a few weeks ago with my family and felt nothing like I used to. We went North. The dark green hills and jagged rocks long gave way to rows of greenhouses and chimneys blowing thick white smoke. The dullness helped tie a knot in my gut.

I barely made it past the turnstile in Shenyang North Station before I heard someone call my name: “Zhou Zheng!” I raised my head and saw a woman with frizzy, jet black hair and corroding teeth. My father’s younger sister, now in her 50s.

“I’d never recognize you if I ran into you in the streets!” she said. “You look so different.”

Behind her stood my now 89-year-old grandfather. He’s hard to describe.

We shuffled into a rented van and headed to his apartment. It isn’t far from his old home, the one I often visited over 20 years ago.

The whole family lives in a campus community surrounding the Academy of Agricultural Science where my grandfather stayed for over 50 years. My mother’s family has been around for almost as long.

It always felt like the right place to return as a kid: everything would match what I remembered, the way I left it all. Everything filled with summer colours. The roads paved with warm, yellow dirt. Everything wound up next to each other, pieces of the same puzzle. But that was then.

No memories of red and yellow and green gardens could resurrect things now. No effort at tracing the walk between once-familiar destinations could induce familiarity. The dead seem to take these things into the afterlife.

Go back far enough with any Chinese family and you’ll eventually reach stories filled with chaos: war with the Japanese, civil war, land reforms, famine, the Cultural Revolution, citizen against citizen.

All the more reason to find that my jovial grandfather has become more sardonic with age. He almost lost his life in the 1970s when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing and neighbours decided to settle old scores by calling each other “counter-revolutionary.” Just an excuse to form a “revolutionary posse” to beat the person you didn’t like to a bloody pulp.

Family reunions hold few horrors after that.

Many in those years wrote “big character posters” (dazibao)—bold accusations directed at traitors to socialism, Chairman Mao, or the revolution—against enemies and plastered them in public places as a prelude to assault.

Ba, didn’t that guy from the factory next to your work used to write things about you?” asked my aunt during dinner.

My grandfather could barely walk but he didn’t miss a beat: “I wrote plenty of that shit about him too!”

That night we walked the route between my grandparents’ houses, about 10 minutes apart. It seemed so much shorter than I remember, and so much quieter.


The kid in me always returned for the perfect overlapping of what I saw and the joy it made me feel. Now the buildings and courtyards are abandoned and empty, like a post-war documentary.

The next day I walked onto a graveyard holding flowers in front of my grandmother’s tombstone—this time for my father’s mother. Then I bow three times before handing tissues to my weeping father. Another intimate moment, another one filled with distance, like watching myself from outer space.

Love from the memories along with death–death of loved ones along with how it used to feel. Intimate images obscured by years of frost. Loving and dying. Love and loss.


Coming back here is like looking into my own body, reaching deep inside and externalizing the things I carry. They feel like memories but I can hardly recognize them if you turn me inside out. The place I used to know I can no longer reach by plane. It can only be by dream.

The divided self lives or dies between memory and reality, between knowing and seeing for the first time after a long time. It’s like two barriers on either side of a deep chasm. Struggle to climb out only to find the walls stretching forever upward.

canada, Crime

Murder in Markham

After about a four-month investigation involving hundreds of pages of court documents and over 70 hours of courtroom audio (and multiple interviews), I weave together a tragic story in Toronto’s Markham area concerning the gruesome murder of a young Chinese man who wanted to get rich quick with the help of his business partners.

All thought that a partnership between friends would be easy and a breeze. They planned to flip houses in Toronto’s then very volatile and fast-paced real estate market. But soon doubt and betrayal set in and the partnership began to fray badly. The culmination is a gruesome murder that shocked even law enforcement. 

Published by Toronto Life on May 28th, 2018

PEIZHENG Qiu came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1987 in the province of Jiangsu in eastern China. His parents ran a gas station and, after some modest success, made enough money to open a small clothing factory. Business was inconsistent and often slow, but by 2008, they’d saved enough money to send their only son to live in Canada. They hoped he could make something of himself.

In China, where social mobility is limited, members of the lower middle class can only move up in the world with the help of people who can provide favours, referrals and patronage. The Chinese have a term for these social networks: guanxi. Many mainland Chinese families, including Qiu’s, believe the best way for their children to improve their social status and elevate their guanxi is to learn English, and obtain degrees from Western universities and colleges. There are more than 132,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions, making up nearly a third of foreign enrolment in the country.

When Qiu arrived in Toronto, he started a two-year ESL program, then enrolled in a two-year business accounting diploma at Centennial College. Qiu didn’t much care for his coursework, and he turned in a lack­lustre performance—he graduated with a paltry 2.04 GPA. But his parents were still sending him money each month, and he needed to find a way to stand on his own, so he wouldn’t have to rely on their largesse. He wanted to make them proud. “My father wanted me to try something on my own,” he later said. “He said to me that as a man, I needed to be trained in running my own business.” After he graduated, he used some money from his parents to open a store called I-Flooring, located in a strip mall near Woodbine and Steeles, and serving a mostly Chinese-Canadian clientele. He eventually had 10 people working under him—five full-time and five on contract.

The stress of the job wore on Qiu. He had no administrative experience, and despite his Centennial diploma, he had no idea how to run a business. Between paying his employees, covering rent and buying supplies, he was barely turning a profit. Reluctantly, he continued to depend on his parents to cover a significant portion of his monthly expenses. He got to the point where he felt waves of anxiety every time he entered his own shop. He needed to find another way to make money.

XIAO Xuan Long Yu, who went by the English name Bertram, was also seeking his fortune. A year younger than Qiu, Bertram was the son of a wealthy and prominent lawyer in Shenzhen, a major city in southeastern China, and one of the country’s biggest financial and commercial hubs. His parents had financed his immigration to Canada, putting him up in a luxury unit at the C Condos tower at Yonge and Finch. He liked to splurge on fancy cars: he drove a Ferrari 458, which sells for around $250,000, and previously owned a Maserati and BMW. Like Qiu, he was hoping to free himself from his parents’ support and make it on his own in Canada. He was smart and charming, with a strong command of English, and he probably could have landed a good job, but Bertram was ambitious. He wanted more than a steady paycheque. He wanted to run his own business.

Bertram Yu, the son of a wealthy Chinese lawyer, lived in a luxury condo and splurged on fancy cars

Bertram met Qiu at Centennial, where he too was studying business accounting. On the surface, they were polar opposites: where Qiu was modest and shy, Bertram was flashy and stylish, with side-swept bangs, thick-rimmed black glasses and an affinity for dramatic scarves. Qiu seemed to admire and resent ­Bertram’s inherited wealth, and sought to rise to the same level. By 2014, they’d decided to pool their resources and break into the one business that seemed like a sure thing in Toronto: real estate.

Qiu and Bertram believed that flipping houses would be a low-risk way to make serious money. More than six per cent of Toronto properties for sale in 2017 had been purchased less than 18 months earlier; that’s almost twice the percentage of properties that were bought by foreign investors. Flipping is particularly popular in the Chinese-Canadian community. In Richmond Hill, where nearly one-third of the population is of Chinese descent, residents successfully lobbied to ban the number 4, which sounds like the Chinese word for “death,” from street addresses back in 2013. Many Chinese home­owners believe that being stuck with the unlucky number will hurt the resale value of their properties.

The two men struck a deal: Bertram would put up the money to buy properties, while Qiu would use his construction expertise to make upgrades. Their arrangement was remarkably informal. They’d meet at Mint Karaoke and Lounge, a bar near Yonge and Steeles, not far from Bertram’s condo, where they’d drink and chat about business. There was very little paperwork spelling out what obligations each party was expected to fulfill and what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan. They were eager to make money as quickly as possible, and relied solely on mutual trust and friendship to make it happen. “The Chinese like to do things different,” Qiu later told police. “Millions can be loaned or borrowed based on a slip of paper.”

Bertram also enlisted his good friend Elson Yu to join the partnership. Elson was a seasoned businessman who’d owned and operated a men’s clothing store for six years. He and Bertram had met a few years earlier through some mutual friends. The two came from a similar social background, and both had grown up in mainland China. Elson was eager to get in on the flipping scheme. He figured that if his friend could trust Qiu, so could he.

BY early 2014, Elson and Bertram were scouting Toronto’s real estate listings, and over the next few months, they went on an investing spree, impulsively buying several large homes in North York for a some $3 million. The first property that caught their eye was 216 Harlandale Avenue, located just west of Yonge and Sheppard. It was a five-bedroom detached in a peaceful suburb, listed at $928,000. Elson knew that plenty of other people were looking at the property and decided to snatch it up on his own, forking over $300,000 for a down payment. He promised Bertram that he could still invest in the property later.

The partners bought this house at 216 Harlandale Avenue in early 2014 as their first property to flip

Peizheng Qiu sold 262 Senlac Road behind his partners’ backs, pocketing the profits

Bertram Yu bought 2 Laureleaf Road for $1.5 million in 2015. A year later, he was murdered and dismembered in the basement

Three weeks later, Elson and Bertram pooled their money to buy 262 Senlac Road, a four-bedroom detached in West ­Willowdale, only a couple of kilometres north of the Harlandale house. The sale price for this one was $752,000; Elson put up roughly two-thirds of the $150,000 down payment, while ­Bertram fronted the remainder. And two months after that, they acquired their third and most valuable property: a mansion at 2 Laureleaf Road in Thornhill, sold for $1.46 million. It was worth much more than Senlac to begin with, and the trio figured that a suite of upgrades could raise its sticker price substantially: they wanted Qiu to install new flooring and drywall, finish the basement, and add a new staircase on the main floor. The partners decided to focus on 2 Laureleaf first and use the profits to judge what to do with 262 Senlac. Based on what they made on 2 ­Laureleaf, they could decide whether to renovate the Senlac property or tear it down altogether.

According to Elson, he and Bertram covered the $450,000 down payment on the Laureleaf property, and were waiting for Qiu to cover his share. Qiu later disputed this claim, insisting that he had contributed to the down payment. He was the one who found the first financing opportunity for the house. He had a friend at the bank who was willing to give them a favourable mortgage.

Cracks in the partnership began to show as soon as the properties were purchased. Qiu was still juggling his flooring business and the flipping enterprise, and he seemed overwhelmed. Progress on the houses was excruciatingly slow. By the beginning of 2015, he’d barely done any work on the Laureleaf property.

Qiu was desperate for money. In March 2015, he went behind his partners’ backs and sold the property at 262 Senlac for $666,000, almost $100,000 less than Elson and Bertram had originally paid for it. When they confronted him, Qiu tried to placate them, promising he’d pay them back with the money they’d all make from the sale of 2 Laureleaf. Neither Elson nor Bertram believed him. They realized there was a lot about Qiu that they didn’t know.

THE house at 2 Laureleaf Road is palatial, with six bedrooms, six baths, a three-car garage and a faux-gothic aesthetic. Located in the idyllic neighbourhood of Bayview Glen, it had the potential to bring in big profit—if the planned renovations were ever finished. “Whenever we asked Qiu about it, it was always delay, delay, delay,” Elson said later. “Every time we went to inspect the house, nothing much was done.” He and Bertram were worried. Neither of them trusted Qiu, and they had no paperwork that would hold him accountable if he didn’t refund their money. By this point, all they wanted was to recoup their initial investments, sell the houses and walk. They never wanted to work with Qiu again.

Qiu, meanwhile, had sold his flooring business, ostensibly with the goal of renovating 2 Laureleaf full-time. He’d hired his friend Yaorile Yaorile, an experienced Chinese construction worker, to help him with the project. He’d also begun seeing a woman named Ruby. Frequently, Qiu would ask Bertram and Elson for more money to finish the renovations. Between the down payments, monthly mortgages and renovation costs, they had both invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the partnership. As far as they could tell, Qiu had invested zero.

The Laureleaf project crawled along for the next few months. According to one worker, Qiu didn’t even do much of the hands-on labour. He was better known for his coffee runs than he was for construction work. “They seemed to be in no hurry,” says Dino Dimonte, who lives across the street. “They’d come in Friday evening, work on Saturday and Sunday, be gone on Monday,” he says. At one point, he had to call the City of Markham to complain about the endeavour: apparently, Qiu had begun renovations without a permit and had violated several bylaws, including failing to ensure the construction site was properly fenced in.

The tension was mounting between Qiu and his partners. Elson and Bertram were both short on cash, and Bertram was planning to marry his long-time girlfriend. They wanted to get their money back. The harder they pressed, the shiftier Qiu became. He’d promise payment, then postpone; promise payment, then postpone. Eventually, Bertram became resigned to the fact that Qiu would likely never pay him back. According to Bertram’s girlfriend, he wasn’t the kind of guy who ever got angry. “He knew that Qiu wasn’t a trustworthy person,” she later said. “But Qiu was his friend, and he had a high tolerance for him.”

On September 1, 2015, Bertram and Elson confronted Qiu at Mint karaoke bar, their usual spot. They had drawn up Acknowledgement of Debt documents, which they presented to him. These promissory notes included repayment schedules for Qiu, who at this point owed Bertram $1.3 million; the first $100,000 was due on January 15, 2016, with several more instalments scheduled throughout the year and a final payment of $600,000 in October. He owed Elson $290,000. Both documents had a Breach of Terms clause that demanded 0.5 per cent interest for every week he missed a payment. They also included scanned copies of Qiu’s driver’s licence. Bertram and Elson insisted that he sign on the spot, and he did so without a fuss. “We were going to leave 2 Laureleaf alone. We didn’t care when he finished working on it,” Elson later said. “But now he had a liability that he couldn’t run away from.” In total, Qiu owed $1.6 million.

Bertram and Elson forced Qiu to sign promissory notes for repayment totalling $1.6 million

QIU missed his first payment to Bertram for the amount of $100,000. Desperation had set in. At around 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 20, he walked into a Home Depot near Woodbine and Highway 7. He bought gloves, masks, coveralls, a DeWalt reciprocating saw and metal saw blades. He packed the items into his girlfriend’s BMW and drove to 2 Laureleaf.

About half an hour later, he called Bertram and asked him to come to the property for a meeting. He said he wanted to discuss borrowing money to pay for more renovations. As soon as Bertram arrived, the two started arguing about money. Qiu claims Bertram threatened to use his connections in China to hurt Qiu’s family back home, to kill them or have their limbs hacked off. In Qiu’s version of events, he was a victim forced to defend himself and his family against a rich bully.

Qiu snapped. He noticed a hammer, grabbed it and began swinging (he later claimed that he’d seen Bertram reach for the weapon first). He says he wrestled Bertram to the floor and whacked him on the back of his head when he tried to get up. Then he began strangling him. “I just wanted to shut him up and let him die,” he later said. He kept his hands gripped tightly around Bertram’s neck for two minutes, Qiu said, until he stopped breathing. His former friend was dead.

When Qiu realized he’d committed murder, he had a cigarette. He needed to figure out a way to avoid jail time. He turned to his phone and started googling phrases such as “How to handle a dead body.” He’d seen a YouTube video about how to dismember a corpse and an episode of CSI where the characters had discussed how to butcher bodies. So he decided to do what he’d seen on TV.

There were all sorts of tools—saws, knives, an axe—stored in the basement, as well as a supply of black garbage bags. “I wanted to separate the meat from the bone,” he later told police. He took an axe and started with Bertram’s head, which he severed after several chops. Then he hacked off his arms and legs. Qiu says that at one point, he tried to use his new DeWalt reciprocating saw on the corpse but found it too unwieldy. Instead, he opted for a straight-edge knife to carve the flesh off of Bertram’s bones. He removed each muscle and organ individually, trying to keep them grouped together. The process lasted hours. Then he divided up Bertram’s remains—the head, limbs, hands, feet, skin, muscles, organs and bones—into seven garbage bags. He placed his victim’s clothes into an eighth bag and rolled the torso inside a blue tarp.

Qiu’s Home Depot receipt from the morning of the murder and a police sketch of the crime scene

By 4 p.m., the reality of what he’d done had sunk in. He’d murdered his friend and business partner, and tampered with the corpse. Could he get away with it? “I stopped and went to smoke another cigarette,” Qiu later told police. “Then I decided, no, I won’t do that. Just be a man.”

He picked up the phone and called Harley Bowe, his friend and housemate, who was at their place in Scarborough. Qiu didn’t tell Harley exactly what had happened over the phone—only that he needed him to drive over to 2 Laureleaf. When Harley arrived, he went downstairs and got the shock of his life. Qiu was covered in blood. “He looked like he got out of a butcher’s,” Harley later testified.

They got into Harley’s truck and drove to their house, where Qiu took a shower. He didn’t have the heart to tell his girlfriend what had happened. The two were supposed to marry in just a few months. Yaorile showed up while the men were drinking beers, and Qiu confessed his crime. “I asked him if he was joking,” Yaorile told the courts. “When he said no, I told him I couldn’t help him. Be a man and turn yourself in.”

At 6:15 p.m., Qiu drove Bertram’s white Ferrari to 42 ­Division, near Markham and Sheppard. He gave a lengthy statement to police, in which he confessed to his crime and tried to explain why he’d resorted to murder. According to Qiu, Bertram was the one who owed him money, not the other way around. He claimed that Bertram had a gambling addiction, and that he visited underground casinos and bet large sums of money on soccer games—an accusation Bertram’s friends and family vehemently denied. He also told police that he’d been regularly making $10,000 monthly mortgage payments on 2 Laureleaf Road. He insisted that he’d truly believed Bertram would hurt his family. “Rich guys in China can do whatever they want,” he told police.

QIU was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The story made major news back home in China. The headlines in Chinese newspapers were littered with exclamation marks and highlighted the gruesome nature of the crime. People were shocked to learn that a Chinese student from an affluent family could meet such a fate in Canada, a country that’s revered for its safety and prosperity.

A police photo of the crime scene

Preliminary hearings began a year after the murder, in March 2017. Qiu’s lawyer insisted that the murder was unplanned. His client had bought the supplies at Home Depot that morning to work on the house, he argued, and he became violent only after Bertram allegedly threatened his family. The Crown argued that the murder was premeditated. According to police, the outdoor security camera at the crime scene had been disabled at 9:19 on the morning of the murder, 15 minutes before Qiu called Bertram to come over. And the autopsy report suggested a far more violent attack than the one Qiu had copped to: Bertram had sustained countless fractures, lacerations, bruises and contusions on his face, jaw and torso in the moments leading up to his death. His lungs and airway were filled with blood, suggesting that he was still breathing when he acquired these injuries. And while there was some evidence that he’d been strangled by human hands, there were marks that also showed trauma to his neck caused by a sharp object.

In the end, Qiu accepted a deal: he agreed to plead guilty to charges of second-degree murder and indecent interference with a body. In exchange, he would be spared a jury trial and receive life in federal prison, with the possibility of parole after 14 years. If he is released, he will be deported back to China. Bertram’s family was horrified when they learned about the plea bargain. During a pre-sentencing hearing, the family’s lawyer read a victim impact statement from Bertram’s father, condemning the Crown for agreeing to a second-degree murder charge. He claimed the deal was dishonourable, and described Qiu as debased. He told the court he believed Qiu should never be allowed to step outside prison walls again. Bertram’s girlfriend also issued a statement. She recounted the last time she saw her partner, on the morning of March 20, 2016, near Finch subway station. “Xiao Xuan Long was the most charming man I had ever seen,” she said. “No one could or can imagine the degree of harm and hurt his murder brought to me…. My life has been filled with tears ever since.”

At his sentencing hearing last October, Qiu presented his own statement in Mandarin, which was translated for the court. “The bad things have been tormenting my mind like a movie looping and repeating itself,” he said. He listed off the things he’d lost: his job, his fiancée, his family, his dignity, and his opportunity to make a life in Canada. That one seemed to sting the most.


alt-right, canada, islamophobia, muslims, national security, politics, war on terror

Conservative party leadership advisor helped create anti-Islam organization

Current Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer has already had two members of his leadership campaign team revealed to be connected in some way with “alt-right” organizations/groups. Hamish Marshall, his former Campaign Manager, used to be a Director of Rebel Media. Stephen Taylor, his campaign’s Digital Director, is linked with the far-right “metacanada” subreddit.

The investigation below implicates a third leading member of Scheer’s team as having problematic ties with a group that promotes far-right conspiracies, particularly with regards to the Muslim community. Georganne Burke, Scheer’s former Outreach Chair, has been involved in one way or another with the anti-Islam group, Canadian Citizens for Charter Rights and Freedoms (C3RF), which pushes the conspiracy theory that Muslims want replace Canadian law with Sharia law, particularly by using the term Islamophobia as a weapon against critics. 

Published by Vice on December 6th, 2017 (co-authored with Evan Balgord)

A senior member of Andrew Scheer’s leadership team helped create an anti-Islam organization during his campaign to lead the Conservative Party. Now, that organization is holding events to protest anti-Islamophobia Motion 103 and is bringing together Canada’s anti-Islam pundits and anti-Muslim groups.

Georganne Burke, the Scheer campaign’s Outreach Chair, was involved in the founding of Canadian Citizens for Charter Rights and Freedoms (C3RF). The group warns that the Liberal government is criminalizing criticism of Islam and opening the door for a Sharia (Islamic) takeover of Canadian law. C3RF plans to hold events across the country to advocate against M103 and the Trudeau government.

Georganne Burke is one of at least three senior members of Scheer’s campaign team that have now been linked to the so-called alt-right or anti-Islam groups. Scheer’s Campaign Manager, Hamish Marshall, was a director of Rebel Media, an alt-right media outlet that pushes narratives of white genocide and hosts prominent alt-right figures, and worked out of the Rebel offices during the campaign. He has been named as a campaign chair for the 2019 general election.

Marshall did not respond to interview requests sent to his email address at the Torch Agency, the public affairs and communications firm he leads.  The Conservative Party now led by Scheer did not respond to interview requests.

“Experienced organizer”

The Digital Director for the Scheer campaign, Stephen Taylor, is linked to the alt-right metacanada subreddit. Last year, for example, he posted a comment to provide additional information to members of the subreddit who were e-mailing complaints to the CBC ombudsman. However, he says that it has been awhile since he participated in the subreddit, that he wasn’t fully aware of the increasingly alt-right nature of the subreddit, and that he doesn’t want anything to do with the alt-right. He says he doesn’t have any particular plans to engage with the subreddit in the future, and declined to comment on whether he has a current role with the Conservative Party of Canada.

“Commenting is not involvement,” Georganne Burke, Conservative strategist

Burke invited the first group of members to the C3RF Facebook page (including one of the group’s current administrators) and one of her posts indicates she held a leadership or advisory role while she was working on Scheer’s leadership campaign. In March, the group was preparing a press release to distribute to MPs. “We need to select a media contact,” writes Burke. “Not me. One person who is familiar with working with the media and can manage the press kit and media materials.”

“Some of us reached out to Georganne in the beginning, around spring time, because of her experience,” said Irving Weisdorf, an organizer with C3RF who has been involved since its inception. He’s also the founder of the pro-Israel advocacy organization Mozuud, which has partnered with C3RF on occasion.

Burke is Senior Vice President of the Pathway Group, which is in the business of government relations and providing services for political campaigns, and she has over 10 years of experience as a political operative for the Conservative Party of Canada. She’s a big fan of Donald Trump, according to social media posts and an October 2016 interview with CBC.

“This is what Georganne does you know, and we wanted her advice on how motions work,” Weisdorf noted. Burke’s involvement with C3RF eventually tapered off due to her commitment to the Scheer leadership campaign, he said.

Burke says she “[has] not been involved with C3RF since a couple of weeks after they formed.” She continues to post in the group, but says that “commenting is not involvement,” and declined to comment further.

Anti-Islam industry

Burke was also a member of several extreme anti-Muslim groups on Facebook, but says she was only in those groups for information purposes. Burke left at least two of these groups following a story by Anti-Racist Canadawhich named her as a member of groups like the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, a group which critics say is  anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic. Burke hasn’t posted any explicitly anti-Muslim comments on the C3RF Facebook Page, according to a search of posts in the group.

Scheer has tried to distance himself from the alt-right Rebel Media, and says his party is welcoming to Muslims. The anti-Islam organization co-founded by Burke, however, is connected to the American Islamophobia industry, and anti-Islam figures in Canada.

The anti-Islam industry in the United States and Canada is comprised of dozens of individual pundits, think tanks, and media outlets that host events together and amplify each other’s voices. Some organizations are more careful in their criticism of Islam than others, but they  tend to view Islam and the Muslim community as a monolithic entity with a dangerous anti-Western agenda.

On September 10, C3RF held an anti-M103 conference in Toronto which brought together a number of speakers and organizations from the anti-Islam industry.

C3RF has worked with ACT! For Canada (the Canadian branch of ACT! For America) and the Washington DC-based Center for Security Policy, both of which are part of the Islamophobia industry in the United States, according Fear, Inc., a report published by the Center for American Progress.

According to the report, the Center for Security Policy is a “key source of information for the Islamophobia network.” Clare Lopez, CSP’s VP for Research and Analysis, was the keynote speaker at C3RF’s conference, which ACT! For Canada was also a co-partner for, along with conservative think-tank The Mackenzie Institute and the pro-Israel Hasbara Fellowships.

ACT! For Canada has shared articles in support of PEGIDA – an anti-Muslim group in Europe with a Canadian chapter – and  frequently links to Robert Spencer and his website, Jihad Watch. Dr. Gad Saad, another C3RF speaker at the September conference, has also hosted Spencer on his Youtube channel. The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes Spencer as an “anti-Muslim propagandist.”

Several members of the C3RF Facebook Page are also members of anti-Muslim groups on Facebook, including the Storm Alliance, an offshoot of the Soldiers of Odin, Blood and Honour, a violent neo-Nazi group, and the III%ers, an armed militia group. C3RF’s Facebook group promoted the September 30 day of action organized by the Storm Alliance and other far right groups to protest the Liberal Party’s immigration policies.

Moreover, the C3RF Calgary Satellite Coordinator is Stephen Garvey, President of the National Advancement Party (NAP) and member of the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, a white supremacist group. The Jewish Defence League, which has acted as security for several anti-Muslim demonstrations, also provided security for C3RF’s September 10 conference.

“Aggressive and intolerant”

Speakers at the event characterized M-103 as a threat to free speech supported by Muslim extremists whose ultimate goal is to criminalize criticism of Islam.

“The increase in political Islam we’re seeing all across the world is perhaps the biggest threat to Canada,” said Anthony Furey, a Toronto Sun columnist who spoke at the conference. Furey says that the committee hearings on Systemic Racism and Religious Discrimination sparked by M103 can “lead to recommendations” that might suggest outlawing criticisms of Islam.

Another Toronto Sun columnist, Sue-Ann Levy, took it one step further by suggesting that liberal centrists and Islamist extremists have a broad overlap in interest. “I got in trouble for saying that Barack Obama has ties to radical Islamic ideology,” she said. “There’s no question in my mind that he does, and I also think that he’s a Muslim.”

Speakers such as Benjamin Dichter, founder of LGBTory, also suggested that an overly liberal and politically correct culture is helping to open the door for radical Islamists to take over Canadian society.

“Some Western liberal leaders are stopping people from asking a very important question,” said Dichter, “the question of whether a more Islamic Canada will become more tolerant, or more aggressive and intolerant of anything other than itself?”

Talking points shared by C3RF, its speakers and partner organizations are almost identical to the positions of extreme anti-Muslim groups and the so-called alt-right. They broadly warn of an unspecified mass of Muslims in the West who want Sharia law and an “Islamic theocracy.”

“The principles and freedoms that undergird both constitutions in the United States and in Canada are Judeo-Christian based,” said keynote speaker Clare Lopez. “Islam doesn’t have such freedoms, such as the freedom of speech; it has the ‘law of slander,’ which it defines as anything that a Muslim dislikes.”

The C3RF’s brochure warns of Muslims who “want to implement at least some aspects of Sharia law,” and who are either using or partnering with Iqra Khalid to implement the “normalization of Sharia law as a respectable form of multicultural expression.”

They’re also broadly critical of Canada’s immigration and refugee policies. In their minds, Islam and the West are in conflict, both abroad and here in Canada, and they are fighting for Western, Judeo-Christian values.

One of C3RF’s partner organizations, ACT! For Canada, was recently denied space at an Ottawa library to host a screening of Killing Europe, an Islamophobic video. The video screening went ahead last Sunday, hosted by the Jewish Defense League at the Toronto Zionist Centre.

Burke had also planned a “Rally to Turn Khadr Settlement Over To Speer and Morris Families” in late July, which was cancelled after it was reported that over half the people who RSVPd on Facebook were connected with anti-Muslim groups and pages.

Photo credit: images all from Vice News page of article


middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Islamist violence any worse?

The full range of modern Muslim intellectuals is wide. It inevitably includes Islamist thinkers, some of whom have embraced violence at some point in their lives. Today’s post-9/11 culture reduces these Islamists to caricatures of anti-Western fanaticism–to different versions of Osama Bin laden, et al. I argue in the following piece that their legacy deserves a much closer examination. 

Published by the Los Angeles Review of Books on August 4th, 2017

On the morning of September 16th, 1920, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up in front JP Morgan Bank on 23 Wall Street, right at the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Inside the wagon sat about 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron weights, all hitched to a timer-set detonator. By noon, a vicious blast ripped through the surrounding area, resulting in 40 deaths and hundreds injured. It was, as author and historian Mike Davis observes, modern society’s first introduction to “the prototype car bomb.”

This infamous attack, dubbed the “Wall Street Bombing,” was at that point the worst instance of domestic terrorism in United States history. Though the perpetrators of the explosion were never apprehended, authorities strongly suspected that violent anarchist activists had carried it out. More specifically, they suspected the Galleanists, a strain of “propaganda of the deed” anarchists who followed the works of Luigi Galleani, a leading Italian-American anarchist thinker who preached the overthrow of capitalism and government by violent means. It was the Galleanists who, along with some other anarchists, carried out a string of similar attacks across the US in 1919.

The phrase “propaganda of the deed” is now used to refer to a whole family of political actions that, by way of posing as often-violent examples to the rest of society, can theoretically act as a catalyst for wider revolution. They can, as Galleani notes in his 1925 book The End of Anarchism?, “kindle in the minds of the proletariat the flame of the idea” of a more egalitarian world and thus lead to “vigorous preparation for the armed insurrection.” The phrase itself was coined in the 19th century by the Russian writer Mikhail Bakunin, a leading anarchist thinker of his time, a rival of Karl Marx, and a now a mostly forgotten figure.


Mikhail Bakunin

In his 1870 “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis,” Bakunin writes, “All of us must now embark on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”

Of course, “propaganda of the deed” doesn’t necessarily have to involve dynamite, bloodshed, and death, but the anarchist movement of that era was characterized most famously by instances like the 1919 Galleanist bombings or the assassination of high profile politicians like US President William McKinley (1901). Such acts shocked the Western world at a time when millions of people were experiencing the effects of systemic social and economic transformation via the industrial revolution and the rise of modern global capitalism.

Works by figures like Bakunin, Marx and numerous others were responding to seismic social changes, but it was Bakunin who never stopped preaching violent revolt as the primary agent of historical progress. He openly called for the violent overthrow of existing orders, such as the Hapsburg Monarchy, as a way to achieve true egalitarian progress.

It’s a curious but useful exercise to look back and ponder proponents of political violence like Bakunin, particularly as Western Europe reels from one terrorist attack after another and as the so called “Islamic State” (ISIS) remains in control of a sizeable piece of territory in Syria and Iraq. The 9/11 attacks ushered in the Era of National Security, an almost mandatory lens through which to look at the times. According to subsequent piles of “anti-terror” legislation, even verbal or cyber expressions in favor of violence can potentially amount to “material support” for (mostly Islamist) terrorism, a major crime.

Despite this paranoia, the world today is usually capacious and patient enough to place and assess problematic figures like Bakunin within the wider social and historical contexts of 19th century political unrest. Bukanin, a consistent and fierce preacher of violent sociopolitical change, is still read and studied, though not so widely these days, in post-secondary seminars, along with other figures whose proposals throughout the centuries echo the violent extremism that has worked its way into much of the world today—sometimes with an Islamist colouring, sometimes not.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s terrorism is subject to a whole new matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs.

But unlike the violence of Bakunin’s time, today’s “Islamic terrorism” is subject to a whole post-9/11 matrix of pseudo-empirical and quantitative analysis: from counter-terrorism studies to “ideological detox” to deradicalization clinics to the implementation of social engineering schemes like local CVE programs. The ideas and ideologies associated with “Islamic terrorism” are then fed through this apparatus and analyzed with an immediacy that favors the ill-defined parameters and mandate of “security studies.”

Each Muslim thinker or promoter of extremism (even those who died long before 9/11) is shrunk down and associated first-and-foremost with recent acts of violence. In other words, the first reaction to such historical figures isn’t—as in the case of Bakunin and others—to view them as a lens into history, but rather to situate them within a present-day “security” context as a possible (even imminent) threat from the past. This is a direct reflection of today’s tendency to perceive and evaluate Muslims not as flesh-and-blood human beings, but as units of ideological action.

Sayyid Qutb and Islamism of the deed

Many Islamist thinkers have suggested violence as a way of bringing about utopia. They differ as much in ideology as they do in intellectual substance. But the one figure whose profile has risen most recently and infamously as the quintessential “philosopher of Islamic terror” is the late Egyptian author, theologian, and eventual agitator Sayyid Qutb, who died almost four decades before 9/11.

Analysts and observers from Paul Berman to Lawrence Wright have referred to Qutb, whose writings and activism in Egypt during the 1960s eventually led to his execution by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in 1966, as the godfather of Islamic terrorism. It should be noted that such terrorism varies widely in tactical form and strategic purpose, while spanning the gamut of many different groups and nationalities. Their overall modus operandi, though buttressed by a different set of ideas and used for a different set of goals, bear the same kind of “revolutionary” imprimatur of, say, the Galleanist bombings a century earlier. Generally speaking, these are actions perpetrated as a form of violent propaganda (of the deed).


Sayyid Qutb in prison

Yet the way we understand and approach the intellectual figures behind today’s displays of Muslim political violence is much more contingent on the post-9/11 ideological and political climate than most would like to admit. Qutb, for instance, is still associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (though he eventually abandoned them for a more radical path), perhaps the most famous Islamist organization in the world. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won a popular mandate to govern Egypt after the 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak and before a military coup forced them underground two years later. Today, for a number of political reasons, the Trump administration is considering putting the Muslim Brotherhood on the US list of terrorist organizations, alongside groups like Al-Qaeda, which has been on the list since 1999.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s. This treatment of Qutb is characteristic of the post-9/11 West’s tendency to eschew a more nuanced engagement with pro-violence Islamist thinkers in favor of a more security-centric approach.

Detractors of the Brotherhood point to its historical association with Qutb as Exhibit A of the organization’s hidden “radical Islamist” agenda and silent support for terrorism, even though the group publicly renounced violence in the 1970s.

This is as true of liberal observers and writers as it is of neo-conservatives. Whereas hawkish voices on the American right such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies are happy to name Qutb as a “prominent MB ideologue” and a figure that Al Qaeda has cited from time to time, more liberal voices such as Paul Berman are equally happy to point Qutb out as the “intellectual hero” of all modern jihadists.

Both of these sweeping assertions lack specificity, accuracy and context, but the larger effect of their collective pronouncements is to reduce Qutb into what can bluntly be called a terrorist thinker. It is true that Qutb’s advocacy of violence had an effect on the likes of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but that’s not all he was. It is also true that Bakunin’s call for violent revolution influenced anarchist terrorists down the line, but that’s not all he preached or wrote about. Yet whereas current Western culture still has room in the classroom and elsewhere to consider and evaluate Bakunin in all his complexities (while, of course, recognizing the dangers that he represents), post-9/11 attitudes stand in the way of a similar understanding of Qutb and those like him. The demonization of the MB, an imperfect organization with deeply Islamist ideological roots, by some of its lazier critics in the West is a primary example of this intellectual double standard.

Though the MB haven’t renounced Qutb per se, it is a stretch to call him one of the animating forces behind the organization today, as the FDD does in their overview of the group. (Notice also that connection to Qutb also makes it okay to lump the MB together with Al Qaeda.) But Bakunin had a similar degree of impact on many contemporary organizations and movements, such as the anti-globalization movement or anarchist groups like the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). No serious commentators or policy writers are calling for all self-professed anarchists and anti-globalization activists to be classified as terrorists, even if they share a handful of ideologues (including Bakunin) with more violent groups.

The dog we know vs. the revolutionary we don’t know

A distinction should also be made between figures like Qutb and other, even more relevant ideologues to today’s violence who’ve devoted their entire corpus to the ideologies and tactics of violent jihad. These include outright criminal figures like Abu Musab al-Suri, whose 1600-page work on The Global Islamic Resistance Call popularized the ideas of “leaderless jihad” as a terrorist tactic, along with Abu Bakr Naji, whose Management of Savagery was written as a guide for Al-Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups to work towards an “Islamic Caliphate.”

These so called intellectuals don’t work or write outside of the narrow and myopic realm of violent Islamist activism. Their works are devoted wholly to the perpetration of crimes and how to get away with it. Their Islamic knowledge is often cursory at best and bears no resemblance to any sort of traditional learning that has constituted the backbone of the normative Islamic tradition for over a thousand years. In other words, engaging with these “scholars” would be analogous to looking through something like The Anarchists’ Cookbook to gain any kind of understanding of Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin.

al suri

Abu Musab al-Suri

Unlike al-Suri or Naji, Qutb is indeed more akin to Bakunin, who had a lot more to say about the world’s machinations than how to kill people for ideological or social reasons. Qutb and Bakunin’s arguments for the usage of violence is situated in a larger, often sophisticated scheme or vision of how society must be changed and dealt with in relation to justice and other ideals. Qutb’s major works, like his multi-volume In the Shade of the Quran, are often regarded as highly important accomplishment in Islamic exegesis. And if it weren’t for his self-important and, quite honestly, rather monotonous screeds on the “obligatory” duties of killing the infidels (his Milestones, written in and smuggled out of prison, is a kind of personal manifesto for Islamist-based violence), Qutb would’ve secured a place in the mainstream pantheon of modern Muslim thinkers.

Karl Marx is another, perhaps even more illuminating example for analogy. In an article for the November 6th edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848, Marx famously concluded “that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.”

Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Of course, Marx never wrote any practical manuals about the tactical aspects of this “revolutionary terror” ala al-Suri or Naji, but he was certainly referring to his own version of a wider “jihad” that would overtake society so as to catalyze revolutionary change in Europe and beyond. It fell on others down the line to interpret Marxist ideas into action by way of more violent tactics such as guerrilla warfare. Among such interpreters are Mao Zedong, whose On Guerrilla Warfare influenced a generation of strategists–including Che Guevara, who wrote his own book on the subject right after the Cuban Revolution. But even Mao and Che, two figures who had no problem with applying violence to realize certain political ends, enjoy a more nuanced reception today in contrast to Islamist figures who flirted with violent ideas. Che has been the subject of a two-part Hollywood biopic by Steven Soderbergh while Mao, though widely recognized today as a political monster, has been extensively studied in all his aspects.

This discrepancy exists because Marx, regardless of his rhetoric or ideas, is a known commodity of sorts, as is Bakunin (though less so). They are the known revolutionaries whose place in Western history has been studied and taken into account. Islamists come from a different world outside of “the West.” They represent “the dog we don’t know,” and are thus full of mysterious and opaque danger, as the catastrophic events of 9/11 apparently demonstrate. So they must endure a different sort of judgement.

Marx’s bloody rhetoric, along with Bakunin’s preaching of violent revolutionary necessities, is the kind of theorizing that can be found in some of Qutb’s work, albeit in light of a very different set of sociopolitical circumstances. But because of today’s post-9/11 hang-ups, it’s almost always the Islamist thinker who gets singled out as especially dangerous, a reputation that taints any person or group affiliated with him in any way.


Karl Marx

In significant parts of Western culture today—particularly in Canada and Western Europe if not also the US—there are communist and Marxist societies/parties/groups lingering in almost every corner—from university campuses to actual electoral parties—that take the ideas of Marxist theory into the political and public sphere, all without much fear of being put on the US State Department’s list of banned terrorist entities. These groups often bear the very name of a man who, over a hundred years ago, advocated for violent means of revolutionary change.

To be sure, there are also Marxist or anarchist groups who’ve rightfully earned their spot on whatever list of banned entities long before the paranoia of the post-9/11 age, but they are in the minority and usually bear a long and prolific history of violent activities. The wider society knows not to center groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forced (FARC) of Colombia or the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) of Sri Lanka when engaging with the larger ideas of Marx, who deservedly remains one of the most influential and quoted figures in Western social sciences and humanities. Yet such conflations are made regularly today, as the reasons for 9/11 and the like are traced back to Qutb.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization.

Those with a better understanding of Qutb, like Muqtader Khan of the University of Delaware, who’s taken the time to peruse through the thinker’s works, are largely confined to academia and thus overwhelmed by post-9/11 trends of reductive securitization. Scholars like Khan have written about the wider range and implications of Qutb’s political and theological ideas, but the more nuanced picture they paint is often lost among the cacophony of post-9/11 chaos.

So for Qutb, along with other Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, or his Pakistani counterpart Syed Abul A’la Maududi, there is a different set of rules at play. They are assessed first and foremost with respect to what they’ve said or done about violence. Their wider ideas are placed aside indefinitely if any of their history bears an association to Islamist bloodshed. And any organizations or groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood for example, that are associated with them, must then bear the same stain—public renouncements of violence be damned.

It goes without saying that concerns and questions pertaining to security and safety are important. But these are questions that bear an immediacy that’s better applied to living criminal masterminds like al-Suri, whose ideas centre particularly on the application of terrorism as a way to engender social change and who has been connected to post-9/11 acts of violence like the 2004 Madrid train bombing. Such figures deserve to be assessed that way because, unlike the long-dead Qutb, they are a living and breathing security threat, which is why authorities captured al-Suri via “extraordinary rendition” in Pakistan in 2005. He’s now languishing in a Syrian prison.

Where too much credit isn’t due

The first chapter of Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower contains an illuminating passage of how Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Al-Qaeda’s second in command after Bin Laden, mused about extending the ideas of Qutb’s call for jihad into violent practise. It is a pretty damning piece of evidence with regards to the implications of Qutb’s ideas and visions for jihadism. According to the same chapter in Wright’s book, Qutb was offered a way out of prison and execution in his last years by Nasser (who even offered Qutb a spot in his cabinet), but preferred “martyrdom” at the hands of a state he was trying to destabilize.

This ideological connection between al-Zawahiri and Qutb is supposed to illustrate the firm continuation of violent jihadism from thinker to doer, much like how Luigi Galleani’s ideas were carried out by whoever placed dynamite inside of that horse carriage in front of JP Morgan. The implication of such a connection extends beyond al-Zawahiri himself and depicts Qutb as the original inspiration of every other jihadist group, from ISIS to the Nusra Front to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and so on.

Such a one-dimensional portrayal of Qutb has become commonplace in the post-9/11 age and helps to cement his reputation first and foremost as a violent Islamist.


Fighters of the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Raqqa, Syria

Along with Wright’s book, filmmaker Adam Curtis’ noted three-part documentary series The Power of Nightmares (2004) also features a portrayal of Qutb’s radicalization that follows essentially the same rubric. Curtis juxtaposes Qutb with the neoconservative political theorist Leo Strauss while depicting the two figures as historical and political parallels—each eventually pointing to the other’s ideological legacy as a bogeyman, a dialectical process that, according to Curtis, forms the basis of today’s climate of paranoia and fear.

It must be pointed out that, again, it is precisely such portrayals of figures like Qutb as mindless fanatics that take one out of history’s complexities. Regardless of how right Curtis or Wright are in their diagnoses of Qutb’s pro-violence arguments, the bigger picture remains hidden. Qutb, like Bakunin and Marx, had much more to say. He was, for example, a celebrated literary critic who helped popularize the stories of Egypt’s eventual Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Qutb also wrote novels himself and was a noted poet. His more political and radical works followed life experiences that convinced him of modernity’s corrupting influences, thus necessitating in his mind the emergence of an Islamic vanguard to lead the world, through violence, to an all-encompassing embrace of Islamic principles.

This is a rather Leninist and obviously problematic vision that comes out of a post-colonial experience with modernity. It also facilitates the transformation of Islam, a complex and wide-ranging faith with a deep history, into a shopping list of political tasks. But it’s this dislocating ideological background within which Qutb’s call for violence is situated. The only way to truly understand present day extremism in light of this aspect of the past is to engage with Qutb in his entirety. That means moving away from reductive and inaccurate frameworks that depict him as the ideological source of today’s terrorism.

How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances.

Terrorism is a tactic that’s been around since ancient times. How radicalized groups come about are contingent only partially on ideas alone, and at least equally on other political factors that have to do with post-revolutionary vacuums (as in the case of the Arab Spring) or perceived grievances. Ideas and ideologies are important, but they’re hardly the only drivers of someone’s path to violence.

Years of studies regarding radicalization haven’t even pinned down ideas alone as the most important or pervasive driver of violent behaviour for each extremist. It’s true that ideas matter the most for some, but not for others. Yet the present post-9/11 culture focuses on these ideologies as a function of religious belief, thus pushing a “securitizing” effect onto complicated figures like Qutb, a small portion of whose works can be dangerously influential, but whose hypothetical non-existence probably wouldn’t have stemmed the tide of violent Muslim extremism as a social and political phenomenon altogether. In other words, had Qutb never been born, catastrophic events like 9/11 or something else of such a magnitude would likely still have occurred.

Attributing the beginnings of all violent Muslim extremism to the pages of Qutb’s work is akin to attributing the actions and crimes of the Tamil Tigers to Marx’s 1848 article, or anarchist bombings to the pages of Bakunin. Such a reductive tendency with regards to violent Islamism is one area where today’s neoconservative right has converged with the more liberal center. Knowingly or not, more liberal writers like Wright and Berman often overlap with their right-wing counterparts at neoconservative think tanks like the FDD when they present and depict Islamist theorists in such a one-dimensional way. Both camps refuse to take Muslim thinkers seriously as historical figures who’re substantially captive to their own times and emotions.

Moreover, their thinking extended far beyond violence itself and its application. A fair assessment of who they were and the work they did means taking into account the entire range of ideas for which they advocated.

It is today’s post-9/11, security-obsessed and racist climate that keeps the public from such an engagement with Muslim thinkers. The tendency is to always look for connections between these thinkers and terrorism, hoping that such exercises will contribute to more public safety. But violence is much more complicated. People’s interpretations of ideas and texts are a reflection of their own inner stories and realities, which are often subject to much more than just the ideas of some 19th or early 20th century writer.

Engagement over negligence

Contrary to present-day assumptions, a more open-minded and less ideological assessment of thinkers such as Qutb—rather like that offered to problematic Western thinkers—will actually yield insights that can potentially lead to the kind of understanding that engenders peace and safety. Qutb was certainly radicalized according to today’s standards. But his path to advocating violence occurred at a time in the Muslim world when many were trying with varying degrees of effectiveness to respond to what they saw as the decline of Muslim civilizations. The intellectuals among them (and not all of whom advocated violence!) have produced works and lived lives that offer up very useful windows into how different Muslim societies and countries function today in relation to the wider world.

Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish.

Reading into the works of Bakunin offers an entry into understanding a different time. Engaging with a figure like that makes clear the obvious absurdity of trying to ban every group, violent or otherwise, who take after a radical thinker’s ideas. Violent groups should indeed be banned and their members locked up, but those who promote ideas in a peaceful manner should be dealt with differently, regardless of their tenuous association with dead figures who once preached armed struggle against the state. This is why banning groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which hasn’t perpetrated an act of terrorism for decades and have given up revolutionary means to embrace political gradualism, would be so foolish. It would be like locking up the members of Greece’s Syriza party because it is a coalition that includes a contingent of Marxist-Leninists.

But people know better than to reflexively conflate Marxist politics or beliefs with illegal and criminal activities. Yet the tenor and pervasiveness of post-9/11 attitudes, rhetoric, and politics has impeded an equal approach to the crop of Muslim thinkers who condone violent change.

Marx and Bakunin believed that only revolutionary violence could eliminate the prevailing cobweb of systemic societal problems. They were certainly wrong on many counts as far as the ethics of violent implementations are concerned. Qutb was no better, but he too was responding to the political circumstances around him, about which he felt deeply disturbed. Combined with the personal effects of how this outside world interacted with his mind, a set of dangerous ideas and prescriptions came into being. Tracing the genealogy of these ideas and placing them in their proper place means engagement. Not censorship or denial. They are ideas to be assessed and grappled with, regardless of whether they come from a violent and disturbed Muslim or not.


muslims, politics, war on terror

Stingray cellphone-snooping technology needs regulation

Published by CBC News on June 6th, 2016

The Liberal Party has promised parliamentary oversight for Canada’s national intelligence agencies, but the issue of policing and surveillance overreach isn’t just a national problem. It’s a municipal one too, as a recent example concerning gang members in Toronto has proved. About 40 members of the Asian Assassinz gang and a rival crew are on trial, and their lawyers have received an internal RCMP memo proving that police in Canada have used Stingray devices to track and locate suspects’ cellphones.

One major problem is that these Stingrays, or International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI)-catchers, can disrupt and block innocent third-party phone calls made within a certain vicinity. The device mimics cellphone towers and is supposed to attract signals from the suspected parties’ mobile devices, thus allowing the police to tag and perhaps bug the phones later on. But they can also attract signals from phones in the area being used by innocent bystanders. The devices are also supposed to deactivate when coming into contact with 911 calls, but this doesn’t always happen. Defence lawyers are now hoping to put the use of IMSI devices on trial, alleging that it breaks the law by disrupting the public airwaves, and thus infringes on the rights of their clients.

Public should have been informed

The 1985 Radio-Communications Act prohibits incursions on the public airwaves, particularly intrusions that interfere with people’s calls. Yet even the Toronto police have acknowledged that IMSI devices can violate this law, which is why the plan, according to Toronto police Det. Shingo Tanabe in a sworn affidavit related to the Asian Assassinz case, was to limit the use of such devices to three-minute intervals and to steer clear of those trying to call 911.

Citing logs of devices used in the case, defence lawyers are arguing that the police didn’t even adhere to their own rules. According to these lawyers, IMSI devices were used for more than three minutes at a time, thus increasing the chances of serious interference with the airwaves. This kind of use can carry a prison sentence, and it’s not clear yet whether police are exempt from the rules.

More frustrating for the general public is the denial on the part of the Toronto police when asked last year by the media if they were operating with IMSI devices. They arrested the gang members back in 2014, but said last December that, “We do not use the Stingray technology and do not have one.” This conveniently glossed over the fact that Toronto police brought in an RCMP officer who assisted in the case by using a Stingray device.

It’s clear by now that the police focus on catching their suspects prompted them to use methods that jeopardized the public’s safety, in addition to essentially misleading the public into thinking they didn’t even have the tools to pursue such methods.

Impossible to regulate what you don’t know

The document received by the defence that illustrates the use of IMSI technology was disclosed to them by the RCMP, and is a 2011 internal memo that actually warns officers how such devices can break the law. To steer clear of such illegal activity, the memo suggests that officers limit the use of IMSI devices in a way that doesn’t jeopardize public safety. It’s at best unclear whether Toronto police took real precautions to regulate themselves, and the defence alleges there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the contrary.

In fact, federal officers have been using IMSI technology since 2005. Yet only because of media investigations and court documentation related to the Asian Assassinz case, along with another organized crime case in Quebec, has information about the police use of such technology made its way to the public. Prior to the past few months, only police and judges who issued warrants knew about the police’s use of these devices.

How will policy-makers and legislators decide what place this kind of technology has in Canada  if they are kept in the dark? The Toronto police remain reticent on the matter, and, depending on how the Asian Assassinz case unfolds in court, the legality of IMSI devices is likely to be called into question, which will be a real blow to those who want to put the gangsters behind bars. However, that the police used this technology extensively in the first place, without proper oversight, is further evidence that Canada’s post-Sept. 11 policing and surveillance needs plenty of regulation.

Elected officials, particularly those in the Liberal Party who now make up a parliamentary majority, supported hard-core security legislation — Bill C-51, in particular — partly by way of promising that they will apply the right kinds of oversight to intelligence-gathering. But the Toronto case has essentially proved that even they haven’t figured out exactly what they’re supposed to be regulating — let alone how.

Photo credit: L’Enfant Metro Station/CC


middle east, muslims, politics

The Meaning of “Mecca_live”

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 6th, 2015

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly known for its openness. The powerful Saudi monarchy, which exercise significant regional and global influence, are heads of a state that has yet to address a number of critical human rights problems afflicting its society, and thus drawing criticism the world over. Saudi Arabia has long been a natural point of reference for those concerned with the implementation unreasonably punitive practices in the modern world.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the kingdom was involved a rather unlikely event this July when Snapchat, the popular online video-sharing platform, decided to focus their popular “Live Story” feature on the city of Mecca, Islam’s most important and holiest geographical site. Since its introduction last year, the feature splices together users’ submitted videos of a particular place into a single video comprised of the best footage. The Mecca “Live Story” video showed Muslims of all backgrounds inside Mecca at various stages of their visit, providing a rare glimpse of what actually happens inside the city to non-Muslims, who cannot enter.

The subsequent online response to Snapchat’s decision was significant and overwhelmingly positive. For a brief while, Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a stagnant theocracy was eclipsed by the prevailing sensation that used video and social media to narrate lived Islam into many people’s consciousness. That this act of online openness occurred inside a monarchy known, among other things, for not allowing women to drive, illuminates the dislocations between Saudi Arabia’s image and its actual reality.

Things become a lot clearer when one sees that Snapchat’s decision to feature Mecca was prompted primarily by a huge online campaign that essentially lobbied the social media giant to feature Islam’s holiest city. The campaign took place during Ramadan, when millions of worshippers flock to Mecca to perform Umrah, which is similar to the Hajj pilgrimage, but can be made anytime of the year. 300,000 people tweeted Snapchat with the hashtag “Mecca_live” in an effort to have Mecca featured on “Live Story.” Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims then tweeted their appreciation to Snapchat afterwards, thanking the video platform for essentially live-streaming the joyous atmosphere inside the city.

Ahmed’s Attempt

Like most campaigns and initiatives, the idea to launch something special usually starts within the mind of an individual. This seems especially true for online campaigns involving social media, and the “Mecca_live” sensation is a good example. Enter Ahmed Aljbreen, a young Saudi digital entrepreneur and founder of Smaat Co., one of the country’s largest social media marketing companies. Days into Ramadan 2015, he had a wild thought that, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wild after all.

“The whole thing really began when I though that we need to convey that Islam is a peaceful religion to the younger generation,” Aljbreen says in an interview. “I think that Snapchat is the best medium to reach out to them anywhere in the world.” He says that the onus is now on Muslims, especially the youth who’re familiar with social media, to help reduce the world’s confusions and misconceptions of Islam.

Indeed, the day-to-day news cycle seems filled with reports of groups like ISIS, along with acts of political violence and turmoil involving Muslims—a mainstay of “national security reporting” in the post-9/11 era. Yet the advent of this kind of reporting hasn’t led to a better understanding of Muslims, and certainly not of Islam itself. If anything, many people have come to to link Islam with violence with limited critical inquiry, having been bombarded with reports that directly or indirectly feature Islam as a willing partner of ideological violence. This is despite the fact that Muslims account for only a fraction of terrorism across the world when it comes to the body count.

This gulf in perception is what Aljbreen, a businessman in the world of digital media, is so well placed to address.

After the initial thought, he decided to reach out to his contacts in the region’s social media scene, hoping to get them on board to convince Snapchat to feature Mecca on the 27th day of Ramadan (July 13th, 2015), which many believe to be Lailat al-Qadr, the day when the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations from God. He expected to get a sizeable reaction, but not a full-blown global response, which was what ensued. Snapchat eventually responded by posting a 6-minute video of spliced videos on July 13th.

“I was surprised about how big the campaign ballooned,” Aljbreen says. “Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia and everywhere ended up participating.”

Equally surprising to him has been the response by people around the world who saw the “Mecca_live” video. He says that before long, “Mecca_live” was trending at #1 on Twitter, and the total views of the clip have reached over 10 million, “by far.”

“The big lesson here is that we can do it again,” Aljbreen says, “and we are looking to repeat this duing hajj.” Whether he succeeds in creating another global social media phenomenon is debatable, but what Aljbreen helped pull off illuminates a broader picture of what’s happening across the region in terms of how media is being used. The Arab Spring unfolded for many through the lens of outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a new generation of saavy individuals like Aljbreen is starting to use these tools to change the how their country, religion, and lives are being perceived on a global level.

Changing Imagery

Aljbreen’s parents wasn’t thrilled at all when he decided to leave his job as a communications engineer in order to start his own digital media company, Smaat around five years ago. Social media as a marketing tool was still a somewhat novel idea in Saudi Arabia at the time, and Aljbreen would become one of the first entrepreneurs to test the waters.

“They didn’t support my venture when I first started the business, especially since we were the first company in the regional market to focus on social media marketing campaigns,” he says. “But they changed their minds when they saw my success and at least they get to follow me on social media now to keep an eye on me.”

His company has since done digital marketing for some major regional companies, and the success of “Mecca_live” has significantly reinforced Aljbreen’s belief in social media’s power to change global perceptions. He says that videos like “Mecca_live” are “thousands of times” more powerful and influential in terms of the effect they have on viewers, and that videos produced by major corporate media outlets just don’t come off as persuasive and authentic.

He also notes that Snapchat is probably the best medium when it comes to reaching large numbers of people with a single message. The world has moved from being print-based to being image-based, and is now arguably much more video-based than anything else. The “Mecca_live” video showed Muslims of different backgrounds in ways that humanized them, which is the clip’s implicit purpose. It counters over a decade of imagery associating Muslims with violence and deviance. If fear is the underlying meta-narrative that underpins the post-9/11 era, then the “Mecca_live” video is certainly one of humanization.

One video is certainly not enough to change years entrenched perceptions, but it’s a start. In fact, Aljbreen claims that around 20,000 people have embraced Islam as their religion after seeing the video.

That Saudi Arabia played host in many ways to the “Mecca_live” phenomenon begs the question of whether the state had anything to do with the entire episode. When the question was put to Aljbreen, he replied simply by saying that “It [“Mecca_Live”] was a community-driven initiative.”

Regardless, the power of social media to effect social change in a way that alters global perceptions is certainly a potential that the Saudi Arabian government is aware of. Despite the great opening up that Aljbreen initiated, the irony is that the country within which he lives and where the holy city of Mecca is located in, has some of the more draconian media laws on earth.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia at 164th out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The country has virtually complete control over the press, though reported news and views can be found online. Still, Internet news-making it is closely monitored by the regime, and Reporters Without Borders lists the Saudi state as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

This is the political backdrop that Aljbreen’s generation is working with, and whether his optimism in terms of using social media to change international attitudes can carry over to effect his own country’s circumstances is at best debatable. Nonetheless, “Mecca_live” is further proof that a new generation of online-saavy Muslims, many who reside within societies with minimal personal freedoms, are beginning to effect global reality by changing global perceptions. In which direction this generational change will develop is really anyone’s guess.

Photo credit: Praying at Arafat by Omar Chatriwala/CC


middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Calls for Islamic reform are misguided

Published by Al Jazeera America on June 22nd, 2015

Few debates in the post-9/11 era enjoy as much longevity and controversy as those concerning the responsibility of the Islamic tradition to mend its ways. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other writers have demanded Islamic reform as the most reliable solution to achieving harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims. Ali’s latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” lays out an agenda for this cause. Her main arguments rest on dual assumptions about what Islam is and the actual meaning of reform in the Islamic context.

These calls for reform presuppose that Islam is fundamentally violent, sadistic and misogynistic. And it prescribes a global movement to overhaul and rid Islam of its dark foundations.

This is not an entirely new proposition. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, German theologianMartin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of a church castle in Wittenberg. The move was emblematic of a popular sentiment to denounce clerical abuses within the Catholic Church at the time. Luther’s actions have since become a symbol of how organized religion can be undermined in order to open up clerical structures to scrutiny. Luther advocated for a Christianity that moved away from the traditional Catholic clerical class that was charged with interpreting the scripture for the layman.

Ali and other critics the Muslim faith contend that the same process must be applied to Islam. Never mind that the dizzying array of Protestant sects (let alone the rest of the world’s religions) has hardly been free from clerical abuses, institutional corruption, violence and illiberal views. Reform proponents say that the Muslim layperson should be allowed to interpret the Quran in ways that circumvent Islamic clerics, who they see as the irrational, bearded men who uphold a medieval understanding of Islam that encourages the beating of women by their husbands and the killing of non-Muslims in religious wars.

This is of course far from an accurate interpretation of Islam, and critics such as Ali do not present an adequate understanding of Islamic jurisprudence (an area of study with more than 1000 years of written history) in any of their works. Over a millennium of debate, interpretation and re-interpretation has produced what scholars such as Hamza Yusuf call the “normative” Islamic tradition. Within the Sunni tradition, differences based on differing philosophical views surely exist, but more importantly, a cohesive picture of the religion has emerged. There are things that the vast majority of those who have spent their whole lives studying Islamic scripture agree on, regardless of their individual theological approach. For instance, a good number of these scholars got together last year to write an open letter to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), condemning his actions. This is because they collectively agree that ISIL is in fact acting in a terribly un-Islamic fashion. Instead of trying to get to know what the normative Sunni positions look like on different issues, caricatures supported by decontextualized verses from the Quran, along with personal anecdotes of misconduct by Muslims, are put forth as evidence of Islam’s moral degeneracy by Ali and allied critics.

Such commentators try to get away with bashing what they don’t bother to understand. What’s more, “reform” advocates ignore an important part of Islamic history: Its own reformation took place in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. However, much like the protestant reformation, efforts to overhaul Islam did not produce a liberal utopia with democratic norms and behaviors — quite the contrary.

This particular reform movement bears striking similarities to its Protestant counterpart. For example, it looks to steer away from dominant orthodoxy, but in a way that “returns” the religion to its true roots, stripped of extraneous innovations that the movement’s vanguard thought were incompatible with the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. As with the protestant reformation, however, Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, one of the key proponents of the Islamic reform, set the stage for a sectarian bloodletting in its geographical region, which later became Saudi Arabia.

Muslim scholars have long created systems of looking at scripture to prevent the kind of sectarian strife brought about by Wahhabism. As a result, Islamic orthodoxy, as represented by a normative system of jurisprudence and interpretation, is much more stable than willy-nilly calls for reformation. This orthodoxy is made up of four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, each with different approaches and conclusions, while also recognizing the others’ legitimacy.

Authors such as Ali ignore these nuances and checks and balances in favor of fear-mongering over practices such as sectarian violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) that orthodox Muslim scholars reject. Nevertheless, the lopsided criticism has given detractors a platform for bashing Islam and self-aggrandizement. For example, Ali’s foundation recently received a $100,000 pledge from Google’s boss Eric Schmidt to eradicate FGM.

Ali-style criticism of Islamic orthodoxy lacks a genuine understanding of how Muslim scholars have approached scriptural interpretation. It displays no interest in surveying the differences of opinion available on certain issues, or how different scholars come to such conclusions. Yet the reading of scripture isn’t the same as reading a newspaper, which is meant for everyone. Interpreting scripture requires a religious knowledge that is supposed to prevent destructive frameworks such as unnecessary literalism.

The post-9/11 public is in dire need of an informed debate about Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. Misinformed screeds such as Ali’s “Heretic” do nothing to propel such a debate.

Photo: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (right) on stage with Sam Harris (left), leading “New Atheist.”



Omar Khadr and the Passion of Dennis Edney

Published by The Islamic Monthly on May 11th, 2015

When I took a plane from Vancouver to Toronto in 2006 as 17-year-old, I was already full of piss and vinegar about what I thought of the world. I had my mind all made up about George Bush’s dumb wars, as well as this thing I heard everybody refer to as the “War on Terror”—some state-propaganda tactic from the administration down south to continue what I thought was a long history of colonialism by “the West.” It’s not like I’ve completely changed my mind nine years later, but looking back, I didn’t know nearly enough about what was happening to be so angry. It just felt good to be a “rebel” in my head. In reality, as a Marilyn Manson-loving kid of relative privilege with some nonexistent score to settle with the world, I had only the vaguest idea of what it actually meant to be a victim of post-9/11 hysteria.

I had no idea, that is, until I met Dennis Edney.

By 2008, I had spent two years at the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM), where I joined a handful of student and community groups that had a social justice mandate. One of them consisted of a loose gang of advocates calling themselves the “Presumption of Innocence Project (PIP),” dedicated to making noise when we saw due process be denied to those who were accused and arrested for terror-related activities. A friend of mine brought me on board, even though I had almost zero idea of what the whole thing was actually about at the time.

Then, one meeting, the group came with an idea of putting together a talk about how the “War on Terror” was being prosecuted in Canada. The name “Dennis Edney” and “Omar Khadr” popped up. I had heard of Khadr before, the Canadian boy who allegedly threw a grenade at American soldiers in Afghanistan, killing Sgt. Christopher Speer, a medic, and was serving time in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr was 15-years-old when he captured after that firefight in 2002, and had already served time in Bagram airbase (Afghanistan) and Guantanamo, two of the most infamous detention centers in post-9/11 history. The story enraged me in all sorts of ways, but I never knew that Dennis Edney, some high profile defense lawyer out of Alberta who’d been advocating for Khadr on his own dime. I was immediately glad that someone in PIP was inviting him to speak at the panel.

If you look up “Dennis Edney 2008” on Youtube, you’ll find him speaking at the event I had a small role in organizing. You can listen to his whole speech, which runs for about a half hour. I don’t remember much else about that night—I don’t even recall who else spoke—but I remember every point Dennis Edney made. I would have remembered even if I never bothered to look it up time and time again in the past few years, whenever I needed to make sure that my moral compass was working correctly. Edney made sure to tell everyone that night exactly what it meant for Omar Khadr to be an abused victim of a cruel and hypocritical system, one that gave him little chance at real justice. As a seriously wounded child soldier, Khadr received little public sympathy, and I don’t think many people cared whether he threw that grenade or not. He was the public scapegoat, on trial in military courts and the court of public opinion for providing “material support” for terrorism.

There’s conflicting evidence regarding Khadr’s involvement in Sargent Speer’s death, but, as Edney noted that night, the truth was almost an afterthought to most people. Khadr’s interrogators, along with the nurses and doctors at Bagram and Guantanamo, were supposed to uphold the high-minded ideals of American decency. Instead, they abused Khadr mentally and physically. According to Edney, who’d made many trips to Guantanamo, they used the wounded Khadr’s head as a mop and hung his body up in ways that exacerbated his wounds. They flatulated giddily on Khadr’s head while all the nurses laughed because, hey, what’s a kid Muslim terrorist worth anyway. Khadr arrived first at Bagram in Afghanistan blind as a bat with two holes in his back, among other things. As a child, he was tortured for information. That much is clear.

A raghead Muslim terrorist is a raghead Muslim terrorist—human decency and American justice be damned.

I learned all this from Edney that night, and I won’t quote him extensively here, because I want you to actually look up and listen to his speech. What I will say is that I left his talk ashamed at my own ignorance, overwhelmed by his selfless honesty, and absolutely livid at the public’s response to Khadr’s plight.

When the audience clapped for Edney during his talk, he would close his eyes slightly and raise his hand at them, as if to say, “I didn’t come here for your applause.” He talked about how he was given awards from all sorts of law societies, who gave him standing ovations from coast-to-coast every time he talked about his favorite subject: Omar Khadr. Yet, nobody from those audiences ever contacted him to give him any serious support. For all the money he spent out of his own pocket, for every award, every standing ovation he got, and for every lecture he gave from Toronto, to San Francisco, to Yale University, to New York, no real political action seemed to follow. “There are times when I’ve prepared speeches to Omar,” he said, “to say that I’m not coming back—but I can’t.”

“There are times in life when you simply don’t walk away,” he said

I don’t know many words that ring louder in my head today than those.

“And I keep on looking for that Muslim voice.”

Indeed, I don’t think Edney ever found what he was looking for. He kept telling Muslims to band together to advocate on each other’s behalf, instead of waiting for some outside savior; someone less brown or vulnerable, someone who won’t end up “on a list.” He isn’t the first person to diagnose this problem, and the Muslim “community” is still scared of standing up for itself in any meaningful way, en masse. Instead, non-Muslim advocates like Edney bankrupt themselves for these causes because they understand that justice isn’t about some fancy house or a fancy car. Meanwhile, there is a complacent silence among the Muslims. It’s the stuff of fear, and it has a strong stench. I don’t blame myself for being sick, but I’m sick of hearing myself talk about how much the Muslims suck; that conversation gets real old fast.

Omar Khadr was, after years of national and international outcry, finally moved to a detention center in Alberta. On May 7th ­of this year, he was granted bail after 13 years of detention. His legal entanglements are too complicated to be relayed here, but suffice it to say that those military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay aren’t exactly filled with proper justice. Khadr is now 28 years-of- age, and has a series of restrictions placed on his life. Stephen Harper tried hard to keep him behind bars, but, at this point, it seems that much of the public has come to understand just how absurd the whole ordeal is. Khadr spoke to media recently and said that “freedom is even better than I thought.” If you were there seven years ago at Edney’s talk, those words should break your heart.

No one could have foreseen Khadr’s release that night, and Edney’s heavy words made it clear that whatever piece of justice that might fall from the sky can never match the amount of pain and frustration endured by Omar Khadr. Still, his freedom is what matters, and the kind of dogged loyalty Edney has to Khadr is a beacon for the Muslims. For people who speak the ideals of Islamic religiosity, it might be time for us to start living it. Our failures in that respect will define who we are, and it already has.

Photo credit: Canadian protest in front of the US consulate in downtown Toronto for the repatriation of Omar Khadr/Florin Zamfirescu



The Canada Revenue Agency’s political inquisitions

Published by CBC News on April 16th, 2015

If a democratic system thrives on participation from a civil society free to express itself without state intervention, then Canadian democracy could use some help these days.

Citizens who band together into groups that push politicians to engage a problem should, in theory, be a vital aspect of democratic decision-making. Yet the Harper administration, in its infinite political wisdom, has devoted millions of taxpayer dollars via Canada Revenue Agency, formerly Revenue Canada, to, in effect, target groups that are critical of federal policies.

The CRA launched a series of 60 audits in 2012, and, tellingly, the targeted organizations all seem to espouse views that don’t fit so well with the Harper agenda.

Canadian NGOs with charitable status can devote up to 10 per cent of their resources to political activities, or risk losing their status as a charity under the law. Since 2012, $13 million has been earmarked by the Harper administration to audit organizations that, in the eyes of the CRA, may have devoted too much to political activities.

These ‘political-activity audits’ have primarily targeted environmental groups, human rights organizations, and labour-backed think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Meanwhile, more conservative-minded groups like the Manning Foundation or the Fraser Institute have not faced such aggression from the CRA. Many of them have also, like their leftist counterparts, participated in ‘political activities.’

“Right-wing” groups don’t get same attention

Though a CRA spokesperson will come out once in a while to proclaim that the executive branch has no influence over which groups the agency targets, right-wing civil society organizations have yet to receive much attention from the tax agency. Rather, the latest charity to be targeted in a significant way is the United Steelworkers’ Humanity Fund, a labour-backed organization that has supported food banks and disaster relief initiatives for over 30 years.

It has donated about two per cent of its annual revenue to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), an umbrella organization that advocates for more accountability in the Canadian mining sector, among other things.

This support for the CNCA, an organization that hasn’t shied away from its political purposes, is apparently what the CRA is zeroing in on. The fund has often butted heads with the Harper administration over labour issues, and wants more oversight of Canadian mining practices abroad, which, according to its president Ken Neumann, is primarily why the CRA began auditing the group’s finances last year.

Such audits can certainly disrupt an organization’s day-to-day operations significantly, but this kind of trouble isn’t the main reason why these intrusions are bad for Canadian democracy in the long run. Targeted organizations that are forced to go through the lengthy auditing process can, whether the government intends it or not, become examples of what not to say or do in the Harper era.

Groups practice self-censorship

One can hardly blame other charities if they decide to interpret the current inquisitorial atmosphere as being politically motivated. This means that if they want to keep their charitable status, practicing a degree of self-censorship may end up being totally rational. This is an anti-democratic development almost by definition, and it hardly matters whether a particular agenda is behind it all, though the available evidence suggests that Revenue Canada’s choices aren’t exactly politically neutral.

Earlier this year, Dying with Dignity Canada lost its charitable status after being audited for about three years. It’s a non-profit that advocates for terminally ill patients to have a choice when it comes to euthanasia – not exactly a ‘pro-life’ stance according to contemporary political standards.

The CRA says that it made a mistake back in 1982 and 2011 when it confirmed charitable status for Dying with Dignity. It remains a mystery as to how more conservatively minded charities have managed to follow the rules so well as to not even attract the attention of the agency, which has certainly found a new kind of zeal for revoking charitable status.

Equally mysterious is why there hasn’t been more uproar when it comes to the government’s auditing targets. The list of charities being investigated and audited by the CRA looks increasingly like Stephen Harper’s enemy list. The numbers are so lopsided as to be almost comical, yet no significant amount of public scrutiny coalesced to call for a re-evaluation of the agency’s methods.

Photo: the Canada Revenue Agency headquarters in Ottawa./CC


international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

ISIS: Prime Minister Harper’s top political bogeyman of the day

Published by the CBC on April 7th, 2015

Canada is ready to extend its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) into Syria, carrying on a war that’ll cost about half-a-billion taxpayer dollars by early next year. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is following up on his promise that Canada won’t “stand on the sidelines” when it comes to the fight against Muslim extremism.

This kind of rhetoric has helped make ISIS into Canada’s top political bogeyman as the Tory administration insists on adopting tough security measures at home as Canadian Forces fight the bad guys abroad.

The public language in support of this two-front “war on terror” has given rise to a new kind of militarism in Canada. It’s characterized by a political rhetoric that galvanizes support for itself not only by pointing to a foreign enemy, but also by emphasizing the need to root out the enemy’s ideological supporters on Canadian soil.

This latter emphasis has, at the hands of the Tories, become a way to depict dissent against government policy as support for Muslim terrorism.

Support for terrorism

Take the debate around Bill C-51 (the “Anti-terrorism Act”), the Conservative’s proposal on how to fight domestic terrorism. The bill is making its way through the legislative process with limited debate and examination, despite containing provisions that will, according to a chorus of critics, forever change the landscape of Canadian national security. Its supporters emphasize the imminent nature of an ill-defined terrorism threat, keeping in mind that security issues will likely occupy the minds of voters in the upcoming fall election.

This process is now essentially an exploitation of the current climate of fear engendered primarily by images of ISIS’s bloody exploits, combined with memories of recent, high-profile incidents of violent extremism in cities like OttawaSydney, and Paris. It is a convergence of the foreign and domestic policy agendas in a way that casts “Muslim terror” as the enemy, often without bothering to differentiate between Islam’s peaceful followers and those who have been radicalized.

This monolithic representation is calculated to yield political results. A recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute shows that 44 per cent of participating Canadians hold a “negative” view of Muslims. This kind of public opinion should give confidence to those who want to use unsubstantiated accusations and assertions to malign Muslims for political gain.

No niqab

Harper’s hardline stance against allowing Muslim women to wear the face-veil (niqab) during citizenship ceremonies is just one case-in-point. Without acknowledging that the niqab isn’t even a universally accepted concept within Islam, the prime minister said in the House of Commons last month that the practice is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

He didn’t bother to clarify which culture he had in mind, leaving it up to the public imagination to decide what he was implying. Days later, Tory MP Larry Miller had to publicly apologize after he told women who wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from” on a radio show.

Still more ridiculous is Defence Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to use International Women’s Day to tweet what he claimed are photographs of women being led off in chains by ISIS.

It was later revealed that the photos had nothing to do with ISIS, and were actually depictions of Shia Muslims commemorating the death of the Prophet’s family in a ceremony.

 Muddying the Waters

This kind of political messaging and decision-making helps to confuse the already-unclear public representation of Canadian Muslims and their beliefs. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of confusion that allows those within the Muslim community who question the government’s security policies to be easily antagonized.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) got a taste of this during last month’s borderline-farcical parliamentary hearings on Bill C-51, when executive director Ihsaan Gardee had to reply to Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s question of whether his group supports terrorism.

Ablonczy was referring to an unsubstantiated rumour, but she succeeded in turning the nature and focus of the discussion away from Bill C-51’s more problematic provisions. Instead, Muslims like Gardee are forced to defend against a process that seeks to represent their community in a way that places them within the ideological orbit of groups like ISIS.

Political language that demonizes an entire segment of the domestic population is helping to reinforce the Tories’ pro-war rhetoric against ISIS, and vice-versa. These parallel narratives have increasingly given rise to the most recent form of Canadian militarism, a jingoistic aggression that uses racial bullying at home to bolster support for questionable foreign interventions.

Photo credit: The niqab has become a political wedge issue in Canada/CC