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

Islamists vs. Liberals: a simplistic portrayal of the future

Published on: Embassy Magazine, September 26th, 2012 (with slight revisions)
[http://www.embassymag.ca/opinion/2012/09/25/islamists-vs-liberals-a-simplistic-portrayal-of-the-arab-spring/42520]

To Canadian foreign correspondent Hadeel Al-Shalchi, coverage of the Arab Spring by Western media tends to gloss over certain complexities.

“The term ‘Arab Spring’ itself is sort of a slogan,” said Al-Shalchi, a Reuters journalist based in Tripoli, Libya. She spoke to an audience of about 100 people at Carleton University last Wednesday in a lecture organized by the Centre for Media and Transitional Societies.

“The Arab Spring is comprised of a number of different conflicts, each with its own regional dynamic and implications,” she said. For example, the major framework of analysis and speculation that many analysts use when talking about these conflicts, be it in Egypt or in Syria, tend to boil down to the “Islamists versus Liberals” paradigm.

To Al-Shalchi, this type of reductive phrasing saves time and space, but is a weak tool for understanding the real situations in those Arab countries experiencing social and political turmoil. Indeed, she is right.

The ascent of Muslim political parties in Egypt and Tunisia, and the involvement of extremist militias in the Libyan and Syrian uprisings have experts worrying about the future of the Arab Spring.

Fear that powerful parties like the Muslim Brotherhood will impose theocratic rule and eclipse the aspirations of a liberal democracy are probably not wholly uncalled for. The problem, however, is not this and other similar concerns, but rather in the way such concerns are expressed in many major media outlets.

In other words, what does one really mean when one invokes the “Islamists versus Liberals” framework of analysis? The trouble with these terms is that they mean different things to different people.

Canadian political theorists like Charles Taylor and Nader Hashemi have pointed out this problem of definition time and time again. Hashemi says that the term “secularism” has had very different manifestations in Turkey, for example, than in France. Both societies have had their own experiences with political religiosity, and both have come up with unique ways of neutralization.

Nor are Middle Eastern societies neatly divided into liberals and Islamists, each with its own set of predictable sociopolitical behaviors. Al-Shalchi spent a substantial amount of time on the ground in post-Mubarak Egypt, and noted that many so-called liberals ended up voting for Mohammed Morsi, the “Islamist” candidate.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is the only political entity in Egypt with a coherent vision for the future,” Al-Shalchi said. “Those who are more left-leaning and liberal-minded did not consolidate themselves after the fall of Mubarak, and fell out of the race in many ways.”

She then noted that she was disappointed as a Canadian that the Harper administration has not engaged effectively with the Arab Spring, and has made a number of “questionable” policy decisions. Unfortunately, she did not elaborate on what these decisions were when asked to do so.

Nonetheless, one can delineate along general lines why there may be hesitancy on the part of the Canadian government when dealing with Muslim majority countries. Prime Minister Harper has publically expressed his concerns with international “Islamicism,” and the purported threats it poses to Canadians.

The success of Islamist political parties (the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the main opposition group in Syria, anchoring the Syrian National Council) across the Middle East in the past year-and-a-half probably don’t serve to quell Harper’s concerns.

Whatever the merits of such an assumption, it should be noted that the Arab Spring, a push toward general democracy and civil engagement, is a good thing for those frightened of violent groups in religious garb.

Vali Nasr, the dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has pointed out that the best way to treat religious parties who are upset with the status quo is to channel their momentum into the official political process.

For decades, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have been banned in their respective countries by dictators. Chances for armed political resistance only increases under such circumstances. But when incorporated into the electoral system of democratic representation, “Islamist” platforms and agendas are exposed to the public for scrutiny. A dialogue between the elected and those who do the electing can actually occur.

Naturally, when put under the pressures of social democracy, organizations such as the Brotherhood has to take into account those with differing views and beliefs, who also make up a substantial portion of the population. All this undermines the simplistic paradigm of a strict “Islamists versus Liberals” dichotomy, which boxes complex peoples into categories, and, as Al-Shachi pointed out, don’t correspond very much with reality.

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

Omar Khadr, a Canadian Tragedy

Published on:
http://thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=542

Among all the instances of human suffering in the world, it impossible to say that one is more important than all the rest; however, it is possible for an issue to have a particularly visceral effect on a person in ways that other issues do not. This effect is usually facilitated by a catalyst that intensifies feelings of disgust and anger toward the issue.

In my case the issue that has gnawed at me particularly hard is Canada’s refusal to repatriate Omar Khadr; the catalyst is Khadr’s Canadian legal counsel Dennis Edney.

I have met Edney a total of three times.

Each time, he gave an impassioned speech about Khadr’s plight, never failing to highlight Canada’s deathly silence, and how Khadr’s tragedy had changed his life.

“Think of the fact that he [Khadr] was 15 at the time [when he allegedly tried to kill a U.S. soldier] and think of the fact that that information was known to our government,” he said at a speech at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. “I ask, ‘where was the compassion, where was the humanity?’” With a noticeable Scottish accent, and an extraordinary sense of conviction and honesty, Edney never failed to convey to the audience his utmost frustrations.

The last time I saw him was at a fundraiser at a friend’s house right before he left for Guantánamo Bay.

He detailed how his efforts had failed, and how the Harper government ignored no fewer than four rulings from Canada’s top courts favouring Khadr’s repatriation. “I feel like I’m at the end of my journey,” he said.

Khadr, who has fired his American lawyers numerous times, has threatened to boycott his military trial at Guantánamo Bay.

Edney wanted to convince him to give his testimony to create some space for an appeal. But all signs point to the fact that there will be no light at the end of the tunnel. It now seems inevitable that Khadr, who will not receive a fair trial, will soon join the hardened murderers and rapists of the United States prison system.

Despite pleas from foreign policy critics within the Canadian parliament as well as pleas from the Obama administration for help, Stephen Harper continues his cold-shoulder stance.

Edney never failed to communicate the devastating effects of such ignorance and irresponsibility.

By now, Khadr has become cynical enough to want to forfeit his appearance in court and simply be convicted. “It might work if the world sees the U.S. sentencing a child to life in prison; it might show the world how unfair and sham this process is,” he explained in a publicized letter to Edney.

Edney’s profound frustration is ultimately aimed at Canadian civil society as a whole.

Typical is an Angus Reid poll showing that 54% of Canadians did not sympathize with Khadr’s plight.

Edney is especially upset at Canada’s Muslim community for its passivity. Mosques and Islamic centres have stayed silent, fearing that their charitable status might be revoked.

“You are the most educated group in this country,” Edney would say to them. “You are involved in the highest levels of society…but where are you?”

Then there is the deathly silence from those who spoke solemnly of Khadr’s tragedy, but failed to act upon their convictions. These people, according to Edney, represent our greatest failure.

“In the matter of Omar Khadr, the question is hardly complicated,” wrote Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin. “You either support high standards of justice or you don’t. In the Khadr case, most Canadians, along with their government, do not. It’s a national disgrace.”

No question about that.

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middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Michael Ignatieff on Bill-94

I approached Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff this past weekend when his nation-wide bus tour landed him in Mississauga, Ontario’s annual MuslimFest festivities. After a rather warm reception, I asked the Liberal Party leader to “clear up the confusion” that has accumulated recently regarding his stance on Quebec’s proposed “niqab ban”, or Bill 94.

Ignatieff was reported by the Globe and Mail on March 26th, 2010 as to have backed the bill. Commenting on the matter at the Liberal Party’s 3-day “Canada at 150” conference, Ignatieff was quoted by the Globe as to have supposedly stated that the Quebeckers “have found a good balance.” That balance apparently referred to how “The Quebec government is trying to make sure that in civic and public places that freedom of religion is respected but at the same time on the other side citizens come forward and reveal themselves when they are demanding public service.”

This statement actually does make sense, but it was tough to see how banning the veil in Quebec would strike such a “balance”.

His answer to me this past weekend was similar, but lacked an endorsement. He was clear enough that he wanted to seek the “good-old Canadian compromise,” and that he thought Quebec would have to find its own way in achieving some common ground. When I followed up by asking whether he was misquoted in the Globe piece, he replied (with a slight hint of annoyance) with a brief “Yeah, I thought I was.” Fair enough.

I later spoke with Liberal MP (Parkdale-Highpark) Gerard Kennedy, and Omar Alghabra (former Liberal MP of Mississauga-Erindale) on the same issue. Both are against the proposed ban, and both concurred with Ignatieff’s statement.

[Addendum: I didn’t note this in the first version of this post, but in all fairness, Ignatieff did say explicitly, along with his statement on “balance”, that the state cannot/should-not dictate how women practice their faith and how they dress. Again, note the striking difference between these statements and the Globe piece. Both Kennedy and Alghabra concurred with this specific point as well.]

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The reason I, and many others, occasionally fixate on Ignatieff’s stance on particular political and cultural issues is because we want to know how viable he is as a potential alternative to Stephen Harper. Like most people I know, I am of the “anyone-but-Conservatives” camp, and think that the Liberals have the best chance of winning an up-coming election.

The Harper administration has had such a horrible effect on me (his immigration minister Jason Kenney being a primary reason) that I simply wish it political death as soon as possible (and by any means necessary/possible). This thrusts Ignatieff into unique significance for some of us at least. Will he turn out to be the more nuanced/just leader that is needed in order to mend the bleeding wounds torn by the current administration? What will he do for immigrants, for human rights, for the environment, etc.? These are the questions we have to ask, and this is why his conclusions about the niqab in Canada should be made as public as possible.

Those of us who value whatever progressive inclinations Canada possessed before the Harper nightmare, however we feel about Ignatieff, want to know whether or not he will make an effort to step away from the post-9/11 climate that has been dominated by American belligerence.

I won’t speculate on how a Liberal administration under Ignatieff will do. Anyone can rant. However, if anything needs to be said, it is the fact that the anti-Bill 94 campaign is necessary, and that political parties/administrations move based on the pressures they feel from their respective societies.

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada’s Disturbing “Solution” to Alleged Islamic Extremism

Published on:
http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/07/canada%E2%80%99s-disturbing-%E2%80%9Csolution%E2%80%9D-to-alleged-islamic-extremism/#more-20150

Not a terrible lot has been written about the global consequences of 9/11 on Western Muslim communities. For example, almost immediately after the deadly events of September 11th 2001, Canada adopted its own version of the Patriot Act: Bill C-36, the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act. This piece of anti-terror legislation is so broad in its scope and language that legal experts had difficulty picturing exactly how such legislation can and will be applied.

That all changed after 2006, when several suspects in a high-profile case dubbed the “Toronto-18 Case” were convicted under the act. Of the eighteen men and youth arrested, several had their charges dropped/stayed while other pled guilty and are awaiting sentence. Of those convicted, one has been sentenced to life in prison. Indeed, there was a bomb plot planned, but the more sensationalist slogans like “beheading the Prime Minister”, so often proliferated by Canada’s corporate media, were nothing more than “big talk”. These events made Muslim communities in Canada doubly paranoid. On the one hand, they feared the dangerous stereotyping of their religious identity and practices by the “outsiders” that were sure to be a result of this case. On the other hand, they have been “forced” to keep an eye out for the “extremists” in there midst, as if scouting out lepers.

In an effort to tend to the latter (and overrated) paranoia, numerous community leaders and security agencies in Canada have come up with a solution to “de-radicalize” young “Muslim extremists”. The idea has now come into fruition thanks to the work of Sheikh Ahmed Amiruddin of the Al-Sunnah Institute in Toronto, Canada (his mosque is the Masjid El-Noor). Commonly known as the “Islamic Ideological Detox” program, Amiruddin has supposedly devised an effective twelve- step “de-radicalization” program aimed at turning angry Muslim youth away from the path of “extremism”. The initiative much resembles a kind of self-help guide for alcoholics in its structural make-up. By now, the Canadian intelligence agency, or CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Services), has shown interest, as well as another Sheikh Robert Heft of “Paradise4Ever”, a Muslim organization that helps Muslim converts settle into their new faith-based lives.

As rosy and good-hearted as this all sounds, the very idea of a theology-based “de-radicalization” program is problematic. The worldview that underscored this “ideological detox” program is congruent with the tiresome post-9/11 tendency to put extremism at the centre of any potentially substantial discussion. The alleged and much touted subject of “Islamic extremism” becomes de-contextualized politically, and all suggested solutions point to the perceived problem as being completely borne out of religion. In fact, there is nothing “Islamic” about them at all. As stated by numerous studies around the world, the phenomenon of committing violence in the name of religion is usually borne out of political indignation. Robert Pape of The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism has done more work than most on the subject of suicide bombing, and has concluded that imperial ambitions by world powers precipitate backlash, some of which take the form of terror in the name of religion.[see his new book here] Despite much (undeserved) publicity, Canada has exhibited only one case that remotely exemplifies such a case: members of the “18” were outraged by Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war, among other things. The root of their anger was deeply political, and pertained specifically to policies carried out by their government. This is true for all NATO allies, especially the United States.

As individuals who were unfamiliar with the avenues of political activism (something their mosques and role models should have provided for and invested in), the “18” took matter into their own hands, and began to search for interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah (way of the Prophet Muhammad) which were akin to Osama bin Laden’s worldview. In other words, the political woes and the “jihadi rhetoric” that dually inspired the “18” should not be viewed as detached influences. The former reinforces and lends false credibility to the latter. The post-9/11 “West” is so obsessed with the apparently Islamic iconography used by “extremists” that they often forget to look at the bigger picture. Any solution that seeks to invest in so-called “terror-prevention” must realize this vital point. Unfortunately, Sheikh Amiruddin’s twelve-step “ideological detox” program falls terribly short of such a realization.

Another sinister characteristic of the “de-radicalization” program pertains to how exactly such a program would play out on the ground. The details have yet to be hashed out, but the way in which a program like this functions as a pre-emption to terror is worth discussing. Let’s pretend for the moment that so-called “Islamic extremism” is actually a problem in Canada. Presumably, members of a certain community will be asked to be “vigilant” about their fellow community members. If they notice any suspicious activity or behaviour by an individual/group, they will be asked to report, or “red-flag” the person(s) involved. Those reported will then be recognized and marked off by CSIS for later “treatment”. This logic in itself is questionable, with the obvious question being exactly what “behaviour” constitutes a need for suspicion. Moreover, how would such a program deal with dishonesty? If a person is reported by another individual simply out of spite and not for any substantial reason(s), what would the safeguard be? These unaddressed queries constitute concerns regarding civil liberties that will inevitably arise.

By now, the alleged problem of “Islamic extremism” has been positioned as a central concern in the 21st century. Of course, prevention of violence in the name of Islam is in everyone’s interest. However, Western democracies must realize that these problems will not be solved through Guantanamo-styled strong-arming, or through the on-going stereotyping of Muslims in society. It will be vital in the future to realize that if “extremism” is to be avoided, one must first de-fang those involved by giving them nonviolent and activist avenues to vent their anger. If such a program can be devised with the help of security agencies, participating governments must guarantee the rights and liberties of all those who are involved.

While the Anti-terror legislation came into being under the previous Liberal government, the civil liberties-bashing Conservative Harper regime has continued to hunt for “terrorists,” such as the Toronto-18 case. The regime, like much of Canada’s media, has tried very hard to inculcate a climate of fear. The government-media nexus has engaged in a campaign of demonization aiming to insert into the Canadian psyche that “deradicalization” is needed, and that an “Islamic Detox Program” will solve the problem. This ill-informed and racist position will produced unworkable and problematic policies. “Islamic extremism” is not the problem, despite what the current discourse suggests. Insofar as society wants to prevent “Islamic extremism”, the root of the problem must be hacked at: foreign and imperial ventures undertaken by Western regimes must stop at once.

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