Written on July 15, 2014. Publication delayed due to conflict in Gaza

Should Muslim leaders attend the annual iftar at the White House given America’s military aggression in the Islamic world? Should Muslims engage with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation given the founder’s apocalyptic decision to wage an illegal war in Iraq? What if a Zionist organization wants to co-operate with the American Muslim community, show we reciprocate or turn our backs to protest Israel’s war crimes?

The dilemma associated with establishing such delicate and ethically ambivalent alliances recently surfaced again amongst American Muslims. This is time it is the Muslim Leaders Initiative (MLI) which is at the center of controversy. Organized and sponsored by the Israel-based Shalom Hartman Institute, the MLI is an educational initiative designed to ‘addresses a lack of understanding among Muslims about the way Jews see themselves’. It was created by Chaplain Abdullah Antepli of Duke University who describes it as ‘a unilateral, sincere Muslim attempt to learn and make sense of Judaism, Jews, Israel and Zionism through the eyes of the people and communities who self-identify this way’.

Designed to teach Judaism in an Israeli context, the program runs for 13-months and includes year-round long distance learning, two 12-day seminars in Jerusalem in addition to two retreats within North America. Rabia Chaudary, a Muslim activist and writer, graduated from the program’s first class and published here experience in TIME magazine. Several other notable Muslim leaders, chaplains and activist participated in the program as well. Their participation has garnered much attention, earned the ire of many and has started an important conversation about the relevance of such collaborations.

So, what are the ramifications of participating in such a program? How do Muslims go about collaborating with Zionist*organizations, if at all? I hope to discuss some of the key factors that come into play when engaging in such collaborations; first at a general level and then specifically as they apply to the Muslim Leadership Initiative.

Opportunities, and opportunity costs

If a Zionist group is willing to engage with Muslims who are outspoken critics of Israeli occupation and are prominent activists in the Palestinian solidarity movement, why should we be the ones to shy away? Remember the Irvine 11? Imagine if Ambassador Oren invited them over for tea- why shouldn’t they go? If there’s any one I want having tea with the Israeli ambassador, it’s the Irvine 11.

My point is that these could be opportunities to gain influence with people in authority and potentially build alliances with like minded individuals on the other side; any headway with them could lead to very real impacts. It is likely that the opposing side is reaching out to us for the same reason, but do we not have faith in our activists and leaders? To think that they’ll ‘convert to the dark side’ or somehow soften up is an unsubstantiated claim made in poor faith. If American Imams are meeting with the President, it is unlikely they’ll act like servile sycophants around him.

Collaboration with a Zionist group is an opportunity to reach out to an audience which we rarely interact with. It is a chance to share with them a narrative that they never get to hear because of the silos we live in. It is also a chance to understand their narrative, challenge it and critically assess the methodologies we employ in our own activism. Perhaps we can learn more effective ways of gathering support for Palestinian human rights from American Jews? Zionists need to understand that the Middle Eastern conflict continues because of their unflinching support for Israel – I think American Muslim leaders have a role to play in that conversation.

Furthermore, if we cut ourselves off from anyone with the slightest inclination towards Zionism, we are effectively cutting ourselves from mainstream Judaism. Zionist thought is entrenched in the modern Jewish psyche to an extent that they are indistinguishable to many. While things are changing, most American Jews still have a meaningful attachment and affinity to Israel; many still proudly identify as Zionists (though not always understanding the connotations of that term).

So, are we to abandon inter-faith dialogue with Jewish organizations out of fear of whitewashing Israeli occupation? Holocaust education and awareness could also be funded by Zionist institutions, what about participating in that? The key to navigating this conundrum is to understand that not all engagements are tantamount to approval, acceptance or legitimization of the one we engage with. Interaction is not an absolute endorsement; it is possible to collaborate with groups with opposing political views on matters of mutual benefit – provided that these groups are not working to actively harm our primary interests.

Legitimate Concerns, Ground Rules

The primary concern of engaging with a Zionist institution is its degree of affiliation with the State of Israel. There are hard Zionists that are active enablers and apologizers for Israeli aggression and its war crimes (think AIPAC, StandWithUs, JNF), and then there are soft Zionists. These could include anyone from groups like the Shalom Hartman Institute or a Jewish seminary that has pro-Israel tendencies. Collaboration with the former is essentially inconceivable while there may be opportunities to work with the latter.

The important question to ask is: What is their agenda? What’s the primary objective of their work? If their primary work isn’t conflicting with our interests, then there could be room for an engagement. This criterion essentially leaves religious and educational establishments as potential candidates for collaboration. A concern often raised is: are we not normalizing occupation by working with a Zionist group? This is a possible risk and it needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. If the institution is not complicit in defending and sanitizing the Israeli occupation then this risk can be mitigated.

Another import factor to consider is the source of funding; where’s the money coming from? Again, any program funded by Israel’s government or any of its parastatal agencies should be off-limits. What about organizations funded by individual donors who have a pro-Israeli stance? This is a grey area and requires more investigation; things to look at include donor profiles, the track record and the degree of independence the organization has from its funding sources.

Lastly, the objectives of the engagement have to be made clear- what are we trying to achieve and who’s the target audience? Are we working together on holocaust awareness, an educational event or perhaps a debate? Sure, we can discuss this. Are we to take high school students on a tour to learn about the bastion of democracy that is Israel or the high ethical standards of the IDF? No, thank you. Any kind of program that tries to remotely whitewash Israel’s occupation and apartheid under the banner of ‘dialogue’, especially to a naïve audience, is not up for a discussion.

There is also the question of the BDS (Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions) movement against Israel; what if the institution opposes the BDS? While opposition to BDS is a concern it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Similar to my earlier point, the vast majority of Jews still oppose BDS, so how far are we to get if we work only with pro-BDS groups? Making BDS a strict condition would also mean having to cut ties with many in the pro-Palestinian camp who oppose it. There’s room for discussion on how to go about implementing BDS, as highlighted most recently by Noam Chomsky. BDS is arguably the best strategy to combat the occupation; however, it’s not the only one. One has to consider their situation and act accordingly; as Chaudary puts it, ‘We need some people to push, some people to pull, some to protest, some to partner, some to litigate, some to negotiate.’

On the MLI 

So, what’s the verdict on the MLI? The program is certainly a unique initiative; its creation by a trusted American Muslim chaplain well aware of the Palestinian struggle certainly makes it stand out. However, in light of the discussion above, there are a few concerns that arise and despite Hartman Institute’s pluralistic vision, it’s not obvious that it is the best host for it.

First is the funding source for the program. I was unable to find details on this, but if it turns out that the initiative is state sponsored then it should raise red flags. Secondly, as pointed out by Sana Saeed, Hartman Institute initially listed the MLI under the ‘iEngage’ project in its annual report; a program designed to garner support for Israel by ‘creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life’. While this has now been changed, it raises questions about the ultimate goals of this initiative.  Also problematic is the institute’s collaboration with the IDF as part of the Lev Aharon program which is designed to train Israeli soldiers on military ethics and morality.

Lastly, as articulated up by Abdullah al-Arian, the program “promotes an Israeli narrative that seeks to conflate Zionism with the Jewish faith and legitimize an apartheid system as the fulfillment of Jewish nationalist aspirations.”  While this was one of my first concerns, I am not convinced the program accomplishes this based on the information available so far; especially considering the accounts given by Chaplain Antepli and Rabia Chaudry. Most of the program is consists of distance education on Judaism and during the 24-days that the participants spend in Jerusalem, there’s a considerable degree of interaction with Palestinians in the West Bank. If their goal was to legitimize apartheid, I could see more effective ways of doing that. I would like to hear more feedback from participants on this point; if they did sense this was a problem, I would hope that the first batch of graduates would speak up and voice this issue.

Choosing to work with those who hold views contrary to ours is always a contentious decision. Some try to reduce the stakes to binaries and absolutes, which is almost never the case. We can’t pretend to solve conflicts in bubbles; engagement does at one point become an uncomfortable option that needs to be entertained. It also takes an incredible amount of courage to explore these options and assess the benefits; for that I respect those who chose to participate in the MLI. While I have my reservations about it, I believe we need to be open to those who choose to explore alternative ways of supporting the Palestinian struggle.

It remains to be seen whether the risks of participating in this experiment will yield any constructive benefits and if the concerns raised will be addressed in the future. I believe there is value in bridge building initiatives such as these; they should, however, not come at the price of comprising our principles.

*I wish not to get into the complex discussion of what Zionism means in this article; the term has vastly different connotations for Jews and pro-Palestinians. For the purposes of the article, I am simplifying the meaning of the term to what would be agreed upon in general colloquial  use: Those that politically take a  pro-Israeli stance, subscribe to Jewish nationalism, have a common aversion to the Palestinian narrative and overtly sympathetic to Israel’s ‘security’ concerns.


The “peace-loving nation” of Israel is yet again at the brink of an existential annihilation due to homemade rocket attacks from Gaza — or so they would have you believe. As the Israel-Palestine conflict rages, we’ve heard the same boilerplate statements about “Israel’s right to defend itself” and “No country would tolerate rocket attacks, so why should Israel?”

But why are rockets being fired into Israel in the first place?  “Because the Palestinians are terrorists and anti-Semites.” Perhaps, or perhaps there are few more plausible explanations for Palestinian armed resistance; consider the following:

1. The Occupation

Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Gaza Strip (along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, now in its 47th year, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history — over 2,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza alone in the last seven years.

Up until 2005, Israel maintained illegal Jewish colonies in the Gaza Strip as well. It has since disbanded these colonies and thus claims it’s no longer occupying the Gaza strip. Israel is alone in holding this deceptive view; theUNUS State Departmentglobal NGO’s and legal scholars all consider Gaza a part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories because Israel exercises complete military control over it.

2. The Siege

Israel, with U.S. backing, has laid a brutal siege in the Gaza Strip since 2007. It has blocked off air, land and water access to the Strip — nothing goes in, nothing comes out. This tiny strip of land is home to some 1.7 million people; due to its cage-like setup, Gaza has aptly been described as the ‘world’s largest open air prison.’

The siege has stifled Gaza’s economy, destroyed its infrastructure and has cut off access to some of the most basic amenities needed to live a dignified life. Today, almost 80 per cent of Gazans are dependent on aid as a result of the blockade. The UN has warned Gaza will be inhospitable by 2020 if the siege continues.

3. The Water Crises

Israel’s discriminatory division of water means that Palestinians get 70 litres a day per person, far below the 100 liters per capita minimum, while the Israeli’s get four times this amount. Limiting the water supply results in Gazan households receiving water for only six-eight hours at a time about every other day. Israel severely damaged the sewage treatment infrastructure in Gaza during its 2009 assault; the blockade means the resources needed for repairs are unavailable.

sewageAs a result, only 25 per cent of Gaza’s waste water is treated; 90 million liters of untreated or partially treated sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean every day. Contamination of the territory’s ground water is serious concern; about 90 per cent of the water supply in the Strip is unfit for human consumption.  Due to over-pumping and sewage contamination Gaza’s only water source, its Coastal Aquifer, is damaged past the point of no return — it will expire in 2016.

4. Scarcity of Fuel and Electricity

Gaza is under a chronic power shortage due to the siege; Israel has severely limited the fuel supply needed to operate the only power plant in the territory. Only 46 per cent of Gaza’s electricity needs are being met currently; this has triggered rolling power outages of 12 hours everyday. Amongst other things, this lack of power means that hundreds of crucial medical devices at hospital are non-functional, including Gaza’s only MRI machine.

5. Leveling of Land and Destruction of Property

The Israeli army conducts weekly incursions into the Gaza Strip to destroy the land it has declared as ‘no-go zone.’ Its tanks, bulldozers and military jeeps, accompanied by helicopters and drones, systematically destroy fruit bearing trees and agricultural land in the Gaza strip. Civilian infrastructure in this area is also demolished; this includes hundreds of houses, wells and chicken farms — mosques and schools are demolished as well.

6. Travel Bans

Israel’s siege has meant that it is virtually impossible for Gazans to leave the occupied territory. They can’t even leave to visit their relatives in the West Bank, let alone in Israel. Gazans with spouses in Israel or the West Bank are forced to live in separation; simple matters such as raising a family are rendered impracticable. Permission to leave even for severe emergencies is rarely given.

By dividing Palestinians, Israel successfully employs the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy like colonial powers of the past. The people of Gaza can’t even seek asylum in other countries due to this restriction on movement. Evenstudents are prohibited from going abroad, or even the West Bank, for higher education; visas of several winners of U.S. Fulbright Scholarships have been revoked in the past.

gaza7. Suppression of Agriculture 

The Israeli army created a ‘no-go zone’ along the Israel-Gaza border that Palestinians cannot enter. This ‘buffer region’ extends up to 1,500 meters at times into the Strip and includes some of its most fertile land. As a result, 35 per cent of the agricultural space in Gaza is off-limits to farmers. This has seriously damaged the food economy and harshly penalized innocent farmers. Palestinians are fired at arbitrarily if they try to enter this region; farmers suffer serious injuries, and at times death, as a result of this indiscriminate firing.

8. Restrictions on Fishing

Israel has announced that access to the sea six nautical miles beyond Gaza’s shore is prohibited for fisherman. This means that 85 per cent of fishing waters granted to Palestinians under the Oslo Accords is now inaccessible; this has severely impacted Gaza’s coastal economy. Similar to the restricted areas on land, Palestinian fishermen are regularly exposed to warning fire by Israeli naval forces, their fishing boats are intercepted and they are detained — all for the harmless act of fishing.

This is a short list of the some of the unspeakable crimes Israel commits on a defenseless population; they are at the root of this conflict. Rocket attacks from Gaza are a desperate response to these injustices – how does our government manage to omit this when brazenly expressing support for Israel ?  In light of the above, let’s try to counter some of the nonsense coming out of the foreign affairs office: No people would ever tolerate an oppressive occupation and an unjust siege, so why should the Palestinians?

An edited version of this piece first appeared at Rabble.ca

. Re-printed at Mondoweiss and MuslimMatters.org

Up until last week, Malcolm X was the most well-known American Muslim leader to have been spied on by the American government. For a man who gave his life fighting for civil liberties, he would be shocked to learn that little has changed for dissenting voices, even perceived ones, fifty years after his assassination. New revelations on government spying in a report by The Intercept revealed five notable Muslim leaders who have been under NSA and FBI surveillance. The report highlights that these individuals were spied despite their civic engagement, public service and lack of a criminal record.

Amongst the most striking revelations is that these Americans were spied under the secretive proceedings of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts. FISA is intended to target foreign nationals who are suspected of participating in terrorist activity; the only exception is when the agents can convince the clandestine courts that an American citizen is involved in foreign suspects. The five individuals spied on are US citizens who have not been charged with terrorism and vehemently deny any allegations of involvement.

The high public profiles of those revealed in this report is particularly telling. Most well known amongst them is Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR’s outstanding civil liberties work, especially post 9/11, has made it one of the most trusted and valued institutions in the American Muslim community. CAIR has worked extensively to encourage civil engagement and public service amongst Muslims – if its personnel can be subject to spying as if they were foreign terrorists, what does that say about the rest of us? If CAIR can’t be trusted then who’s left?

It seems that even working closely with the government and running for public office doesn’t get you off-the hook. Faisal Gill joined the Department of Homeland Security as a senior policy adviser for the Bush Administration. He was able to receive some of the highest levels of security clearance where his eyes had access to some of the nation’s most closely held secrets. Gill also secured the Republican nomination for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2007, the year when the government began spying on him.

The discrimination and racism underlying the spying programs of the US government and affiliated agencies are manifestly evident at this point in time.

These revelations are a new addition to the long list which includes things like the surveillance of MSA’s, infiltration of places of worship by ‘mosque crawlers’ and the fake terror plots of paid informants. The repeated behavior of treating an entire community as potential terrorists and threats to national security is sickening. The spying conducted in this case was for activities that are protected by the First Amendment; they are therefore in flagrant violation of some of the most basic rights of an American citizen.

Particularly eye-opening is the bigoted and hawkish culture of the intelligence community which has been highlighted in the Intercept’s report. John Guandolo, a former counter-terrorism agent, was asked about the five men in question. He responded with uncorroborated accusations and highlighted his belief that these men were part of a Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate and topple the United States from within. Earlier, Guandalo also stated on a radio show that CIA director John Brennan secretly converted to Islam and is an instrument of Saudi intelligence.

Also exposed in the story was NSA’s usage of derogatory terms such as ‘raghead’ to refer to potential targets. In addition, the role of the Islamophobic activists such as Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes is deeply troubling. It appears that an internet campaign run by one of these repugnant characters is sufficient ground for the FBI to open a file on an individual. The fact that government would take seriously vitriol from these xenophobic groups furthers hints at sympathizers of this thought within the spy agencies.

Muslim political activists and leaders are not the only ones caught up in NSA’s web of surveillance. As outlined by the Washington Post last week, the NSA intercepted and spied on tens of thousand of private emails of users. Innocuous pictures, emails and private conversations were stored as ‘incidental collection’ by the NSA – collateral damage in other words.

Again, it is striking that most examples outlined in the Post’s report are those of Muslim users. For example, they included the deeply private conversations of Muslim girl who was considering for marriage a jihadist wannabe.

Spying on Muslim leaders by the FBI and NSA is a major blow to relations between the government and the Muslim community. It is particularly heart breaking to see individuals who worked hard to foster civic engagement getting back stabbed. The seeds of mistrust planted in the wake of 9/11 have further taken root in the soil of ignorance. Under Bush, and now Obama, we have seen a return to the dark McCarthyism-style fear mongering and suspicion. This represents a major setback for civil liberties and puts a question mark on the progress made in the past several decades.

It will take years, if not decades, to rebuild the trust tarnished by these spying programs. American Muslims deserve an apology for starters; there needs to be more transparency on the secretive operation of the FISA courts and, more importantly, a scaling back of the hokey schemes that violate our sanctified right to privacy.

First published at MuslimMatters

It was just over a decade ago that Iraqi cities were falling to the unholy assault led by foreign death squads, vowing to overthrow the government and ‘liberate’ the Iraqi people. Baghdad’s streets bathed in blood, a functional state turned into a failed one; the ultimate cost of land and life was colossal and incalculable.

The sanctified streets of Iraq are witnessing similar events yet again; the fact that the insurgency of 2003 was led by American and British military might carries no discernable moral credit. The chaotic climate, the barbaric bloodshed and the grotesque guerrilla fighting are painfully similar; whether the perpetrators are bankrolled by American tax dollars or the deep pockets of oil tycoons is inconsequential to these streets.

The insurgency lead by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has won key sites in Iraq, including Mosul, and is moving towards the capital. It has succeeded in diminishing parts of the Iraq-Syria border and proclaims to have undone the national boundaries drawn by colonial powers during the Skyes-Picot agreement. It’s now in control of essentially a state stretching from Falujjah in western Iraq to the borders of Aleppo in Syria; it has even declared the city of Raqqah as the capital. The unforgiving civil war which has obliterated Syria has now been merged with the conflict in Iraq.

American intervention in Iraq appears to be recurring theme of recent history. Following the Gulf War and the illegal invasion which ignited the Iraq War,  it has tangled itself in the web of Iraq’s political woes yet again. It has deployed a contingent of about 300 troops to advice the government and is now considering air strikes to dismantle ISIS. Experts have warned these as indications of mission creep; a small operation which turns into full fledged war as was the case during the Vietnam War.

Military action by the US in Iraq would have disastrous consequences. American presence in that region in the past decade has clearly shown that the fantasy of creating a stable democracy is a costly experiment which always ends in a bloody nightmare. An intervention would only raise the threat of a retaliatory attack on American soil as the country will become an active participant in a conflict which has so far been regional.  Drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have repeatedly shown the utter ineffectiveness any of these means have on stifling militant activity.

Despite the repeated failures, it seems that America has not learned to curb its imperial puppeteering or revamp its foreign policy. History has  shown that its militaristic tinkering almost always wreaks havoc and creates vacuums of authority which are populated by leadership that is far worse; the rise of the Taliban is a prime example. There’s no doubt that this crisis is the poisonous fruit from the seeds of anarchy sown in the aftermath of the forced removal of Saddam Hussein. Saudi and Western support for Syrian rebels in recent years has only aided the jihadist insurgency and has allowed them destabilize that entire region to its current state.

Intertwining of the Iraq-Syria conflict has resulted in conundrum for U.S and its allies: in Syria they want to overthrow Bashar-al-Assad and have been supporting the rebellion (albeit gingerly); in Iraq they want to maintain the government they installed, but the very rebellion they’re supporting in Syria wants to overthrow the Iraqi regime. That fact that the US is now considering strikes against the Sunni rebels, but balked away when it came to attacking Assad, is a already viewed as a minor victory for the Syrian regime.

How next few weeks will play is anyone’s guess, but the most prudent Western policy would be to avoid a military intervention. It should work within the new power structure that is emerging in that region (Sunni, Shia, Kurds) and co-operate with regional powers to mitigate further anarchy; sort of an ‘enclave strategy’ as suggested by Fareed Zakariya.

The glimmer of hope that emerged in the wake of the Arab Springs is turning out to be a mirage in the desert of desperation that is now the Middle-East. Egypt has a new despot in power, lawlessness is rampant in Libya, Syria has disintegrated, Iraq is expected to fall apart, militants have dismembered Afghanistan and Pakistan, Palestine continues to be under occupation with no relief in sight.

The raging battlefields, unprecedented lawlessness and scathing sectarianism that stretch across the Muslim world will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the darkest periods of post-modern Islamic history.

Also published at Rabble.ca

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.

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.


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