May 2014

I’ve always found the concept of owning a sports team unsettling. What exactly does one own in a team? When it comes to basketball, the fact that most team owners are wealthy white men who possess teams made up largely of strong black men doesn’t help the imagery either. It definitely doesn’t help when an influential NBA team owner gets caught making racist remarks on tape. The fact that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, actually believes he owns his players makes matters just a little more uncomfortable.

As has been widely reported, Donald Sterling was caught expressing frustration with his lady friend and reprimanding her for associating with black men; including the likes of Majic Johnson (oh…the lady friend appears to be of African descent too). When she reminds him of the team of black men that play for him, he responds, “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? … Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game?”

For those that know Sterling, these execrable remarks should come as a no surprise. His plantation mentality has been well documented. In 2009, former Clippers manager Elgin Baylor reported that Sterling remarked , ‘Personally, I would like to have a white Southern coach coaching poor black players’. In 2006, he was sued for housing discrimination when he refused to rent to blacks and Latinos. His reasons: “Because of all the blacks in this building, they smell, they’re not clean. … And it’s because of all of the Mexicans that just sit around and smoke and drink all day”. He’s been documented using the N-word repeatedly as well.

So, given that Sterling’s despicable views were well known, why is it only now that he’s fined and being forced to give up ownership of the team? What is the NBA punishing him for, being a racist or getting caught on a viral tape? The swift decision to penalize and ban him is laudable, but the moral high ground NBA claims is not one that is bona fide. Public outrage, loss of corporate sponsorships, brand damage and internal politics more aptly describe the leagues’ decisions. Being a member of one of the most exclusive and wealthiest clubs on the planet, Sterling no doubt has many enemies; this is their chance to take a shot at him.

As repulsive as Sterling’s comments are, one cannot overlook the ethical dilemma they’ve lead to. On one hand is the desire to hold accountable a powerful man for espousing abhorrent and intolerable views; on the other is the violation of his privacy and broadcasting of comments made in one’s personal space. After Snowden’s revelations on government spying, American’s have unequivocally deemed the private space as sacred and inviolable. So, it comes as a surprise that the same public would demand to penalize a man using evidence obtained surreptitiously through spying.

Sterling’s comments have sparked an inadvertent debate on race across America, and as it turns out, he’s not the only white man being tried in the court of public opinion. Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang made headlines last week after his essayon white privilege was re-published by Time magazine.

After being told repeatedly to ‘check his privilege’ on campus, Fortgang wrote the essay trying to dispel the notion that he was privileged. He attempts to do this by highlighting the struggles of his immigrant ancestors who escaped the horrors of the holocaust and started a new life the America. Since the publication he has received rather unwarranted attention; right wing groups giving him airtime to further their agenda, while left wingers lambasting him for defending racism.

I’ve never used the phrase and neither have been told to check my privilege; perhaps it’s because I am not white, or possibly because I went to school in Canada. Either way, I find it a rather harsh thing to say to anyone. Presumably it’s something you would say to shut someone out in an argument by telling them their opinions are invalid simply because of their skin colour; not to mention the emotional damage caused by accusing them of collective guilt. It’s the Ivy League equivalent of ‘your face is so [insert debate ending petty argument]’.

The frustration that might have caused Fortgang to pen that essay is understandable, he’s justified in doing that. While I am opposed to using that phrase, primarily because it’s rather petty, one can’t deny the legitimate privilege that accompany a particular race. In denying that privilege Fortgang displays his naïve outlook and a failure to comprehend racial realities that underpin our society.

‘Checking your privilege’ doesn’t mean to apologize for being white; it means to simply recognize that your race gives you an advantage in a multitude of arenas – think of it as a head start in a competition. Success ultimately rests on your abilities, but having the ‘right’ skin colour can make the road a little easier for you by eliminating prejudices that accompany the ‘wrong’ one.

Since we were speaking about basketball, (if you’re reading this Tal), let me illustrate the concept of how race can impact one’s success. Imagine you and I showed up at the tryouts for the basketball team at an inner city high school. You might be more qualified to make the team than me, but you can’t dispel the myth that ‘white men can’t jump’ (you should definitely check out that movie).

Being dark and tall will likely result in the coach and fellow players having greater faith in my abilities than you without too much effort; the struggles of my ancestors are irrelevant here. You, on the other hand, will have to go out of your way to prove yourself, your mistakes will be under greater scrutiny and your chances of ultimate success in the sport will be far lesser. I need to perform to ultimately make the team, but I won’t deny that darker skin does help a little in this case. I won’t apologize for it, but I recognize it and I don’t think it’s fair.

So Tal, how’s that for a personal Weltanschauung?


First published at MuslimMatters on March 13, 2014

What started three years ago as anti-government protests has spiraled today into a bloody civil war with no end in sight. The brutal conflict has claimed the lives of well over a 100,000 people; it’s estimated that over 3 million have fled the country and are now in refugee camps spread across the Levant and beyond.

One of the most harrowing aspects of this human tragedy has been the unimaginable harm on children. Lives of over 5 million children have been tarnished due to the war according to the UN. Conservative estimates suggest at least 10,000 have been killed. 3 million have been displaced internally in Syria; nearly a million of them are trapped in areas that are under siege or that are hard to reach with humanitarian assistance. Another 1.2 million are now refugees living in overcrowded and under resourced camps in neighboring countries.

Thousand of children have been separated from their families; some living with only one parent while others living unaccompanied with no adult caregiver. In some cases the parents have either died, been detained or have sent their children into exile alone out of fear for their safety. Aid workers work tirelessly to reunite separated children or find families willing to look after them.

Collapse of Syria’s educational system is one of the most tragic aspects of the conflict. It will lead not only to immediate harm but will result in a generation of children without formal education. Prior to the conflict, primary school enrollment had been almost universal for a generation, literacy rates were over 90 per cent. Once the envy of the region, a fifth of all Syria’s school now have been destroyed, damaged or have been taken over by combatants. Nearly 3 million school aged children are now missing from the classroom.

The lack of safe places for healthy development has far reaching psychological repercussions on these young minds. Some stopped speaking out of shock; others randomly start crying from the memory of horror episodes. Death of family and desperation has led many teenagers to consider joining armed groups. Many children are in pure survival mode and have given up hopes and dreams for a future. “I wanted to be a doctor before,” eight year-old Jumana, now living in Turkey, told the UN. Three years of being out of school has caused her to lose hope; she now collects rubbish for US$4 a day.

The faltering state of Syria’s health system is highlighted with the reemergence of polio in the region after 14-years. Damage to the health infrastructure has been alarming – 60% of the country’s hospitals have been destroyed or damaged; less then a third of the ambulances and health centers still function. Immunization rates have fallen to about 50% compared to the 99% prior to the war. Public health is at severe risk due to the collapse of sanitation networks as well. A third of the water treatment plants have been damaged and only a third of the sewage is now being treated.

Despite the unfathomable horrors of this war, Syrian children continue to show resilience and courage. They’ve stepped up to the challenges of this conflict; providing for their families, making up for lost parents and trying to attend schools – whether it be in a refugees camp or a shelled school. There appear to be no signs of an end to this blood bath and in the face of such atrocity, it’s our turn to step up as well.

Prayer and charity are the main weapons we have – please give generously to the relief effort. Special prayers and vigils are being held around the globe this week to mark three years of this conflict; try organize special prayers this Friday in your communities too.

Some aid agencies:
Islamic Relief US / Canada
Save the Children  

Sources used:
Under Siege, March 2014, UNICEF
The Future of Syria, UNHCR

First published in The Silhouette along this piece on March 6th, 2014

In a recent book attacking academics that support Palestinian human rights, Professor Alan Dershowitz writes, “Many supporters of Israel – and I count myself among them – care deeply about the Palestinian people. I am pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. I want to see a vibrant, democratic, economically viable, peaceful Palestinian state…”

‘What a fair-minded guy’, I naively thought to myself back then. Little did I know that this deceptive mantra has long been deployed by apologists for Israel and sympathizers of its war crimes. It represents accurately Israel’s long standing two-faced propaganda tactic: pretend to be an advocate for peace to the Western world while continuing the unending oppression of the Palestinian people.

Knowingly or naively, many are inclined to adopt this flawed dogma because, on the outset, it appears as a fair stance to the uninformed. The major flaw in this idea of being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine is the following: it ignores that Palestinians have been living under Israel’s brutal military occupation since 1967.

Approaching its 50th anniversary, the occupation is the longest and one of the bloodiest in modern history. Israel continues to usurp Palestinian land to build colonies for the exclusive use of its Jewish population; barring Arabs access to their own land. It continues to implement draconian apartheid laws on these occupied people to maintain absolute domination. The military check-points, the Separation Wall, apartheid roads, permit systems – the list of injustices is never ending.

This conflict is between a nuclear armed beast and a defenseless people. It’s between the oppressor and oppressed; the occupier and the occupied; the colonizer and the colonized. In a conflict which is so brazenly disproportionate, how is it possible to argue for a balanced stance? It’s as ludicrous as taking a ‘pro-British’ and ‘pro-Indian’ stance when Britain colonized India. It’s as shameful as taking a ‘pro-white’ and ‘pro-black’ stance in apartheid South Africa. It’s as meaningless as taking a ‘pro-slavery’ and ‘pro-abolition’ stance during the American civil war.

Israel’s intention to control Palestinian territory is no secret, as highlighted in the Drobles Plan which was adopted by the Israel’s cabinet. It states: “there must not be the slightest doubt regarding our intention to hold the areas of Judea and Samaria (i.e. the West Bank) forever… State and uncultivated land should be seized immediately for the purpose of settlement in the areas located among and around the population centers with the aim of preventing as much as possible the establishment of another Arab state in these territories”.

As is evident by the shrinking map of the Palestinian territories, the Drobles Plan has been implemented to a tee – all the while Israel has been pretending to negotiate a ‘peace processes’ for two decades now. Former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, observed that, “It goes without saying that ‘cooperation’ based on the current power relationship is no more than permanent Israeli domination in disguise, and that Palestinian self-rule is merely a euphemism for Bantustanization [i.e. dividing land based on race].”

Israel’s continued air, land and sea blockade of Gaza has made this Palestinian strip inhospitable. The UN declared that if the current siege continues, Gaza will be unlivable by 2020 – that’s only 6 years away. Sewage treatment plants are broken down and can’t be repaired due to the blockade; untreated sewage now pollutes the Mediterranean. This has rendered 90% of water there undrinkable.

The Israeli army regularly conducts raids to destroy agricultural produce in order to squash any nutritious growth. Fishermen are shot at for fishing in the ‘wrong places’; same goes for the farmers. Students are barred from studying because their schools have been shelled; winners of scholarships abroad are denied leaving the occupied territory. This is some of what is happening in Gaza; the injustices in the West Bank haven’t even been mentioned here.

In the face of such brutality, how can one pretend to keep silent about the perpetrator of these atrocities? How is one expected to stay ‘respectful’ and not express outrage? The path of co-operation and dialogue can happen when two parties are on some sort of equal footing. However, in a conflict where one side is armed with the military and financial arsenal of the world’s superpower, it becomes a moral obligation to support the oppressed.

So it comes down to the following: you can delude yourself into thinking you are being fair-minded by arguing for both sides of the conflict; or you can join the global movement to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories and comply with international law. The choice is yours.