Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The English Defence League's Canadian Debut

by Lin Abdul Rahman
The Sputnik, Winter 2011, Issue 2

The English Defence League (EDL), a controversial far-right group, has joined forces with the Jewish Defence League of Canada (JDL) in its war against “political Islam.”

At the time of this writing, The EDL’s maiden rally is planned for Tuesday January 18th. It will be organized by the JDL at its headquarters, the Toronto Zionist Building on Marlee Avenue, near Lawrence Avenue and the Allen Road. Last Tuesday, JDL held a “support rally” there during which EDL’s leader, Stephen Lennon a.k.a. Tommy Robinson spoke to supporters via online hook-up.

Protesters congregated in front of the building, chanting “EDL, go to hell!” Despite the presence of eight Mounties, protesters and JDL supporters clashed, resulting in two arrests and a vandalized police car.

Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wrote in the Toronto Sun last week that he foresees a far worse outcome from Tuesday’s impending rally and is “[concerned] about the inevitable mess that will be left behind.”

Prior to the “support rally,” Farber also told the National Post that the CJC is disappointed that the Jewish Defence League would associate itself with a group “whose record in the U.K. is one of violence and extremism.”

The EDL’s controversial stand against Islam and what it calls “Islamic fascism” in the UK has alienated the group from mainstream British Jewish associations as well as leftist groups. The EDL is said to have strayed from its professed opposition against Islamic extremism and now opposes Muslims as a whole.

Britain’s respected Community Security Trust said, “They are no friends of the Jewish community, or of Israel.” Even the Board of Deputies of British Jews has rejected EDL’s attempts at supporting Zionism, calling it “empty and duplicitous.”

This unfavourable British climate may explain why EDL has now set its sights on Canada.

EDL’s grope in the dark managed to land on the Jewish Defence League of Canada, as many noted in dismay. However, this “troubling marriage,” as Farber calls it, should come as no surprise.

To some extent, JDL can be considered EDL’s kissing cousin in Canada. Although small, JDL has long held similarly controversial stands against Islam. Perhaps even more telling is JDL’s website, which lists Jewish assimilation into society, inter-marriage and “Jewish love for the non-Jew” as the biggest threats facing Jews in Canada today.

It’s important to note that JDL and its position regarding Islam is not representative of that of the larger Jewish community in Canada. EDL itself has been described by mainstream media as mainly consisting of “football hooligans” and are not expected to gain much traction with Canada’s middle-class majority.

Nevertheless, the scuffle from Tuesday’s ‘support rally’ shows clearly the ripple effect that can result from throwing a proverbial pebble that is the EDL/JDL union into a pond that is Canadian society.

Although the EDL/JDL propaganda is not expected to have much resonance, we should never the less be vocal about rejecting such propaganda here. Quietly rejecting an unjust act does not relief us of the responsibility for its outcomes.

Case in point: Terry Loughner. Sarah Palin, Fox New et al and the media in general have been largely vilified as the invisible propagator of the Arizona shooting. What’s missing in the equation is society’s role – we are as equally guilty for accepting such hateful vitriol as passively as we do any other piece of news churned out by the networks. Often times we have even unknowingly amplified their message by spreading and “retweeting” those hateful quotes. Very seldom do we realize the ripple effect that those tweets cause and what they say about our social mores.

As I am writing this, the EDL rally is still set to go on. There will most surely be a protest in response and possibly some degree of violence from both sides of the fence. Inevitable, intense media attention will ensue with one party being given more than its fair share of the spotlight. However, the way we respond to that will say a lot about our values as a society.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Before you ban my wardrobe, get your facts straight

By Lin Abdul Rahman
The Sputnik, Issue 1, Winter 2011

As France and Belgium rally to legislate a full ban on the hijab, the religious headdress worn by Muslim women, Quebec prepares to follow in the footsteps of its European counterparts. Jean Charest has introduced Bill 94, which bans full-face coverings “pretty much everywhere but the street itself,” according to Sarah Wildman of Politics Daily.

The axial debate centers on whether the ban would liberate Muslim women from religious subjugation or be an impediment to the religious freedom that Canadians are supposedly afforded by the Charter.

As with any contentious issue, the debate generates an intricate mesh of opinions. Counter-intuitively, the Muslim Canadian Congress supports the ban while secularists worry that it may be inherently “unsecular.”

According to Dr. Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s foremost scholars in Islam and philosophy, secularism is about limitations: limitations on the state’s ability to enforce its authority on the church vis a vis religious institutions, and vice versa. So when the state spreads its tentacles into churches, mosques, synagogues and temples as France has so boldly done, it is going against the very principles that it claims to uphold.

According to the Montreal Gazette, 80 percent of Canadians in general and 95 percent of Quebecois support the ban on full-face coverings. I wonder how many people out of that 80 percent of Canadians understand the origins of the burqa and its contextual implementation in today’s society.

Nota bene: I oppose the wearing of the burqa, if and when it is enforced upon Muslim women against their will.

If women were to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa out of their own volition, the ban is then an outright infringement on their religious freedom – one of the basic tenets of fundamental human rights, as afforded by the Charter. In that case, a ban on religious headdresses simply reeks of religious intolerance.

As President Obama said in his speech in Cairo last June, “We cannot disguise hostility toward any religion behind the pretense of liberalism. Indeed, faith should bring us together."

Another fallacious presumption about religious headdresses is that women who wear them are oppressed, whether they know it or not. As someone who consciously chose to wear the hijab, I feel insulted that I am subjugated into the underclass of the ‘oppressed.’ The fact is that not all women who wear the hijab are forced to do so. In fact, not all Muslim women wear the hijab. To claim that Muslim women in western societies who wear the hijab are oppressed is to openly admit that you know nothing about the very people whose rights you claim to fight for.

Yet, conservative rightists, pandering to emotional politics, do not hesitate to call for a sweeping ban that would violate our individual rights as citizens. The Toronto Star’s freelancer Maggie Gilmore writes, “It's a repugnant value system and I reject it. So should all Canadians who embrace secular feminism. So let's ban the burqa, the niqab, and while we're at it, the hijab.”

Notice that no substantial argument is given as to why the hijab should be banned.

This is the very statement that would compel 80 percent of Canadians to check “Yes” when answering opinion polls about the hijab ban.

The Toronto Star’s Haroon Siddiqui was right in saying that it’s ‘scary’ when the majority feels threatened by a minority. It’s even scarier when they start harnessing the power of the law simply to quell that unfounded fear. In human rights courses, we call that ‘tyranny of the majority.’ It’s the same unfounded fear that sent the Jews to the ghettos and later extermination. It’s the same fear that sent Canadian and American Japanese to internment camps during WW2. It’s the same fear that poured billions of dollars of American tax payers’ money into a so-called war against terrorism.

My advice is, before you form an opinion on the hijab/niqab/burqa ban, find a woman who wears one and ask her why. That way, you can claim to be part of an informed public that supports democracy rather than an 80 percent majority that has possibly been misinformed. It is precisely this misinformed majority that is still amateurishly hung up on issues of assimilation versus isolation when discussing Muslims in the west. The possibility of convergence between immigrants’ culture of origin and their newly adopted one is rarely discussed.

Meanwhile, millions of Muslims in western societies already live as functioning and contributing citizens in Europe, America and Canada. They call themselves French, British, American and Canadian just as comfortably as Scientologist Tom Cruise calls himself an American or as Jewish Sacha Baren Cohen calls himself a Brit.

To borrow an oft-used expression: “Muslim women are here; they wear the hijab; deal with it.” There are far more important things we can spend our time and energy on.