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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

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/isis-prime-minister-harper-s-top-political-bogeyman-of-the-day-1.3023753]

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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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保和殿 Hall of Preserving Harmony / 中國北京故宫 Forbid
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, 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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