September 2013

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


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 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 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.

First published at MuslimMatters on March 7,2013

The death toll from riots that have enraged the streets of Dhaka for over a month has risen to 61. Fresh set of protests were sparked when Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a politician and religious leader, was sentenced to death last week.  Police and protestors have clashed violently leading to these deaths; hundreds more have been injured. The police have been accused of firing openly on protesters according to witnesses on the ground.

Protests erupted over a month ago when the Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal sentenced Abdul Qader Molla to life imprisonment. He is a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami; the nation’s largest Islamic political party and the current opposition. Government officials, members of the ruling Awami League party, and segments of the public reacted with outrage that Mollah was not sentenced to death. Large crowds assembled in the Shahbag area of Dhaka demanding the death penalty for Molla.

Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a domestic court, was set up in 2010 to try people suspected of crimes under international law, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The brutal civil war led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; estimates vary between 300,000 and 3 million. Murder, rape and bloodshed were rampant during this period. Some estimates suggest over 200,000 women were raped by militias.

The Jamaat-e-Islami party, part of the current opposition, is widely viewed in the country as a supporter of Pakistan during the war and their leaders are accused of perpetrating war crimes. However, the party contends that while some of its leaders did not want a new state, it did not commit any such atrocities.

The war crimes tribunal has been criticized as being politically motivated and out of step with international standards. All of the 10 people indicted for war crimes by the tribunal are opposition politicians, eight of them from the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Human Rights Watch has found trials conducted thus far to be replete with irregularities. The defense has alleged intimidation and harassment of their witnesses, including the November 2012 abduction of a witness from the gates of the courthouse. In December 2012 The Economist published a series of intercepted communications between the senior judge and an external adviser, suggesting close and prohibited collaboration between the judge, prosecutors, and the government.

In response to the mass protests calling for the execution of Molla, originally sentenced to life imprisonment, Bangladesh’s parliament amended a law allowing the state to appeal any verdict in war-crimes trials it deemed inadequate and not in sync with public opinion. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was reported by media as saying she would talk to the judges to convince them to take the sentiments of the protesters into account in formulating their decisions.

While recognizing the need to serve justice for war crimes of 1971, human rights organizations have strongly criticized Bangladesh’s government for making these legal amendments to please protestors. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that that the tribunal does not adhere to international standards of a fair trial and due process. It urged the government to serve justice, instead of perpetrating vengeance.

Amnesty International has also condemned the move. Human Rights Watch stated that these amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR states that “no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offense for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.”

This episode has sharply widened the secular and religious divide in the country. Some view it as a movement for righting a historical wrong, while other considers it to be a veiled, government-sponsored attempt to curb the influence of Islam. Pro-execution supporters have been accused of blasphemy and insulting Islam using their platforms.

Protests and strikes have intensified since Delwar Hussian Sayedee was sentenced to death on March 2nd; he is vice-president of the Jamaat and a vocal Muslim orator.  Supporters of Sayedee attacked police and government offices, uprooted railroad tracks, and set fire to trains and houses belonging to government supporters. Police responded with bullets and tear gas. Violence continues in Dhaka and protestor from both sides continue rally support to advance their objectives.

Compiled from Al-JazeeraHuman Rights WatchThe Guardian and BBC.