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.