February 28, 2007
Few events in Ottawa have attracted such a phalanx of human-rights activists rubbing shoulders with Muslim glitterati. Imam Aly Hindi chatted with Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff while Jack Layton and Alexa McDonough mingled with the mosque establishment. The occasion was the event honoring Maher Arar and his wife Monia Mazigh.
On Feb. 14, speaker after speaker spoke about the courage of Mazigh and the injustice inflicted on Arar. They also denounced the continued detention of Egyptians Mahmoud Jabalah, and Hasan
Mrie under Canada's security certificates.
From what we know today, there is no doubt that Maher Arar and Monia Mazigh stand out as the quintessential symbols for the fight for individual freedom, human rights and due process.
However, there was something eerily wrong about the speeches that evening. It was not what was being said, but rather, what was left unsaid that was cause for concern.
Maher Arar was arrested in the United States and illegally deported to Syria for one reason only: His constitutional and human rights as a Canadian citizen were not upheld by the Americans. He was tortured because he was suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda.
In Ottawa on Feb. 14, politicians apologized to one Arab Canadian who had suffered torture, while another Arab Canadian was enduring a similar experience in Egypt. As our politicians denounced the confessions forced out of Arar under duress,
another Canadian Arab was going through a similar ordeal. But not one speaker that night made mention of this Canadian languishing in an Egyptian prison. It wasn't as if they didn't know about this new victim of torture: Newspapers had the story on their front page for some time.
Thirty-one-year-old Mohamed Essam Ghoneim el-Attar was arrested as he flew into Cairo from Canada on Jan. 1. Authorities in Egypt claim el-Attar had confessed he was an Israeli spy working for the Mossad in Toronto.
El-Attar may or may not be an Israeli spy, but the fact remains he is an Arab Canadian, just like Maher Arar, who has "confessed" to a crime, just like Maher Arar, likely after being tortured, just like Maher Arar.
"Is el-Attar being ignored by
Canadian Islamic groups because
he is a gay Arab
There is, however, one distinct difference between Maher Arar and Mohammed el-Attar. El-Attar fled Egypt to escape persecution from family, friends and society at large, because he was gay. For being homosexual, he was disowned by his own relatives. His gayness had ostensibly brought shame and disgrace to the family's supposed good name.
Only someone from the Arab world can understand what a gay man experiences inside prison walls. It is puzzling: Why did Arar choose not to utter a single word demanding the freedom of a fellow Arab Canadian who was going through the same travails he underwent in a Syrian jail?
Reports from Cairo have quoted experts on the Egyptian justice system as saying el- Attar's confession, while being held incommunicado for more than six weeks at an unknown location, should be treated with extreme scepticism.
"If you want me to be
frank, 95% of the confessions extracted by Egyptian police are false. The defendants are forced into signing them, and there's only one way of getting them to sign. You hang the suspects up, and you beat the hell out of them," says Mahmoud Qatari, a retired police brigadier-general.
Maher Arar was not alone in the conspicuous silence that descended on the politicians and human rights activists on Feb. 14. Amnesty International was there; so was the Canadian Labour Congress. Both said nothing. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's followers in Canada at the Islamic Circle of North America, and the Muslim Association of Canada, had sponsored the event; but they too chose to stay mum, despite the fact Brotherhood members fill up thousands of jail cells in Egypt.
I wrote to the Canadian Islamic Congress, the Canadian Arab Federation, CAIR-Canada and Professor Tyseer Abol Nasser, who chairs the so-called Canadian Muslim Network and
was master of ceremonies, asking them why they had not raised the case of Mohammed el- Attar. Not one of them had an answer.
Is it because El-Attar had "confessed" to being an Israeli spy? Or was el-Attar ignored by the Islamic groups because he is a gay Arab man?
The saddest thing about the event is the fact that both Arar and his wife failed their first big test as self-professed human rights activists.
- Tarek Fatah is founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress and author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic State or a State of Islam, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in 2008.