New Canadian Media
Saturday, 28 January 2017 14:02

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto

I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year.  It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.

Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.

The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.

This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.

In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

Parental dilemma

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?

I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.

I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.

Being Muslim

The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?

I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.

And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Cultural appropriation

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).

Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.

I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Published in Books
Tuesday, 27 September 2016 15:51

War Over “Authentic” Vietnamese Cuisine

by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

People take pride in the food they eat, and ethnic communities especially form and retain their identities around their traditional cuisines. What’s Italian without pasta? Or Thai without their Tom Yum Goong?

For the Vietnamese, it is, of course, pho soup, that delectable and aromatic noodle dish that has had Vietnamese fighting each other over how best to make it — northerners and southerners have their own interpretation — and pho now finds itself in a controversy over a video made by Bon Appétit featuring a white chef telling people how to enjoy the dish. 

At one end, there are those who bristle at a white man telling them how to eat their own food, claiming that Bon Appétit is practicing cultural appropriation. At the other end, there are those who speak of freedom of expression — freedom to eat and cook whatever they want: it’s a free a country, and it’s all protected by the First Amendment. [The Bon Appétit video has since been pulled].

My feeling on this is a little complicated. To even get to the issue of cultural appropriation, it is inevitable that one should ask first and foremost, “What is authentic?”

If you go for back far enough, everything is borrowed. Pasta makes a national dish, but it is a combination of noodle and tomato. Marco Polo, as legend has it, brought back the noodle from China, and the tomato that makes the sauce came back with the conquistadors who conquered South America.

Vietnamese cooking has been anything but authentic if you go back far enough. Vietnam had her hands in many pots, from India to France, from Thailand to China. The Banh Mi, which now dominates the sandwich industry in the United States, is a borrowed fare from the French baguette. Yet in Vietnam, hardly anyone thinks about France when they sit down and eat their favorite dish in the morning.

Indeed, appropriation and adaptations are the survival instincts of the Vietnamese who have to deal with a long and arduous history of being dominated and colonized by one powerful country after the next. Vietnamese language itself is an almagamation of Chinese, French, Khmer and an array of colliding local tribal dialects. The same can be said of its spirituality: Atop a traditional Vietnamese altar, a visitor will find various Buddhas, faded images of grandpa and grandma, and statues of Taoist saints. This combination of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism known, as tam giao, is the result of efforts to integrate religious ideas that arrived in the country over the millennia. Ancestor worship is mixed with yearnings for Buddhist nirvana, while the temporal world is measured through the Taoist flow of life force known as the qi.

Then there is the story of Vietnam’s indigenous religion, Cao Dai, established in the mid-1920s, which goes so far as to integrate and reconcile the world’s major religions. In its cosmos it perceives Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam all as human efforts to worship and communicate with the one Supreme Being. It numbers Moses, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-Sen, Jesus Christ, and the Vietnamese poet Trạng Trình among its many prophets and saints. Graham Greene, in his Vietnam novel "The Quiet American," called Cao Dai the “prophecy of planchette,” as its spiritualists receive messages of wisdom from the various saints in séances.

Little wonder that we would see a mixture in Vietnamese cuisine as well. In bò kho, or beef stew, to cite but one example, there’s beef, carrot, and tomato brought by the French, curry powder from India, cinnamon from Ceylon, star anise from China, and chilies, lemongrass, and fish sauce from Vietnam itself. If you feel like it, pour in a little red wine from Bordeaux and it will still work beautifully. Vietnamese cooking thrives on integrating new ingredients to achieve new balances. What is invention, after all, if not one part theft and two parts reinterpretation?

Pho, too, arguably the most authentic Vietnamese dish, didn’t come into being without the help of other civilizations. What’s almost certain is that it came from North Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, about a century ago. What is less certain is how. Seminars on the dish have scholars from all over the world arguing whether the word came from the French word feu (fire) -- as in the dish pot-au-feu -- or whether it descended from the word Fen -- Chinese for rice noodle. Star anise, native to southwest China, is used in combination with Vietnamese fish sauce to give it its distinct flavor, but French onion is also used to sweeten the broth. Cardamom comes from India but noodle is definitely Chinese. Yet in Vietnam, beef was rarely eaten until the French came in the late 1800s.

The nature of all creativity is to borrow and remake -- that is to say, transgression and appropriation. Some of today’s newly invented dishes are a marriage of various traditions, an add-on, an homage. The Chicago deep-dish pizza was once thin and simple from Naples. And if you haven’t tasted a Korean barbecue short-rib taco, popularly known as the Kogi, you must. Chased with chili salsa, kimchi and crushed sesame seeds, the Kogi is a daring invention that started with roaming trucks in Southern California but people lined the street waiting for their arrival. What is avant-garde today may very well become traditional fare tomorrow.

Having said all this, however, as a Vietnamese American, I confess to sharing that feeling of being slighted in seeing my own traditional dishes being “explained” by an “outsider.” Why? Because in the modern world, those who sell themselves off as experts while ignoring those who have been practicing their living culinary tradition for generations are committing the sin of omission. It is like having an intellectual panel on America’s diversity but the panelists are all white males. Or casting Matt Damon as the lead hero in films like The Great Wall, or God forbid, a white actress to play Mulan in the next Disney film, inserting whiteness at the center of a story when historically there was none. That insistence on being the center of someone else’s story is at once myopic and narcissistic. The lack of awareness or perhaps mere laziness of not reaching out to the other is jarring, if not damning, and that self-importance backfires in the age of social media and global consciousness.

I wonder: Would it be a lot of work for Bon Appétit to ask an array of Vietnamese American chefs known for cooking amazing pho to chime in on what makes a Vietnamese dish taste good and how to prepare it? Wouldn’t it be more wonderful if we see different interpretations of the dish but still give a nod to the living culinary culture of a people as practiced everyday?

In our world, free and full of creativity, you should have the right to make any dishes you like, and reinvent and resell it.

But at the same time, you shouldn’t be able to get away with it when you pretend to have expertise of others' cultures while ignoring the people who practice them. You should at the very least pay the proper homage, and be humble as one of the many practitioners in the tasting game -- and not claim yourself as its master.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.“ The above essay was originally published in Off the Menu: Asian America, a co-production between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs). 

Under arrangement with New America Media

Published in Arts & Culture

by Susan Korah in Ottawa

It was a book launch and discussion that should have taken place in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli or any other capital of the Arab world. 

Instead, it unfolded in Ottawa, capital of the land of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as Lebanese-Canadian author Elie Mikhael Nasrallah pointed out to the audience at the launch of Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World.

Published by Friesen Press, Hostage to History is the latest book by Nasrallah, an Ottawa-based journalist, author, political commentator and immigration consultant.

Approximately 150 people – mostly Lebanese Canadians – gathered at the St. Elias Centre for the book launch.

Arab World in decline

The central thesis of Nasrallah’s book is that it is a cultural, not religious, failure that has sent the Arab world into a vortex of decline...

“We have to stop blaming colonialism, or Zionism, or the foreigner and look deep within our own culture to explain the turmoil in the Middle East,” Nasrallah told the audience, emphasizing that the pen may be mightier than the sword in places like Canada, where freedom of expression is enshrined in law and respected by the population.

The central thesis of Nasrallah’s book is that it is a cultural, not religious, failure that has sent the Arab world into a vortex of decline and chaos after a brief period of glory between the 7th and 13th centuries, when its civilization reigned supreme.

“Indeed, the Arab world of that period was in a similar situation to the U.S. today,” said Nasrallah. “It was the world’s super-power.”

According to the book, if there is one central cause for the decline and fall of a once proud civilization, it is the triumph of anti-rationalist thinking during the final years of the Abbasid Caliphate, a dynasty of the Muslim Empire. This resulted in a suspension of rational inquiry and reasoning in the Arab world.

Several factors led to the decline and fall of the Abbasid Dynasty and along with it, the collapse of rational thinking processes. These included a weakening leadership, the loss of control over distant territories, corruption and economic stagnation.

“After 1513, with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, Arab civilization fell into a coma,” said Nasrallah, adding that after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab heartland sank into an even deeper black hole.

Nasrallah went on to give a list of factors that he says underlie the current malaise in the Middle East. Lack of access to education and literacy skills for women; misunderstandings about the concept of freedom; lack of separation between religion and state; dependency on oil with no economic diversification; and kinship, family and clan preventing the creation of civil society institutions are among the reasons he listed.

Imam Sheikh Haitham Hujaij of the Ahlul-Bayt Centre in Ottawa said colonialism, as well as the factors cited by Nasrallah, have played a role in the upheavals of the Middle East.

Arab culture needs own enlightenment

“We don’t need to copy the European model, but we need to wash the dust off from ourselves and do a mental spring cleaning.”

Hostage to History not only provides a diagnosis of the ailments of contemporary Arab society. It also offers a prescription.

“To get out of this black hole, we need to form a cohesive group of Arabs of all faiths and start a cultural revolution, a return to Ijtihad,” Nasrallah said, citing the term in Islamic law that refers to critical thinking.

“Here, in Canada, we are living with the benefits of the Enlightenment, and we can start the process here with conversations like this,” he added, referring to the European intellectual movement that began in the late 17th century and emphasized reason and individualism.

“We need a reformation, a cultural revolution of our own, within the confines of our own culture,” he continued. “We don’t need to copy the European model, but we need to wash the dust off from ourselves and do a mental spring cleaning.”

Bridging the East and the West

“We don’t want to be just tolerated. We need acceptance as part of the Canadian family.”

Daniel Nassrallah, the Ottawa-born lawyer whose firm DNG Nassrallah Law Offices sponsored the event, said that the book launch was the first of a speaker series that he will be organizing to give a voice to the Arab community and to generate discussion.

He added that events like this could help to raise awareness of the Arab diaspora within the larger community. He explained that although Canada is a great country, negative stereotypes concerning Arabs persist and that it is important to break them.

“We need to overcome the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality,” he emphasized. “We don’t want to be just tolerated. We need acceptance as part of the Canadian family."

Ottawa City Councillor Eli El-Chantiry also referred to negative stereotyping, saying “We need to be out there and challenge these.” He praised the author and his work as a “bridge between the East and West.”

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Books

by Elvira Truglia in Montreal

On one of the final stops during its two-year, cross-country “Our Canada” workshop series, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) held an open conversation about faith and social inclusion in Montreal last month.

According to Thomas Gallezot, francophone communities and outreach project officer for the organization, the CRRF aims to promote diversity and social inclusion through community dialogue. The objective of the workshop is to improve the ability of participants to manage workplace and community situations arising “out of conflicting religious practices and cultural values.”

While still predominantly Christian (65.8 per cent), more Montrealers now affiliate with religions other than Christianity (Islam: 9.6 per cent, Judaism: 2.4 per cent, Hinduism: 1.4 per cent, Buddhism: 2 per cent) according to the 2011 Census.

As non-Christian religions have become more visible, debates about culture, faith and values have heated up in Quebec’s public sphere. The proposed 2013 Quebec Charter of Values was an attempt to draw lines in the sand about secularism.

Most recently, a Quebec Human Rights Commission survey on diversity showed that 45 per cent of respondents had a negative view of religion. Forty-three per cent said people should be suspicious of anyone who expresses their religion openly, and 48.9 per cent said they were bothered by women wearing a veil.

Obstacles to social inclusion

A multi-faith panel, including Imam Shaykh Omar Koné, Rabbi Reuben Joshua Poupko, Father Engelbert Fotsing, Reverend Wilner Cayo, and David-Roger Gagnon, former spiritual and community animator at the English Montreal School Board (EMSB) discussed whether faith is an obstacle to social inclusion during the workshop.

Networking at an after-work “5-à-7” (Happy Hour) is a common practice in Montreal, but “to go with work colleagues is problematic when you are practising Muslim who doesn’t drink.”

In the Muslim community, Koné said negotiating how to co-exist in a Judeo-Christian world is not always easy when your way of living is different than the majority. Networking at an after-work “5-à-7” (Happy Hour) is a common practice in Montreal, but “to go with work colleagues is problematic when you are practising Muslim who doesn’t drink,” he explained.

Optics is another challenge. “Employment, which is the first factor in integration, is problematic when we have a name that sounds Arab-Muslim,” Koné added.

Recent statistics back this up. Visible minorities make up 31 per cent of Montreal’s population, but they represent only 11 per cent of the City of Montreal’s workforce. The unemployment rate of North African immigrant women in Montreal is five times greater than women who are not visible minorities.

Poupko said recognizing different beliefs and believers is “vital to communal harmony.”

“Last year a young woman came to see me, a medical resident at the Royal Victoria Hospital. She's Jewish, but she doesn't look Jewish,” he shared.

The student told her supervisor that she was going to Jewish General Hospital on her medical rounds. Poupko said the supervisor responded, “I can't stand those people, they are so aggressive.”

The next day, the student arrived at work wearing a large Star of David. The employer was left speechless. 

“Anytime this [kind of thing] happens we’re still shocked by it,” said Poupko. “We all know this woman is going to be fine, she’s going to be a doctor … she's going to have a prosperous, secure life … no police is going to pull her over … because she looks suspicious.”

He said the doctor’s comments don’t compare to the discrimination and violence other minorities face in Quebec and across Canada.

"[I]t’s not necessarily their religion or their culture that people sometimes react to, but is the fact that they are spiritual or religious at all.”

Gagnon wants people to understand, “that it’s not necessarily their religion or their culture that people sometimes react to, but is the fact that they are spiritual or religious at all.”

He says this has to do with Quebec’s particular history and break with the Catholic Church after the Quiet Revolution. That “left deep scars,” said Gagnon. Acknowledging this history “will help the dialogue,” he added.

Best practices

There was consensus among the panelists that schools are the best place to be pro-active.

Gagnon gave credit to Quebec’s Spiritual and Community Animation program in elementary and secondary schools. As a former spiritual and community animator at the EMSB, he said focusing on spirituality rather than religion provides “a window to talk about what we have in common.”

The program was introduced after Bill 118 (2000) deconfessionalized public school boards and introduced a mandate to promote diversity and pluralism.

“There’s always this push and pull,” said Poupko. “I think it has do with asking what’s reasonable and expecting a common sense response.”

That’s the approach Cristina Bajenaru takes as Project Coordinator at the Centre d’Encadrement pour Jeunes Femmes Immigrantes, a community organization that helps young immigrant women integrate.

Bajenaru said her clientele comes from 60 countries so she has to take a common sense approach to accommodation. If her training workshops coincide with Muslim holidays, she explained, “I can’t tell them to come, but I can’t tell them not to come either.” She said she lets them decide, and roughly half the class ends up staying home.

Through community consultations, the CRRF compiled dozens of other real scenarios that have come up in workplaces across the country. These are included in the Faith and Belonging Toolkit, a resource for workshop participants to encourage discussion and develop appropriate responses to accommodation.

Using the resource, Gagnon said he was impressed at the ability of the group to come up with solutions to complex scenarios.

“Spirituality in the public sphere, in [the] workplace, in society, when we talk about it reasonably and calmly, we find solutions,” he said.


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Published in Arts & Culture

by Melissa Shaw in Vancouver 

The latest instalment of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Muslim Heritage Series aims to provide a deeper understanding of Shia Islam, the Muslim religion’s second-largest community. 

About 100 people gathered at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., for the launch of the series’ fourth volume, The Shi'i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Department of History professor Derryl MacLean said the essay collection explores the memory of tradition, present influences, and implications for the future. 

Dr. Bashir Jiwani, honourary secretary for the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for Canada said the book helps fill a knowledge gap. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed,” Jiwani said. 

Reinventing old traditions 

The Shi'i World's cover features a painting depicting a music lesson from a Persian book of philosophical ethics, the Akhlaq-i Nasiri. One of the book’s co-editors, Dr. Amyn B. Sajoo, said this image was chosen because religion and culture are entwined. 

Sajoo said the observance of Ashura, a day of mourning for the murder of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn during the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century, is an example of how culture can be linked to religious expression. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed.”

Caribbean Muslims have a culture of celebration and observe Ashura through private recollection followed by a party involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and atheists. In parts of Europe and North America, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom through a blood drive, he said. 

MacLean introduced Pomona College religious studies professor Zayn Kassam's essay, “Remembering Fatima and Zainab”, as an example of Shia identity linked to memory. 

Sajoo said after Saddam Hussein's repression in Iraq, Iraqi women in Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed mourning circles, similar to the ceremonies held during Muharram to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a relative of two female figures in Islam, Fatima and Zainab. 

“They imagine what Zainab must have felt when she lost her family at Karbala,” said Maclean. “So you are now going to empathize with her and then you will mourn what you lost in your country because of the dictator in Iraq.” 

Challenging stereotypes 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni.”

In The Shi'i World, University of Edinburgh Persian and Film Studies professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz analyzes how religious themes challenge society through film. 

The 2001 film Baran tells the story of a girl who dresses as a boy to work on a construction site in Tehran. 

Pak-Shiraz argues that the scene where a boy accidentally sees the girl's long hair has the spiritual meaning of unveiling and accessing the individual behind the screen. Sajoo said the film is a comment on women's roles in Iranian society. 

He said another example is the 2004 Iranian film Marmoulak, which is a comedy about a prisoner pretending to be a priest who fools the guards into listening to his fabricated sermons. 

Sajoo said the film was banned in Iran a week after its release due to its “tough social commentary,” which contributed to its popularity amongst the Muslim diaspora. 

“[Globalization is] empowering the periphery. It doesn't work anymore to say the centre is Iran and Lebanon and so on, and everybody else is out there in the margins,” Sajoo said. 

According to a 2009 study from the Pew Research Centre, 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population are Shia Muslims, while 87 to 90 per cent are Sunni Muslims. Over 60 per cent of the global Muslim population lives in Asia and about 20 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa. 

SFU student Shazia Nanjijuma said events like the book launch engage with the history of Islam, addressing the knowledge gap and challenging people's assumptions and stereotypes about the faith. 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni,” said Nanjijuma. “That makes it easy for us to kind of grapple with it, but the truth is there's so much more behind that.” 

Addressing centuries-old rifts 

Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.”

Sajoo's essay in the book discusses the creation of Aligarh Muslim University in India. He said the community criticized a Shia imam, Aga Khan III, for advocating and fundraising for the creation of a university instead of a Shia college. 

“He was arguing, ‘Why don't you make the case for respecting pluralist Muslim identity within Aligarh?’” Sajoo said, adding that the Aga Khan expressed similar thoughts during his speech to Canadian Parliament in 2014. 

“What he was saying is, you are not more or less Canadian if you are a Muslim or Shia. That your Shia identity essentially has to be part of your Canadian identity and vice-versa.” 

Sajoo adds that Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.” 

“It's a genuine acceptance of other people's ways, ethical ways, of looking at the world,” he said.

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story as the previous one contained factual errors. NCM regrets these errors and apologizes for any inconvenience.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Books

Commentary by Michael Harris

In the wake of Brussels — at least for now — we’re back in the bad old days of the War of Civilizations narrative.

In the face of terror most foul, fury and vengeance are once more in the air. It’s not quite Christianity versus Islam, but it’s close.

Some anecdotal evidence. Two comments on a story in The Independent, worlds apart, suggest that two great swaths of humanity are once again on an unnecessary and tragic collision course.

Bobby said: “All the whole Mideast and ALL their ilk are Hated by me and mine.”

Ceycey replied: “Is your humanity only for Europe?”

Both commenters were responding to a story in the British newspaper written by Yasmin Ahmed in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Belgium.

Ahmed pointed out that just before ISIS operatives set off bombs in Brussels, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks detonated a car bomb in Turkey near a transportation hub, killing 37 and injuring 70 more. A closely-timed second attack killed four more people. In fact, Turkey has been beset by a spate of bombings by Kurdish separatists and ISIS, who in 2015 alone killed 141 and injured 910 others.

“Do you not see that this indifference to the non-Western lives is EXACTLY what is creating and feeding terror organizations like ISIS?"

In both Brussels and Ankara, innocent people were killed indiscriminately by fanatics who believe political causes sanctify murder.

But what struck Ahmed was the profound difference in the Western reaction to these atrocities. In social media there were safety check-ins on Facebook, hashtags on Twitter, and shared cartoons in response to the bombings at Zaventen Airport and Maelbeek metro station. In fact, “Brussels” garnered 17.5 million more Google news results than “Ankara”.

Global media funerals for some, mute indifference for others

While the world mourned Brussels, Ankara was treated as a mere regional event. Case in point: After this week’s Brussels bombings, European countries raised the Belgian flag above their national monuments — a fitting tribute. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated in the colours of the Belgian flag, as was One World Trade Center in New York (though in truth, the colours looked more like red, white and blue). So Yasmin Ahmed posed an awkward question: Why didn’t Downing Street raise the red and white Turkish flag after the atrocities in Ankara?

Ahmed’s unease was mirrored by a young woman who knows a thing or two about being victimized by terrorism. Malala Yousafzai blazed to international fame after standing up for education for girls in Afghanistan and getting shot by the Taliban for her defiance.

Has the West’s accusatory finger moved from ultra-extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaida to designate the members of an entire religion — again?

She too has spoken out about the dangers of dividing the victims of terrorism between East and West, providing global media funerals for some, mute indifference to others.

“Do you not see that this indifference to the non-Western lives is EXACTLY what is creating and feeding terror organizations like ISIS? … If your intention is to stop terrorism, do not try to blame the whole population of Muslims for it, because that cannot stop terrorism,” she said.

And that raises an interesting question. Is the West mute on the subject of innocent lives lost to terrorists in Turkey because the motivations behind those attacks were different from the reasons behind the killing in Europe — or because Turkey is 98 per cent Muslim? Has the West’s accusatory finger moved from ultra-extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaida to designate the members of an entire religion — again?

In this season of presidential politics in the United States, the answer is, sadly, ‘Yes’.

Trump and anti-terrorism: Zero experience

CNN, which fielded carpet-coverage of the Brussels bombings in a way that repeated rather than advanced the story for three gruesome days, has already come up with a poll showing that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is now the first choice of Americans on anti-terrorism matters.

That is astonishing for a few reasons. First of all, Trump has zero experience in fighting terrorism in any official capacity. He has never held public office, and his chief advisor on foreign policy is The Donald. Trump has been widely denounced by military, national security and senior police leaders for his unconstitutional, illegal and flatly dangerous approach to some of America’s deepest problems.

[Trump] has added that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS. That’s right — nuclear weapons.

The list is well known. So far Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, deporting 12 million illegal aliens, building a wall on the Mexican border, bringing back torture and instituting racial profiling in Muslim communities in the U.S. Now he has added that he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS. That’s right — nuclear weapons.

In the flash of two bombs, the world is suddenly standing back in the rubble of 9/11 with President Bush repeating his With Us or With the Terrorists ultimatum. All the old, familiar and — I might add — failed solutions are once more being put forward by a real estate mogul who is being embraced as though he were King Solomon.

Though there are many particulars to the new fundamentalism for defeating terror, it comes down to the familiar mantra of guns, gates and guards. If the police just had enough unconstitutional powers, if free citizens just gave up enough civil liberties, if the West could just exert enough hard power against Islamic terrorists, if only there could be more forced regime change, if only Muslims would begin denouncing the evil-doers in their communities, the world would never have to see the cities of Europe and the United States burning again.

Those answers have been tried for 15 blood-soaked years and all the West has to show for it is millions of deaths, trillions in squandered treasure — and ISIS.

The time has come to recognize solidarity with all the victims of terror. As James Taylor, a U.K. citizen living in Ankara, posted on Facebook, “You were Charlie, you were Paris, will you be Ankara?”

Apparently not.

Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His nine books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare Ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His new book on the Harper majority government, Party of One, is a number one best-seller and has been shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language non-fiction.

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Published in Commentary

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver

Five months after Harper’s Conservatives made a pre-elections pledge to establish a controversial "barbaric cultural practices" tip line, a group of lawyers and legal organizations in Vancouver have launched a different kind of phone line — a hotline offering free legal advice for victims of Islamophobia.

“The Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline is a free and confidential number that people who experience Islamophobia, or hate crimes related to Islamophobia — whether you’re Muslim or perceived to be Muslim — can call,” explains lawyer and activist Hasan Alam.

The concept for the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, launched on March 9, emerged from what a group of local lawyers observed as a “significant increase” in Islamophobia in Canada.

Alam defined Islamophobia as, “the fear of and hatred toward Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslim.”

“Especially under the Harper government,” says Alam, “we noticed that there was very specific fear mongering happening, that utilized Islamophobia to justify Harper’s policies, such as Bill C-51, and all of that translated into an increase in hate crimes.”

In response to a question on the anti-terrorism legislation, Harper implied last fall there was an opportunity for radicalization in mosques: "It doesn't matter what the age of the person is, or whether they're in a basement, or whether they're in a mosque or somewhere else."  

The statement was followed by an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric leading up to the elections, with the niqab being lauded by the former Prime Minister as a primary concern in relation to gender equality and Canadian values.

Rise in incidences of violence

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), a human rights and civil liberties advocacy group that endorsed the project, has been tracking anti-Muslim incidents across Canada since 2013. They have recorded a rise in alleged incidents corresponding to events where Muslims have been portrayed negatively in the media.

Vancouver-based lawyer and chair of NCCM’s Board of Directors, Kashif Ahmed, spoke to the significance of this new resource in B.C.: “We had 61 anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2015, and already had 12 reported in 2016.”

Ahmed identified a number of different forms of Islamophobia-related hate crimes, including “cases of people who are being assaulted on the street, victimized in their workplace and denied promotions, verbally abused, verbally harassed, mosques being vandalized, cases of schools not providing anti-bullying services to Muslim students or allowing bullying to continue, or even teachers being the ones doing the bullying.”

“We had 61 anti-Muslim incidents reported in 2015."

Local incidents include a pepper spray attack on a group of Syrian refugees and vandalism of a Coquitlam mosque, yet many attacks motivated by Islamophobia go unreported.

The hotline is operated by Access Pro Bono, an organization committed to providing “access to justice” in BC for individuals and non-profits unable to afford legal fees. Their volunteers are currently able to assist callers in seven different languages — English, French, Farsi, Indonesian, Arabic, Swahili, Punjabi, and Urdu.

“In a lot of instances people who experience Islamophobia are new immigrants, they don’t speak much English, they don’t know where to turn to for legal advice, or help in general, and they’re scared to turn to law enforcement agencies a lot of the time because of their precarious legal status,” says Alam.  

Personal experiences of Islamophobia

Alam has a personal investment in the initiative, as a Muslim and a lawyer who has actively advocated against Islamophobia.

“I get calls from people, a lot, saying that they have experienced Islamophobia, and that they need help. Oftentimes, I myself can’t help them. I don’t have the area of expertise in that specific instance that I can give them legal advice,” he explains.

Alam spoke to the first time he experienced Islamophobia himself.

“I remember being the president of my Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Simon Fraser University, and getting a call from a government agency, who left a message for us at the interfaith centre.”

"That fear or hatred can translate to physical assault, negative comments, attitude, discrimination, or prejudice."

The message was from a woman requesting to meet with him, “to better understand the needs of your community.”

Eager to discuss the needs of the MSA, Alam agreed to meet the woman at a Starbucks. After he arrived, shook her hand, and allowed her to buy him a coffee, the woman revealed that she was a Canadian Security Intelligent Services (CSIS) agent who had questions about the activities of the MSA and his community.

Although the questions were not targeting him personally, Alam expresses, “For me, that was Islamophobia, and it was coming from the government. Why was I subjected to being interrogated by CSIS agents, simply on the basis that I was a Muslim and involved with a Muslim student group?”

Usefulness in lobbying efforts

Alam explained that another important element of the project is the recording of Islamophobic hate crimes.

“Being able to use that information to better advocate to government, and to lobby government to do more about Islamophobia and racism in general [. . .] and pushing the government to do more about that, and more advocacy, and having people’s voices heard is something that is really important for me.”

Alam hopes the Islamophobia hotline will send out a clear message to those who perpetuate Islamophobia that there are repercussions for their actions, while at the same time making those who appear to be Muslim feel safe.

“I think we’re still living in a fairytale world, thinking ‘this is Canada, not the United States, these things doesn’t happen here,’ and I think a big part of this is recognizing that Islamophobia and racism are real," he says.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Top Stories
Monday, 14 March 2016 13:08

Refugee Sponsors Take Leaps of Faith

by Tazeen Inam in Toronto 

Religion plays a major role in the lives of many refugees, making it an important consideration for religious-based aid groups sponsoring those of other faiths. 

Paul Bramadat from the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria, made this point while leading the forum on “Refugees and Religion: Push, Pull and the Politics of Crisis” at the 18th National Metropolis Conference in Toronto earlier this month. 

“We know that Anglican United Church [of Canada] and Catholic church groups are heavily responsible for lots of immigrant and refugee settlement activities in the last many decades,” Bramadat said. 

Suzanne Rumsey of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, representing the Anglican Church of Canada, said, “In our ways of working, we are an Anglican way of sponsoring the needs of the world, not the needs of Anglicans of the world.” 

“Our mandate is to respond to refugees based on need, not on faith or religion,” she added. 

An integral part of faith groups 

One of the founding members of Lifeline Syria, Naomi Alboim, a professor at Queen’s University, applauded the private sponsorship approach by various faith communities. 

“The Syrian refugee movement has really revitalized the whole sponsorship movement."

“The Syrian refugee movement has really revitalized the whole sponsorship movement, I hope forever,” she said. 

Alboim found refuge in Canada with her parents - her mother a Jewish survivor of the Second World War. 

Thinking back to 1979 when private sponsorship kicked off in Canada, Alboim said that a number of ethno-specific and religious-specific groups were set up particularly to sponsor refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Many Jewish groups came forward to sponsor refugees from Indochina.

Sharing her experience of approaching Jewish faith groups to sponsor Syrians, Alboim said that it was a “brave” thing to do as there had been discussions in the Jewish community about whether it would be appropriate to sponsor Muslims or not.

She applauds the immediate cooperation from the Jewish community, and also her particular synagogue, and said that they are sponsoring refugees not as human beings only, but also as Jewish people. 

“It’s really an opportunity for us as a community to put our values into practice, which is repairing the world as an integral part of our faith.” 

There are 35 groups among Canada’s Jewish community working together to sponsor Syrian refugees. 

Before approaching the Toronto Board of Rabbis, Alboim said she wanted to tackle concerns about Muslim refugees being sponsored by Jewish groups. 

“I [didn't] want to reach out to my community and get rebuffed,” she said. “Now a family of five has arrived and another is under process.” 

Over-simplifying identities of refugees 

Meanwhile, some secular groups have also joined sponsorship efforts, including the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. 

The group found that some are not comfortable sponsoring refugees through faith-based organizations. 

“There is this assumption that they are all the same."

“We felt that there was some space for people who wanted to go through a different route,” said Sabine Lehr, representing the group at the forum. 

Lehr spoke about the challenge of over-simplifying the identity of incoming refugees as Muslims. 

“There is this assumption that they are all the same, but they all have tribal affiliation. They have potentially different political perspectives, particularly complex, given the nature of conflicts they are facing.” 

While talking about a large mosque in Victoria, she said that it’s an assumption that all refugees coming in as Muslims will attend the mosque, whether or not they come from a different faction.

Lehr expresses her concern that this dimension is often brushed aside. 

“We’ll see where this all leads in the coming months,” she added. 

Religion need not be a private matter 

There are other challenges related to religious issues that merit consideration, added Lehr. 

[T]he challenge he sees is if a refugee of Muslim faith gets involved in crime, Canadians will immediately grow frightened ...

In her experience, some people were concerned about certain expressions of culture or religion – in particular the wearing of niqab. 

“I did get a question in one of my conversations with a potential sponsor,” she recalled. “It was couched in terms of, ‘You know I really have a problem with the niqab because we have a problem if we can’t see somebody’s face.’ It wasn’t really couched in religious terms; it was couched in the terms that I have a problem in interacting with a person face-to-face.” 

Bramadat said despite these issues, religion is not a barrier to sponsoring refugees in Canada, the way it is in Europe. 

However, the challenge he sees is if a refugee of Muslim faith gets involved in crime, Canadians will immediately grow frightened, as a result of Islamophobia. 

“My fear is that as soon as somebody does some bad things, what people see is a Muslim rather than see it’s a guy who made a wrong choice and who is in crisis.” 

Bramadat suggested that the solution is to discuss religion openly. 

“I think we have to develop the capacity and bravery to have difficult conversations and should not treat religion as a private matter.”

Editor's Note: This report has been updated from a previous version. Alboim was not a survivor of the Second World War, her mother was; as well in 1979, not 1978, when private sponsorship kicked off the focus was on groups from Indochina, not of Jewish faith. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Top Stories

by Samaah Jaffer in Vancouver

A panel discussion on the newly published collection of essays The Relevance of Islamic Identity in Canada: Culture, Politics, and Self, shows that there are multiple ways of being Muslim.

The event was held on March 3 at Simon Fraser University’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in Vancouver, and opened with an address by the book’s editor and publisher, Nurjehan Aziz. Her vision of the diversity of Muslims in Canada is demonstrated in her selection of essay contributors.

Safia Fazlul, Ameen Merchant and Mohamed Alibhai were engaged in a one-on-one conversation with Zool Suleman, immigration lawyer and director of MARU, a non-profit organization that explores the intersections between migration, art and race.


Diversity in Islam

All three panellists spoke of their experiences as immigrants to Canada, and how being Muslim played into their relocation. Fazlul, who was born in Bangladesh, raised in Norway and moved to Toronto at the age of 10, explained that while she felt like an outsider in Norway, she experienced a greater sense of belonging in Canada because of the ethnic diversity.

It wasn’t until after 9/11, when Fazlul was in grade 10, that she felt her identity as a Muslim in Canada was questioned. Fazlul chooses to keep her religious beliefs private, opting to not wear the hijab.

The plurality of interpretations is absolute for me. We all see the world through our own experiences of community and faith."

As a not-to-so religious person who grew up with very religious parents, I can offer a unique story with respect to being raised Muslim and hopefully challenge some stereotypes of Muslim women,” said Fazlul.

Fazlul’s key message was, “Muslims are the same — that being a Muslim means to simply practice a religion just like Jews and Christians do. Muslims are human beings, all from different walks of life and unique in thought.”

Merchant, who was born in Mumbai, India, said he identifies as a “cultural Muslim.” He came to Canada in 1989 to pursue a graduate degree at the University of British Columbia in English Literature and Cultural Studies.

Merchant explained that he initially refused to contribute an essay for this project, “as I did not think I was a the right person to address issues regarding Islam [and] Muslims.”

However, he accepted in hopes of providing a different perspective. “The plurality of interpretations is absolute for me. We all see the world through our own experiences of community and faith. No one interpretation is higher or more valid than the other. We are all composites of varied influences and identities. What unites us is our common humanity,” said Merchant.

The final panellist, Mohamed Abualy Alibhai, was also born in India, grew up in Tanzania, and spent most of his adult life in the U.S. As a student of physics, mathematics and geophysics, Alibhai made a drastic change in his academic trajectory after being admitted to the Islamic Studies graduate program at McGill University, and thereafter obtaining a doctorate in Islamic Philosophy from Harvard University.

“Islamic identity is very relevant to Canada because future generations of Muslims will be strong supporters of the Canadian Charter of Freedoms and will work to strengthen it for the benefit of all Canadians,” said Alibhai. 

"The writers were disappointingly apologetic about their Muslim identity, many of them repeatedly asserting that they don't practice the religion.”

Missing critical topics

Some Muslim-identified audience members were critical of the panel and the way the topic of Canadian Muslim identity was interpreted.

Community organizer Tahia Ahmed was drawn to the event because she felt a conversation on Muslim identity in Canada is important in the current post-Harper political climate, where she believes “Islamophobia is alive and well despite losing its most powerful Canadian advocate.”

“I was anticipating a critical dialogue on key issues impacting Muslims, such as Bill C-51 and C-24, using Muslim women as political instruments during the last elections, and the use of fear mongering to justify racism against Muslims,” said Ahmed.

Instead, the writers were disappointingly apologetic about their Muslim identity, many of them repeatedly asserting that they don't practice the religion.”

She referred to Fazlul’s response to the question of what it means to be a Muslim — that a Muslim is just like a Christian and a Jew — as “bizarre.”

Itrath Syed, a PhD student in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, was worried by comments made regarding the situation of Muslims in the U.S.

“Instead of reflecting critically on the racist discourse of the current election cycle in the U.S., [Alibhai] asserted that ‘Trump has been misunderstood.’”  

“That may be the opinion of this speaker, but it is clearly not shared by the countless Americans and global individuals and organizations, both within and outside of the Muslim community, who are greatly alarmed by the language and proposed policies of Donald Trump and his supporters,” said Syed.

I don’t know how representative this small panel was of the content of the book,” said Syed, “However, this panel in no way represented the vast diversity of experiences and struggles of Muslims in Canada and the U.S.”

A recent review of the book on criticized it for reinforcing the “the conflation of Islam with South-Asian and Arab identity,” also reflected in the entirely South-Asian panel.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in Books

by Aurora Tejeida in Vancouver

Before reopening relations with Iran, the Canadian government should hold the Middle Eastern country accountable for human rights violations against minority religions, say some members of Canada’s Bahá’í community. 

On January 27, 24 members of the Bahá’í faith, including two of Amir Parsa’s family members, were imprisoned in Iran. 

“We know the political relationship between Canada and Iran is being restarted,” says Parsa. “My expectation is that if Canada wants to restart their relationship with Iran, they have to make it based on an agreement that Iran will stop these violations.” 

Parsa says he learned about his relatives’ arrests on Facebook after a list was published on a page he follows of the detainees and information on their sentences — which range from six to 11 years each — on the day of their imprisonment. 

“We already knew this was coming because they had been arrested in 2012, but they had both been released on bail,” explains Parsa. “We were just waiting for the sentence.” 

The 24 imprisoned men and women range in age from 21 to 60 years old. 

“They were given very heavy charges,” says Parsa. “One of them was accused of engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” 

A representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations (UN) heavily condemned the verdict, stating the individuals were imprisoned for no other reason than their faith — a common occurrence in Iran, where the Bahá’í faith is not recognized in the constitution. 

Parsa says it is not the custom of Bahá’ís to hide their beliefs, making it easy for the government to know who they are. 

Evaluating how Canada will re-engage

Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise to reopen Canada’s embassy in Tehran, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said this is just one step the new government is taking to restore relations with Iran. 

John Babcock, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson, states the department is “cautiously, but expeditiously, evaluating our process of re-engagement, but a precise timeline has not been determined.” 

[F]ollowing Iran’s Islamic revolution, repression of Bahá’ís increased.

He adds that Canada has been one of the strongest voices condemning Iran’s human rights violations, including at the UN, where Canada has been the lead sponsor of the General Assembly resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran since 2003. 

The Bahá’í faith originated in Iran in 1844, making it one of the youngest religions in the world.  

“The most important thing is to remind ourselves all the time that the current system in Iran is a theocracy,” explains Amir Hassanpour, an associate professor in the department of near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. He adds that Iran recognizes Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity as religions, but not the Bahá’í faith. 

According to Hassanpour, the reason why Bahá’ís are the most targeted religious minority is because they don’t recognize the prophet Mohammed as the last prophet Allah sent, and in Islam there cannot be any other prophet after Mohammed. 

This explains why, following Iran’s Islamic revolution, repression of Bahá’ís increased. 

A difficult time for Bahá’ís

Hassanpour lived in Iran when the Islamic Republic was founded. 

“In 1979, Bahá’ís were required to renounce their religion and convert to Islam. They had to put an ad in the newspapers with a photograph of themselves saying they had renounced their religion and were not Bahá’í anymore,” explains Hassanpour. 

“When we came back from summer vacation, our house was confiscated and our belongings were gone."

It was a particularly difficult time for members of this religion, as dozens of Bahá’ís were killed or jailed; land, houses, shops and other belongings of the community were also seized. This was the case with Parsa’s family. 

“When we came back from summer vacation, our house was confiscated and our belongings were gone. We were left with two suitcases,” recalls Parsa. 

The family managed to live with family and friends for two years, eventually deciding to relocate to Turkey. 

“We couldn't get passports so we went over the mountains to Turkey, and claimed refugee status there,” says Parsa. “Then we waited for 15 months for the Canadian government to accept our refugee claim.” 

Parsa and his family came to Canada in 1999, when he was 18 years old, allowing him to study, as Bahá’ís are systematically denied access to higher education in Iran. 

In Iran there are currently over 80 Bahá’ís in prison out of an estimated population of 300,000.

Now 43, Parsa works as a computer engineer at a high-tech company in Ottawa. He recently sent a letter to Karen McCrimmon, his local member of Parliament for the Kanata-Carleton are, requesting to meet with her. 

According to the Bahá’í Community of Canada, only 30,000 Bahá’ís live in Canada, which may explain why many people in this country aren’t aware of the existence of this faith, its followers or their unique set of challenges. 

In Iran there are currently over 80 Bahá’ís in prison out of an estimated population of 300,000, according to the Bahá’í International Community. In 2013, 49 per cent of the country's religious-minority related human rights violations involved Bahá’ís. This is despite promises made by President Hassan Rouhani to improve the human rights situation in Iran. 

“Engagement does not mean that we agree with Iran’s policies, but it does establish a pathway towards economic opportunity, dialogue and regional security,” says Babcock. He adds that re-establishing relations with Iran would enable Canada to hold the country accountable on issues of human rights violations.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to

Published in International
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