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Why Didn't Muslims Help Deportee?

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    A judicial inquiry report into Maher Arar s deportation and torture in Syria is expected next month But it s unlikely to answer one question plaguing Arar: Why
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 6, 2006
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      A judicial inquiry report into Maher Arar's deportation and torture in
      Syria is expected next month But it's unlikely to answer one question
      plaguing Arar: Why didn't his fellow Muslims do more to help?

      Waiting for answers
      HEBA ALY
      Aug. 5, 2006
      Toronto Star


      Almost four years after his nightmare began, Maher Arar still has a
      bitter taste in his mouth when he thinks about the support he received
      from "his" Muslim community.

      In 2003, when Arar arrived back in Canada from Syria after his
      extraordinary experience, more than 50 journalists awaited him at the
      airport. When he revealed his story in a news conference later,
      millions sat glued to their television sets. People stopped him in the
      mall to shake his hand. They approached him at the coffee shop to
      offer him their prayers. They sought out his email address and sent
      words of support.

      But as he walked down the familiar Ottawa streets leading to his
      neighbourhood mosque, those he used to know declined to say hello.
      When he asked a Muslim businessman for help finding a job, the call
      wasn't returned.

      "Canadians coast to coast spoke about my case," Arar said one evening
      last fall in the modest living room of his Ottawa home. "Even high
      school children sent me emails." But within the Muslim community, "not
      a single word.

      "My case has all the components," he said — an international scope,
      public support, abundant media coverage. "My question is: What else
      does it take for them? What else?"

      Arar has learned a thing or two about community.

      "The word community is becoming, for me, meaningless," he said. "Even
      though we're Muslims, we live in a larger society. We have common
      values with other people, and that's it for me. It's like, I don't
      even think anymore in terms of which community I belong to. That is
      the most important lesson I learned."

      "Activism is part of a being a Muslim," Mohamed Elmasry once said. But
      the national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress knows not all
      Muslims recognize that.

      "Muslims in this country don't look to this type of work — lobbying —
      as an important one. They can donate generously to building mosques or
      graveyards or schools, but when you ask them to donate generously for
      protection mechanisms for the rights of Muslims, they are reluctant."

      Elmasry said his organization raised Arar's case with politicians,
      publicized it in the media, and was an intervener at the inquiry, but
      could not have done more for him because of a lack of resources.

      "What else could we do?" asked Samer Roumani, now president of the
      Syrian Arab Association of Canada, a social and cultural organization
      that also lobbied government and encouraged its members to do the same.

      It was an effort Ottawa imam Gamal Soleiman described as satisfactory:
      "We could have done better than what we have done, but what we have
      done is not bad."

      But while these organizations and a few others went to work
      independently, Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, worked mostly alone, unaware
      in most cases of what, if anything, they were doing.

      Arar, 35, is quick to point to some Muslims who went out on a limb for
      him. But apart from a few dedicated individuals and the Canadian
      Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) — who met with
      Mazigh, provided media and networking help, campaigned for Arar's
      release and pushed for a public inquiry — she had little help from the
      Muslim community.

      "At that time, I didn't even know who to call," she said. "I didn't
      even know who to contact. You have an organization here, another one
      there. But you don't know, really, are they ready to help? What kind
      of help are they ready to offer?"

      What was lacking, she said, was a unified, concerted effort. She
      envisioned a delegation of Muslims approaching the government
      together, the effect it would have had, the message it would have sent.

      But there was no coalition of Muslim groups. No national petition
      signed by Muslims condemning what had happened. No Friday prayer where
      imams across the country spoke of the case in their sermons. And
      little interest in the case among the average Muslim.Why did Muslims
      virtually abandon Arar when it mattered most? The answer points to
      more than just a lack of resources.

      "It didn't occur to me that I needed to support him," said Sherif
      Barakat, 59, when asked at an Egyptian community Ramadan dinner in
      Ottawa. "Nobody told me he needed money for a lawyer. Nobody said,
      `He's paying $1,000 a day. Let's get some money for it.'" Nor did
      fellow Egyptian and Ottawa resident Naiim Shafey, 61, take any
      supportive action, and he wasn't shy to say so. When Arar was in
      Syria, Shafey said, nobody knew if he was guilty or innocent. The
      newspapers painted him as less than angelic, and besides, there had
      been others like him who were, in fact, guilty of terrorism.

      "When somebody denies something, we can't take it for granted that he
      is right," Shafey said. "We really don't know the truth."

      This is exactly the attitude that infuriates Arar and Mazigh, as they
      look back on what they've gone through.

      "All these questions can always be asked and can always be valid. But
      I think that we need to just go beyond that. We are asking for people
      to be treated according to the laws. We are asking for due process,"
      Mazigh said.

      "If you are defending something, you should defend the principle,"
      Arar added. "If they look at it that way, then they'll find it very
      easy to speak out against the security certificates, to speak out
      about what's happening at Guantanamo, to speak about the rendition
      practice that the CIA has adopted, even prior to 9/11, and many other
      injustices being done."

      Many Muslims sympathized with Arar but were just too scared to do
      anything. Egyptian native Amro Gamal followed the case from the
      beginning and felt connected to it. "I felt like something like that
      could happen to me."

      In fact, it almost did.

      Less than a year after 9/11, the RCMP questioned the Ottawa man about
      websites he had visited at work and files he had deleted from the hard
      drive when he left his job.

      "They called it an interview. I called it interrogation," Gamal said,
      his eyes welling up and his voice almost trembling. "I spent about
      four to six months after that meeting wondering whether Canada trusts
      me or not.

      "So, many of us — and I'm included — sometimes, we feel a little bit
      afraid to participate or be in the front line because I might get into
      the spotlight and security officials might see me or put my name in
      any kind of list that might by chance or deliberately get into another
      country. Then, when I go visit that country, I find myself in trouble."

      When Gamal travelled to Egypt months later, he was terrified. He
      brought with him contact information for MPs, the Egyptian ambassador
      and the RCMP officer who interviewed him. He made sure people were
      waiting for him "in case I got pulled aside and didn't come back out.
      This fear for him was real.

      "Maybe we don't want to be associated with anything that has the
      `terrorism' word even close to it," he said. "Maybe Canadian Muslims
      felt that by standing up closely to Maher Arar's case, they will also
      be associated with terrorism."

      But the story doesn't end here. And it doesn't necessarily start with

      According to the 2001 census, 72 per cent of Canada's 580,000 Muslims
      are immigrants. Of those, more than 60 per cent — about 258,000 — come
      from Asia and the Middle East, including Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon,
      Afghanistan, Algeria and Iraq.

      Many of these countries are ruled by repressive regimes. Few are
      democracies. Shafey, Barakat and Gamal grew up in an environment where
      speaking out against the government was never an option.

      "As immigrants from Arab states or Muslim states, we're not very
      familiar or we didn't practise democracy in the way we do it here in
      Canada," Gamal said.

      Khadija Haffajee considers herself an exception. A Muslim, she
      emigrated from South Africa 40 years ago as a young career woman, and
      has been anything but quiet. But she understands the context in which
      many Muslims emigrate.

      "Initially, when people came to this country, they came for economic
      reasons. They wanted a better life, and that was all they wanted,"
      said the retired schoolteacher. "They feel as immigrants that they
      should keep a low profile. They're there just to earn a living and
      take care of their families. They don't have to get involved."

      The community leader is frustrated with the mentality that has
      overtaken many Canadian Muslims.

      "I think that Muslims as a rule have not really seen the essence of
      their faith. They're very ritualistic," Haffajee said. "You talk to
      them about the spirit and how we should be there for human rights and
      that kind of thing, and they couldn't care less. I have to deal with
      this constantly. I have to keep reminding them: It's more than just
      your rituals."

      Riad Saloojee, former executive director of CAIR-CAN, agreed, and
      described the Canadian Muslim population as "a community that's
      focused primarily on bricks and mortar projects."

      When Arar disappeared, Saloojee was heading an organization less than
      three years old, with just three staff.

      "One of the challenges, obviously, in the Muslim community, is that
      it's a young community. It's immature in the sense that there's not
      much by way of advocacy organizations," Saloojee said.

      Or as Faraj Nakhleh, former acting president of the Canadian Arab
      Federation, put it: "Our community still has not learned how to be heard."

      Carleton University anthropology professor Brian Given says that's
      natural. While the first Muslims in Canada immigrated in the
      mid-1800s, most of the current population are first-generation Canadians.

      "It tends to be the second generation who get much more involved,"
      said Given, an expert in immigrant settlement and adaptation. They
      have the language skills, they know how the system works, and "they
      have that sense of entitlement that anybody who's learned to see
      themselves as a Canadian would have. Many people in the first
      generation (are) far too busy just establishing themselves to do
      anything else."

      But Given isn't convinced all Muslims should identify with Arar's
      case. After all, there is no such thing as a single Muslim community.

      "If we're not careful, we sort of force people to identify in ways
      that they'd rather not. Some new Canadians don't want to be hyphenated
      Canadians. They want to be Canadian Canadians."

      And while it seems Arar is now one of those people — "It's basically
      the bigger Canadian community, put it that way. That's where I belong"
      — he still wants to send a message to Canadian Muslims.

      "Their reaction shows lack of interest. It shows indifference ... What
      they are doing is not going to help the Muslim community in general
      and it's also not going to help the greater Canadian community.

      "By speaking out, it is the only way of exposing the wrongdoings of
      some individuals or some Canadian agencies. And that's what I call
      positive contribution to the Canadian society."



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