SodaStream, the now infamous maker of soda machines, has found itself a new brand ambassador. Perhaps not as affable as Scarlet Johansson, Minister Jason Kenney has seemingly volunteered to be the new face of the company. He publicly intervened in the ongoing debacle between charity Oxfam and SodaStream by staging a “buycott” in support of the corporation. This outrageous gesture by a public official is appalling and antithetical to Canada’s foreign policy; it serves as a tacit approval of Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.

Jason Kenney: Up the SodaStream without a paddle?Kenney’s recently posted a twitter message celebrating his purchase of a new SodaStream and exclaiming “Bought a nice @SodaStream unit at the @HudsonsBayCo. Thanks to @Oxfam for the tip. #Buycott #BDSfail #GoScarJo.” The controversy is this: SodaStream is an Israel company whose factory sits on occupied Palestinian land; deemed illegal by Canada and the rest of the world. Human development agency Oxfam, like most NGO’s, is opposed to all trade from the settlements as they serve to strengthen Israeli’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

So, what’s alarming is not the simple purchase of a soda maker, but Kenney’s decision to step into a public scandal which pits an NGO against a corporate profiteer of Israel’s occupation. The issue at stake is the economic support for illegal colonies at the cost of undermining Palestinian human rights. It’s tricky to say the least, if not obvious.

For Kenney to publicly take the sides of the corporation by staging a buycott, while sarcastically mocking and discrediting the charity is unacceptable. This move flies flat in the face of Canada’s official position which is opposed to expansion and support of the settlements. Given his role as the Minister of Employment and Social Development, it’s particularly hypocritical for him to defame an agency working to alleviate poverty and unemployment in the Palestinian territories and beyond.

Contrary to Kenney’s implication, Oxfam has not endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and has publicly denied supporting it. This further makes him guilty of false allegations. It’s clear he is unaware of the diversity and nuances that exist within solidarity activists and NGOs on this issue.

While BDS calls for a general boycott to economically isolate Israel, institutions have responded to this call by implementing selective boycotts in various ways. Most organizations with ethical investment policies that support boycotts have decided to oppose trade from Israeli settlements built on usurped Palestinian land. Oxfam, like many others, has taken this principled stance which seems to be beyond the comprehension of Kenney’s humble intellect.

Conservatives have long been pushed to reiterate Canada’s stance on Israel’s colonial activities; they’ve dodged the question at every possible chance. Actions speak louder than words and it has always been clear where Kenney and other Harperites stand. Corporate endorsements and public mockery of an aid agency represent a new low in a long string of diplomatic embarrassments — it certainly won’t be the last.

First published at Rabble.ca


Going abroad to study Arabic is one of the best ways to learn the language. With a vibrant culture and a rich intellectual heritage, Morocco is naturally a destination of choice for students from across the globe. What follows below is a guide for those looking to go there to study Arabic and Qurʾān. It is based on my experiences there last year.

Language Institutes

There are several schools spread across the country which focus on teaching Arabic to non-Arabs; English-speakers in particular. I went to Fez because of its intellectual history and the numerous opportunities to benefit outside class as well. I studied atALIF (Arabic Language Institute in Fez). It is one of the oldest Arabic schools in Morocco having been established for some 30 years now.

Bou Inania madrasa in Fez, Morocco

ALIF boasts some excellent teachers; some who are graduates from the Qarawiyyen. They have a well developed 7-level program which takes you to an advanced competency in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) i.e. Fusha. The curriculum followed is that of theAl-Kitab series which is taught at most Western universities (the colloquial sections in the book are skipped over). Most students are on exchange programs from American and British institutions. The default language of instruction is Arabic for all-classes; with English being employed at varying degrees depending on the level and teacher. Some teachers are strict about teaching in Arabic only; others are a bit lax.

This program does a very good  job at taking a holistic approach and focuses on your speaking, reading, writing and listening skills– as opposed to just reading. They generally go through the material thoroughly – especially at the beginner levels. Classes are small which is very beneficial; on average about 4-6 students per class. However, this swells up to about 10-12 students during the summer time. In classes with 3 or more students you get 20 hours of instruction per week, 15 hours with in classes with 2 students and 10 hours/week if you are the only one. The material covered and tuition remain the same.

The main pros of the school are that it’s quite well organized, has good teachers, and their program builds a strong foundation for further studies. Despite the criticisms of Al-Kitab, I found it to be a very good book and it greatly aided my comprehension and understanding. Plus, ALIF adds complementary exercises to reinforce language skills.

The cons are that the school is rather pricey; although at a similar rate as other Moroccan schools and still cheaper than most options in North America. With multiple instructors rotating through the levels, sometimes you can end up with a teacher who might not be as good as some others, and at times your classmates aren’t of the appropriate level. Also, since almost all students are English speakers, you don’t get complete immersion and end-up using English outside class.

Like most language schools, the focus is not getting students to read Qurʾān – although you are still learning classical Arabic in a modern context. To comprehend Qurʾān, you have to complement your studies with resources to familiarize yourself with Quranic vocabulary, expressions and constructs. The teachers are all Muslim and well-versed in the tradition, so they can always answer any specific questions you may have. To understand Qurʾān, one needs a good foundation in the basics of the language. This school will provide you with that.

These are all general things you have to work around when studying abroad – it’s not specific to this school per se. If possible, I would try to avoid going during the summer months as this is a busy time with a lot of students doing summer exchanges. Nevertheless, you’ll still find it beneficial if you’re focused and keep on-top of things. Just keep an open mind and you’ll be okay.

I’ve listed below some other schools in Morocco I found on the internet. I can’t comment on them; though I know students who went to Subus-Asalam and Qalam and mentioned good reviews about them.

Subus-Asalam CenterQalam wa LawhINLACCLCIbn Ghazi

Qurʾān Studies

Moroccans have a deep rooted commitment to the preservation of the Qurʾān, which makes it one of the best places to memorize and study it. Just by virtue of living there, your attachment to the Book will increase. One of the most unique aspects of Morocco is that a juz  from the Qurʾān (i.e. 1/30th ) is read in each mosque everyday – half after Fajr and half after Maghrib. They do this congregationally in a magical rhythm which is a treat for the ears and the hearts – a precious skill to learn in itself.

To this day, most Moroccan madrassahs employ a pen and tablet to help students memorize the Qurʾān. If memorizing is your goal, then attending one of these schools is your best option.  I had friends in Fez who were enrolled in these Qurʾānschools and also a few in the southern desert villages. The only way to enroll in these schools is to show up and try to get in – there isn’t an online process and there might be an entrance exam. It can be hard at times as the administration can a bit suspicious of foreigners; but all the people I know were eventually able to enroll. The tuition is usually either free or there is a small fee associated with it.

If your goal is to improve your recitation and study tajweed on the side, then theDar-al-Qurʾān schools are your best options. These are little institutes set up in every neighborhood for people to drop-in and recite to a teacher. Most people I met there were working class people who had already memorized the Qurʾān and were reviewing with the shaykh in the evenings. My teacher there could easily teach Hafsrecitation as well, as opposed to the official Warsh. The tuition is quite affordable as well – about 100 Dhs for a semester ($10).

Furthermore, these centers are women-friendly. Some of them are exclusively for women while others have times allocated (usually the mornings) for women and evenings for men. Whatever neighborhood you end up staying in, just ask around for the local Dar-al-Qurʾān and you’ll be directed to one

Update: I came across the website of Madrassah Sharif al Wazzani for girls; there’s a similar one for boys in Majorca, Spain called Madrassah Muhammad Wazzani. I know some of the Spanish boys go to this school first before going to Morocco and it serves as a good starting point.

Housing and Food

There are a number of housing options in Morocco. Many students who come on exchange programs do a home stay with a local family. This is usually set up by the host institution where you study and they dictate the prices – I’ve seen this to be between $80-$100/week with meals included. Most students have a positive experience with this living arrangement; although you have to keep an open mind and be accepting of a new family and culture.

Another housing option is the ALIF residence villa which is conveniently located across from the institute . It’s equipped with all the amenities one needs and saves you plenty of time and the frustration that can come with a new country. It’s relatively affordable too (about $300-$350/month depending on the room) but the prices go up in the summer and it can be hard to find a spot at that time too. Keep in mind the residence is co-ed and the atmosphere depends on the type of students living there at the time. Like with anywhere else, it’s your job to find good and wholesome company.

For long term stays, finding your own apartment is usually the best option and the above two are good to get you accustomed to the country. The schools can find you an apartment or you can find other students and try to room with them. I’ve heard various rates (i.e.$300-$600/month) depending on the number of rooms, location, furniture etc. I think $350/month is a decent approximation for a two bedroom place.

Food is very inexpensive in Morocco and this is where you’ll save the most. Bread is 1.25 Dh, a pack of milk is 3 Dh, pack of cheese is 12Dh, coffee is 7Dh. A decent dinner with meat will be 20-25 Dh. Budgeting 50Dh ($6) a day is decent if you eat out all the time – it’s much cheaper if you cook. (These are prices locals pay – you have to find the non-tourist areas to get these).

 The Qarawiyyen

The jewel of Fez and the pride of Islam’s intellectual heritage, the Qarawiyyen university is located in the heart of the old city;  it continues to operate today after being founded nearly 1200 years ago. Being able to attend the classes here is the most rewarding aspect of studying in Fez. They still follow the traditional format and curriculum, with classes taking place by the pillars of the old mosque. The teacher sits on a throne-like chair and the students sit on the floor encircling him.

I found the administration generally open to letting foreign students sit in and audit the classes. Some of the teachers would even try to include you in the class and were quite open to answering questions. Classes are mostly in Fusha though the local dialect, Darija,  is used in varying degrees depending on the teacher. Attending the lessons is a great way to improve your listening and comprehension skills, as well as learning the traditional Islamic sciences.

Do note that there are no classes during the summer months (June – August). Final exams start around mid-May so that’s when they end. All summer the old mosque where the classes take place is closed and opens only for the daily prayers. Also, unfortunately, I was told that some classes will be moved this year to a new campus outside the old city. However, some, I believe the advanced levels, will continue to be taught in the old mosque – so that resource is still there.

20130522_174207

If you are a high achiever and want to formally enroll in the Qarawyieen, the admission requirements are shown on the left in a notice about entrance exams. For those that can’t read it, the two main conditions for writing it roughly translate to: a) Memorization of the Glorious Qurʾān with completeness and mastery b) Memorization of a few basic texts (Mutoons) – I presume this to be introductory texts like Ibn Ashir, Ajroomiyah and imām Nawawwi’s 40 hadiths. I’ve heard Qurʾān memorization requirements for foreigners are a bit relaxed, though I can’t confirm this. Again, I am not aware of an online process for enrolling in Qarawiyyeen, so you have to just show up and try to get in by writing entrance exams, talking with administration etc. It’s assumed you’re fluent in Arabic as there isn’t an official program, to my knowledge, to teach the language to foreigners.

Also published at MuslimMatters 


The collapse of RanaPlaza, a garment manufacturing complex in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 workers, sent shockwaves around the globe this past April. Just a few months earlier, the Tazreen factory fire had already killed 117 people in the country. These latest episodes bring the death toll of Bangladeshi factory workers to over 1,800 since 2005.  The appalling disparity between these downtrodden substandard garment factories and the upscale stores where the products are sold is nothing short of criminal.

Corporations such as Walmart Canada and Joe Fresh which outsourced from these sweatshops came under intense heat. Investigative journalists, such as that of the CBC and Toronto Star, have since revealed chilling facts. For example, it was found that workers evacuated RanaPlaza a day before the collapse but were forced to go back due to threats of termination. Since the collapse, workers continue to protest for the minimum wage to be increased from $39 a month to a mere $100. Stories of people like 10-year old Shakil Khan send shivers down the spine. He has been working as an unpaid trainee for 4-months and will make $4-a-day when he gets a salary eventually.

So, what has been done about all this? More importantly, what can we do as socially conscious consumers to ensure our clothes are not made through exploitation of others?

Calls for industry-wide reforms gave birth to initiatives such as the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. This is the first one of a kind agreement which promises to bring significant changes to working conditions in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Accord was drafted in conjunction with unions in Bangladesh, apparel companies and labour rights NGOs. It gives workers at factories increased protections such as the right to refuse unsafe work – something that could have saved the RanaPlaza disaster. In addition, it requires monetary commitments from global corporations to fund the repairs and renovations factories. Most importantly, the Accord is legally binding which means that global brands can now be held accountable in court for their operations abroad. Thanks to public pressure, this Accord has now been signed by over a hundred global clothing brands. This includes groups such as H&M, CalvinKlein, Tommy Hilfiger and even Canada’s Loblaws’ Joe Fresh.

However, corporate culprits Walmart and Gap have started a parallel safety initiative instead of joining the Accord. Along with 20 other brands, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was created with hopes to also offer improved safety and better working conditions for factory workers. Despite the promises, the Alliance initiative lacks the rigour of the Bangladesh Accord, provisions for forming unions and more importantly, it’s not legally binding. This corporately-regulated voluntary initiative was drafted without consultation with unions and cannot be enforced by worker representatives – this leaves all the power with the companies. It was private regulation schemes that lead to disastrous results in the first place; it’s hard to see how a similar program could be a solution to the problem.

Many have dismissed the Walmart/Gap initiative as simply a public relations exercise. NGO’s such as CleanClothes, United Students Against Sweatshops, Macquila Solidarity Network and LaborRights have already called for and started campaigns urging them to sign up for the Bangladesh Accord. Leading US labour federations AFL-CIO and ChangeToWin jointly declared the Alliance initiative to be “weak and worthless”. In contrast, the Bangladesh Accord has been accepted by the UN Secretary General, EU and trade unions both globally and locally in Bangladesh.

So what are we to do in light of all these developments? Our best course of action is to pressure Walmart/Gap and associated retailers to sign onto the legally binding Bangladesh Accord. Consumers have a better case to make as competing brands have already signed on to it and thus deserve recognition and preferential treatment by ethical buyers.

Assisting campaigns calling for implementation of the Accord is our best bet. One of the most effective ways of doing so is personally delivering a letter to your local Walmart/Gap. Simply not buying from them isn’t effective as it won’t get the message across. Emailing these corporations, posting on their Facebook/Twitter and signing onto petitions are also effective methods. Whether it be raising awareness through social media or just talking about it with your friends- any thing which puts pressure on corporations to invest in worker safety is key.

As I watched footage of overworked factory workers being pulled out of the rubble, I couldn’t help but wonder if the very clothes in my closet originated from that factory. It is our collective demand for cheap fashion that has empowered corporations to push factory owners beyond their safety limits. It is therefore our responsibility to call on these companies to implement radical reforms to ensure worker safety, ethical pricing and fair-wages.

Also published at Rabble.ca


With the unveiling of appalling pictograms outlining how public employees can dress, Quebec’s government has taken its xenophobic rhetoric to new heights. The proposed legislation is supposed to ban headscarves, face veils, turbans, skullcaps and large crosses (small ones are okay). Whether it is a doctor at a hospital wearing a turban, or a hijab donning worker at a daycare – they will have to decide between work and religion. This militant and deviant expression of secularism fell short of just banning beards; it’s hypocritical, racist and self-contradictory.

The Parti Québécois claims it is doing so to maintain ‘religious neutrality.’ If that is the case then it should perhaps start by banning the province’s most overt religious symbol: its flag.

Also known as the Fleur-de-lis, Quebec’s flag, with its four fleurs-de-lis and a cross, is a beautiful expression of Christian symbolism. Historically associated with French Roman Catholic monarchs, the white fleur-de-lis symbolizes religious purity and chastity. The three petals are widely considered to represent the Holy Trinity; the band on the bottom represents Mary. Images of the Virgin Mary carrying the flower in her right hand are standard portrayals in Christian art.

Hypocrisy of the proposed legislation becomes evident when the more obvious issues that theoretically impact ‘religious neutrality’ are left unquestioned. Examples of this include the gigantic cross in the National Assembly, taking an oath on the Bible or Christmas trees. Will the government stop funding Catholic schools to attain this neutrality? What about funding for chaplaincy services? It appears Marois’ government is unable to distinguish between the concepts of a secular state and the inevitable interaction of that state between itself and religious agencies.

But the Quebec government is not oblivious to these facts. And that’s where the racist element comes in. Banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols doesn’t amend any supposed shortcomings of Quebec’s secularism. One can hold strong religious views without displaying it on their sleeves. In fact, there have been instance of justices refusing to marry same-sex couples because the justices were opposed to gay marriage, and they weren’t wearing a niqab when they did so. Claiming to champion secularism is simply PQ’s way to brazenly discriminate minority groups with hopes of gathering support through identity politics.

This proposed legislation is self-contradictory. It effectively creates two classes of citizens; one that is noble enough to become civil servants and one who is deprived of this privilege. The province is thus not ‘neutral’ by any standards – it’s openly saying that religious people ‘need not apply’. Even voicing such outrageous views creates an unhealthy segregated society. If religious minorities can’t participate in public life, how could they ever hope to blossom into our social fabric? What is even scarier is that the PQ is pushing this charter on the private sector as well, the textbook definition of systematic discrimination.

Parti Québécois is well aware that their proposals are so blatantly unconstitutional that they will be shot down by the courts. But that doesn’t matter as the objective of this political exercise has already been achieved, even if it meant having to stoop to an all-time low. The old game of identity politics has allowed the party to stir up enough support from its nationalist constituency to survive the next election. When the legislation is struck down, they’ll quickly turn around proclaim, ‘See how different we are from the rest of them, we do need our own country!’

One of the ironic aspects of this repulsive ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ is that it has indirectly helped exemplify values that most Canadians share. Editorials of all major newspapers are filled with condemnations of the charter. In a rather innovative spirit, Lakeridge Hospital in Oshawa, Ont., released a recruitment poster of a woman wearing a hijab stating, “We don’t care what’s on your head; we care what’s in it.” Politicians from all facets have openly opposed the Charter, from leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The political leadership of Montreal, Quebec’s biggest city and economic hub, unanimously denounced the charter. Even within the PQ there were dissenters: MP Maria Mourani was expelled from caucus for her opposition to this edict.

Despite the lunacy of this entire episode, it’s important to resist the temptation to stereotype Quebec residents as intolerant and narrow-minded. During my short time there, I found the Quebecois to be a warm hearted and friendly people. Whether it was the affectionate ‘Bon Appétit’ from the lunch lady at Université Laval, the student protestors who gave me their iconic red square to wear or my gracious French teacher who put up with my non-existent language skills: I have nothing but good memories. Let’s hope this debacle is forgotten as a cheap political gimmick that has unfortunately brought unprecedented shame to Quebec, and the rest of Canada.

Also published at the The Silhouette and MuslimMatters.org


La illaha il Allāh, Muḥammad rasool Allāh…” a man repeats Islam’s testimony of faith with the imām on the first day of Ramaḍān. The congregants cheer ‘Allāhu Akbar’ and overwhelm the new convert with warm hugs; no doubt, a beautiful way to begin the holy month.

Like many of us, I’ve witnessed this scene numerous times. I’ve learned to embrace the moment with cautionary joy; you never know what the fate of a convert will be. Will he be exposed to an overzealous Islam which will burn him out soon? Will he have conflicts with the immigrant Muslims who will try to impose their cultural traditions on him? Will he just become another statistic who ends up leaving the faith?

However, here, I don’t have that concern – I am confident this new convert will survive. That is because I am not at a conference with thousands in North America; nor at an immigrant mosque somewhere in Canada. I am at the Great Mosque of Granada where a Spaniard has just entered Islam. There are many things that distinguish this mosque from all others that I have visited, but one thing sticks out to me the most: spiritual sustainability.

Located on top of a hill with a majestic view of the Alhambra Palace, Mezquita Mayor de Granada is a community made up mostly of Spanish converts and their descendants. As I watch the children of the mosque frolic around the stately courtyard, I am touched to see how beautifully Islam has blossomed into this third generation of Spanish Muslims. Although this mosque was built in 2003, the story of this community goes back much further; November 1975 – to be specific.

It was near the end of that month in 1975 that three young Spaniards entered Islam at the hands of Shaykh AbdalQadir As-Sufi in London, UK. AbdalAleem, Muḥammad and Atallah had been on spiritual quest traveling across Europe and eventually stumbled across one of the Shaykh’s gathering. AbdalAleem explains to me that it was the power of zikr, remembrance of God, which resonated with their hearts and led them to enter the new faith.

After studying in the UK for a while, the Spaniards returned to establish their new found religion. They spent sometime in Cordoba and Seville, but eventually decided to settle down in Granada. Under the leadership of Shaykh AbdalQadir, the small community of converts in this city began to expand. Land for the mosque was bought in early 80′s but legal and social opposition meant it took some twenty years for it to be built. Thirty years later this community has flourished into one of the intellectual and spiritual centers of Islam in Europe.

As we wait for dinner to be served to break our fast, I observe that the servers are all students of Qurʾān I had met in Morocco several weeks ago. Back home for the summer holidays, these students spend the rest of the year living together in a small apartment in Fez. The spend their days memorizing Qurʾān at a madrassah there; many intend to eventually study at the Qarawiyyeen. Boasting a disproportionately high number of Qurʾān students, perhaps it’s the commitment to preserving this book that has preserved this community. The intellectual accomplishments don’t end there, however. The community is home to people like Hajj Abdal Ghannee who has translated the Qurʾān into Spanish, in addition to key Islamic texts such as the Muwatta of imām Malik and the Shifa’ of Qadi Iyad.

The Mosque of Granada isn’t the only mosque in this city. In the downtown area near Plaza Nueva, tucked away in the Moroccan quarter, lies masjid al-Taqwa. After the afternoon prayer, the imām at the mosque waits for the men to finish praying. He then calls out to the women behind the prayer barrier to come to the men’s section so he can begin the fiqh class. I seek permission to attend the lesson and he tells me to sit next to him. He begins teaching from Ibn Ashir’s famous poem Murshid al-Mu’in – a foundational text for beginner students which outlines Maliki jurisprudence, Asharite theology and Junaydian spirituality. Today’s class is on the chapter of purification.

The imām teaching is Shaykh Hamid Omar. He is a Maliki scholar who used to teach in the Emirates but has been in Granada for over twenty years. He, along with Shaykh Abdar Rahman (who was traveling during my visit ), lead this mosque which caters primarily to those working in the downtown area. As is evidenced by Shaykh Hamid’s luminous countenance, both scholars are Mauritanian and hail from Murabit-al-Hajj’s tribe;  Shaykh Abdar Rahman being his own son.

The students attending Shaykh Hamid’s class are from different countries. Since he teaches in Arabic, the advanced student has to translate for her fellow classmates into French. I am impressed with the direct and frank manner this conservative scholar teaches female students. Weary of some over zealous congregants, he reminds the men of the permissibility and importance of teaching women their fard-ayn, or personal religious obligations. The people of Granada are indeed lucky to host such unique scholars.

In 1492, Granada became the last city in Andalusia to fall to the Christians; effectively ending over 700 years of Muslim presence. Five-hundred years later, this city is one of the focal points of Islamic revival in Europe. As the muezzin gives the call to prayer from the minaret of the Great Mosque, the narrative of two Muslim communities is juxtaposed. On one hill lie the remains of the Alhambra, a lost treasure now left to be admired by eyes of tourists. On the other hill is a living tradition; rich with energy and spirituality- it will survive and flourish for generations to come.

Written on July 13th in Granada, Spain. First published at MuslimMatters.org on September 6th, 2013


As horror stories of another massacre in Syria trickled in last week, western governments initiated their textbook game of diplomatic ping-pong. Condemnations were issued, outrage expressed and vows renewed. This has been the cycle since the war started. We hear of massacre after massacre, it makes the headlines; politicians express their disgust with Assad and all is forgotten after a few days.

But it is supposed to be different this time. Assad has apparently crossed Obama’s infamous ‘red-line’. Chemicals were definitely employed this time – well, we’re pretty sure they were. Why chemical weapons are the ‘red-line’, I don’t know – is the death of 100,000 not enough impetus?

Either way, the ‘red-line’ is crossed and the US will be taking action against Syria. President Obama has just announced his decision to intervene militarily – but he wants congressional support and will wait to see how Congress votes when it reconvenes on September 9th. It’s a smart move; politically speaking. The burden of going to war will now be shared collectively with other politicians. They either have to vote in support of Obama, or explain why they sat idly as another gas attack happened in Syria. Britain’s parliament has refused intervention; France is still deliberating over its final decision.

So, is military intervention from the West the way forward? At one hand, after seeing this grueling war for so long, it comes as relief to see foreign aid materializing. Perhaps it will weaken Assad, bring down his regime and eventually end the bloodshed. Some action is better then no action, right? We can’t possibly just sit and watch as hundreds of children continue to die.

However, the addition of another player changes the calculus of the conflict completely and makes the outcome impossible to predict. By getting involved, the US is effectively going to war with Syria and its allies (Russia, Iran et al). This gives Syria and its allies grounds to retaliate against US and its allies; Israel and Turkey being possible targets. If this is sounding like World War I, then that’s what it might turn into – worst case scenario. However, after engaging in a bloody war for two and a half years, its unlikely Assad would retaliate to American ‘surgical strikes’ with such might. That is perhaps what Obama is counting on.

The effectiveness of such an intervention is also questionable given that its objective is not regime change; unlike in the case of Libya – rather it is to ‘punish’ Assad. War under international law is legal only in two instances – if  it’s in self-defense or if it has backing of the UN Security Council; neither of which is being fulfilled. UN’s fact-finding mission has yet to confirm with certainty that Assad employed chemical weapons on its own people. US contends this and cites its own intelligence as proof; ‘intelligence’ which has lost credibility in the public eye since the Iraq war.

Moreover, what is more reason for caution, is the history of selective US-led interventions which have been driven by self-interest; not righteous indignation. As imām Zaid Shakir summarized in his principled stance against the Libyan intervention, America only intervenes in conflicts to suit its own foreign policy objectives. When Saddam used gas in 1988, Baghdad was not bombed as Iraq was then a US ally. No military intervention took place in Congo or Rwanda or Gaza. Israel used white phosphorus over dense populations in Operation Cast Lead.  In Robert Fisk’sopinion , Iran is what is fueling American activism this time around. As Assad’s forces are gaining strengthen, the US is inclined to intervene as a victory for Assad is a victory for Iran – and that can’t be tolerated.

Yes, I am ambivalent about an intervention – it’s hard to see if it will fuel the conflict or bring it to an end. If there is an intervention, I pray that it succeeds in stifling the brutality and bloodshed. There’s little that can be done from the outside while maintaining ‘neutrality’ in this conflict. And that is the nature of war. You helplessly sit and watch hundreds die, you burn with anguish and you cry your tears. The war ends when it ends; when one party is overcome or one accepts defeat.

Such has been the case for all wars; and this war will be no different.

First published at MuslimMatters.org on Sept 1st, 2013


We’ve spent the last few articles describing the apartheid policies implemented by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The obvious question which follows is: so what, what am I to do about it and why?

Apart from the obvious moral incumbency of acting to eliminate injustice, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict deserves special attention for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we Westerners, Americans especially, have an obligation to act because it’s our governments that are fueling the occupation in the first place. Without the political backing of the West, Israel won’t be able to continue usurping Palestinian land. In addition to the vital political support of the world’s superpower, America also supplies over $3 billion in military aid to Israel every year. That’s tax payer’s money going directly to fund the occupation.

Unlike many other conflicts, the average person can in fact do something about this issue. Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) is a global movement of concerned citizens spanning across the globe. From campus clubs to community groups to corporations; people from all facets of life participate in it with the objective of bringing the conflict to and end.

What is BDS, and what it isn’t?

The call for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel was made in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian community groups. They called on the global community to take these measures against Israel until it complies with international law. BDS is a non-violent coalition which demands an end to the occupation of the OPT, respect and protection for the Palestinian right-of-return and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Consumer boycotts involves us making an effort to eliminate consumption of conflict goods in our local communities. This would involve boycotting goods that are produced on settlements which are built on land stolen from Palestinians. It would also include boycotting corporations which aid the Israeli military. For example, Caterpillar is a good example as it provides the bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes.

Some people might be sighing with disillusionment after reading about ‘boycotts’. They are probably thinking of the infamous ‘Boycott Starbucks’ campaign which was awfully poplar in the Muslim community; though based on complete falsehood. Just to be clear, boycotting StarBucks had nothing to do with the BDS campaign. In fact, it’s the perfect example of ‘boycotts-gone-wrong’.

Boycott campaigns for BDS are usually organized by social justice groups in local communities. There isn’t a central control structure and each group decides independently the route it wants to take. It’s important to boycott smart, rather than boycott blindly. For starters, having clear evidence of a corporation’s complicity in supporting occupation is a must. It’s important to set a clear criterion too. For example, it’s ineffective to simply boycott a company because it does business in Israel; it makes more sense to do so if the corporation directly supports the illegal settlements. In addition, it’s important to write letters to the company letting them know your group is boycotting them; or else they’ll never know. Peaceful protests such asthese are another way to make your voice heard. It’s also important to focus your campaign on a handful of companies; making an endless list is a waste of time.

Listed below are some of the main social justice groups whose campaigns/chapters you can sign up for. If you’re a student, your best bet are the clubs on campus. Just a heads up: within solidarity activists, there are over zealous groups whose harsh rhetoric verges on vilification and hate-mongering. Stick with the mainstream, well-organized groups run by level headed individuals. (Canada: CJPME US: End the OccupationStop the Blank Check Ireland: IPSCAustralia: Palestine Action Group UK: Check the Label International: BDS)

The second pillar of the movement, divestments, is aimed at corporations and institutions. It involves these groups reevaluating their investment portfolios and withdrawing any investments from corporations which support the Israeli occupation. Most active amongst this category have been churches, trade unions and student groups. Some recent examples are the United Church of Canada and the Mennonite Church US. Student groups across the globe are lobbying universities to review their investment portfolios. Many corporations have ethical investment policies and if you feel these are being violated by the company you work for; you could try to lobby to get them to comply with these standards. The Methodist Church has prepared a reportoutlining some of these companies; there might be better reports out there, so do you’ll have to do some research.

The last pillar of BDS is Sanctions. This is something that is primarily to be implemented at the state level. For the most part, the movement hasn’t gotten that far yet as most Western government’s still support Israel. However, an EU report recently urged member states to withdraw funding to the settlements and disallow conflict goods to benefit from trade agreements with Israel. This is a step in the right direction and indicates the increasing international pressure on Israel.

Chomsky and Finkelstein on BDS

Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, two of the most well-known academics in the solidarity movement, have both been critical of BDS. Given the remarkable roles they’ve played in advancing the Palestinian cause, their opinion carries a great deal of weight and has led to hesitancy to adopt BDS in come circles. Right wing commentators and Zionists frequently quote their stance with the objective of dismissing BDS as nothing but a group of anti-Semitic hate mongers.

However, a detailed look at their position would reveal that they actually support boycotts, divestments and sanctions as a strategy. For example, Chomsky believes we should boycott companies such as Caterpillar and Motorola that support the Israeli military, and should lobby for an arms embargo. Finkelstein also holds the same position. Their criticism is not aimed at the principles itself. Rather it’s aimed at some of the official stances of BDS and specifics about how to implement the strategies (e.g. academic and cultural boycotts). It appears their conflict is more with the leadership of BDS, many of whom advocate for a one-state solution; a position that doesn’t sit well with either of them.

The reason of elaborating on this issue is because many have turned away from BDS because it hasn’t gotten the Chomskian stamp of approval. However, the reality is both Chomsky and Finkelstein generally support the strategies of BDS; their disagreements are with specifics and some individuals within the leadership. Given the grass roots nature of the movement, social justice groups work independently and carve out their own methodologies of how to implement BDS. You might disagree with elements of BDS, I do so myself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t participate in it.

Last Word

One of the classical strategies of diverting attention from this issue is by changing the subject. As Finkelstein puts it: You talk about occupation, they talk about the holocaust. You talk about occupation, they talk anti-Semitism. Similarly, when you talk about apartheid, they will talk about flaws in your argument and how you’ve really not understood apartheid. Next thing you know, you’ve spent an hour in a theoretical discussion about the nature of apartheid and its application to this conflict.

It is thus vital to not get hung up on terms and simply go back to the root of the problem: the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Reiterate that the occupation is illegal by international consensus (including US policy) and needs to come to and end. Our goal is not to convince people about the type of oppression taking place; it’s to end the oppression.

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