canada, Crime

Murder in Markham

After about a four-month investigation involving hundreds of pages of court documents and over 70 hours of courtroom audio (and multiple interviews), I weave together a tragic story in Toronto’s Markham area concerning the gruesome murder of a young Chinese man who wanted to get rich quick with the help of his business partners.

All thought that a partnership between friends would be easy and a breeze. They planned to flip houses in Toronto’s then very volatile and fast-paced real estate market. But soon doubt and betrayal set in and the partnership began to fray badly. The culmination is a gruesome murder that shocked even law enforcement. 

Published by Toronto Life on May 28th, 2018

PEIZHENG Qiu came from humble beginnings. He was born in 1987 in the province of Jiangsu in eastern China. His parents ran a gas station and, after some modest success, made enough money to open a small clothing factory. Business was inconsistent and often slow, but by 2008, they’d saved enough money to send their only son to live in Canada. They hoped he could make something of himself.

In China, where social mobility is limited, members of the lower middle class can only move up in the world with the help of people who can provide favours, referrals and patronage. The Chinese have a term for these social networks: guanxi. Many mainland Chinese families, including Qiu’s, believe the best way for their children to improve their social status and elevate their guanxi is to learn English, and obtain degrees from Western universities and colleges. There are more than 132,000 Chinese students currently enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions, making up nearly a third of foreign enrolment in the country.

When Qiu arrived in Toronto, he started a two-year ESL program, then enrolled in a two-year business accounting diploma at Centennial College. Qiu didn’t much care for his coursework, and he turned in a lack­lustre performance—he graduated with a paltry 2.04 GPA. But his parents were still sending him money each month, and he needed to find a way to stand on his own, so he wouldn’t have to rely on their largesse. He wanted to make them proud. “My father wanted me to try something on my own,” he later said. “He said to me that as a man, I needed to be trained in running my own business.” After he graduated, he used some money from his parents to open a store called I-Flooring, located in a strip mall near Woodbine and Steeles, and serving a mostly Chinese-Canadian clientele. He eventually had 10 people working under him—five full-time and five on contract.

The stress of the job wore on Qiu. He had no administrative experience, and despite his Centennial diploma, he had no idea how to run a business. Between paying his employees, covering rent and buying supplies, he was barely turning a profit. Reluctantly, he continued to depend on his parents to cover a significant portion of his monthly expenses. He got to the point where he felt waves of anxiety every time he entered his own shop. He needed to find another way to make money.

XIAO Xuan Long Yu, who went by the English name Bertram, was also seeking his fortune. A year younger than Qiu, Bertram was the son of a wealthy and prominent lawyer in Shenzhen, a major city in southeastern China, and one of the country’s biggest financial and commercial hubs. His parents had financed his immigration to Canada, putting him up in a luxury unit at the C Condos tower at Yonge and Finch. He liked to splurge on fancy cars: he drove a Ferrari 458, which sells for around $250,000, and previously owned a Maserati and BMW. Like Qiu, he was hoping to free himself from his parents’ support and make it on his own in Canada. He was smart and charming, with a strong command of English, and he probably could have landed a good job, but Bertram was ambitious. He wanted more than a steady paycheque. He wanted to run his own business.

Bertram Yu, the son of a wealthy Chinese lawyer, lived in a luxury condo and splurged on fancy cars

Bertram met Qiu at Centennial, where he too was studying business accounting. On the surface, they were polar opposites: where Qiu was modest and shy, Bertram was flashy and stylish, with side-swept bangs, thick-rimmed black glasses and an affinity for dramatic scarves. Qiu seemed to admire and resent ­Bertram’s inherited wealth, and sought to rise to the same level. By 2014, they’d decided to pool their resources and break into the one business that seemed like a sure thing in Toronto: real estate.

Qiu and Bertram believed that flipping houses would be a low-risk way to make serious money. More than six per cent of Toronto properties for sale in 2017 had been purchased less than 18 months earlier; that’s almost twice the percentage of properties that were bought by foreign investors. Flipping is particularly popular in the Chinese-Canadian community. In Richmond Hill, where nearly one-third of the population is of Chinese descent, residents successfully lobbied to ban the number 4, which sounds like the Chinese word for “death,” from street addresses back in 2013. Many Chinese home­owners believe that being stuck with the unlucky number will hurt the resale value of their properties.

The two men struck a deal: Bertram would put up the money to buy properties, while Qiu would use his construction expertise to make upgrades. Their arrangement was remarkably informal. They’d meet at Mint Karaoke and Lounge, a bar near Yonge and Steeles, not far from Bertram’s condo, where they’d drink and chat about business. There was very little paperwork spelling out what obligations each party was expected to fulfill and what would happen if things didn’t go according to plan. They were eager to make money as quickly as possible, and relied solely on mutual trust and friendship to make it happen. “The Chinese like to do things different,” Qiu later told police. “Millions can be loaned or borrowed based on a slip of paper.”

Bertram also enlisted his good friend Elson Yu to join the partnership. Elson was a seasoned businessman who’d owned and operated a men’s clothing store for six years. He and Bertram had met a few years earlier through some mutual friends. The two came from a similar social background, and both had grown up in mainland China. Elson was eager to get in on the flipping scheme. He figured that if his friend could trust Qiu, so could he.

BY early 2014, Elson and Bertram were scouting Toronto’s real estate listings, and over the next few months, they went on an investing spree, impulsively buying several large homes in North York for a some $3 million. The first property that caught their eye was 216 Harlandale Avenue, located just west of Yonge and Sheppard. It was a five-bedroom detached in a peaceful suburb, listed at $928,000. Elson knew that plenty of other people were looking at the property and decided to snatch it up on his own, forking over $300,000 for a down payment. He promised Bertram that he could still invest in the property later.

The partners bought this house at 216 Harlandale Avenue in early 2014 as their first property to flip

Peizheng Qiu sold 262 Senlac Road behind his partners’ backs, pocketing the profits

Bertram Yu bought 2 Laureleaf Road for $1.5 million in 2015. A year later, he was murdered and dismembered in the basement

Three weeks later, Elson and Bertram pooled their money to buy 262 Senlac Road, a four-bedroom detached in West ­Willowdale, only a couple of kilometres north of the Harlandale house. The sale price for this one was $752,000; Elson put up roughly two-thirds of the $150,000 down payment, while ­Bertram fronted the remainder. And two months after that, they acquired their third and most valuable property: a mansion at 2 Laureleaf Road in Thornhill, sold for $1.46 million. It was worth much more than Senlac to begin with, and the trio figured that a suite of upgrades could raise its sticker price substantially: they wanted Qiu to install new flooring and drywall, finish the basement, and add a new staircase on the main floor. The partners decided to focus on 2 Laureleaf first and use the profits to judge what to do with 262 Senlac. Based on what they made on 2 ­Laureleaf, they could decide whether to renovate the Senlac property or tear it down altogether.

According to Elson, he and Bertram covered the $450,000 down payment on the Laureleaf property, and were waiting for Qiu to cover his share. Qiu later disputed this claim, insisting that he had contributed to the down payment. He was the one who found the first financing opportunity for the house. He had a friend at the bank who was willing to give them a favourable mortgage.

Cracks in the partnership began to show as soon as the properties were purchased. Qiu was still juggling his flooring business and the flipping enterprise, and he seemed overwhelmed. Progress on the houses was excruciatingly slow. By the beginning of 2015, he’d barely done any work on the Laureleaf property.

Qiu was desperate for money. In March 2015, he went behind his partners’ backs and sold the property at 262 Senlac for $666,000, almost $100,000 less than Elson and Bertram had originally paid for it. When they confronted him, Qiu tried to placate them, promising he’d pay them back with the money they’d all make from the sale of 2 Laureleaf. Neither Elson nor Bertram believed him. They realized there was a lot about Qiu that they didn’t know.

THE house at 2 Laureleaf Road is palatial, with six bedrooms, six baths, a three-car garage and a faux-gothic aesthetic. Located in the idyllic neighbourhood of Bayview Glen, it had the potential to bring in big profit—if the planned renovations were ever finished. “Whenever we asked Qiu about it, it was always delay, delay, delay,” Elson said later. “Every time we went to inspect the house, nothing much was done.” He and Bertram were worried. Neither of them trusted Qiu, and they had no paperwork that would hold him accountable if he didn’t refund their money. By this point, all they wanted was to recoup their initial investments, sell the houses and walk. They never wanted to work with Qiu again.

Qiu, meanwhile, had sold his flooring business, ostensibly with the goal of renovating 2 Laureleaf full-time. He’d hired his friend Yaorile Yaorile, an experienced Chinese construction worker, to help him with the project. He’d also begun seeing a woman named Ruby. Frequently, Qiu would ask Bertram and Elson for more money to finish the renovations. Between the down payments, monthly mortgages and renovation costs, they had both invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the partnership. As far as they could tell, Qiu had invested zero.

The Laureleaf project crawled along for the next few months. According to one worker, Qiu didn’t even do much of the hands-on labour. He was better known for his coffee runs than he was for construction work. “They seemed to be in no hurry,” says Dino Dimonte, who lives across the street. “They’d come in Friday evening, work on Saturday and Sunday, be gone on Monday,” he says. At one point, he had to call the City of Markham to complain about the endeavour: apparently, Qiu had begun renovations without a permit and had violated several bylaws, including failing to ensure the construction site was properly fenced in.

The tension was mounting between Qiu and his partners. Elson and Bertram were both short on cash, and Bertram was planning to marry his long-time girlfriend. They wanted to get their money back. The harder they pressed, the shiftier Qiu became. He’d promise payment, then postpone; promise payment, then postpone. Eventually, Bertram became resigned to the fact that Qiu would likely never pay him back. According to Bertram’s girlfriend, he wasn’t the kind of guy who ever got angry. “He knew that Qiu wasn’t a trustworthy person,” she later said. “But Qiu was his friend, and he had a high tolerance for him.”

On September 1, 2015, Bertram and Elson confronted Qiu at Mint karaoke bar, their usual spot. They had drawn up Acknowledgement of Debt documents, which they presented to him. These promissory notes included repayment schedules for Qiu, who at this point owed Bertram $1.3 million; the first $100,000 was due on January 15, 2016, with several more instalments scheduled throughout the year and a final payment of $600,000 in October. He owed Elson $290,000. Both documents had a Breach of Terms clause that demanded 0.5 per cent interest for every week he missed a payment. They also included scanned copies of Qiu’s driver’s licence. Bertram and Elson insisted that he sign on the spot, and he did so without a fuss. “We were going to leave 2 Laureleaf alone. We didn’t care when he finished working on it,” Elson later said. “But now he had a liability that he couldn’t run away from.” In total, Qiu owed $1.6 million.

Bertram and Elson forced Qiu to sign promissory notes for repayment totalling $1.6 million

QIU missed his first payment to Bertram for the amount of $100,000. Desperation had set in. At around 8 a.m. on Sunday, March 20, he walked into a Home Depot near Woodbine and Highway 7. He bought gloves, masks, coveralls, a DeWalt reciprocating saw and metal saw blades. He packed the items into his girlfriend’s BMW and drove to 2 Laureleaf.

About half an hour later, he called Bertram and asked him to come to the property for a meeting. He said he wanted to discuss borrowing money to pay for more renovations. As soon as Bertram arrived, the two started arguing about money. Qiu claims Bertram threatened to use his connections in China to hurt Qiu’s family back home, to kill them or have their limbs hacked off. In Qiu’s version of events, he was a victim forced to defend himself and his family against a rich bully.

Qiu snapped. He noticed a hammer, grabbed it and began swinging (he later claimed that he’d seen Bertram reach for the weapon first). He says he wrestled Bertram to the floor and whacked him on the back of his head when he tried to get up. Then he began strangling him. “I just wanted to shut him up and let him die,” he later said. He kept his hands gripped tightly around Bertram’s neck for two minutes, Qiu said, until he stopped breathing. His former friend was dead.

When Qiu realized he’d committed murder, he had a cigarette. He needed to figure out a way to avoid jail time. He turned to his phone and started googling phrases such as “How to handle a dead body.” He’d seen a YouTube video about how to dismember a corpse and an episode of CSI where the characters had discussed how to butcher bodies. So he decided to do what he’d seen on TV.

There were all sorts of tools—saws, knives, an axe—stored in the basement, as well as a supply of black garbage bags. “I wanted to separate the meat from the bone,” he later told police. He took an axe and started with Bertram’s head, which he severed after several chops. Then he hacked off his arms and legs. Qiu says that at one point, he tried to use his new DeWalt reciprocating saw on the corpse but found it too unwieldy. Instead, he opted for a straight-edge knife to carve the flesh off of Bertram’s bones. He removed each muscle and organ individually, trying to keep them grouped together. The process lasted hours. Then he divided up Bertram’s remains—the head, limbs, hands, feet, skin, muscles, organs and bones—into seven garbage bags. He placed his victim’s clothes into an eighth bag and rolled the torso inside a blue tarp.

Qiu’s Home Depot receipt from the morning of the murder and a police sketch of the crime scene

By 4 p.m., the reality of what he’d done had sunk in. He’d murdered his friend and business partner, and tampered with the corpse. Could he get away with it? “I stopped and went to smoke another cigarette,” Qiu later told police. “Then I decided, no, I won’t do that. Just be a man.”

He picked up the phone and called Harley Bowe, his friend and housemate, who was at their place in Scarborough. Qiu didn’t tell Harley exactly what had happened over the phone—only that he needed him to drive over to 2 Laureleaf. When Harley arrived, he went downstairs and got the shock of his life. Qiu was covered in blood. “He looked like he got out of a butcher’s,” Harley later testified.

They got into Harley’s truck and drove to their house, where Qiu took a shower. He didn’t have the heart to tell his girlfriend what had happened. The two were supposed to marry in just a few months. Yaorile showed up while the men were drinking beers, and Qiu confessed his crime. “I asked him if he was joking,” Yaorile told the courts. “When he said no, I told him I couldn’t help him. Be a man and turn yourself in.”

At 6:15 p.m., Qiu drove Bertram’s white Ferrari to 42 ­Division, near Markham and Sheppard. He gave a lengthy statement to police, in which he confessed to his crime and tried to explain why he’d resorted to murder. According to Qiu, Bertram was the one who owed him money, not the other way around. He claimed that Bertram had a gambling addiction, and that he visited underground casinos and bet large sums of money on soccer games—an accusation Bertram’s friends and family vehemently denied. He also told police that he’d been regularly making $10,000 monthly mortgage payments on 2 Laureleaf Road. He insisted that he’d truly believed Bertram would hurt his family. “Rich guys in China can do whatever they want,” he told police.

QIU was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The story made major news back home in China. The headlines in Chinese newspapers were littered with exclamation marks and highlighted the gruesome nature of the crime. People were shocked to learn that a Chinese student from an affluent family could meet such a fate in Canada, a country that’s revered for its safety and prosperity.

A police photo of the crime scene

Preliminary hearings began a year after the murder, in March 2017. Qiu’s lawyer insisted that the murder was unplanned. His client had bought the supplies at Home Depot that morning to work on the house, he argued, and he became violent only after Bertram allegedly threatened his family. The Crown argued that the murder was premeditated. According to police, the outdoor security camera at the crime scene had been disabled at 9:19 on the morning of the murder, 15 minutes before Qiu called Bertram to come over. And the autopsy report suggested a far more violent attack than the one Qiu had copped to: Bertram had sustained countless fractures, lacerations, bruises and contusions on his face, jaw and torso in the moments leading up to his death. His lungs and airway were filled with blood, suggesting that he was still breathing when he acquired these injuries. And while there was some evidence that he’d been strangled by human hands, there were marks that also showed trauma to his neck caused by a sharp object.

In the end, Qiu accepted a deal: he agreed to plead guilty to charges of second-degree murder and indecent interference with a body. In exchange, he would be spared a jury trial and receive life in federal prison, with the possibility of parole after 14 years. If he is released, he will be deported back to China. Bertram’s family was horrified when they learned about the plea bargain. During a pre-sentencing hearing, the family’s lawyer read a victim impact statement from Bertram’s father, condemning the Crown for agreeing to a second-degree murder charge. He claimed the deal was dishonourable, and described Qiu as debased. He told the court he believed Qiu should never be allowed to step outside prison walls again. Bertram’s girlfriend also issued a statement. She recounted the last time she saw her partner, on the morning of March 20, 2016, near Finch subway station. “Xiao Xuan Long was the most charming man I had ever seen,” she said. “No one could or can imagine the degree of harm and hurt his murder brought to me…. My life has been filled with tears ever since.”

At his sentencing hearing last October, Qiu presented his own statement in Mandarin, which was translated for the court. “The bad things have been tormenting my mind like a movie looping and repeating itself,” he said. He listed off the things he’d lost: his job, his fiancée, his family, his dignity, and his opportunity to make a life in Canada. That one seemed to sting the most.


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

middle east, muslims, politics

Western Muslims and the Obsession of Liang Qi-Chao

Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 3rd, 2015

Ever since the imperial armies of the West, fuelled by technological and material advantages, encroached upon its eventual colonies a few centuries ago, intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere have struggled with what may be the world’s greatest conundrum: how to derive goodness from Western modernity in a way that won’t destroy one’s own sense of historical and cultural self.

From the time when the Japanese navy routed the Russians in 1905 at the “Battle of Tsushima” (日本海海戦, nihonkai-kaisen), the prospect of Asian countries modernizing industrially to “catch up” to the West began to seriously crystallize. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian country had defeated an expansionist European power. The great Liang Qi-Chao, one of China’s foremost modern thinkers, along, with several other thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and even Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at the time, also recognized the importance of this victory. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, who was passing through the Middle East soon after Tsushima, had throngs of Arabs congratulating him (they mistook him for a Japanese person).

China’s global stature was faltering at the time, and Liang Qi-Chao recognized it even in 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China decided to surrender after months of battle with Meiji Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Originally from a traditional Confucian family and on his way to the civil service, Liang became a travelling intellectual whose ideas articulated China’s sense of civilizational humiliation. His writings influenced a whole generation of Chinese thinkers and doers, including the infamously important Mao Ze-Dong.

Nonetheless, many around the world were excited after the Japanese victory against Russia that a “backward” continent could improve in ways that allowed them to compete in the modern world. [If you haven’t done so, pick up Pankaj Mishra’s ultra-important book From the Ruins of Empire, an intellectual history of how Asia reacted to imperial aggression.]

This issue has become, I would argue, the underlying obsession of much of the world, which has adopted a “social Darwinian-lite” view of the planet in an attempt to modernize themselves industrially (and rapidly). Thus the utterly shocking amount of pollution (among other things) coming out of China and India—the world’s two “rising” powers, or so we’re told. Yet modernity isn’t just a set of political and economic changes, but a comprehensive worldview that has come into opposition with many pre-modern traditions. The 21st century’s current maladies, some of which are disproportionately reported on in the post-9/11 era, are a contemporary manifestation of this much older tension. It’s as much an Asian question as it is, say, an African one, and as much a query involving religious belief as it does more secular outlooks.

That is, can people around the world prosper consistently and stably only if they accept the prescriptions of the West? Plainly, for reasons to do with simple capacity, not everyone in the world can have two cars, a garage, and a house in the suburbs. Such a model is unsustainable and physically self-destructive. This doesn’t mean that technological and civilizational progress can’t be appropriated proportionally to lift people out of poverty. What it points to, though, is the physical aspect of a modernizing trend that has globalized and metastasized to a point of negative return. Alternatives are needed, first and foremost as a matter of economic and environmental justice, but underlying this need is a less empirical reality concerning the human urge for spiritual nourishment—and urge that the modern world has largely ignored or dismissed.

Why believe in pre-modern concepts like a “soul” or “spirit” when shopping malls and Prozac can fill the void? Of course, if things were so simple, this column wouldn’t have to be written at all. The truth is that for all the talk about ISIS or Al Qaeda wanting to paint the world in their monochromal fundamentalisms, it’s the Western world’s financial and cultural influence that has forced its way throughout the world, imprinting its image upon us all. Older traditions that acknowledge and engage with the non-rational aspects of human nature have had to adjust, with some morphing into cells of paranoid violence that don’t amount to even a shadow of its former glory. Islam is at the center of this mess. A tradition once known for an ecumenical existence and an awe-inspiringly intellectual approach has now, through the world media, become distorted due to what’s perceived to be a crisis of authority.

Yet traditional Islam lives, and continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Here is where things get interesting for Muslims who grew up and reside in the Western world—especially when it comes to the US or Canada. Muslim communities in this area of the West have come closest to obtaining a model of sustaining religiously informed principles within a modern social context. It’s not perfect by a long shot, and there’s much to indicate that Muslim religio-cultural realities may become deemphasized in the next couple of generations as a result of further integration, but, truthfully, evidence for the opposite trend also exists.

There resides within these Western geographies an attempt to figure out a way to distance oneself from the corporate state and the excessive realities of modernity via a preservation of religious and intellectual tradition aimed first and foremost at improving modern man from within. I mean “improving” as in helping him or her approximate toward Transcendent Truth (God), which, in my opinion, when done accordingly, will manifest itself outwardly as civilizational stability and sustainability. If this endeavor continues to grow by filling in the gaps within our spiritually impoverished and existentially stale environments, then Muslims in the West would have provided a possible answer to questions that intellectuals like Liang Qichao and others went to their graves asking.

Therein lies the truly exciting potential of Western Muslims, who constitute a microcosm of the world, both conceptually and historically. We have a chance to find an improved response to the overt and covert neo-colonial tendencies of the West, imposed upon everyone else for better or worse—once the primary challenge for those clinging to their identities in the face of encroachment, the residue of which remains scattered throughout all our lives.

Photo: Backstage at a Chinese opera/CC


middle east, muslims, politics

No-Fly Zone in Libya: let us be clear

What is “liberal intervention” but a deceptively labelled concept meant for making military intrusion possible? The abstract idea of a utopic and humanitarian bouquet of bombs and missiles may be easy to imagine in a world filled with disinformation, but history has taught us that such pseudo-events do not exist. Remember the former Yugoslavia? Remember Iraq and Afghanistan? Those who tell us that Libya 2011 is “unique” embrace the overbearing clichés  churned out by the corporate media.

Libyans must determine their own fate. If a no-fly zone is unquestionably what the rebelling Libyans want, then so be it. But let us harbour no illusions and tell it like it is. Full stop. A no-fly zone imposed upon Libya will be a serious, multifaceted, military operation controlled by the United States and its lapdog, the United Kingdom (perhaps also France). Russia and China have both expressed serious reservations. Thus, the usual suspects have returned, as have the vague “responsibility to protect” (R2P) non-ideologies they espouse. It is like a bad dream recurring over and over again.

The top-dogs of the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Central command, Robert Gates and General James Mattis respectively, have both concurred that the implementation of a no-fly zone means—without any doubt—the destruction of Libya’s air defenses. This appears to be a standard prerequisite for the sending of any jets from a “protecting power”. Getting the United Nations to back a no-fly zone is tough enough, given the reservations by Russia and China, but certain international agreements (rules of engagement) will have to also be addressed, just so the forces controlling the air do not shoot at each other—or a civilian airliner for that matter.

The implementation of a no-fly zone is also commonly perceived as a reduction of violence. This is not true. First of all, it is ludicrous to say that Qaddafi’s instruments of death are confined by the air. His usage of mercenaries (mainly as snipers) is infamous by now. Second, a no-fly zone would mean more—not less—planes and missiles flying through the skies. What will this do to the surrounding areas?  If the Qaddafi air force is as formidable as some R2P apologists will have it, then a battle in the skies will ensue. What will this mean for the people on the ground? Anti-aircraft weaponry also includes missiles shot from the ground, operated by their corresponding personnel. This means U.S.-U.K.-France troops directly on the ground in Libya. What will become of them when—God-willing—Qaddafi is ousted?

Furthermore, how serious is Qaddafi’s aerial power—actually? The official numbers are 227 fighter aircrafts and 35 attack helicopters. It is certainly a scary tally, and should not be underestimated. However, let us again be clear. Most Western countries have their planes repaired, maintained, and serviced around half of the time. The rate is astronomically higher in Libya. So far, not more than a few planes have attacked the rebels. The bombardment of Brega, a key oil port in eastern Libya (quite close to Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte), was carried out by a single jet that dropped all but two bombs. Military and air force analysts have noted that “lone-wolf” operations are extremely rare to begin with, due to high risk, not to mention only to drop two bombs. This is the closest real indication of the Libyan air force one can get thus far. It means that either the Libyan air force has some seriously disenchanted pilots (the two bombs dropped on Brega were—according to some eye-witnesses—purposely off-target, and left no casualties), or that the fleet is so deficient that no more than one or two planes can get in the air at one time.

Given these ramifications, how desirable is a no-fly zone? Suffice it to say that a more serious assessment of Qaddafi’s military power will have to be done by the media (a difficult proposal given that the international media in Libya is  under lock-down and cannot move freely).

Wahid Burshan, a Libyan political analyst and activist, has expressed that “taking Libyan air defenses out…and things like that…in order for them [the U.S./U.K.-France] to manage the skies…could be problematic. The Libyan people may consider that hostile and it may tip the point to Qaddafi’s favour.” Burshan also pointed out on Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story that the military in Libya is not always 100% pro-Qaddafi, and seriously antagonizing the army may not be the best strategy. It may be useful to remember the two Libyan pilots who defected from the Qaddafi camp in February and landed their planes in Malta after a refusal to obey orders and bomb fellow Libyans.

At best, it seems that the Libyan people are divided on the idea of a U.S.-U.K.-France imposed no-fly zone. Based on all the information one can gather from rather opaque reports coming out of Libya, a no-fly zone may not be worth it right now—but a better assessment may be available to us and the people of Libya in the future.

Note that serious reservations for a no-fly zone as of now is not grounded in the opinion that it simply will not work. It may work, especially given Libya’s weak defenses. Rather, serious reservations arise out of several concerns: (1) once Western powers are involved in the Libyan revolution, they are involved in that revolution’s future outcomes—and the future of Libya—Qaddafi or no Qaddafi, (2) the information regarding the will of the Libyans themselves is extremely opaque, and a serious cost-benefit decision has yet to be made by Libyans, and (3) despite some calls not to compare Libya’s situation to other similar (proposed) interventions previously, serious analysts take into account the past behaviour of Western powers.

On that last point, let us just say that suspicion is a much understated sentiment as of now. Given that Prime Minister Cameron recently returned from a trip selling arms to his Gulf despot friends, the principle motivation for this R2P inspired spirit of intervention is just too hard to take seriously.

middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

Israel at a Crossroads: the Iranian Threat

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With the recent formation of “The Emergency Committee for Israel”, the neoconservative and Likudnik characters on the American right have yet again stepped up their lobbying efforts. The usual characters from the Christian hard-right like Gary Bauer have again joined forces with neoconservatives Bill Kristol, Noah Pollack, Michael Goldfarb, etc. to stand up for Israel. Among other things, they have yet again brought up the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran, and how such a nation will tear the region apart with its fanaticism.

Israel’s obsession with Iran is real. While some genuinely perceive a nuclear Iran as a major threat, others on Israel’s far right recognize the much more pragmatic, if not cynical reasons for Israel’s rancid rhetoric. With the occupation of Gaza (and blockade) and the West Bank continuing to destabilize the region, Netanyahu’s administration is undoubtedly trying to use the Iranian threat to create a climate of fear. Such a climate will not only pull the world’s attention away from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but also reiterate Israel’s “scared bond” with the United States in a war against “Islamic Terrorism”.

Considering that Israel’s American-backed arsenal of nuclear weapons do not receive nearly as much attention in the corporate media as compared to Iran’s alleged attempt to acquire nuclear capabilities (still short of actual nuclear weapons), one should look at things form Iran’s perspective. Both Israel and the US have been talking nonstop about containing or attacking Iran. Iran has some rather weak (but still damaging) sanctions implemented on it by the US, and a genuine nuclear power in Israel constantly shouting about attacking it. Recently, the US navy just shipped missiles and over 300 “bunker busters” onto the African island of Diego Garcia, within striking distance of Iran. Furthermore, several of the countries that share borders with Iran have US troops in them (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, etc.).

Considering these factors, along with the threats from Israel and the United States (Israel is also not a signee of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty), even hawkish analysts within the Israeli establishment have noted the need for Iran to at least have the option of a nuclear deterrent. Israeli strategist Martin Van Creveld, for example, has noted that Iran’s president is “Not crazy at all,” and that he would essentially do what Ahmedinejad is doing right now if he were in his position. On the other hand, UN Resolution 1887 states that threats of force are illegal when settling nuclear disputes. Also, it goes without saying that a war with Iran would cause the entire region to destabilize.

For the United States, Iran’s Islamic Revolution ushered in regimes that did not conform with its imperial designs in the region. Both Russia and China do business with Iran, which has emerged as the true beneficiary of the Iraq War, and backs both Hizbullah and Hamas. None of this is in the US’s interest, let alone in Israel’s. However, these “threats” are still rather hollow, given the military and economic capacities of both the US and Israel. Although Hizbullah has on occasions embarrassed a stronger Israel, its threats (along with those of Hamas) are far from existential.

Therefore, Israel’s paranoia with Iran mirrors Iran’s rhetorical backlash. By making the Islamic regime look crazy, Israel draws attention away from the Palestinian question. By now, after the Gaza Massacre and the Flotilla incident, it has become clear that Israel is becoming a strategic liability to the United States. The Israel Lobby in the US is trying (with great success) to conceal this fact, but Israel is very much at a crossroads. It seeks to reinvigorate the US-Israeli alliance by exaggerating the Iranian threat, while not answering for its own nuclear arsenal. But Israel has very little choice. Although its only chance of preserving a Jewish state is through a two-state solution with the Palestinians, settlement-building throughout the years have pretty much destroyed that option. It has effectively dug itself a hole too deep to climb out of.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is so protracted that it inevitably shakes up the whole region, precipitating hatred aimed at both the US and Israel. Given the US’s need for oil in the future, a lack of allies in the Middle East would prove disastrous. But Israel’s unpopular presence in the region is costing the US all kinds of strategic leverage. Confronted with the reality of having no friends in the world, the Israeli regime is desperately trying to use the Iranian threat to illustrate to the US its “strategic worth”.


If Only Palestinians Wore Saffron Gowns

Tibetan autonomy is like a jagged edge that pokes me when I get too complacent about my love for my native country. That not so fine line separating family tradition and culture from state authourity and government exists as a thin residual smear after a thorough thrashing of an education by the Communist state system. Thank Goodness I left after grade two. Nontheless, thanks to a couple of gray and old Jewish guys and free speech, I’ve come around.

How ever, unlike most, I’m not ready to join in with the demonstrations at this particular time. To be more precise, starting a few weeks ago.

Why? Well, it’s not because my past has come to haunt me, nor is it because of my politics. It’s because I feel like I’m getting jipped, like someone is brainwashing me and hoping I’d resort to some sort of hypocrisy. Let me explain.

It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the Tibetan riots were clearly CIA coordinated, nor does it have to do with the little batch of pogroms the monks issued to some innocent Chinese store owners. Let’s give the poor monks the benefit of the doubt for a change. 50+ years of oppression warrants a little anger, even though it means sacrificing a little Buddhist teaching.

But it has to do with the sheer hypocrisy of our western media and the pick and choose nature of all foreign policy. They thunder and cry about Tibet. In thousands of editorials and talk-shows they heap curses and invective on the evil China. It seems as if the Tibetans are the only people on earth whose right to independence is being denied by brutal force, that if only Beijing would take its dirty hands off the saffron-robed monks, everything would be alright in this, the best of all possible worlds.

There’s no longer a doubt in my mind that Tibetans are entitled to autonomy. But are the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey not entitled to the same thing? What about the Basques in Spain? The Corsicans in France? Its a bloody long list if you ask me. I’ve tried to answer this contradiction. I cannot.

To be honest, there is nobody like the Tibetans. They enjoy ideal conditions.

Fringed by the Himalayas, they are located in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. For centuries, just to get there was an adventure. Their unique religion arouses curiosity and sympathy. Its non-violence is very attractive and elastic enough to cover even the ugliest atrocities, like the recent pogrom. The exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, is a romantic figure, a media rock-star. The Chinese regime is hated by many – by capitalists because it is a Communist dictatorship, by Communists because it has become capitalist. It promotes a crass and ugly materialism, the very opposite of the spiritual Buddhist monks, who spend their time in prayer and meditation. (


Compared to this, the Chechnyans dont have much to offer. They are Muslim terrorist for all we care, baking their pittas with the blood of faithful Christians.
Putin can hit them as hard and as much as he wants.

This, cosmically and inevitably, leads us straight to a miserable and bloody little place called Palestine.

In the quest for world sympathy and media sympathy, the Palestinians are unlucky enough to have an oppressor who has already taken the crown for being the victim of the most heinous crime in western history. Plus, most Palestinians are suicide bombers who cant wait to screw virgins in heaven. Nobody gives a damn abut the Palestinian Christians. And anyone who denies any of this is either a Holocaust denier or an Anti-Semite.

The Dalai Lama arrived in Michigan recently and met with politicians discussing the outcry in Tibet. Even Canadian politicians went, with one conservative comparing the Chinese Leviathan to Hitler and such.

Let’s hope Richard Gere knows what he’s doing.