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Image via The Toronto Star

Image via The Toronto Star

“Pride parade ‘microcosm of anti-Semitism happening globally’” headlined the Jewish Tribune last month, outlining lawyer Martin Gladstone’s and Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith’s concern with the “anti-Israel political advocacy going on” at the parade. The objection Gladstone and B’nai Brith raised to the inclusion of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) in Toronto’s upcoming parade embodies several leitmotifs in the North American discourse around Israel/Palestine (and regarding Muslims and Muslim-majority countries in general): the suppression of dissent and the silencing of critical perspectives in forums that traditionally challenge the status quo; the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism; and the co-optation of the language of human rights to justify colonial and imperial projects. It is this last trend which constitutes the subject-matter of this analysis.

Executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada Frank Dimant considers it

the height of irony to single out democratic Israel in this fashion [by protesting Israeli occupation of Palestine in the Pride Parade] when it is the only country in the Middle East that guarantees the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens without distinction. In stark contrast, the rights of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community in neighbouring Arab countries are routinely trampled on. Members of Canada’s LGBT community who are constantly battling discrimination should be mindful not to become part and parcel of the anti-Israel machinery that continues to churn out hateful and divisive propaganda.

Dimant’s insinuation is that protesting Israeli apartheid equals a demonstration of support for the homophobia of the Arab countries, and against the equality Israel guarantees to its LGBT community – an argument which implies that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is somehow justified by Palestinian homophobia. This logic obviously contradicts that basic, if hackneyed, (in)equation of moral arithmetic: two wrongs don’t equal a right.

Dimant’s framing of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one between a democratic, tolerant Israel and an oppressive, intolerant Arab world resonates with a broader discourse which appropriates the language of human rights in the service of colonial and imperial ventures. As Sherene Razack trenchantly observes in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics,

[Zionist positions] premised on the idea that a Jewish state must be created by force regardless of Palestinian opposition benefits from the companion notion that Palestinians are not entitled to the land by virtue of their refusal to enter modernity.1

The rights of women and sexual minorities serve as markers distinguishing modern societies from pre-modern ones in a Manichean clash between a Western culture “imagined as a homogenous composite of values including a unique commitment to democracy and human rights,” 2 and a Muslim culture characterized by a commitment to misogyny and homophobia. The wars waged to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan and Iraq represent one aspect of this “clash of civilizations”; Holland’s test requiring would-be immigrants to watch a video of two men kissing in a park to weed out illiberal applicants (primarily Muslim) represents another.

The misogyny and homophobia that do exist in the West disappear into the fault line dividing the Western and Muslim worlds in the clash of civilizations fiction. In the case of homophobia, for example: sodomy was illegal in Canada until 1969 and in some American states as recently as 2003; in November 2008, California passed Proposition 8 banning gay marriage; B’nai Brith, ostensibly championing Israel’s gay rights, is “openly aligned with anti-gay rights Christian fundamentalists such as Charles McVety, Canada’s most vocal lobbyist against same-sex marriage, and John Hagee, who claimed God sent Hurricane Katrina to stop ‘a homosexual parade.’” There is no place for these facts in a simplistically dichotomous narrative which juxtaposes the homogenously modern West against the pre-modern rest.

Before closing, it should be noted that the purpose of this piece is not to engage in a tu quoque argument that catalogues North American homophobia and measures it up against its Arab or Muslim counterpart; rather, it is to point out that while homophobia exists in both “Western” and “Muslim” societies, it is only diagnosed as a symptom of fatal pre-modernity (requiring treatment by invasion and occupation) in Muslim ones. Nor is this article an exercise in apologetics: there are grave human rights concerns in many Muslim-majority countries, and they need to be addressed. However, it does no service to the causes of justice and equality to marry the concept of human rights to racist ideologies of imperialism.

1) The contemporary rhetoric of culture clash premised on notions of human rights echoes the earlier colonial concept of terra nullius (no one’s land), which justified the European theft of land from its insufficiently modern indigenous inhabitants. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt defended the violent colonization of North America thus: “The world would probably not have gone forward at all, had it not been for the displacement or submersion of savage and barbaric peoples” (from The Winning of the West).

2) Sherene Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. pg. 88

See also:

“Modern Women as Imperialists” in Sherene Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics.

Haneen Maikey and Jason Ritchie. “Queers for Palestine: A Response to an Article in the Advocate.” http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/3276

Huibin Amee Chew. “Occupation is Not (Women’s) Liberation. http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6599

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For the past few months, The Future Movement– a political group operating from an Islamic School in Calgary– was campaigning in order to convince Lebanese Canadians to return to their homeland in order to cast votes in the June 7 election, according to this article.

Though The Future Movement coordinator Fauzi Salem says that the group had just been encouraging residents to vote and exercise their rights as citizens in an obviously important election, others in the local Muslim community were concerned.

One member, who didn’t want to be named, said that he felt the high-stakes election not only increased risk to those who returned to Lebanon, but that it cause unnecessary tension in the Calgarian community.

However, Salem said that there was very little danger and many Lebanese Calgarians often visit Lebanon anyway and that they were just promoting democracy.

The group was also lobbying for new rules for absentee voting so that in the future, Lebanese Canadians could vote from Canada. Salem also stressed that the group wasn’t paying for travel or accommodations and was only helping organize them.  In some cases though, they helped Canadians connect overseas with sponsors who were willing to fund their travels.

Elections took place this week and the “pro-western” coalition maintained its power.  See here for an interesting analysis of what this all means.

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3JFrom the same team that gave America Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East and the award-winning Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West comes a new blockbuster “documentary”: The Third Jihad: Radical Islam’s Vision for America. Undeterred by the thorough debunking Obsession received following its mass distribution in American newspapers last year (financed by the eminently shady Clarion Fund), producer Raphael Shore and director Wayne Kopping are back with more of the same in their latest offering.

The Third Jihad’s vortex of fear-mongering centers on the Muslim Brotherhood’s so-called “Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Plan For the Group in North America,” a document dating back to 1991 that supposedly outlines the Muslim Brotherhood’s manifesto of “grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western Civilization from within.” (The memorandum is available exclusively on the website of Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism.) The Third Jihad premiered in Canada on Wednesday May 20 to a sold-out crowd at Toronto’s Eglinton Grand theatre; I attended the premiere to discover what my “radical” co-religionists envision for America. As the film’s narrator Dr. Zuhdi Jasser so ominously put it, “We all know about terrorism; this is the war you don’t know about.”

An exhaustive treatment of the film’s contents lies beyond the limits of this piece, and so what follows is an assessment of its most salient assertions and an analysis of the function those claims serve in The Third Jihad’s broader propagandic narrative.

“Where are the Muslims? Where are they in speaking out and condemning terrorism?” – Dr. Zuhdi Jasser

In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani described the American endeavor to discriminate the “good” Muslim from the “bad” Muslim. This distinction is political, rather than religious or theological: as Mamdani explained, “Even when Bush speaks of ‘good’ Muslims and ‘bad’ Muslims, what he means by ‘good’ Muslims is really pro-American Muslims and by ‘bad’ Muslims he means anti-American Muslims.” The Third Jihad shamelessly exploits this bifurcative dynamic to cast suspicion on the majority of the American Muslim community – belying its opening disclaimer that it is only about the “small percentage” of Muslims embodying “the threat of radical Islam” – while propping up its Muslim cheerleader for American neo-conservatism, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser.

Dr. Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), is The Third Jihad’s narrator and central protagonist. He is described in the film as “a devout Muslim,” as if his pious Muslim-ness qualifies him to speak authoritatively on global and local Islamic politics and history (it obviously doesn’t, given the quality of the political and historical analysis The Third Jihad offers; see sections below). Moreover, it is obvious that what characterizes Dr. Jasser as a “good” Muslim is not his devotion to his religion, but rather his uncritical devotion to the neo-conservative agenda: AIFD’s list of core principles includes an affirmation that “as United States citizens we support our American armed forces,” and expresses a commitment to “work to express the consistency of the principles of Islam with economic principles of free markets and capitalism.” The film ends with an American-as-apple-pie scene of Dr. Jasser playing soccer with his children and exhorting people to “stand up for the freedoms and liberties our forefathers fought to create.”

The Third Jihad’s promotional material bills Zuhdi Jasser as “the one person who is not afraid to tell you the truth” about “the jihadist quest to rule America.” He is also apparently the only Muslim willing to condemn terrorism: “Where are the Muslims?” Dr. Jasser wonders in the film. “Where are they in speaking out and condemning terrorism?” (To relieve his bewilderment he could refer to the lists of anti-terrorism statements issued by Muslim leaders and organizations, compiled by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Sheila Musaji.) Mainstream American Muslim organizations, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Students Assocation (MSA) are cast in the role of “bad” Muslim, working to undermine Western society from within while deceptively “presenting themselves as moderate.” While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood named ISNA and the MSA as possibly friendly organizations in their putative “General Strategic Plan,” the film gives no evidence to suggest that the organizations are indeed participants in the Brotherhood’s nefarious “grand jihad” plot, or are vitiating American society in any other way.

The Third Jihad’s portrayal of the American Muslim community as a towering fifth column is a potemkin construct of half-truths. For instance: The film shows extensive footage of the Islamic Thinkers Society (ITS) proclaiming their desire to institute Shariah law in America, but it doesn’t reveal that the ITS membership is “less than a handfull [sic] of Muslims” localized in Jackson Heights, New York City. The film asperses CAIR because it was founded in 1994 by three former leaders of the Islamic Association for Palestine (described as a front group for Hamas), but it conveniently neglects to mention that support for Hamas wasn’t illegal when the CAIR founders were IAP members.

“In today’s context there are actually two different types of jihad. There’s the violent jihad, where the Islamists use violence and terror to try and overthrow their enemy. And then there’s what has been termed the cultural jihad, where these Islamists use in a most duplicitous way the laws and the rights they are given in our society to try and work against society and overthrow it.” – Dr. Zuhdi Jasser

The promotional material accompanying The Third Jihad notifies that “radical Islamists are taking advantage of the United States of America’s democratic processes, and using them to destroy the American way of life.” The film provides several sinister (European) instances of this “cultural jihad”: toy pigs being banned in a British office because they offended a Muslim employee; Burger King recalling a desert because its logo resembled the Arabic script for “Allah;” a Turkish lawyer attempting to sue a soccer team because its jerseys displayed a Crusader-like cross. (Interestingly, Barbara Kay trots out many of the same examples in her National Post article on “soft jihad.”)

While these cases may indicate the oversensitivity of individual Muslims to insult of Islam, they are hardly signs of a concerted strategy to “try and work against society and overthrow it,” much less the most serious current threat to liberal democracy and society. If a ban on toy pigs is a troubling assault on rights and freedoms, then where do you rank the USA PATRIOT Act, which permitted the indefinite detention of non-citizens upon secret evidence and extensive government surveillance of communications? Or the judgment of Guantanamo inmates in secretive military commissions, contravening all notions of fair trial? Is the American state also waging a “jihad” on Western civilization?

“The clash between Islam and Christendom has now been going on for 14 centuries.” – Dr. Bernard Lewis

The Third Jihad condenses 1400 years of Islam into three jihads, rendering history thus: The first jihad was the 7th century spread of Islam out of Arabia (and “that was obviously not done by peaceful persuasion,” comments Bernard Lewis), and the second jihad was the Ottoman expansion beginning in the 15th c. CE. According to Zuhdi Jasser, “we’re [currently] in the third and final phase of their mission to bring about the domination of their version of Islam.” The graphic accompanying this cobbled-together history shows a map progressively covered by metastasizing star-and-crescent symbols, until the whole world is dominated by Islam. This domination is portrayed as a cumulative process, leaving one with the erroneous impression that the Ottoman Empire still exists and controls significant portions of the globe. One is also left puzzling when the Islamists conquered the continents of South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa, since the film deals mainly with North America and Europe.

Edward Said remarked in Orientalism that the Orientalists (including Bernard Lewis) saw Islam as a “ ‘cultural synthesis’ . . . that could be studied apart from the economics, sociology, and politics of the Islamic peoples . . . The impact of colonialism, of worldly circumstances, of historical development: all these were to the Orientalists as flies to wanton boys, killed – or disregarded – for their sport.” And so The Third Jihad draws straight, spurious lines of continuity from the Ottoman Empire to the modern day, blithely ignoring pesky historical “flies” such as the emergence of the modern system of nation-states, the colonial and post-colonial encounters between “Islam” and “the West,” the Cold War, and the processes of modernization and globalization that have been so instrumental in shaping the contours of political Islam. Juan Eduardo Campo makes an incisive analogy: “One can only imagine the objections that would be raised if a respected American Studies scholar were to interpret Chicano or African American gang activity in American cities in terms of ancient Aztec or African warrior religions, while neglecting to discuss the immediate social, cultural, and economic causes.”

Provided with no description of the different ways Islam has been interpreted and enacted throughout its history, the unfortunate viewer of The Third Jihad is left to imagine that the “version of Islam” spread through subsequent jihads is synonymous with the worst behaviors of Muslims documented in the film: extremism, oppression, and intolerance. (Incidentally, the branch of Islam that seems to constitute The Third Jihad’s greatest concern – Wahhabism – only achieved prominence in the early 20th c. CE, a period entirely elided in the film’s telescoped history. Wahhabism was considered a form of heresy by the 18th-century Ottoman Empire.) Moreover, the film’s insinuation that Islam as a religion was spread purely by the sword is misleading: even Daniel Pipes notes that in the prevailing classical conception of jihad, its purpose was “political, not religious. It aim[ed] not so much to spread the Islamic faith as to extend sovereign Muslim power.” Bernard Lewis’ castigation of the Muslim empires for using means other than “peaceful persuasion” to expand is historically anachronistic – is there any empire which extended its sovereign power without using force?

The film situates this piecemeal history within a cosmic clash between two “religiously-defined civilizations” which will only end when “they [the Muslims] triumph universally” (according to Bernard Lewis). The “clash of civilizations” thesis has been discredited ad nauseum (see, for instance, Francis Robinson’s “Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations?”), so I will refrain from entering into a full rebuttal of it in this piece. However, one wonders if Zuhdi Jasser realizes that if Bernard Lewis was correct – that the “Islamic” and “Western” civilizations really are fundamentally incompatible – his dream of creating “a world where my children can grow up, and there’s no conflict in their hearts between being American and being Muslim” would be unattainable.

“The real war is not a war against a bunch of terrorists. It’s a war between the values of freedom and democracy, and the values of barbarism.” – Dr. Tawfik Hamid, “former Jamaa Islameia terrorist”

The Third Jihad plays as fast and loose with contemporary politics as it does with history to extend its Manichean grand narrative to the current age. Sundry conflicts are stripped of their contexts and presented as fronts in a unified Islamist movement. In Dr. Jasser’s analysis, “When we look at the conflicts in India, Chechnya, Indonesia, Gaza, Iraq, Somalia, and countless other countries,” what’s at root is “the quest for Islam to become the dominant religion.” No allusion is made to the history of violence between Muslims and Hindus in India, or the brutal repression of Chechen separatists by the Russian government, or America’s pre-emptive war in Iraq, or the 60-year Israel/Palestine conflict. The Muslim actors in these theaters are robbed of all rational political motivation: “It’s an entire movement,” states Rudy Giuliani, “and the idea of it is hatred for our way of life.”

But as writer Melanie Phillips suggests in The Third Jihad, “surely it’s more sensible to look at what they [radical Muslims] actually say they’re doing.” For example, Al-Qaeda’s 1998 declaration of jihad “against the Jews and the Crusaders” outlined three goals of the jihad: the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, an end to sanctions against Iraq, and the establishment of Islamic control over holy sites in Jerusalem. These objectives were obviously not driven by abhorrence for American “freedom and democracy,” but rather by specific elements of American foreign policy that have crippled freedom and democracy in parts of the Muslim world. Portraying the situation as an ineluctable “clash of civilizations” – in which the enemy “hates us for what we are, not what we do” – may provide absolution for America, but it does nothing to address the root causes that give rise to violence. Obviously violent Islamism and anti-Americanism do exist, but The Third Jihad mischaracterizes both its motivations and its scale.

“Islamism is like cancer. You either defeat it or it will defeat you.” – Dr. Tawfik Hamid

Ironically, The Third Jihad mirrors the “us-against-them” logic and rhetoric of the anti-American radical Islam it so decries. And its farrago of innuendo and half-truth is extremely persuasive. Following the screening, a member of the audience stood up and drew a parallel between Islamism and Nazism, arguing that Islamists have to be destroyed as the Nazis were – a dangerous proposition, considering the blurry line the film draws between radical Islamists and the rest of us Muslims. But that is the inescapable conclusion of The Third Jihad’s perverted message. If the dog is to be put down, it must first be declared sick.

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Originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

The Fédération des femmes du Québec (Federation of Quebec Women; abbreviated as FFQ) recently had a special assembly in order to clarify its position on whether headscarves should be permitted for people working in the public service.  (The question of “reasonable accommodation” for minority groups has been the subject of intense debate in Quebec for the past few years; see here for one overview of a major report that was produced on the subject.)

This assembly was held after the organization expressed last fall that the debate about headscarves was a challenging one for the FFQ, with its commitments to both integration and secularism.  That statement can be found in the appendix of this document (in PDF, and in French), which articulates the reflections and proposals of the FFQ’s board of directors regarding the issue.

In brief, the FFQ’s board considered the issue from three angles: secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and a feminist analysis.  From the secularism point of view, they argued that a ban on wearing visible religious symbols is not a neutral ban, since not all religions involve symbols that religious practitioners view as obligatory, while many Muslim women wear it for precisely that reason.  While they firmly support the idea of the state itself being religiously neutral (although a place where all are free to practice their own religions), they also argued that the neutrality of the State is not guaranteed simply because religious symbols may be absent.

On the topic of discrimination against immigrant women, they talk about the high level of unemployment among immigrant women (especially, for example, among women of North Africa), about the importance of the State as a major employer, and about fears of a headscarf ban causing further alienation and unemployment for immigrant women.  (I do wish they had talked about Muslim women who aren’t immigrants…)

Last, they acknowledge feminist principles as ones that*

are based, among other things, on the necessity of respecting the rhythm, the choices, the values and the needs of the women involved while avoiding applying principles rigidly, through our own frame of reference and our own desire for autonomy and change.

The list of reflections ends with an affirmation that the organization is categorically opposed to any imposition of religious practice, including the imposition of the headscarf.

The special assembly on the issue, held May 9, supported the recommended position, and issued a press release affirming that the headscarf should neither be imposed by the religious community, nor denied by the state.  For those who speak French, FFQ’s Michèle Asselin sums up the decision nicely in this video:

So, to recap, the organization’s board of directors publishes recommendations based on series of reflections that they have had, taking into consideration issues of secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and feminist frameworks.  At a general assembly, members of the FFQ vote to endorse the perspective taken by the board of directors, again based on those three bases of analysis.  Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Ha.  Not a chance.  Molehill, meet Kilimanjaro.

The mountain, in this case, is based in the claims being made throughout the media that the FFQ has been infiltrated by Islamists (yes, that is the actual kind of language being used.)  These claims come out of a message that Samira Laouni (a community activist and former NDP candidate whom I’ve discussed before) posted on a Muslim discussion board, related to the upcoming FFQ meeting (quoted from this article):

Hello to everyone,

I send you this information that, in my opinion, is of crucial importance.

It appears that the Federation of Quebec Women will hold, on May 9, an extraordinary assembly on the wearing of the veil in the public service.  If we are not well enough represented, it is possible that the opinion of the FFQ will join that of the Council of the Status of Women (which has said it is AGAINST the wearing of the veil in the public service), and we will see ourselves obliged to take off our scarves before entering the doors of public buildings.

What we should do?  Simply, first, become member of the FFQ (cost: five dollars, you can do it at the organisation’s headquarters.)  Second, attend this assembly to make our votes count.

Dear friends, our mobilization for this cause is very urgent and important.  If you have other questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

The ethics of joining an organization in order to influence its decisions are a different discussion, although this is not exactly the first time that such a move has been proposed–the idea of joining an organization that is about to make a decision that could potentially affect your access to jobs and services might be just a bit more understandable. Moreover, if the FFQ’s policies did allow someone to join and then be able to vote right away, the move is entirely legal.  According to this article, however, the FFQ requires someone to be a member for at least 45 days before they are able to vote, and they have only received seven new memberships in the past six weeks: hardly enough for an infiltration.  Laouni’s message was apparently posted March 18, 51 days before the meeting, so anyone who didn’t move on it within the first six days would have been ineligible to vote anyway.

Furthermore, the ultimate decision to oppose the prohibition of headscarves had already been recommended by the FFQ’s board of directors.  Even if the “Islamists” had attempted some kind of takeover, the opposition to a headscarf ban was already planned, and the ultimate decision appears to have little to do with any “Islamist” influence.  In fact, had the “Islamists” actually infiltrated the FFQ, it is unlikely that the final statement would have included such an emphatic commitment to the organization’s strong stance in favor of secularism and against religious fundamentalism.  In other words, I just really cannot understand how or why this ever became an issue.

But there are some good mountain-builders out there.  Djemila Benhabib, who seems like a Québécoise version of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describes the FFQ decision as a result of being “strongly supported by representatives of the Canadian Islamic Congress and Muslim Presence.”  She further condemns the FFQ for “sacrificing millions of women who are fighting for their lives” for the sake of “a handful of Islamist militants.”  Her (melodramatic) statements have been quoted in many of the other articles about this issue, prompting the the FFQ to issue a response, in which they clarify that they have no connections with either of the organizations that she mentioned, and continue to stand firmly against fundamentalism and extremism.  (Just for the record, Quebec doesn’t even HAVE millions of Muslim women, let alone millions who are supposedly “fighting for their lives” against the imposition of the headscarf. *rolling eyes*)

Another article portrays one Muslim woman’s hesitation to join the FFQ (based on her unwillingness to be endorsing some of the other FFQ’s positions, as well as a feeling that a group of new Muslim members might stick out) as an example of her wanting to be more discreet in her takeover attempts, rather than a legitimate counterargument to the strategy suggested by Laouni.  The author also takes some of the most inflammatory comments posted by other Muslims on the same site as a way of indicating how scary and intolerant Muslims can be (although I would argue that any site with discussion groups on any topic runs a high risk of being taken over by people with the most offensive and extreme viewpoints, and non-Muslims sure have their share of these too.  See the comment section of any newspaper site for examples.)

Even the articles that seem more sympathetic to the FFQ’s decision are often problematic.  One journalist writes that “I would say that the Federation of Quebec Women is right, even though I don’t ignore that it was infiltrated by several Islamist apostles.”  She goes on to say that

I don’t like the veil either.  I also understand the emotions of the Muslim women who have fought against radical Islam in their own countries and who feel betrayed by the principle of tolerance.

This focus on the veil as oppressive and necessarily a sign of “radical Islam” – as something that women should be fighting against – is a common theme in many of the articles.  Whether or not they agree with the FFQ decision, most of the journalists seem to at least agree on hating headscarves.  In fact, even the FFQ decision said little about the potential that the headscarf could be a positive thing, and their repeated emphasis on rejecting the imposition of religious clothing suggested that, although they weren’t going to come out and say it directly, they remained uneasy with the idea that someone could choose to wear hijab for her own reasons.

While it seems to give a nod to other reasons for wearing hijab, and while it supports the FFQ decision, this article (in English) finishes by emphasizing the stereotype of the oppressed women who are forced to wear the scarf:

Some Muslim women say they choose to wear the hijab. During its hearings, the Bouchard-Taylor commission heard from at least one who did, and who described herself as a feminist.

Prohibiting religious symbols in the workplace would force such women to choose between giving up their religious freedom and giving up their jobs.

And what of those who, as Benhabib says, are forced to wear the hijab by their fathers or somebody else? A ban on religious symbols in the workplace might force them to give up jobs in which they come into regular contact with other Quebec women with different, “liberated” values.

How would isolating these oppressed women help them?

There’s a whole lot more out there on this issue, but you get the picture.  Women in hijab are oppressed, and any attempts to argue otherwise are a result of infiltration by Islamist forces.

Obviously.

*All documents and news articles quoted in this article were originally written in French.  All quotes are my own translations.

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The Globe and Mail published an interesting piece recently about Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian in Sudan who is being blocked by the Canadian government from returning to Canada.  The bulk of the article, which goes through some of the events of Abdelrazik’s case (being put on a no-fly list while in Sudan, later having the RCMP and CSIS declare that he was not a threat and the Canadian government give him permission to return, and then having the same government deny his request for a passport), is interesting, and worth a read.  I want to focus, however, on the introduction to the article:

His name is Abousfian Abdelrazik, but it could as easily be Joseph Smith, a Canadian Everyman. He is a citizen denied the right to return to his country by the Canadian government without explanation; for the past year he has languished in Canada’s embassy in Khartoum. If Canada can dismiss his citizenship so arbitrarily, the currency of Canadian citizenship is devalued, and the rule of law degraded.

Mr. Abdelrazik, an Everyman? Some Canadians may object. It is not every Canadian who has been publicly labelled an al-Qaeda recruiter by the United States government, as he was in 2006. It is not every Canadian who would be jailed – twice – in Sudan, and at Canada’s request.

But any Canadian who leaves this country to work, travel or study may face an accusation of serious criminality abroad. Will Canada insist on due process for them if they are denied it? Will Canada be the one, as in this case, to deny due process and basic fairness?

The alleged terrorist Abousfian Abdelrazik, with his long white beard and the traditional white robe and kufi cap of a practising Muslim, watching television to pass the time behind the embassy’s concrete walls, is the test of Canada’s commitment to the rule of law and the value of citizenship.

Beginning with its headline, “Cause for Canadians to worry,” the article places its emphasis on the implications of this case as a test of Canada’s commitment to protect its citizens.  The framing of Abdelrazik as a Canadian who happens to find himself in an extremely vulnerable position, but a position in which any Canadian traveling abroad could potentially find themselves, highlights Abdelrazik’s Canadian identity over all of the other labels that could potentially apply to him, and calls on Canadians to recognise him as one of our own.  The article argues that Canada’s treatment of Abdelrazik calls into question its very “commitment to the rule of law and the value of citizenship,” suggesting that Canadians need to think carefully about how we define citizenship, and whether it is indeed something that we can always count on.  This point is reiterated at the end of the article:

Governments need to act according to clearly understood rules. That is fundamental to democracy. An accusation, without a lawful process, cannot be allowed to negate citizenship. It is beyond the pale, even in an age of terror, to turn a Canadian into a non-person. Mr. Abdelrazik is you.

Again, Abdelrazik is portrayed not as a Sudanese-Canadian, or as a Muslim Canadian, but as a Canadian, full stop.  The Canadian government’s dodging of its responsibilities towards him is seen as a betrayal of one of its own citizens, which is, rightfully, pointed out as a serious cause for concern.

While this emphasis on Abdelrazik as a Canadian (no qualifiers needed) is certainly an important point to make, something about the first section still made me uncomfortable.  The suggestion that this could happen to anyone, that “Mr. Abdelrazik is you,” no matter who this “you” might be, is useful as a rallying cry for those wanting to hold Canada accountable, but it also glosses over the systems of racism and Islamophobia that put Abdelrazik in this position.  After all, his name isn’t Joseph Smith, and that’s probably not a coincidence.  It’s not a coincidence that Canadians like Maher Arar and Omar Khadr also don’t have names like Joseph Smith.  By implying that all Canadians are equally vulnerable to this treatment, the article ignores the particularly precarious situation faced by many Canadians who may be seen as Muslim, Middle Eastern, or otherwise somehow lesser citizens.  So while it is absolutely right to point out that these people are just as Canadian as the hypothetical Joseph Smith, it does not do enough to challenge the perception that people like Abdelrazik are somehow less Canadian because of their ethnicity or religion, and that such people face much greater risks, and much less uproar from their fellow Canadians, when their citizenship is denied or ignored.

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I wrote a little while ago about the media coverage of the Toronto sexual assault case in which the female complainant was ordered by the presiding judge, Justice Norris Weisman, to remove her niqab while testifying.  At the time that I posted my earlier article, hearings were underway in Ontario’s Superior Court to appeal the judge’s decision requiring her to testify with her face visible.

Last week, the decision of this latest hearing was released, and made its way through Canadian media.

The ruling is far from clear-cut, and will likely result in even more hearings.  In short, as I understand it, the Superior Court Justice, Frank Marrocco, ruled that it is indeed within Weisman’s jurisdiction to ask the complainant to remove her niqab.  However, he also dismissed Weisman’s original decision, ruling that it was made without sufficient consideration of the issues involved, regarding both the complainant’s religious beliefs and the implications of her face covering for the court case.  In other words, although he does have the hypothetical authority to force her to remove her face covering, if need be, the decision that the removal of the niqab in this case was necessary may not have been the right one, and needs to be re-examined.

From my not-a-legal-scholar perspective, this decision seems to make sense.  It allows for the trial judge to step in if they truly feel that justice will be obstructed, but also emphasises the rigourous scrutiny that needs to be exercised in order to make that call.  It will be interesting to see what kinds of precedents this might set, and whether appropriate attention is actually given in practice to religious and cultural concerns, but the decision seems to respond (at least in theory) to some of the issues raised by both sides, in terms of religious freedoms as well as due process.

Not surprisingly, the articles reflect a range of perspectives.  The National Post, which has been the most anti-niqab throughout this whole story, uses the headline “Wearing veil on stand not a right: ruling,” emphasising that certain forms of religious expression through clothing do not have to be respected in all circumstances.  Others are more sympathetic towards the complainant, such as a CTV piece whose headline refers to the “Partial court victory for Muslim woman over niqab.”

The article that most disturbed me was the one published in the Globe and Mail, which starts off with:

Should a devout Muslim be allowed to testify in a Canadian criminal trial with her face concealed?

Perhaps, a court ruling has suggested.

But much hinges on how devout she really is.

It would be easy to take from this article that devoutness can be measured by someone’s commitment to covering their faces, which is somewhat off-putting for the majority of devout Muslim women, who do not niqab.  Moreover, the idea of measuring a person’s religious devotion at all is rather alarming.  Later in the article, we are told that

the judge ordered that the preliminary inquiry – on hold since the issue surfaced – convene two hearings to determine whether the woman’s beliefs are sincere, and if they are, whether testimony from a veiled witness would be admissible as evidence.

Again, allowing a court to decide the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs – particularly, although not only, in a case where those conducting the hearings likely do not share this person’s beliefs – is hugely problematic.  Moreover, it is not simply the depth of her devotion that should be considered, but also the reason for that belief and the potential impact of forcing her to remove the niqab, among other things.  It is difficult to tell whether the language around judging the complainant’s beliefs came from the verdict itself or whether it was the journalist’s interpretation of the judgement, but the idea is disturbing either way.

Interestingly, the Globe article identified the woman as “a Canadian-born mother in her early 30s,” which is more biographical detail than has been provided up to this point.  The phrase “Canadian-born” (rather than simply “Canadian”) is fairly often used to indicate a perception that someone is not a “real” Canadian; whether or not the journalist used it intentionally in this case, there is definitely a difference between the phrase that was used and “a Canadian mother in her early 30s.”  At the same time, the idea that she is Canadian may come as a surprise to those who, upon reading of this case, have repeatedly expressed fears that Muslims (whom they assume to be immigrants) are coming here for the purposes of challenging Canada’s laws and political systems and should all be sent home.  The people reacting in those ways almost certainly do not consider that “home” could be Canada itself, as appears to be the situation for the complainant here.

It seems this case will continue to develop, and will continue to make the news as further decisions are made.  We’ll keep you posted, inshallah.

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Shahina Siddiqui’s article “True Muslim society protects women,” published this past weekend in the Winnipeg Free Press, presents one woman’s response to some of the sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities that has been in the media recently.  Siddiqui condemns the murder of an Afghan women’s rights activist, the flogging of a young women in Pakistan, and other crimes committed by Muslims against Muslim women.  She does so from her point of view as a Muslim woman, and argues passionately that these acts violate some of the most central principles of Islam.

It’s nice to see something hit the mainstream media that takes this perspective, condemning the violence without condemning Islam itself.  In fact, Siddiqui argues that it because of Islam’s teachings on gender issues that Muslims should be condemning this violence.  She reminds us of the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, a practice now symbolic of the jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic era or ignorance and oppression.  Islam, she argues, “came to abolish” such practices; the prevalence of violence against women in Muslim communities should therefore be seen as profoundly un-Islamic, and as a source of shame for those who not only allow but even encourage such acts.

Siddiqui’s words are important, better quoted than summarised:

The history of Islam attests to the fact that when injustices and evil doings started to infest Muslim societies, it was the scholars, the keepers of wisdom, the guardians and trustees of shariah, that came out in droves to condemn, recapture and reform societies. They became mentors, role models and activists. Many were killed, imprisoned and exiled, but they persevered and brought about the cleansing that was necessary for social justice to prevail. Where are these holistic reformers today?

We know there are brave souls that have spoken up, like the imam who brought justice to Mukhtar Mai — a Pakistani victim of gang rape — or the hundreds who marched on the streets of Pakistan against the flogging in Swat. However, these will remain isolated events unless they can get leadership and support from people of knowledge who personify what they teach.

Unfortunately, today most Muslims, and especially women, are ill informed or have very rudimentary knowledge of their faith and can easily fall prey to spiritual parasites. These parasites need to be fumigated and our scholars alone can clean up this mess by challenging these warped understandings and interpretations. They must challenge these spiritual oppressors to public debates and defeat them in the public square to help release the hold these oppressors have on the innocent populace. Our sisters must believe that they are entitled to the same human rights as men. They must rise on the shoulders of our scholars, since there is nothing more empowering than the knowledge that one is in the right and that one’s oppressors are ignorant and despised by Allah. “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women” (Qur’an 2:228).

I found the following paragraph the most powerful:

The decline of Muslim societies is closely connected to the decline of the rights, status and security of women. When our mothers are mistreated and we rationalize it, we give rise to a generation of traumatized children. When our sisters are unsafe at the hands of their brothers and the law looks the other way, we give rise to a warped pathology of gender apartheid. When our women are abused by their husbands and no one speaks up, we foster resentment against the faith.

As Siddiqui points out, Muslims who ignore women’s issues do so to the detriment of the entire community.  Even in communities where women are not being killed or flogged, daily abuse  is leaving us in its wake “traumatized children,” “gender apartheid” and “resentment against the faith.”  And yet, Islam calls us to read, to gain knowledge, and to challenge systems of oppression.

While I loved seeing this article, and I agree with many of Siddiqui’s comments, I do wonder if she paints too rosy a picture of Islam’s history.  Even if Islam came with a message of gender equality, I would argue that there have been people from the beginning who have resisted that message, or who implemented it only partially, or who even twisted the concept of equality and respect of women in order to justify ideas that did the opposite.  When Siddiqui claims that “these [contemporary] criminal behaviours are being cloaked in religious terms,” I’m not sure this only a recent phenomenon.

Further, I’m not sure we can count on knowledge and scholars for the answers.  Of course, knowledge is necessary, for many of the reasons Siddiqui highlights, but I’m wary of assuming that it will automatically result in a more equitable society.  There are a lot of scholars out there who support various forms of abuse towards women, and maybe I’m just being cynical, but I would argue that this is a more widespread problem than just a few “spiritual parasites” here and there.  Knowledge needs to come with a heavy dose of critical reflection and willingness to ask hard questions about the way that our societies operate, and even about the ways that the “knowledge” that we currently value might be contributing to oppression.

That said, Siddiqui’s overall argument – that oppression of women violates some of the core values of Islam, that a “true Muslim society” is one in which women are treated well, and that responses to sexism, violence and misogyny can be found within Islam – is a powerful one, and one that Muslim communities need to take seriously.  It is also an important response to accusations that Islam is inherently misogynistic or that Muslim women need to be saved from Islam.

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