Why Didn't Muslims Help Deportee?
- 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
Aug. 5, 2006
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
"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
"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,"
"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
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
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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