muslims, politics, war on terror

A Great (Political) Neutering

Published on The Islamic Monthly on November 25th, 2014

Every problem that afflicts the Muslim world calls out desperately for enlightened Muslim activism. Yet it can be convincingly argued that Western Muslim communities have become politically castrated in the post-9/11 era. Organizations are afraid to lose their charitable status as governments implement rigorous auditing procedures, while those who want nothing more than normal, decent lives are afraid of ending up on some no-fly list, unable to land that big job at that big firm.

This self-perpetuating quiescence occurs at a time when places like Canada and other “5-Eyes”nations (the other four being the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) are tabling ever more invasive security measures. Fear-mongering politicians use the “Islamic State” and “homegrown terrorism” to get what they want while civic pushback, though not insignificant, is still relatively outmatched.

But the question Muslims should be asking is, “What are all these security measures aiming at?”

Which communities are going to bear the brunt of such surveillance?

There are several candidates, but a blind person can tell that the easiest target these days are Muslims who have no interest in defending themselves politically. Obama may have rhetorically dropped the “War on Terror” title, but his administration has arguably been much more active in rolling back civil liberties than his GOP predecessor.

Canadian politics seem headed down that same road. Extra policing and surveillance will surely be applied to Muslim communities after the Harper administration gets its new anti-terror laws passed by a Tory parliamentary majority.

The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest that the Muslim response to these developments will be anything more than tepid.

To be sure, there are some groups who’re picking up the slack, but it’s hard to conclude that they have the material backing of larger community sectors. For all the talk about victimhood, Palestine, the War on Terror, etc., which have all become major themes of discussion in the Muslim world, people don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. The result is a set of deformed communal tendencies that often contradict each other.

Take this latest Tariq Ramadan beef with the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference organizers. It’s created a schism in the Muslim community Canada (and beyond), especially for those who attend the convention regularly and admire Ramadan (who thinks RIS is politically inept for inviting scholars who apparently support the Sisi regime in Egypt). It’s a fair debate with real implications, but the scope of its effects is internal (much like insider-baseball). Internal is about the only kind of political controversy that the community wants to engage with. Anything that defends against real outside threats that affect everyone on a local level is not so exciting, it seems. Why act against Stephen Harper, surveillance, over-policing, and demonization when bickering about whether some conference should/shouldn’t invite some Swiss scholar is so much more fun (and so much easier)?

Therein lies the curious, oxymoronic (a)political behavior of Western Muslims (especially in Canada): gung-ho about its own internal beefs while refusing real engagement with actual political threats from those in power. The former, however substantive, is comfortable and familiar. The latter is hard work and puts people’s reputations on the line. That’s why when it came to the emblematic issue of Omar Khadr’s repatriation, the former child soldier’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, got on every podium he could to literally yell “Where are you?” to the Muslims. It turns out Khadr’s stronger allies were progressive atheists and Christians.

There’s a lot of talk about sticking together, communalism, and justice when it comes to Western Muslims (who, arguably, are most free to practice their religion). That’s not a bad thing. Frustration and anger should lead to action, but action is the operative term here. For all this talk about who is speaking for (thanks Shaykh bin Affleck!) or against (Bill Maher, etc.) Muslims, the only thing that ever really matters is whether or not Muslims speak out for each other. In which case the Muslims have failed substantially, leading any outside observer to conclude that Islam isn’t much glue when it comes to binding people together for justice. (Though it’d be inspiring to be proven wrong!)

Someone once told me that Islam is the greatest source of human connection God has ever given humanity. I believe him, but only in spite of all the evidence available to me. In other words, I believe him in theory. In practice, failure to consider the shortcomings of human nature results in a rejection of reality. If Western Muslims continue to reject the reality around them in favor of class privilege, we’ll be bringing the temple down on our own heads.

Photo Credit: Hector de Pereda

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/a-great-political-neutering/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Surveillance, Fear, and the State

My new op-ed (“Canada’s Islamophobia Problem”), published by Canada’s crowd-funded, independent outlet, Ricochet, takes issue with the Harper administration’s security rhetoric and proposed legislation after the Ottawa Shooting in October. It reads, in part:

‘The bulk of the announced security measures have yet to be introduced, but critics inside and outside of government have stated that Canada’s present laws are more than enough to do the job. Though many Conservatives love to say that Muslim terrorism and radicalization poses the greatest threat to Canadians, the number of people killed in Canada by such attacks has been small since 9/11. In other words, if “Islamicism” is indeed this country’s top concern, then our security apparatus must be pretty darn good; there’s no reason to “bolster” what already works then. Moreover, reports from North Carolina’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security show that homegrown terrorism remains minimal. So, if anything, a restriction of invasive security tactics should follow, but that isn’t about to happen any time soon.’

No doubt the administration will exploit the moment in order to boost its poll numbers, first by pushing through security-heavy laws while they still have a Parliamentary majority, secondly by antagonizing minority interests/communities that lack the resources to fight back. This isn’t just exclusive to Muslim Canadians, who are under-organized and misrepresented. Numeorus progressive NGOs have been under intense scrutiny by the CRA (as Gerald Caplan pointed out in an op-ed at the Globe), while politically active, but conservative think tanks have been left alone.

Canada’s surveillance regime is going to receive a boost from the Conservatives at a time when homegrown terrorism has killed less people after 9/11 than drunk driving and other, more prosaic dangers. But the West, led by the United States, is engaged in a pro-surveillance era that’s lasted for over a decade. Much of which remains in the dark despite best efforts from whistleblowers, journalists and activists.

The Wall Street Journal just revealed that US Marshals have a fleet of planes at their disposal that carry “dirtboxes,” devices that mimic cellphone towers, in order to eavesdrop on people’s cellphone conversations. The same devices, according to documents unearthed by the ACLU’s Dave Maass, are used along the US border with Mexico. The LAPD have apparently also gotten in on the act. Of course, this is all just the latest episode in a long-running melodrama that overplays the important of surveillance in the protection of civilians from domestic/foreign terrorists.

There’s no reason to think that Canada, under this government, won’t also go down that path. It’s going to be tough to peel back legislation, passed omnibus-style and with no debate, that gives spies and police more power–another reason why Harper and his boys/girls are profoundly anti-democratic.

 

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

The Fall of Barack Obama?

Published on: “The Canadian Charger”, October 13th, 2010 (http://www.thecanadiancharger.com/page.php?id=5&a=628)

As the midterm elections near in the United States, President Obama and Vice-President Biden have announced in unison that democrats have to “stop whining”. In other words, their message rests on a confused statement of confused disappointment “we’ve done so much for you, how can you complain? Look at these Republicans, do you want them ruling over you?” The Obama administration, after two years, must now resort to the “at-least-we’re-not-them” strategy. Why? Because they don’t have much else to show for.

Both domestically and internationally, Obama has failed to deliver on crucial promises. Two fundamentally crucial mis-steps are especially troubling and destructive. When accompanied by the lack of jobs for middle and working America, at least the idea of Obama—whatever is left from those hopeful campaign speeches—has collapsed.

(1) The failure to restore civil liberties for U.S. citizens. Early on, Obama refused to prosecute Bush-era Department of Justice officials because he wanted to “Look forward, not back.” Those who worked with Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo, etc. essentially got a free pass for formulating some of the most ridiculous torture laws during the heat of the “War on Terror”. But while looking forward, the Obama administration refused to discontinue the illegal wire-tapping carried out by the state’s intelligence community. In fact, perhaps looking a little too forward, the Obama administration has also tried to expand presidential power in order to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process (ie. vis a vis Anwar al-Awlaki), regardless of where they are on the planet. Finally, just to top it all off, Obama has requested that the internet also be wire-tapped (via “backdoor encryption”) in order to survey e-mail communication of U.S. citizens.

This all seems terribly surreal when considering the fact that Obama ran on somewhat of a “liberty-first” campaign, at least rhetorically shifting away from Bush’s morbid civil rights record. However, a sober examination of Obama’s record on civil liberties reveals that his policies are just as morbid. In fact, compared to Bush Jr, Obama is worse. George Bush never tried to assassinate American citizens with or without due process. Obama’s mini-crusade against the apparently terrorist Imam Anwar al-Awlaki is bizarre to say the least. Claiming at al-Awlaki is in collusion with Yemeni al-Qaeda, Obama has called for the New Mexico-born al-Awlaki to be killed—without a trial or any real evidence regarding the claims made. If Obama gets his way, his administration will usher in a new era of presidential power, one that allows for the murder of American citizens, away from a battlefield (al-Awlaki could be eating dinner for all we know), and without any semblance of due process. In fact, one is prompted to ask for so many of these jump-the-gun “War on Terror” scenarios, a rather obvious question: “If you’re so sure that they’re guilty, why not have them convicted properly in a court of law?”

(2) The failure to decrease the United States’ violent involvement in the Middle East. Since Obama’s presidency began, the U.S. has continually been involved violently in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen (the ones we know). Drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen have killed upwards of a few hundred people. To be fair, Obama never campaigned on an explicitly anti-war platform—but he did run on an implicit one. Instead, the United States’ footprint in the Middle East is larger than ever.

While sticking to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq and pulling out around 15,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq in August 2010, Obama reneged on his pledge to pull out all combatants by September 1st, 2010. In fact, around 50,000 troops are to remain in Iraq even after the withdrawal, despite these remaining troops being labeled “advisory and assistance brigades.” Obama has effectively rebranded the Iraq occupation. The U.S. embassy is a mammoth establishment the size of Vatican City (consisting of twenty-one buildings on 104 acres of land on the Tigris River). The American diplomats and officials in Iraq are protected by private contractors/mercenaries from corporations like DynCorp and Blackwater Worldwide (now Xe). This upsurge of mercenaries is to off-set the withdrawals mandated by SOFA, which asks for all foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. As The Nation Magazine’s correspondent Timothy Scahill reported just prior to the August withdrawal:

“The State Department is asking Congress to approve funds to more than double the number of private security contractors in Iraq with a State Department official testifying in June at a hearing of the Wartime Contracting Commission that the Department wants ‘between 6,000 and 7,000 security contractors.’ The Department also has asked the Pentagon for twenty-four Blackhawk helicopters, fifty Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles and other military equipment.”

This policy effectively shows that the Obama administration is not committed to letting Iraqis shape their own future.

Not far away, President Obama—very much sticking to his campaign message—increased troops in Afghanistan by at least 30,000 U.S. troops. Like the previous administration, the Obama establishment cannot break out of what Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald calls the “War on Terror logic.” Greenwald writes that

“The very idea that we’re going to spend an entire decade dropping a constant stream of bombs and other munitions on and in multiple Muslim countries and otherwise interfere in their governments — and then expect that nobody will try to attack us back — evinces such a child-like sense of imperial entitlement that it’s hard to put into words.”

The campaign in Afghanistan has yielded a number of gruesome incidents involving innocent Afghan noncombatants. These were detailed in the massive leak released to the whistle-blowing organization Wikileaks, which subsequently released the 90,000 page trove to the New York Times (U.S.), The Guardian (U.K.), and Der Spiegel (Germany). One under-publicized incident involved the murder of five individuals in the Afghan province of Paktia that consisted of two pregnant women and a teenage girl. Having shot to death these innocent civilians, the soldiers tried to hide the crime by prying out the bullets and washing the wounds with alcohol. War, as it turns out, whether headed up by President Bush or President Obama, is always mind-blowingly bloody and dishonorable.

There have been no real signs of success in Obama’s military campaigns to eradicate al-Qaeda. The more blood American troops have on their hands, the more danger will face U.S. citizens in the form of terrorism. It’s a not justification for murder, but an understanding of the causation of such cycles of violence.

The continued perpetuation of occupation and violence abroad is not entirely the fault of Barack Obama, and neither is the proliferation of the so-called “security state” on the U.S. domestic scene. The American way of war is benefited by a large number of establishment-preserving institutions, not least of which are the private contractors, weapons-developers, and divisive politicians. And as Dana Priest and William Arkin showed in their report for the Washington Post, “Top Secret America,” the mammoth apparatus that is the “security state” is so large and uncontrollable, no single individual was responsible for its extensive proliferation, and certainly no individual can single-handedly destroy it.

However, it does go to show that those who put their absolute faith and hope in Barack Obama have only themselves to blame. When running for President, Obama lied—but not as much as one would think. Most of the time, he presented himself as exactly what he was—a slightly liberal centrist. He made almost no promises in terms of concrete policy, and what little he did say were mere slogans. Those who endowed him with institution-toppling powers are disappointed only in-so-far that they trusted in their own political judgment—which, frankly—isn’t very impressive.

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