Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 27th, 2014
When Justin Trudeau, the popular leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, entered Missisauga’s Verdi Hospitality Centre on the night of August 11th, several dozen protestors holding Palestinian flags had already gathered near the parking lot outside.
A tenuous ceasefire between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, seemed to halt, for the moment, Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, otherwise known as Operation Protective Edge. Over 1,800 Palestinians hadperished (among thousands injured) since the beginning of the operation, and Gaza continues to be subjected to an illegal Israeli blockade.
“We’re here to challenge and protest against Canada’s stance on the situation in Gaza,” said Raed Ayad, a protestor who also sits on the board of Palestine House, a local NGO representing the Palestinian-Canadian community.
Unfortunately for Trudeau, initial plans of celebrating Eid-al-fitr with the Muslims of Mississauga under more light-hearted circumstances had to change. Circumstances seemed to dictate a more politically charged event, and Trudeau was under some pressure to deliver.
Still, part of it was due to the Liberal Party’s own doing. About a week or so after Protective Edge took off last month, when dozens of Palestinian corpses (most of them civilians) were already piling up, Trudeau publicized his official view on the matter in a short press release:
“The Liberal Party of Canada strongly condemns Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and its rocket attacks on civilians.
“Israel should be commended for having accepted the ceasefire proposal, and demonstrating its commitment to peace. The Liberal Party of Canada, and many in the international community including the United States, the U.N. Security Council, and the Palestinian Authority, had urged a ceasefire that could have ended the tragic civilian loss of life in Gaza and the suffering of Israelis under terrorist attack.
“Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”
There is no mention of Israel’s disproportionate use of violence, or the unlawful siege. The fact that a massive raid into the West Bank, which killed five Palestinians, prompted the initial rocket fire by Hamas also went unspecified. The statement seemed to place the fault of the entire invasion squarely on the shoulders of Hamas, which refused to agree to a ceasefire at the time, given Israel’s unwillingness to lift the blockade (among other circumstances).
“Trudeau hasn’t condemned any of Israel’s war crimes and it’s a shame on the Muslim community to celebrate Eid with him when ten kids were killed on the day of Eid,” Ayad said.
It’s safe to say that, like Ayad, a large segment of the Muslim community wanted an explanation from Trudeau. One Liberal organizer even said, with regret (though in confidence), that he’d “rather have no statement been made at all” than live with the short blurb that Trudeau’s people posted on his website.
In other words, tension was in the air. Trudeau’s dinner was going to have to be more than just a generic meet-and-greet. At the very least, his speech had to address the situation in Gaza—and perhaps his one-sided statement as well, if people asked.
“We want a clear-cut condemnation of Israel’s conduct from the political opposition in Canada,” said Joan MacNeil, Toronto coordinator for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a Montreal-based NGO. “There’s been a lot of hand-wringing from the Liberals and all the candidates should know that people will be looking back on this issue when it’s time to vote next year.”
MacNeil was one of about 800 guests inside Verdi hall that night and works on Middle East policy for a living, so it can’t be said that she represents the average attendee, who probably isn’t as savvy on the Palestinian issue as she is.
Nonetheless, the average person observing the Muslim community could be forgiven for predicting that a crowd of concerned (perhaps even adversarial) Muslim attendees would show up to face down Trudeau and his hardcore supporters. The stage seemed set for a serious exchange to take place.
Trudeau is a central figure in Canadian politics at the moment, and, according to the polls, his party is gaining serious momentum in lieu of next year’s general election. If all goes wrong for the reigning Conservative Party (and for the New Democrats), the 42-year-old Trudeau may end up being Prime Minister in less than a year. This was a rare, golden opportunity for Muslims who attended the event to let him in on their woes and demands. Such a chance isn’t going to present itself again for some time.
That’s precisely why Trudeau’s night at Verdi deserves to be called a real embarrassment for the Muslim community.
To be completely clear, it wasn’t an embarrassment for Trudeau and the Liberals, who did what they had to do. They had put together a lavish setting, brought out a sizeable crowd, and set up an interactive encounter with “Justin.” Numerous Liberal candidates showed up, and, along with a general layout of the party’s agenda, were presented to the crowd.
The organizers even had Trudeau walk to each table to (in theory, anyway) speak to every attendee. But, alas, therein lay the rub.
Instead of taking the chance to field some tough questions, those in attendance transformed a relatively democratic setting into something quite comical.
Right after Trudeau’s speech, in which he specified the importance of a “Palestinian state” vis a vis Israel’s security, among other niceties, the audience decided to make a total fool of itself.
As Trudeau began to make his way to the first of many tables, a crowd of about two-dozen people instantly surrounded him. Many of them already had their smartphones on camera mode and were placing their faces next to Trudeau’s. That set the tone for all that followed. This human vortex around Trudeau soon grew into a mini mob. It eventually became impossible for anyone to try and penetrate these layers of human fencing around Trudeau, as this author tried to on three occasions, foolishly. When those who had had their fill finally took a seat, new well-wishers immediately rose up to take their place.
But, in keeping with the laws of physics, the number of people around Trudeau was inversely proportional to the length of each individual encounter. No prolonged question-answer period could have taken place amidst this truly chaotic spectacle. Anyone placed in the wrong spot at the wrong time could easily have been victimized between numerous tables and chairs. Even those sitting down and enjoying their meals weren’t safe from unguarded body parts doing battle for Trudeau “selfies;” buttocks were constantly hitting the heads of those trying to eat their food.
One lady shouted “Where’s the security?” as several bearded men almost got into it with one another as each jockeyed to shake Trudeau’s hand. Those responsible for the Liberal leader’s safety (and, presumably, the safety of everyone else), could only keep calm and mutter “don’t touch him” between elbows, body-checks, and other fanfare. In retrospect, how the night unfolded without half-a-dozen more fisticuffs/brawls is quite mysterious.
“It was unfortunate that many people didn’t remain in their seats as per the organizers instructions,” said Omar Alghabra, a former Liberal MP who’s running for the Mississauga Centre seat in next year’s election. “He [Trudeau] was supposed to visit all tables to engage in conversations with guests, but so many were impatient and didn’t allow others to have any form of meaningful conversations.”
And so it went on for several hours until Trudeau (Elvis?) shook his last hand and left the building. No doubt the entire event could be perceived as a giant commercial for the Liberal Party. Whatever lengthy, meaningful dialogue seemed to have taken place with other Liberal candidates and organizers after Trudeau left. As to the handful of folks who were lucky enough to get a word in with Trudeau himself, they were just that: a handful. It was a golden opportunity and, as far as the bulk of the attendees were concerned, the largely Muslim crowd let it slip through their fingers.
A serious democracy implies a public that’s genuinely interested in shaping public opinion and policy. This interest and awareness should, in theory, increase for whichever community if its people come to realize that they lack the ability to influence power and to improve their own interests.
The Muslims of Canada constitute one such community in the post-9/11 era. Those in power, including Trudeau, will only take the grievances and needs of certain groups seriously if prompted to do so. If Muslims trip over themselves to please politicians, they only guarantee their own political irrelevance.
Given what has happened to the Muslim community under Stephen Harper, in addition to the wreckage that is the Middle East, there’s no good reason why those who attended the dinner didn’t seize the opportunity to truly question Trudeau. Instead, their presence and conduct amounted to one of the more hilarious, and sad, showings of political servitude in recent memory.
This can’t be what the community needs. Muslims in Canada must place the worthiest of candidates in the seats of power, and to influence their political direction. There’s no way for that to happen if they don’t take their civic duties seriously.