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