international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada doesn’t need a US-style surveillance state

Published by Al Jazeera America on March 13th, 2015

Thanks to leaks by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the modern U.S. security state makes Big Brother from George Orwell’s “1984” look quaint. Thanks to the Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, Canada is heading quickly in the same direction. Bill C-51, currently under debate in Parliament, represents the most sweeping threat to Canadian civil liberties yet.

The Tories have long emphasized the danger of domestic terrorism, but there is little evidence that Canada faces an imminent threat. And only six Muslims were involved in planning terrorism on U.S. soil in 2014, the fewest since 2008. The exact figures for Canada are unknown, but they are almost certainly even lower.

The government’s actual motivation appears to be political opportunism. Last fall, polls showed Harper and the Conservatives badly trailing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. Then in October, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec Muslim man, killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Later that month, Martin Rouleau killed a soldier in Quebec. Harper wasted no time in announcing that his administration would quickly pass laws to bolster public safety. Since then, his position in the polls has improved steadily.

C-51 is only the latest step in the expansion of Canada’s security state. In 2011 alone, federal agencies made more than 1 million requests to acquire private user data from Canadian telecommunication companies. The Snowden archive shows that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been spying on people in Canadathrough airport Wi-Fi. In December, Bill C-13 became law, allowing police easier access to private transmission data and tracking data. Though it is known popularly as the cyberbullying bill, only a negligible fraction of C-13 refers to the issue; the bulk of it has to do with lawful access. Another piece of legislation now making its way through the legislative process proposes that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) be allowed to operate beyond Canada’s borders.

Bill C-51 seeks to expand state power even further. It would criminalize online speech that “promotes” terrorism, lower the threshold for making preventive arrests and expand the CSIS from an intelligence-gathering entity into what the Globe and Mail calls a “secret police force.” The language around these newly proposed powers for CSIS is quite vague, centering on allowing the agency to “disrupt” operations it finds problematic. The bill also includes the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which would enable at least 17 government agencies to share information for an incredibly broad range of reasons, most of which have little to do with terrorism.

Current safeguards against invasion of privacy (which date to the 1983 Privacy Act) are no match for such a rapidly expanding surveillance state. Even critics in the government have recognized the need for more oversight. Four former prime ministers, in addition to numerous civil society groups, have warned against the passage of Bill C-51. Even former CSIS Chief Geoffrey O’Brian has voiced his concerns. But the Conservatives put an end to the first round of debate regarding the bill after only a few hours. With a majority in Parliament, they are poised to pass the act in the coming months.

The problem of terrorism deserves attention. But there is little evidence that drastic expansion of police and spying powers would make Canada more secure. After the Snowden leaks in 2013, a New America Foundation study found that bulk collection of metadata contributed to just four of the 225 post-9/11 terrorism cases that ended in arrest or conviction. The study concludes that the U.S. government’s claim that such surveillance is necessary is “overblown and even misleading.”

If given new powers, security forces will likely alienate Muslim communities by encroaching on their civil liberties. This would play into the hands of violent extremists who propagate the narrative that Canada and the rest of the West are obsessed with destroying Islam. It would also make work harder for law enforcement, which relies on cooperation with community members and leaders to identify terrorist threats. The Harper administration’s extreme anti-terrorism policies threaten both privacy and safety. Canada needs a robust public debate to challenge the unexamined ideology of the security state.

Photo: Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Quebec Chamber of Commerce/CC

[http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/3/canada-doesnt-need-a-us-style-surveillance-state.html]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Death and Reporting for Chapel Hill

Published by The Islamic Monthly on February 11th, 2015

That The Independent of Britain had a long article on what happened last night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before any major U.S. outlet made mention of the incident is a good reflection of how the “mainstream” media works these days. Their subsequent framing of what happened is perhaps more indicative of how prevailing assumptions and orthodoxies influence the way such events are talked about in the post-9/11 era.

The cold-blooded murder of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was announced by local police in a statement that revealed their names a few hours after the initial pronouncement. In that time, several local media outlets (WRAL, etc.) were already on the case, and the crux of what happened was relatively clear before the sun rose this morning.

A 46-year-old neighbor of the deceased by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks turned himself in last night to local authorities, confessing to shooting all three victims in the head. The dead were all university students at the University of North Carolina, and a Facebook page called “Our Three Winners” has since been made, presumably by family members, to honor their memory. The first post seems to have been made not so long after midnight last night. Thousands of people already “liked” the page (it now has over 53,000 “likes”) before “breaking news” outlets even tweeted about the murders this morning. For example, the Twitter account for CNN Breaking (@cnnbrk) tweeted about the incident at around 5:30am this morning. That hardly counts as “breaking.”

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Murders like this happen in the United States all the time, and I’ve had several discussions with reporters and observers alike on social media, who note that it takes time for local news like this to catch on, and for national media to decide on whether such an incident is worthy of coverage. There’s no doubt in my mind, having worked in the world mainstream news, that systemic constraints are present within major media outlets to filter out the newsworthy from the negligible. Nonetheless, that the #ChapelHillShooting was worthy of serious scrutiny by the media was made abundantly clear relatively early. The national media would have done well to pay attention to how the Western Muslim communities were reacting to what happened. Social media was abuzz with comments on the murders, while criticisms of mainstream neglect were expressed, among other ways, in cartoon form before the national media seemed to have caught on. In short, I think it’s fair to say that major broadcasters and papers could’ve been a bit faster on this one, and one wonders how their news-sense would’ve buzzed had the perpetrators been Muslims, and the victims been, say, a white family.

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Hicks is a self-identifying atheist, and is being held on three counts of first-degree murder without bond. Here’s one of his online posts, which has been shared widely on the Internet: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” That’s about as suspicious and ideologically-charged a statement I can think of (and it’s not the only one). I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who wants to view the incident in light of such a comment. In fact, the police are doing the same thing as they consider the “possibility that this was hate-motivated.”

Still, notice the framing here. Consider the fact that the police and several major outlets have led with their description of the murders as having possibly been motivated by a “dispute over parking.” The police say that this is one of the possible factors influencing a crime that may also include a hate bias. Fair enough, but nowhere in the national, public sphere does one notice any inclination from agenda-setting outlets to report or portray Hicks’ alleged crime as motivated first-and-foremost by ideology or the extremist versions of atheism. No one’s reporting any protests being planned in front of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins’ homes. The public is much more cautious to mention the possibility of a parking dispute, or perhaps to note that we shouldn’t rule out factors like mental health, etc.

Now contrast this prevailing approach to the way much of the “mainstream” media reports on Muslim extremism in the post-9/11 era. There’s hardly any caution or nuance when it comes to contextualizing the perpetrators’ actions with anything more than oxymoronic labels like “Islamic terrorism.” The implicit (and sometime explicit, depending on who you read), assumption is that violence and Muslims go together like two peas in a pod, that the latter is a natural generator of the former since Islam is intrinsically violent. If a Muslim gunman broke into a white family’s home and shot three of them dead, I imagine no one would fixate much on the parking spat.

These are all signs of the times we live in. Here in Toronto, Canada, I flip through the photos uploaded online of the deceased, and find it hard not to see their faces among the Muslims I know. Their presence could’ve been lifted from any Muslim community in the West, trying to keep themselves cogent in a post-9/11 atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstanding, and misinformation. The way that their deaths have been discussed and portrayed should serve to remind us that Muslims today don’t live in neutral times. Perhaps we can take note of their tragedy, and remind ourselves to look out for one another in these dark hours.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/death-and-reporting-for-chapel-hill/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

The utter inefficacy of overbearing security laws

Published by the Middle East Eye on February 4th, 2015

Several attacks by Muslim extremists over the past few months in Canada, Australia, and France have re-emphasised the place of “home-grown terrorism” in the political language of the Western world. From Ottawa to Paris, new legislative and financial investments are being made by governments to build up policing and security systems, marketed enthusiastically by their proponents as being vital to public safety. The official rationale given for this ramp-up in policing and surveillance is that such a strategy will mitigate terrorism and radicalisation. Yet, a closer look at the nature of these issues suggests that such overhanded security policies will eventually backfire.

The new anti-terrorism legislation introduced last month in Canada by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is a case in point.  The “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” (or Bill C-51, as it’s now known) is the most sweeping set of laws proposed by a post-9/11 Canadian administration dealing with terrorism. It coincides with Canada’s involvement in the bombing campaign against the “Islamic State” (six Canadian fighter jets and two surveillance jets are flying out of Kuwaiti airbases), which has been buttressed by a consistent post-9/11 rhetoric of fear. One way this narrative manifests itself within domestic Canadian politics is through how the threat of radicalisation and home-grown terrorism are being addressed by the government.

Bill C-51 is just the latest example. The proposed bill will, among other things, further expand the powers and mandate of the country’s spying agency, CSIS, while also seeking to criminalise “any materials that promote or encourage acts of terrorism against Canadians in general, or the commission of a specific attack against Canadians”. These laws are being tabled at a time when Canada has already constructed an overweight security apparatus that lacks civilian oversight.

Yasin Dwyer, who worked as a Muslim chaplain with the Canadian Correctional Services for 12 years (and with several terrorism offenders) has noted that the security-heavy approach is tough on crime, but not on the causes of crime. It doesn’t emphasise the need to get to the root of these problems, which, in his opinion, has much less to do with religious belief than with personal grievances and frustrations. Instead, governments are building massive structures to regulate the symptom instead of treating the disease.

Canada is already part of the infamous “5-Eyes” surveillance alliance along with the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and has taken huge steps to enhance the powers of policing and intelligence agencies within its borders. A section of the Snowden archive shows, for example, that the Communications Security Establishment (CSE, formerly CSEC) has been monitoring millions of Internet downloads with a program code-named LEVITATION.

This is just one aspect of what is essentially Canada’s own global surveillance apparatus, which will continue to grow if Bill C-51 becomes law. Documents unearthed by security and legal scholar, Michael Geist, show that Canadian telecommunications companies are disturbingly compliant when talking to the federal government about having to install surveillance and interception systems within their networks, and to divulge user data to the state when asked. Moreover, watchdogs from both inside and outside of government have warned that Canada’s anti-terror laws are endangering basic civil liberties.

The animating idea behind anti-terrorism right now is that more policing/surveillance equals more opportunities to foil terrorism plots before they’re carried out. A window opened in Canada after what happened last October (and after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris) for many politicians in the West to return to a rhetoric of fear in order to climb up the polls. France has invested a large amount of resources into the country’s intelligence apparatus. Canada is doing the same thing. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest that radicalisation and the threat of terrorism is on the rise in Canada.

What’s being ignored is the huge pile of evidence against the idea that heavy state security equals a safer public. One of the more thorough studies was done by the New America Foundation, which looked at 225 plots within the US since 9/11 that ended in successful convictions, kills or otherwise. It concluded that only four out of the hundreds of cases had anything substantive to do with the NSA’s massive collection of private metadata. Moreover, studies from security and intelligence organisations such as the Soufan Group have emphasised that the most important way to mitigate radicalisation is to partner with grassroots groups that have a hand on the pulse of the community of interest.

Stephane Pressault, for example, is a Project Coordinator for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) who has worked with a large number of youth throughout Canada. He notes that the process of radicalisation is only truly noticeable by those close to the affected, and that such people should be incorporated into the solution – that security officials should be liaising a lot more with community members who have a sincere interest in public safety.

It is the only recognised way to understand the specific dynamics at work behind the very individualised and multi-dimensional trajectory of radicalisation; it’s impossible to get a handle on if the state is purposefully or inadvertently antagonising such communities monolithically.

And yet this is what’s happening right now between Muslim communities across the Western world and the governments they live under. A direct, though implicit connection is made between foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East and the domestic strategy to mitigate home-grown terrorism. The political narrative underpinning both spheres of policy is one of externalising all evil onto a particular group. In this case, the values that animate Muslim communities living in North America and Europe are being perceived like the ideologies that underpin the “Islamic State.”

This kind of paranoia and antagonism will breed further paranoia and antagonism within these communities, because such a narrative plays right into the hands of Muslims extremists who also promote a “West versus Islam” worldview. It’s exactly this type of mentality that must be avoided, and yet many governments are pushing policies that will only enhance its appeal.

Photo credit: Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper/CC

[http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/utter-inefficacy-overbearing-security-laws-1302351023]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Harper’s new ‘anti-terror’ laws threaten basic freedoms

Published by Ricochet on January 27th, 2015

As Parliament resumes this week, the Conservative government will be introducing yet another set of anti-terrorism provisions.

The CBC has learned from federal sources that the legislation will “provide national security agencies with explicit authority to obtain and share information that is now subject to privacy limits.” These are the laws being prepared by Public Safety Canada.

The laws were in the works even prior to last October’s shooting at Parliament. After that infamous day in Ottawa, preceded days earlier by an incident in Quebec, the Harper government emphasized the case for Bill C-44 (“Protection of Canada from Terrorists’ Act”), aimed at expanding CSIS’s mandate globally, among other things.

Then, just last month, Bill C-13 — otherwise known as the “Cyberbullying Bill” — received royal assent. Other than a few provisions addressing the issue in its name, Bill C-13 is mostly designed to give law enforcement more investigative powers. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, along with a host of civil liberty groups, have criticized these new pro-security developments. There’s not enough oversight to “watch the watchers,” so to speak.

The Harper administration hasn’t responded with much substance to these warnings. The House of Commons Public Safety and National Security committee has given Bill C-44 a few hours of consideration, and Therrien hasn’t been asked to testify in regards to the bill’s shortcomings.

The advent of online technology and the post-9/11 culture of fear have mixed to create a truly frightening global security apparatus with the power to eliminate much of human privacy. Surveillance has become a centerpiece of the “War on Terror,” which has killed far more civilians than “Islamic terrorists.” The West’s counterproductive post-9/11 policies continue to act as a recruiting tool for Muslim extremists around the world.

Canada, a part of the “5-Eyes” international security and intelligence alliance, seems to be going through a period of security and surveillance enhancements that, according to numerous watchdogs, lack overall accountability. It’s within this kind of climate that the Harper administration is tabling and passing more and more pro-security laws before the next federal election — all without extensive debate.

These companies, amazingly, have told the government that actual legislation isn’t really needed to compel them to add surveillance or interception systems for the monitoring of private users.

This kind of atmosphere isn’t just affecting the state itself, but also private telecommunication companies that Canadians use on a daily basis. The issue of lawful access to private communication metadata by state authorities is a hugely important topic that should be discussed thoroughly, given that it affects the very fabric of a democratic society. Yet it took an Access to Information and Privacy request from Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa, to show that the government has been trying to figure out a way to have telecoms install interception and surveillance apparatuses into their systems.

When former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled Bill C-30, or the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” in early 2012, public outrage at its provisions caused the government to eventually withdraw the bill in February 2013. One highly criticized component of the dead bill was the mandating of Canadian service providers or telecom companies to install total surveillance systems and report their findings to the state when asked. A memo obtained by Geist shows that despite the bill’s failure to become law, the government is still talking to telecoms about installing interception systems to collect user communication, which would be disclosed to state authorities, who will be able to lawfully access such information without warrants.

Yet perhaps the most telling component of the document obtained by Geist is the telecom companies’ apparent nonchalance when it comes to the privacy of their clients. The memo notes that these companies, amazingly, have told the government that actual legislation isn’t really needed to compel them to add surveillance or interception systems for the monitoring of private users. That’s because, according to the memo, prepared for Public Safety Canada, “the telecommunications market will soon shift to a point where interception capability will simply become a standard component of available equipment, and that technical changes in the way communications actually travel on communications networks will make it even easier to intercept communications.”

In other words, don’t bother passing those laws because, soon enough, all ISPs will be procuring surveillance and interception systems from manufacturers by default. It’s hard not to be at least a bit shocked by how overly compliant these companies are when it comes to such matters. There’s been a substantial amount of publicity given to the fact that tech giants like Google and Facebook are giving their customers more encryption options in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks — much to the displeasure of government “spy masters.” Yet, on the flip side, Canadian telecom companies are basically telling the government that in the future they’ll be working to make state surveillance much easier. Despite all the work done by brave whistleblowers around the world (of various political stripes), it’s still apparently easier to base politics on fear rather than on courage.

It’s easier to relegate these security and privacy developments into a mental corner and treat such matters as purely technical than to situate them in their broader, “War on Terror” context. These are not just cold, meaningless developments in technology that occur outside the world of human interaction. A state apparatus that can pry into the lives of its atomized citizenry is indicative of totalitarian tendencies, threatening not just the quality of democratic practice, but, given the proliferation and importance of electronic communication, liberty itself.

It’s within this overall context that mass spying and policing powers will be expanded in Canada, in addition to many other countries, who have also, subsequent to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, fallen prey to the politics of fear.

Canadian telecom companies received a huge number of requests — about 1.2 million in 2011 alone — from federal agencies for private user information. There are no signs that such a pattern of surveillance will reduce itself over the coming years. It’s now in the hands of civil society to build off of the work done by whistle-blowers and to sway public opinion in favour of privacy, liberty, and freedom.

Photo Credit: Surveillance camera/CC

[https://ricochet.media/en/313/harpers-new-anti-terror-laws-threaten-basic-freedoms]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Charlie Hebdo and Kang Xi

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 17th, 2015

What happened earlier this month at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo has been commented upon ad nauseam; some really good pieces have resulted alongside some terrible ones.  What needs to be said has probably been said already, and readers can look here and here if they are interested in what I have to say about the tragedy. The incident is being imprinted onto our collective psyches as an event with the clear-cut imprimatur of “Islamic terrorism.” Without going into the myriad stupidities and misunderstandings that mediate much of our popular interpretations of what happened, I dare say that the event is emblematic of much more than meets the eye.

The world is a transitory place, and the globalizing effects of commerce and travel have prompted many in the so-called “East” to migrate out of their geographical, social, political contexts, and into the Western world. This broad physical transition has resulted in the proliferating of communities in the West that represent ways of being that, at once modern in appearance, is the 21st century representation of pre-modern traditions that used to dominate mankind. The West’s primary alphabet of secular materialism is often unable to fully penetrate and comprehend the complete meanings of such modes of being, resulting in a kind of tension that makes it difficult for many to see the world through the migrants’ eyes. Islam, as is often the case in the modern era, finds itself caught in the middle of this interaction.

The miscomprehension of lived Islam in the Western world is directly related to the misinterpretations of the violent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s quite ironic that places like North America and Europe, where political repression of the dictatorial kind is supposed to be least pervasive, are often incubators for the least sophisticated sort of cross-cultural understanding. There are many barriers: institutional racism, historical baggage, personal prejudice, etc. But an opportunity does exist. Today, for example, it’s impossible to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. The Communist Party censors all searches of it on Google, and other search engines. It’s very difficult under such circumstances to form a comprehensive history of China without Big Brother looking over one’s shoulder. So, ironically (some would say, with sadness), much of the great works on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature have originated in institutions in the Western world. Jonathan Spence’s seminal 1990 masterpiece In Search of Modern China is a primary example.

So goes for pre-modern traditions like Islam, which, like many other traditions, is most misunderstood in lands that have the most potential of accentuating its public comprehension. The most overlooked tragedy to result from centuries of imperial/colonial activity and its subsequent post-colonial effects is the degradation of one’s heritage. It is, to take one example, why the masterful 20th century writer Lao She, who wrote Rickshaw Boy (Noam Chomsky’s favorite novel when he was a child, incidentally), and who once taught at SOAS, University of London, ended up committing suicide after being humiliated by the Red Guards during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A parallel can be made between this kind of tragedy and the bizarre post-colonial aftermath in the Muslim world, where, in certain countries, the Friday khutbah has to be of a certain flavor according to the state. Such strictures don’t necessarily exist in the so-called liberal, democratic West, which presents its own set of head-scratching oddities, tensions, and crudities.

Yet, within this cauldron of confusion lies an opportunity. As the post-9/11 West staggers onward in its own confused struggle to understand the “Other”  (a generalization, I know), banal crudities have received far more favor than nuanced understanding or deep empathy. Detailed explications of certain traditional or religious principles are often seen as a kind of “liberal” obfuscation conducted in the name of superstition, backwardness, or pure ignorance. The negation of this pattern toward a one-off glossing-over of complex systems is where the opportunity lies for young, non-Western (or, perhaps, partly-Western) intellectuals (Muslims or otherwise) to reclaim their own heritage. Here, in the West, is where the staging point can be for the recollection of memory and history. Not to do so would be, in fact, to surrender any opportunity of narrating one’s own existence.

The present state of affairs reminds me (as a matter of contrast) of how the first emperor of China’s last dynasty (the Qing, 清朝), Emperor Kang Xi (康熙), who came to power in 1661, spent a lot of money and time wooing the Han Chinese intelligentsia, most of whom were loyal to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) rulers that the Qing displaced. Kang Xi, the representative of the nomadic Manchu people of the North (hence, Manchuria), ruled China for an astonishing 61 years. His problem was that the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty were not established by those who held the same Confucian traditions that the Han Chinese (who continue to make up the vast majority of China’s population) did, and therefore didn’t have the loyalty of much of the empire’s most brilliant minds. The Han see themselves as a distinct ethnic group who are central to China’s over-all makeup, and regarded the Qing as outside invaders to their long-established homeland.

Faced with this administrative challenge, Kang Xi didn’t impose a monolithic set of Manchu dicta to marginalize the traditions that featured centrally in the lives of his Han subjects. Instead, he treated the Confucian legacy (which, by then, had many centuries to permeate China) with the kind of sensitivity that’s quite uncommon among most rulers. He assembled a team of tutors (comprised of both Han and Manchu intellectuals) to teach him all the Confucian classics, and, in 1670, issued the “Sacred Edict,” a list of 16 maxims that summarized what Kang Xi thought it meant to live the Confucian life. Whisperings of his scholastic efforts were “leaked,” and, soon enough, many were praising his majesty’s intellectual precociousness and cultural sensitivity. Combined with nation-wide strategies to incorporate more and more Han minds into his orbit of power, Kang Xi made it clear that he didn’t want to caste aside thousands of years of complex philosophical tradition.

Without romanticizing the Qing emperor’s reign (it was not, after all, sensible to dissent against him, for obvious reasons), I wonder how many rulers in the democratic West even have the time to learn just a little bit about the traditions of those they claim to represent? Probably not many. So the work is to be done, then, by civil society—by those who, with one eye on their own past/tradition, dare to peek over the fence to see what’s happened on the other side. This is a crucial intellectual pluralism from which Western Muslims can benefit (if adopted), as the task of explaining one’s own self is often coupled with that of being in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is the essence of being an migrant, or exiled person, I think: one who discovers him or herself not through narrow provincialism or angry selfhood, but through the painstaking, though worthwhile, interpretation of others.

Photo: Inside the Palace of Preserving Peace (保和殿), one of the major halls within the Forbidden City (故宫), which was the imperial palace of China’s monarchs from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty/CC

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/charlie-hebdo-and-kang-xi/]
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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Khaled al-Qazzaz Released from Detention

Glad that my 100th post for this blog is about something uplifting–that is, genuinely good news. Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a permanent resident of Canada, former adviser for Muhammad Morsi in Egypt, and a long-time, active member of the Canadian Muslim community has finally been provided with an order for release by Egypt’s Sisi regime who detained him 558 days ago under very suspicious and unfair circumstances. 

It’s not over until he returns to Canada and meets his family, but this is a big step. Alhamdulillah

Here’s the press release from the Toronto-based campaign for his freedom:

_____

January 11, 2015
 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
 
558 Days 
Khaled Al-Qazzaz Finally Released and Looking Forward to Being Reunited with Wife and Children
 
On Monday December 29, 2014 the Attorney General issued an order for Khaled Al-Qazzaz’s release.

Today, Khaled was released from his hospital room.
 
Today Khaled and his family are extremely elated and grateful for his release.
 
While we celebrate Khaled’s freedom, we remain very concerned about his health and reuniting him with his wife, Sarah Attia and their four children in Canada.
 
Khaled and Sarah [his wife] are praying for his speedy return to Canada. “We are all so happy, but it’s not over until he’s home with me and our children,” said Sarah. The family has already raised the funds and made the arrangements necessary for him to receive appropriate medical care.  We are hopeful that the Egyptian and Canadian governments will expedite the processing of this humanitarian case so that Khaled can finally come home.

Most importantly, on such a joyous day Khaled and Sarah are forever grateful to friends and supporters..

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

The Left’s Ignorant Islam Critics

Published by The American Conservative on January 9th, 2015

Criticism of Islam has become a staple of contemporary politics as observers and practitioners alike wrestle with the myriad implications of Muslims living in the post-9/11 West. For the most part, one could argue with great force that the social panic generated by current fears have been “much ado about nothing,” as Muslims have not shown themselves to be an existential threat to their civilizational counterparts.

That’s not to say that no one can or should criticize Islam, as many have. The problem is whether or not such criticism stems from true understanding or total conjecture. Sadly, the latter has been much prevalent, and the culprits aren’t always raving Christian fundamentalists who, in depicting Islam as a “Satanic religion,” prefer an Armageddon-style showdown between faiths. Rather, it’s arguable that some of the most unfair and ignorant assessments of Islam and Muslims have come from those who label themselves as “progressive.”

The attack on France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is a horrid and barbaric response to some of worst, most unfair “criticisms” of Islam. The cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad are meant as a provocation, as was the ensuing massacre which left a dozen people dead. The magazine is now being lionized as a platform that’s been at the forefront of free speech guardianship. A look through its so-called satirical treatment of Muslim figures and it’s quite obvious that the outlet’s top priority when it comes to Islam is to offend and provoke—none of which are crimes, let alone offenses punishable by death. There’s a difference between having one’s expression being protected by free speech principles and actually being a defender of such principles. All of Charlie Hebdo’s writings and cartoons deserve protection (even though their management has fired cartoonists before for anti-Semitism), the framework used for their (mis)interpretation of Islam is awfully similar to those used by the far right.

Fittingly, last year’s polls show Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s ultra-right party, as the leading presidential candidate. Le Pen has wasted no time in linking the Charlie Hebdo attack to immigration, something she’s vowing to crack down on, all the while emphasizing the “religious” dimension of the massacre, and even calling for a referendum on whether to bring back the death penalty. Given all their differences, it’s almost strange that part of the left finds itself aligned with ultra-rightists when it comes to assessing Muslims and their religion.

Take Michael Moore’s recent defense of the odious Bill Maher, host of “Real Time,” who, along with Sam Harris, faced off against actor Ben Affleck on Maher’s show, setting off a firestorm of Internet commentary. Moore, a prominent progressive, argues that Maher shouldn’t be vilified for his harsh criticisms of Islam, and portrays his friend’s insults as being limited to the bashing of “crazy people professing to be Muslim.” One need not look all that far to identify the misrepresentation here of Maher’s vitriol, which hardly ever bothers to distinguish between traditional Islamic beliefs and extremist misinterpretations of the faith. The truth is that those who perpetuate ISIS or al-Qaeda-like violence in the name of Islam are very small in number. The vast majority of orthodox Sunnis, who make up most of the world’s Muslim population, fall within the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), which is divided up into four main schools of thought (among others), none of which permit the killing of innocent people.

Within this huge corpus of scriptural interpretation can be found laws that govern essentially every important aspect of life (marriage, commerce, jihad, etc.), and though there’s much overlap, the schools recognize each other’s positions and the reality that there’s much room for interpretation when it comes to God’s words, as well as the actions of His messenger (known as hadiths or “Prophetic traditions”). The most “liberal” interpretations of certain verses or hadiths can be found within the existing body of Sunni orthodoxy. Yet, progressives who see monotheistic religion as a relic of the medieval past essentialize Islam in a way that doesn’t recognize its internal diversity. Perceiving the Islamic tradition as one, big, monolith akin to a desktop computer from the 1980s, they call for a “reformation” within Islam so the religion can update its hardware, making it more palatable to the modern world.

The analogy here is obviously with the Christian Reformation associated with Martin Luther, who some progressives misinterpret as a solely democratizing figure, eliminating the middlemen priests so believers can interpret scripture for themselves. What they fail to note is that present-day manifestations of Christian fundamentalism derive their origins from the consequences of the Reformation (which also involved a good deal of bloodletting). Seeing this Protestant transformation as inherently “progressive” in its “democratizing” effects, the logic is now applied to Muslims and to Islam, religious content be damned.

Even a scholar like Cornel West, who has consistently argued against some of Maher’s caricatures of Islam, has often talked about Muslims having to develop what he calls “Prophetic Islam.” The term sounds pretty and comes from West’s desire to see an Islam that takes up causes of justice, but the underlying assumption is that the religion needs to wake up to some sort of modern condition that demands inherent change. It’s ultimately a proposition borne out of “progressive” ignorance, blindly assuming that Islam doesn’t have the tools to engage with the world that preserves both tradition and the rights of others. The truth is that Islam isn’t quite as amenable to reform as its monotheistic cousins. In a way, it sees itself as a religion that came to reform Judeo-Christian sectarianism.

In Western modernity’s virtual casting aside of faith, the necessity of having to understand religions prior to issuing criticism also seems to have gone out the window. This is exacerbated when it comes to the post-9/11 scramble to make sense of the Islamic tradition and how it ought to comport to modern sensibilities. Since secular modernity and/or liberalism are portrayed as the default settings of contemporary Western societies, then, the argument goes, it’s reasonable and logical to expect older religious traditions to conform to its demands. There’s no sense of mutual understanding or negotiation, and the relationship is inherently imbalanced.

The tendency of many progressives to internalize this deep assumption has caused much of their interpretation of Islam to square with that of the extreme right wing, whose criticisms stem from a much simpler kind of antagonism. Yet both groups’ misgivings and misunderstandings can be traced back to a basic ignorance that has plagued the West long before the tragedies of 9/11, and can only be mended if observers of all stripes are willing to assess Islam on its own terms.

Photo: Some volumes from the “News Atheism”/CC

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-lefts-ignorant-islam-critics/]

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