middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Frontiers in Fear-Mongering: Natasha Fatah and the “Liberal Muslim”

All problems with how most Canadians perceive their fellow Muslim citizens derive ultimately from a maligned public discourse founded upon post-9/11 stigma. The conversation always starts with whether a certain Muslim or group of Muslims are ripe for “radicalization” or turning to “political Islam (Islamism)”. Prescriptions are then supplied without serious empirical evidence in order to remedy such Muslims’ attraction to violence and intolerance. So far, the representative targets of such a discourse have been older, male imams of particular mosques who dress traditionally and rant a lot.

But that seems to be changing. In a broad stroke of collective-libel, Toronto-based journalist Natasha Fatah (daughter of Tarek Fatah) has tried to refocus the scope of our prevailing discourse away from the older generation of Muslims in order to highlight that “It’s their children–in desperate need for identity–who have turned to conservative, hard-line and politicized Islam for the answers.”

In her July 6th, 2011 op-ed for the Globe and Mail, Fatah cites several experiences in her life as a Muslim Canadian in order to “prove” that young Muslim Canadians are embracing a version of Islam that is overtly political, bent on imposing “Shariah law” on all Canadians, placing males over females, and demanding that all Muslims make violent jihad on non-believers.

Citing her experiences with MSAs (Muslims Student Associations) while in university, Fatah recalls how she “was told to sit behind the men, not next to them. That it would be better if I [Fatah] covered my [Fatah’s] hair. That sharia is the optimal way to resolve personal, legal and political issues, […] that, when filling out a form, the ink from my pen should not touch the ink of a ‘brother’s’ pen.” She then goes on to lament how most Muslim girls choose to wear the hijab (something she claims that their mothers have left behind), how most of the “Toronto-18” were teenage boys (leaving aside the case’s embarrassing incidents of government entrapment), and how she has met so many Muslim parents who have lost their sons to overseas “jihad”.

Surely, all this is evidence that Canadian Muslim youth are being turned into future Ahmadinejads.

Not really. First of all, Fatah is conflating two separate phenomena in her (lack of a) conceptual framework: violence cloaked by religious edict (i.e. al-Qaeda) and general social conservatism, the kind symbolized sometimes by the wearing of hijabs. Occasionally, the latter may produce a cohort of individuals who make off-colour recommendations like “Don’t touch the brothers’ ink!!” But to claim that this is representative of all Muslim youth is simply laughable. The root of Fatah’s confusion mirrors that of all Islamophobes. It is a conflation of personal conservatism with violence. According to Fatah’s piece, those who do not conform to “Western” values must be prone to wanting to kill non-Muslims. Not true.

Similarly, certain individuals within the Muslim community who make off-colour remarks about women are (1) not representative of all Muslim youth (the presidents of both the University of Toronto at Mississauga and Ryerson University MSAs for academic year 2010-2011, were female), and (2) cannot automatically be viewed as potential terrorists. It is true that members of al-Qaeda and similar organizations harbour literalist interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah. But the reverse is not necessarily true. There are no serious surveys or studies to support Fatah’s claims. Thus, just because a Muslim girl wants to wear the hijab (hardly an anomaly anymore), or just because a select number of ill-advised Muslims believe that God hates women and gays, is not reason to argue that they will soon commit acts of terrorism. Nor do they provide a “breeding ground” for future terrorists.

Fatah’s other confused conflation is her inability to distinguish between the miniscule number of Muslims who join organizations like al-Qaeda, and the bulk of Muslims who want to participate in their country’s political process—peacefully—just like everyone else. By Fatah’s estimation, those of the latter camp qualify as Islamists who cannot tolerate civil rights and non-Muslims. If Fatah is truly worried about Conservatives who want to undermine civil society and women’s rights, she ought to look no further than her own prime minister. When was the last time anyone labelled Stephen Harper a “Christianist” obsessed with violent crusades? If one were to replace the target of Fatah’s fear-mongering with the name of any other religious group, alarm bells would be going off in more than one corner of Canadian society.

Citing the Toronto-18 case and the occasional departure of Muslim teenagers to militant organizations overseas also do not qualify as evidence for Fatah’s argument. Apparently, Fatah is not familiar with the countless studies conducted on the matter of militancy in Muslim-majority countries. It would not have hurt for Fatah to have examined the work of, say, Dr. Robert Pape (University of Chicago). Pape, himself a conservative, heads up the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST). Perhaps the most significant academic organization to study the matter of terrorism by using serious data and evidence-based methodologies, CPOST revealed an unsurprising fact: foreign occupations around the world induce insurgent violence and terror. Similarly, the bomb plot hatched by members of the Toronto-18 (with the help of CSIS), and the departure of, say, Somali youth off to al-Shabaab, derive ultimately from their anger of what they perceive as the geopolitical injustices being imposed upon their peoples. The origins of their rage have nothing to do with Islam or “Islamism”.

The claim that “Islamism is spreading throughout our campuses” could use a lot more empirical backing. However, it is doubtful that Fatah would have found any had she actually bothered to seriously look into the matter. Take for example the Muslim youth organization, MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America). Perhaps the largest Muslims youth organization in North America, it provides youth-led camping trips and seminars that focus on civil participation and leadership within local communities. The youth come back to their respective communities and begin to organize food banks, community dinners, and refugee clinics. Here is one of MYNA’s promotional videos. One can now decide for oneself whether the largest Muslim youth organization in North American is constituted by young, women-hating, arch-conservatives who are dying to go and fight for al-Qaeda. MYNA is affiliated with ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), which currently has a female president with a Ph.D from the University of Chicago, Dr. Ingrid Mattson. How would Fatah explain all this?

Of course, a larger social phenomenon is at work here. Muslims like Fatah know which way the wind is blowing. Alas, post-9/11 stress and fear still lingers, and it would be a shame for individuals like Fatah to let it all blow by without exploitation. By antagonizing the bulk of Muslims in the Western world (old or young), Fatah is able to present herself as belonging to a minority of objective, liberal, tolerant, and well-integrated Muslims. This makes her much more attractive to the mass media and the political class, who have done nothing substantial in the past decade to help tell the truth about Canadian Muslims.

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