Archive for the ‘Terrorism/War on Terror’ Category

Written by a guest contributor and originally posted at Getting a life.

Scrolling down Antonia Zerbisias’ blog today, my eyes lighted upon the title, “American Taliban.” Something about an American Muslim extremist, I surmised—but, I was wrong. She was in fact blogging about the murder of a well-known doctor in Wichita, Kansas.

Nowhere does Zerbisias indicate what connection this tragic event has to Muslims (extremist or otherwise), the Taliban, or even Afghans or Pakistanis. In fact, she gives plenty of evidence that Dr. George Tiller was killed by an extreme right-wing American Christian anti-abortionist. So why not a headline which reflects that? Why bring the Taliban into it, as though non-Muslim Americans have always been and remain incapable of committing acts of violence intended to keep women “in their place”?

It gets worse, with Jed Lewison at the Daily Kos going on about Bill O’Reilly’s long-running “jihad” against George Tiller on Fox News, as though there is no history among non-Muslim Americans of people using public platforms in order to whip up popular sentiment against those they disagree with, and then acting surprised when violence is done against the target of their rantings. Apparently, that sort of thing is just beyond the ability of nice white Christian (or post-Christian) Americans; it takes the Moozlems to do rotten stuff like that.

And the thing is, Zerbisias reads www.muslimahmediawatch.org. So, why doesn’t she get it?

I suppose from the perspective of Zerbisias and Lewison, my objections are just an exercise in splitting hairs at best. After all, isn’t the Taliban by far the most misogynist government in living memory? Haven’t they blown up girls’ schools, thrown acid at girls going to school, publicly whipped women for “crimes” such as leaving the house without a male escort… so why does it matter if they are also rhetorically associated with one crime evidently committed by a white Christian in Kansas? What difference does it make, adding one more misogynistic act of vigilantism to their already lengthy balance-sheet?

What difference does it make, indeed? Probably no difference to those who, every time they read a headline such as “Bomb threat closes school” or ”Woman stabbed to death by husband” don’t know what it’s like to reflexively wish, every single time, that it’s not a Muslim who did it. It makes no difference to those who have the privilege of being judged as individuals. If a white and/or Christian man (or woman) killed Dr. Tiller, no one will assume that this indicates that whites or Christians in general are innately predisposed to be violent. But when any Muslim individual, group or government commits a crime, this is somehow believed to reflect on Muslims in general. Every crime, every horror which makes the news reverberates through school yards and work-places everywhere.

The other day, my middle-school-aged daughter told me that a boy in her class had been calling her a terrorist. Why, I asked. She replied that it is because he knows that her father comes from X [a Middle Eastern country].

Aside from the blame question, there’s also the weight of grief that one carries from over a half a lifetime of hearing largely horrible news about one’s coreligionists. I don’t need one more thing added to it. Not one more thing. I’d say that we have enough to deal with already without also bearing the sins of Christian anti-abortion extremists, even rhetorically.

Not only that, but using Muslim-sounding terminology in order to discuss acts of violence and intimidation carried out by some American Christians on the basis of their own (right-wing Christian) ideology is an act of disavowal which has the risk of short-circuiting some long-overdue critical reflection. It allows right-wingers and others to pretend that Christian misogyny (unlike the Muslim kind) may be a bit over the top at times, but isn’t really dangerous to anyone. A harmful illusion if ever there was one.


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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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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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The Winnipeg Sun’s Michael Den Tandt recently wrote a piece, the title of which appears promising, but the content of which works to remind us who is and isn’t a “real” Canadian. Although he does argue that Khadr should be brought back to Canada his opinion about Khadr illustrates a certain rhetoric about what it means to be Canadian.

The article, Khadr should be brought to Canada, begins by describing Khadr using that infamous and highly overused and abused word – “Islamist.” Considering the wide variety of Muslims and Muslim ideologies that have been called Islamist I have a hard time even knowing what an “Islamist” actually is. The definition seems to change all the time depending on who is trying to malign whom and which Muslims one is trying to discredit. However, its main use seems to be to create a fear and distrust of the person being labeled as such.

This week a Federal Court judge ordered the Harper government to ask the Americans to send Omar Khadr — a former Islamist insurgent captured after a battle with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002 — back to Canada.

Tandt does not anywhere define what he means by “Islamist” yet he uses the word as if it was simply understood that Khadr was an “Islamist.” All we know is that Khadr was fighting in Afghanistan against a force that had invaded their country. Some may call that defending a country under attack. However, this specific descriptor is used purposefully to create a specific image of Khadr – one of someone “we” should fear. We do not know if he did indeed adhere to the ideology of what some have termed “Islamism” – or the joining of religion and state, basically political Islam. Therefore to term him an “Islamist” based on the fact that he allegedly killed an American soldier, in battle, is inaccurate and fear-mongering. Tandt neglects the fact that the US and Canada have invaded Afghanistan. Afghanistan did not attack us. The war on Afghani people was unprovoked and instigated by the US. Would we not expect them to fight against an invader?

Omar Khadr fought on the wrong side in the Afghan conflict. Simply: He fought for the enemy.

Canadian soldiers today fight alongside U.S. soldiers no different from the man Khadr is alleged to have killed in that notorious firefight.

Khadr is a Canadian citizen. His actions arguably make him a traitor.

Tandt has failed to understand the complexity of the issue. It is not a simple issue.

Khadr is indeed a Canadian citizen and thus should be afforded his charter rights. However, Khadr, like many other Canadians, does not affiliate with only one nation. And this is the reality of being Canadian. A reality Tandt refuses to recognize. For Khadr, and many like him, the invasion of Afghanistan was not seen as an attack on just Afghanistan, but on the Muslim nation, or ummah. The notion of “one ummah” states that all Muslims are one nation and an attack on one Muslim country is an attack on the whole Muslim nation. Therefore, Khadr’s affiliation with Afghanistan was based on the idea that all Muslims are one nation and should protect each other. Regardless of what one may think of this concept it is the most likely reason provided to Khadr.

And this brings me to my next point. Khadr was a child when this incident occurred. He was 15. This is a very important component of the equation which many will mention, as does Tandt, but few will discuss its actual meaning. At the age of 15 people can be easily manipulated. This is why the world agrees that child soldiers, such as Khadr, should not be prosecuted or punished, but rather rehabilitated. The assumption is that true consent could not be provided to engage in such actions. Tandt negates the true meaning of Khadr’s status as a child soldier by referring to him as an “Islamist” and traitor against Canada, as if to convince us that his status as child soldier should be ignored because he is supposedly wants to blend religion and politics and was fighting against Western forces.

Such a dangerous discourse makes two oppressive assumptions. First, it tells us that Muslim child soldiers should not be afforded the same mercy and sympathy other child soldiers are entitled via international laws. Muslims, we are told, who fight against the West are all Islamists and thus an evil which should be fought. Second, it tells us that those child soldiers who fight against Western forces should not be considered child soldiers and thus should not be given their rights under international law. The assumption here is that Western forces, even those who invade sovereign countries, are engaging in a benevolent mission with pure intentions, unlike those other forces child soldiers in other battles fight against.  Western forces are somehow seen as superior and to fight them is just plain immoral.  Muslim children who fight Western forces are no longer seen as manipulated children, the victims of geopolitical oppressions, but rather as “Islamists” and traitors who have themselves chosen to fight.

Painting Khadr as an “Islamist” and traitor neglects the realities of this situation and thus creates one picture of what a real Canadian should be. This rhetoric does not allow for the existence of those Canadians who have more than one affiliation – ethnic and religious minorities. It does not allow these minorities to truly struggle with the fact that one nation they identify with would attack another nation they identify with. It assumes that ones identification with Canada should be greater despite the fact that Canada has invaded and occupied the other nation.

Tandt does argue that Khadr should be brought back to Canada and be dealt with under Canadian law. However, his ethnocentrism taints the whole argument. By depicting Khadr the way he does Tandt assumes the superiority of Canadian military actions and thus assumes an inferior opinion of those who disagree. This common rhetoric is not just about Khadr. It reflects a discourse that impacts many others. The multiple identity reality of Khadr is the reality of many Canadians. Although the majority of those Canadians would not take the route Khadr was made to take by his family, they nonetheless often struggle with the meaning of having these multiple identities, one at war with the other. Discourse such as that present in this article does not allow space for such struggles and forces these Canadians to choose sides, otherwise risk being labeled un-Canadian.

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This piece is also posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

I know I just talked about this last week, but all these questions about Canada’s involvement with the rights of Afghan women have remained a major news story, so I thought it was worth doing a follow-up.  There are still quite a few articles out there about how the new law that came out a couple weeks ago is making everyone question Canada’s mission in Afghanistan (yeah, I know: Canada’s military has been there how long and people are only asking these questions now??)

This article by Sandra Martin,  printed this past weekend in the Globe and Mail, is pretty typical of a lot of the issues that are being mentioned.  Like many of the media perspectives I discussed last week, it talks about the Afghan government’s support of the new law as “the ultimate betrayal,” as if it is a move deliberately and primarily intended to offend the Canadian mission in the country.  (Interestingly, the specific language around “betrayal” is always talked about in terms of a betrayal of Canadian expectations, and not of Afghan women.)

The article further exposes some of the other assumptions that are being made in many of the discussion about this issue within Western media.  Its constant use of “us” and “our” – in reference to Canada and Canadians, and in particular to the Canadian military – creates a rigid division, assuming that all Canadians are similar and united, and fundamentally different from Afghans.  When she says that Margaret Atwood “continues to question why we were there in the first place” and “doesn’t feel we can just pack up our kit bags,” Martin implies that all of “us” are somehow in Afghanistan, and so closely linked with the Canadian military that its kit bags are “ours” as well.  She also writes that although it used to be “that intractable problem over there, Afghanistan is now a seething issue on our streets, around dinner tables and in meeting rooms in Canada.”  She seems to assume here that it is only since Canada’s role in the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that Afghanistan has been an issue for Canadians.

I know it might seem overly nitpicky to get all concerned about a pronoun, but the use of “we” and “our” is always worth questioning.  It is often an exclusive term (if “we” did not care about Afghanistan prior to 2001, then this “we” doesn’t really include Afghan-Canadians; if “we” are fighting in Afghanistan, then the “we” also pushes aside many Canadians who disagree with the Afghan mission.)  It is also a term that tends to create a moral binary as well, placing “us” on the side that is morally superior and more modern and progressive than the Afghan “them.”

Martin also seems to assume that military intervention is the only way to support Afghan women.  She writes that, throughout the course of Canada’s military involvement in the country, “those with a reflexively anti-war disposition found themselves torn between their opposition to military intervention and their concern for the plight of Afghan’s most vulnerable: its female population.”  Even if we ignore the overly patronising tone of “a reflexively anti-war disposition” (as if being anti-war is just a reflex, and not a result of some critical reflection), the statement is bizarre also because of its suggestion that opposing military intervention and supporting Afghanistan’s female population are mutually exclusive positions.  In fact, many people who were initially opposed to the military intervention opposed it precisely because they felt that such an intervention would hurt Afghanistan’s female population.  Moreover, many of these people were also people who were concerned about Afghanistan’s female population even before 2001, a possibility this article seems to deny altogether.

On the other hand, Martin does bring in some quotes that give some nuance to the debate.  For example, she begins by quoting Farah Mohamed, a Muslim woman who tells us that “I grew up in Canada in a Muslim home where respect and the advancement of women are normal and I was horrified by this law.”  It was nice to see an affirmation, especially right at the beginning of the article, of the possibility of being a Muslim woman who grew up in a household that would teach her to be horrified by this law.

Martin also writes that:

Some people think there are better ways of improving the lot of women than pouring in guns and soldiers.

“How has the war helped women in Afghanistan? It hasn’t,” Judy Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, says. Instead, she argues, life is worse for women since the occupation. “Never have women achieved equality by somebody coming in and giving it to them. We can’t bomb our way into equality.”

Rather than sending in troops to intervene in a society “that doesn’t want them,” she thinks countries such as Canada should have supported existing groups like RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which has been organizing non-violently against the Taliban and struggling to establish women’s rights since 1977. “We should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place, and we should leave.”

I’m glad that she included this quote, and that she mentioned that there have been women active in women’s rights issues since 1977 (although she could have mentioned that these struggles go back even further.)  Although much of the article made me cringe, and overall did little to really challenge the idea of Canada as a benevolent power bringing nothing but good to those poor Afghans, she did bring in more complexity than some other articles have on this issue.

And I know this is petty, but I have to mention Martin’s token headscarf reference, where she reflects on some of the media coverage about Afghan women protesting the law, and writes that “seeing them march with their faces uncovered and their veils pulled back to show some hair was a hopeful sign that women are feeling strong enough to protest against an unjust law.”  Because pulling your veil back to show some hair is a true sign of liberation.  *rolling eyes*

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Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Even before I watched this recent documentary, aired on CBC Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye on March 30th, by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy I knew it was going to be hard to watch. And I was right.

The film, entitled Pakistan’s Taliban Generation, follows Obaid-Chinoy as she tries to find how strong and influential the Taliban really are in Pakistan. In recent days Pakistan has experienced a great deal of terrorist violence, including in the relatively peaceful and safe city of Lahore. In her quest Obaid-Chinoy spends most of the time in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where Pakistan’s Taliban are located.  She talks to Pashtun teenage boys and young girls, as well as Pashtun families to find out how they are dealing with the increasing power of the Taliban in their region.

Before watching the film I did not know what to expect except that I knew it would renew my own worries about the country which gives me a part of my own identity. I am of Pakistani origin and, although I identify as Punjabi, I also have some roots in the NWFP. It is a culture with which I am familiar, for better or for worse. And perhaps it is this familiarity with not only the culture of the NWFP, but also with the relatively progressive one of Punjab, the heart of South Asian Sufism, that makes me so furious at the Taliban. And the film did indeed increase that fury.

Let me make this clear. I despise the Taliban. Their interpretation of Islam offends me, their violent intimidation of other Muslims disgusts me, and their oppression of women horrifies me. However, I am also not naive enough to assume that the Taliban, as they are, occurred in a vacuum. I know they did not come about on their own, but rather had help from many outside forces, including Western ones. Obaid-Chinoy did not address this in her film. I realize that time is limited in a documentary, however I feel that it is time now to move beyond the simple vilification of the Taliban. They’re bad, we get it. But why are they so bad? It is time now that we discuss the causes and motivations of the Taliban along with their current actions. If we are truly wanting to curb their power and authority then we need to know why they are the way they are and take away their reason for being this way.

A few of these reasons, however, were highlighted in the documentary, though not explored in any detail. When speaking with some young Pashtun men Obaid-Chinoy discovered a level of resentment among many. Most were resentful of the US and NATO’s  “war on terror” tactics in  Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent months American military action has entered onto Pakistani soil, resulting in the deaths of Pakistani nationals. This increasing American military presence in Pakistan which is resulting in the deaths of Pakistani people, many of them innocent,  is increasing resentment and anger toward the US and other complicit Western nations. One way in which these young men have found to deal with their anger is to join the Taliban and fight the foreign invaders, as they seem them. Additionally, the Pakistani government’s own actions in the region have led to the displacement of many from places like Bajaur in the NWFP and this has added fuel to the fire of resentment. I’d be resentful too if I was forced to leave my home by my own government and then live in a refugee camp.The consequence of all this is an increase in Taliban recruits and thus in their power and influence. Hence, Pakistan’s Taliban generation.

Obaid-Chinoy does reveal the religious angle of the Taliban as well. She speaks with a young man whose views on women in Islam are conservative to say the least. The Taliban are infamous for their mistreatment of women. This is no secret. However, where have they learned this interpretation of Islam? Why do they believe the things they do when so many Muslims all around the world do not? What is it about the Taliban that makes them treat women the way they do? Why is it that, in one country, one can see the Taliban oppress women the way they do, and at the same time, see women in positions of power in government, medicine, law, and such? I wish the documentary had delved into this issue further.

Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary did not further investigate these causes. The focus appeared to be on the detrimental and devastating consequences of Taliban rule and power in the region. Instead of focusing on what has caused the Taliban to grow and why they exist, there was more of a focus on what this growth has meant for innocent Pakistanis caught in this political turmoil. Although, I do feel that the actions of the Taliban need to be challenged and the Taliban’s criminal actions do need to be exposed, again, if the focus in this documentary was to examine the rise of the Taliban, I felt this documentary just missed the mark. It left me wanting more information. We already know the Taliban are bad. We know they mistreat women. However, too many are unaware of their creation story and the origins of their ideology. Such information would have brought something new to the table in this documentary. Along with highlighting the Taliban’s actions in Pakistan (which are important as well), an in-depth look into the roots of the issue would have given the documentary an insightful edge.

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This piece was also posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

A few weeks ago, the news of a new law for Shi’a Muslims in Afghanistan was met with outrage in governments and media around the world.  This law would, among other things, force women to have sex with their husbands and obligate them to seek permission for activities outside the house. News since then has indicated that the law will be reviewed. I hope that this is a situation where the widespread condemnation will actually force a change in the law, which, from all that I’ve read, sounds incredibly violent and oppressive.

That said, I was puzzled at some of the statements coming out of Canadian media and politicians on this issue.  Focusing on the fact that the Canadian military has now been in Afghanistan for over seven years, many Canadian figures seemed to take it as a personal slight that the Afghan government had passed such an oppressive law.  The tone of many of the comments suggests that Afghanistan owes it to Canada to treat women better, and that the recent law is a sign of ingratitude.

For example, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated that, “Obviously our men and women (of the Canadian Forces) have been in Afghanistan to defend human rights and that includes women’s rights,” and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day argued that, “The onus is on the government of Afghanistan to live up to its responsibilities for human rights, absolutely including rights of women. . . If there’s any wavering on this point from the government of Afghanistan, this will create serious problems and be a serious disappointment for us” (emphasis mine.)   A member of parliament further asked, “How can we say that our soldiers are there to protect women’s rights when the Western-backed leader of this nation pushes through laws like this?”

What I find troubling about these statements is that they seem to assume that the situation of Afghan women is the primary reason that the Canadian forces are there, and that it is entirely the Afghan government’s fault that things are not as rosy as they should be.  No one seems to remember that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are there as part of the “war on terror,” and that women’s rights have been, at best, a side issue, and at worst, an issue raised only to drum up support for the mission.  The mere presence of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, surprisingly enough, is not going to magically result in improved conditions for Afghan women.  From the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, there have been various instances of leaders in some parts of the country being supported by the allied forces in their efforts to get rid of the Taliban, with little attention given to their own misogynistic policies (see here for one example.)

As James Laxer of Rabble.ca writes,

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is adept at playing to different audiences. In the West, he is an eloquent supporter of human rights and women’s rights in particular; at home, he governs under a constitution based on Sharia Law and reaches out for the political support of misogynist constituencies. As sometimes happens, Karzai’s initiatives at home can cause trouble abroad. American, Canadian and European officials have roundly condemned the reported law. And Karzai will doubtless bow theatrically to acknowledge their expressed concerns at the same time as he does next to nothing to broaden the rights of women in Afghanistan. […]

Let us suppose the Canadian government had actually cared about the rights of women and the education of girls. Instead of entering the lists in a protracted civil war, had Canada invested ten billion dollars to provide schools for girls in parts of the world where the schools would be welcomed, we would have made an enormous contribution. This would have been the most important international development project ever undertaken by Canada.

Instead, we are paying in blood and treasure for a relationship with a regime that is no better than Taliban-lite.

In other words, it should be no surprise that the government there (even a Western-backed, non-Taliban one) doesn’t have women at the top of its priority list, or that Canada hasn’t exactly demonstrated that women are its main concern either.  Interestingly, this article even suggests that many people within the Canadian government and foreign service saw this law coming and remained surprisingly silent about it for quite a while before it was formally passed.

Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira also writes that, while this law is obviously problematic, legal constraints represent only a small part of the challenges that many Afghan women face:

This week more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country; they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality. Most women fear to leave their homes, to attend school or go to work – not because of their husbands, but because they don’t feel safe. Their rights to education, freedom of movement and action are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, but the gap between words and reality is too huge to be bridged simply by revising a few clauses in a legal document. Sure, we must fight to protect the legal rights of women. But we must also seek ways to bring about change so that legislation is relevant to the lives of women and men in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans cannot read and write; an even greater majority don’t go to the courts to resolve family and marriage problems. The few who are educated who might seek legal help are sceptical about the rule of law because of the corruption and lack of trust in the Afghan government and the judicial system.

As Pazira says, “spare me the hysteria.”  It’s all well and good to criticise this law, but let’s not pretend that we’re surprised that sexism still exists even without the Taliban, or that we really believe that Western forces in the country are there for the sake of Afghan women.

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