Thursday, July 24, 2014

Devided loyalties - A Muslim immigrant's reality

Written for New Canadian Media, July 24, 2014
Photo credit: Shazron via Flickr CC
Since the Israeli assault on Gaza began in early June, more than 600 people have been killed and thousands more have been wounded. Most of the victims were civilians, with children making up to about a third of the numbers.
Frustrated by the failure of their governments to condemn Israel’s continued aggression, thousands of protesters hit the streets in Toronto, Montreal, London, New York, Jordan, Jakarta, Glasgow, Paris and even in Tel Aviv. Over a thousand people turned out for the protest in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of my home country Malaysia.

As someone with ties to multiple “homes” – Canada, Malaysia, the Muslim ummah (community) – moments like these bring about conflicting feelings and a divided sense of loyalty. Between asserting my personal values as a Muslim in Canada, claiming rightful membership as a Malaysian from afar, and carving out my own space within the Canadian cultural fabric, there is rarely a happy middle.

Sense of gratitude

As a newcomer to Canada, I am aware of the many benefits extended to immigrant families in an effort to help them settle down, get jobs and pursue their education. My family and I have been the beneficiary of all three, and we continue to be grateful for them.

Nevertheless, being a loyal citizen can be especially difficult given Canada’s direct or indirect complicity in conflicts where Muslims are directly affected, such as in Burma (Myanmar), China, Palestine, Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, on home turf, there is still much room for improvement in terms of the country’s relationship with minority, immigrant and Aboriginal communities.

How, then, can one be a grateful while acknowledging these faults?

Radicalized citizens

Perhaps, these are some of the troubling questions faced by the young Canadian Muslims who were allegedly “radicalized” into joining the war Syria and Iraq.
Canada is reportedly seeing an increasing number of young Muslim Canadians joining militant groups abroad. Earlier this year, the CBC reported that Damian Clairmont, a young convert to Islam from Calgary, was killed by a faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during rebel infighting in Aleppo. Another Calgarian, said to be from the same study group as Clairmont, Salman Ashrafi, joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group which now calls itself the Islamic State. He killed himself in a double suicide bomb attack in Iraq in late 2013.

Ashrafi was subsequently glorified as a martyr and an example to other young Muslim Canadians by a fellow Canadian jihadist who goes by the alias Abu Dujana al-Muhajir. Al-Muhajir also calls on Canadians to warn their government against getting involved in “a war of attrition with the Muslims for decades to come.”

A similar wave of religious fervour is also sweeping across Britain. In a short documentary on VICE, a young Briton named Amer Deghayes was shown expounding on his role in the jihad in Syria; he had traveled there with two brothers to fight with the Free Syrian Army, FSA. One of his brothers had already been killed during a battle, but Degahyes was calm and clear-headed in explaining how it was his duty to fight with his Muslim brothers against those who oppressed them.

Warning from imams

The Canadian Council of Imams (CCI) [an imam is a Muslim religious leader] recently issued a stern warning against young Muslims travelling overseas to fight as Ashrafi and Clairmont had. The CCI stated unequivocally that, “No one should get involved in international wars on the belief and excuse that they are helping their Muslim brothers.” Muslims living in war zones and experiencing oppression, the Imams Council explains, have the right to bear arms in self defense; Muslims living in Canada do not have the same right.
What Canadian Muslims do have, however, is the right to use all the resources we have at our disposal.

Aid organizations like Islamic Relief have worldwide networks with experience in getting aid to the heart of conflict zones, such as in Gaza, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We can volunteer our time and energy in their relief efforts by packing and delivering aid, or supporting them with monthly donations.

Peaceful protest

We can also contact our respective MPs and call on them to pressure the Canadian government into taking action, either by withdrawing support from oppressive regimes, through diplomatic intervention or through humanitarian aid support. There are numerous peaceful protests and online petitions for us to sign and circulate to draw attention to the causes we care about.

Our uninterrupted access to the internet and social media are something we can take full advantage of. The hashtag campaign #letaymanreport is a good example of what the global online community can achieve. NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin was a veteran in fair and balanced reporting on issues in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. When the network pulled him out of Gaza, the online community responded in sharp criticism of NBC and launched a petition and a twitter campaign demanding that he be sent back to report from Gaza. Several days later, NBC announced that it was sending Mohyeldin back into Gaza to continue his work.

This goes to show that, even from a distance, there are multiple avenues through which Canadian Muslims can aid those in need without resorting to arms.

Like any other country, Canada is far from perfect. But as a newcomer to Canada, I know I’ve benefited tremendously from Canada’s systems of governance, welfare, social security and education. Nevertheless, a show of gratitude for these benefits doesn’t mean silent and unquestioned acceptance of Canada’s policies, be they good or otherwise.

Rather, I believe it’s my personal responsibility, in return, to be part of the system of checks and balances that helps improve the country from within its borders. This entails speaking up when injustices occur, be it at home or abroad, and encouraging other Canadians to do the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia in headlines for all the wrong reasons

Written for New Canadian Media, July 18, 2014

The plane departed from Amsterdam en route to Malaysia. It was shot down by two BUK missiles while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers and crew members were killed.

Only one passenger was confirmed to be Canadian and most passengers were Dutch, many of whom were top HIV/AIDS researchers on their way to a conference in Australia. Several passengers and all of the crew members were Malaysians; most were flying back to Malaysia to celebrate Eid with their families, in some cases, after years of living away from home.

This tragedy could not have happened at a worse time.

In March of this year, another Malaysian aircraft, MH370 disappeared without a trace while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Investigations are still ongoing and the search area has shifted several times. No discoveries have been made as to the whereabouts of the missing plane.

Both MH17 and MH370 were Boeing 777 aircraft.

Hotspot Malaysia

These tragedies have catapulted Malaysia into the limelight. After former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stepped down in 2003, Malaysia has essentially faded into oblivion on the global political stage. Now, within just four months, Malaysia is suddenly making international headlines -- for all the wrong reasons.

Most Malaysians I know are still reeling from shock. Since the majority of Malaysians subscribe to one religion or another, many are dealing with their grief and confusion through prayer and trust in God.

“Allah has better plans for her,” says Anna Samsudin, 31, of her close friend Nur Shazana Mohamed Saleh who was listed as a crew member on MH17. Samsudin says the perplexing circumstances of the plane crash made it even harder for her to come to terms with her friend’s death.

“Of all things, a plane crash?” Samsudin asked. 

“She was very a very kind-hearted and caring person, so when this happened, everyone felt it was a great loss,” Samsudin added. “We never thought she would be the first among us to go,” she said.

Samsudin says she last saw her friend in May and was looking forward to seeing her again on Eid. Flight attendant Nur Shazana had even made plans to break her fast with friends upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur. 

Putin the target?

MAS has offered to fly family members of the victims to Ukraine but specific details are still forthcoming.

As was the case with MH370, theories abound on social media. However, sources have confirmed MH17 was shot down by ground-to-air missiles over eastern Ukraine. 

An unnamed source speaking to Russia Today claimed that the original target was President Vladimir Putin's presidential jet, which followed the same flight path a mere 30 minutes after flight MH17 passed through the area. This theory is further bolstered by Putin's jet’s close resemblance to the MAS airplane.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has unequivocally condemned the shooting as a terrorist attack and denied any involvement. Both Russia and Ukraine have offered their full cooperation in investigating the crash. The U.S. has also called for a complete ceasefire in the region to open a humanitarian corridor for international crews to carry out their investigation.

As a Malaysian observing these events unfolding from a distance, I can see two possible implications from the twin airplane tragedy: the first is that international media attention will be diverted from reporting on Israel's assault on Gaza. Media observers and pro-Palestinian activists have noted a slight shift towards fairness and balance in Western media’s reports of Israel’s escalated assault on Gaza. MH17’s tragic loss will help reignite international fervour over the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and draw attention away from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

Airline bankruptcy

The second potential implication from these crashes is that Malaysia Airlines may finally go bust. The nationally-owned flag carrier is notorious for corruption within its highest echelons, which has led to near-bankruptcy losses. One of the more infamous corruption cases involved the airline's former managing director, Tajuddin Ramli.

Ramli’s control of Malaysia Airlines was rife with nepotism and projects contracted out to Ramli’s own family companies. The company was reporting losses between RM10-16 million a month while operating out of Frankfurt airport. By the time Ramli left MAS in 2001, the airline lost over RM8 billion (U.S. $2.54 billion). The Malaysian government dipped into public funds to bail the airline out of bankruptcy.

The airline also suffered intense criticism over its poor handling of MH370’s disappearance. Many passengers’ families, most of whom were Chinese nationals, remained clueless for days before receiving any definitive answers about the plane’s whereabouts. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s administration was slow to respond to inquiries and exposed serious breaches in Malaysia’s border security. When it was revealed that two passengers on board the plane travelled on stolen passports, the immigration department came under fire for not cross-checking them on Interpol’s list of stolen travel documents.

Allegations of MAS’s and the MH370’s mismanagement remain largely unaddressed.

Angst among crew

“When I first signed up with MAS years ago, I never imagined this could happen,” says an on-duty flight attendant who will not be named for obvious reasons. “Now I feel very unsafe,” she said, adding, “I couldn’t digest this information in the beginning.”

She knew many of flight MH17’s crew, which makes continuing on her shift as an attendant on tomorrow’s flight even more challenging. “I feel sad, scared, just mixed emotions. I keep wondering what is going to happen next?” she said.

Now, the shooting of MH17 over Ukraine’s contested territory raises old concerns about MAS’s poor management: why didn’t the airline divert its flight path as some airlines (including Air Canada) did following escalating hostilities between Russia and Ukraine? The presumed answer to this question may be that the path over eastern Ukraine was more cost-effective.

MAS is already facing stiff competition from Air Asia, a relatively new budget airline that is making headway in expanding its service delivery across the globe. With two planes lost within the span of four months and continuing allegations of corruption and mismanagement, the airline may finally find it hard to bounce back from these serious losses.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Canada Day, Ramadan and "jihad"

The Canadian Council of Imams (CCI) recently issued an official statement against the radicalization of Muslim youths in Canada. In their press release, the CCI warned young Muslims from traveling to join the “jihad” overseas.

This warning has particular significance in light of Canada Day celebrations which happen to coincide with the start of Ramadan, the most important month in the Muslim calendar.
Besides refraining from food, drink and various vices, Ramadan also calls for increased gratitude for our blessings and remembrance of the less fortunate, such as those suffering from natural disasters, famine, poverty and war.

As someone with ties to multiple “homes” (Canada, Malaysia, the Muslim ummah), being grateful for the blessings of life in Canada is easy but I always find it hard to fully immerse myself in Canada Day festivities. Between asserting my value in my new country of abode and claiming rightful membership to being Malaysian and Muslim, there is rarely a happy middle.

This is especially difficult given the ongoing conflicts where Muslims are directly affected such as in Burma, China, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, and Canada’s direct or indirect role in those conflicts. On the home turf, there are still huge rooms for improvement in terms of the country’s relationship with minority, immigrant and Aboriginal communities.

How, then, can one be thankful while still acknowledging these faults?

In a short documentary by VICE, a young Briton named Amer Degahyes travels to Syria with his two brothers to fight with the Free Syrian Army. His father disapproves of the move and one of his brothers has been killed during a firefight. Nevertheless, Degahyes was calm and clearheaded in expressing his belief that it was his duty as a Muslim to join the fight.

Degahyes’s father, Abubaker agreed with his sons that they had an obligation to help their Muslim brothers, but he thinks they should have taken a different approach.

There are multiple channels through which the international community can be – and have been – helping those suffering through war, famine, or natural disasters. There are many charitable organizations – local, international, Islamic or secular – that have a long track record of delivering aid to the heart of conflict zones. They are always in need of funding and man power, and would always welcome our contribution.

There are also multiple channels through which we can express our concerns for what’s happening overseas and pressure the government into altering its policies and taking action. Contact your local MPs and make your concerns heard. Join the marches and peaceful protests to raise awareness about what’s happening in these seemingly faraway places. Sign and circulate petitions.

As the CCI explained, the Muslims who are suffering under oppressing have the right to self defense. Those living outside those countries do not have the same right to fight. What we do have, however, is the right to use the resources available to us towards helping those in need.

We’ve benefited tremendously from Canada’s systems of governance, welfare, social security and education. A show of gratitude for these benefits doesn’t mean silent and unquestioned acceptance of Canada’s policies, be they good or otherwise.

Being grateful for Canada means I have to speak up when injustice occurs, be it at home or abroad, and encouraging the government to support aid relief efforts. Being grateful also means channelling my energy and ideas towards making Canada better, in whatever way I can.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Do Muslims have a monopoly over "Allah"?

Malaysia's high court made international headlines when it recently ruled that Christians do not have the right to use the word "Allah."

The iconic Putrajaya Mosque, located in Malaysia's administrative city of Putrajaya.

After a long court battle, Malaysia's Catholic Church lost their case at the Supreme Court when a panel of seven judges voted to uphold the blanket ban preventing the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslim groups.
I'll probably get a lot of heat for this but I don't believe Muslims have the monopoly over the word "Allah," least of all Malaysia's Malay, non-native Arab-speaking Muslims.

The fight over the word "Allah" has been a long one. Although Malaysia still can't quite decide what it's identity is - Muslim country, non-Muslim country, Muslim majority country - it has decided that its Muslims have the exclusive right to use the word.

In arguing their case, many forget that "Allah" is actually an Arabic term for God. In Latin it's deus. In French it's dieu. In Persian it's khoda. In Hindi it's bhagavana. Get the idea?

The word for God in Malay is Tuhan. Interestingly enough, there are no objections to Christians using the word Tuhan, although the majority of Malaysia's Christians are non-Malays or non-native Malay speakers, or both.

One of the arguments for preventing Christians from using "Allah" was that it would confuse Malaysia's Muslims and cause them to inadvertently convert to Christianity (apostasy is a crime punishable by law in Malaysia). Putting aside the sheer ludicrousness of this argument, let's try and conter it with some logic.

Firstly, while it is true that both are descendant of the Abrahamic tradition which worships one God, there are glaring differences between Islam and Christianity. Most fundamentally, Christians do not believe in Prophet Muhammad as the final messenger. Above any other human being, the Prophet is the single most influential person in any professing Muslim's life. Even non-Muslims know what an important figure the Prophet is. Just look at how the Danish cartoons and the Innocence of Muhammad film was successfully used to anger Muslims worldwide. In fact, Islam's foundational declaration of faith contains only two parts: first, there is no God but God and, second, the prophet is His messenger. A Muslim's faith is considered incomplete if either one of these tenets are missing.

Secondly, the ban prevents Christians from using the word "Allah" in their literature. But Christians can still use the word verbally - in conversations, for example - in discussing their faith with others. How are you going to stop the word "Allah" being used by Christians in propagating their faith? By spying in each and every single one of them in order to catch them in the act?

Thirdly, the word "Allah" was already commonly used in reference to God  in sixth century Arabia by pagan, Jewish and Christian Arabs. They used it before Muhammad received his prophecy and they continued to use the word after Islam spread in influence.

Yes, I am aware that we're not living in the Prophet's time. Back then, people received the message straight from him. Muslims today are a far cry from the noble and faithful companions of the Prophet, right?

Not quite. If you were to give even a cursory glance at the Islam's early days, you will notice that Muslims then were a small minority in the predominantly pagan Makkah. Worse, they were constantly under attack socially, economically, politically and even physically for accepting this new faith and disrupting the status quo. Many of the earliest Muslims were the most vulnerable members of Makkan society, from the city's poorest to slaves. They had very little political clout, very little material wealth and certainly no legal monopoly over the term "Allah."

Yet, despite those seemingly insurmountable challenges, Islam spread from Makkah, to the neighbouring city of Madinah and then to the rest of the world. How is that possible?

If the logic behind the ban applies, Islam should have gotten caught up in the confusion with Jewish, Christian and pagan Arabs using the word "Allah" as well, right?

The answer is simple. It lies behind the common claims Muslims like to make about their faith and their Prophet: it was the noble character of the Prophet and the values of justice, equality and dignity for all human beings before God that attracted people to Islam. It was Islam's respect for  different cultures and equal protection for everyone under its law - including people of other faiths - that made inroads for Islam across the African continent into Europe and Asia. It was its attention to the poor and needy that became an incentive for both the givers and the receivers of charity. Not its affinity for legal arm twisting.

Malaysia as a country is still struggling to feed its poor and clothe the needy, not least because billions of tax payers' ringgits still go towards supporting the lavish lifestyle of its royals families - yes, Malaysia has MULTIPLE royal families - including sultans who stand as a symbol of Islam as Malaysia's official state religion.

Winning this monopoly over the word "Allah" may feel like a victory but ratcheting up the law can only go so far.

If keeping Muslims muslim is the country's concern, then it needs to turn its attention to the values that Islam calls for - respect, dignity, equality and justice for everyone regardless of their faith; just and fair implementation of the law for everyone, not just a select group; and material, emotional and spiritual support for the needy and vulnerable members of society, regardless of who they worship.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

National Aboriginal Day brings out Brantford's diversity

There’s a lot of diversity in Brantford, if you look in the right place.

The National Aboriginal Day celebration on June 21st at Harmony Square in the downtown core is one such place.

Amidst the toddlers splashing about among the square’s fountains, local residents from all walks of life came out to celebrate the occasion with spirit singers, drum circles, popcorn and snow cones.

Brantford Native Women's Drum Circle performing The Gathering Song during Brantford's National Aboriginal Day celebration
National Aboriginal Day is a nation-wide celebration of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people’s unique heritage, cultures and achievements. It is also an opportunity for non-Aboriginal peoples to learn about Canada’s Aboriginal history.

Different communities across Canada held their own festivities to mark the occasion. Local organizations responsible for Brantford’s celebration of National Aboriginal Day include Brantford Native Housing, De Dwa Da Dehs Nye>s Aboriginal Health Center, Laurier Brantford’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, the Niagara Peninsula Aboriginal Area Management Board, the Woodland Cultural Center and the Grand River Employment and Training.

I took my mom with me and I was happy to see her go shutter-happy at everything she. As newcomers to Canada, we weren’t exposed to the country’s Aboriginal history and culture beyond what we found in a travel brochure.

My shutter-happy mom and Jefferson in his full traditional dress on National Aboriginal Day at Brantford's Harmony Square.
It was through our own exploration that we discovered the Mohawk territory and Kanata Village located just ten minutes from our house. Looking for a quiet place to read one day, my dad discovered Mohawk Chapel, officially known as Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks. The oldest surviving church in Ontario, the chapel is home to the tomb of Joseph Brant, also known as Thayendanagea, leader of the Mohawk people. The chapel was a reward to the Mohawks for fighting with British troops during the American Revolution.

While jogging one day, I discovered that the path I was on was named after the late Tom Longboat, or Cogwagee, the renowned Onondoga long distance runner from the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River. Oh, and I also learned only very recently that the reservation – locally known as “Six Nations” – is the largest First Nations in Canada and the only territory in North America that is home to six Iroquois Nations – The Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora.

This may all seem like common knowledge to some or even trivial to others.

To me, as a Muslim, this knowledge is of the utmost importance. It teaches me about my neighbours whose concerns and hopes for the community aren't so different than mine. It teaches me about those with whom the Canadian government has made agreements on my behalf. It is forbidden for Muslims to eat from the fruits of an agreement where one party is shortchanged while the other prospers; knowing that First Nations peoples have been severely shortchanged and that many treaties remain unfulfilled, I am obligated to support them in their struggles.

Most importantly, this knowledge led me on a personal path of learning about the similarities between my beliefs as a Muslim and the spiritual beliefs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. They consider the environment a sacred trust, as I do. They treasure the ties of family and community, as I do. They deeply revere their elders, as I do.

The "Old" Mosh Boys performing on National Aboriginal Day at Harmony Square, Brantford.
I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the phrase, “we are more alike than we are different.”

In some strange way, learning about Canada’s diverse community of Aboriginal peoples gave me a stronger sense of belonging than any newcomer program has.