Canadian Muslims feeling the heat of US’s Islamophobia

Most Americans have now seen through the hoax perpetrated by president George Bush and his fellow right-wingers to justify the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Bush himself was forced to concede in a speech on September 17 that there was no link between Saddam Husain’s regime and al-Qa’ida but he couched his admission in language that still left most people with the impression that he was. Not surprisingly, most Americans(between 57 and 70 percent, depending on which poll one consults) still believe that Saddam, no doubt a tyrant, was somehow linked to the September 2001 incidents.

The strongest attack on Bush has come from senator Edward Kennedy, a senior democrat who has considerable political weight in the US. On September 18 he denounced Bush’s allegation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as "a fraud". Similar sentiments were uttered by Hans Blix, the former head of the UN weapons inspection team, in an interview on September 20 (Sunday Star, Toronto, September 21). Even Christiane Amanpour, a prominent CNN personality, admitted on September 14 that journalists and television stations, including her own, had been intimidated into self-censorship by the bullying tactics of the Bush administration.

Such statements would have aroused little interest but for the fact that American soldiers are dying in increasingly daring attacks in Iraq, and the situation in Afghanistan is not improving either. In Afghanistan cover is provided by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO and the UN, but in Iraq the Americans and their British allies are on their own with a few dozen soldiers from international lightweights such as Poland and Ukraine. Bush is anxious to get a UN figleaf, in order to get soldiers from Pakistan, Jordan and Turkey to fight his war without the US having to abandon political or economic control in Iraq. The Germans and the French will not countenance this, as the meeting on September 20 in Berlin with British prime minister Tony Blair showed. The French in particular want a clear deadline by which the Americans will return political control to the Iraqis. The French do not care about Iraqi political sovereignty or rights, however; their real purpose is to secure their own economic interests. Given the deep personal involvement of such American figures as vice president Dick Cheney, whose former company, Halliburton, is a major beneficiary of Iraqi contracts, this will not come about easily.

Despite the wrangling over Iraq, most Americans have shrugged off the brutal manner in which Muslim immigrants in the US are being abused under the notorious Patriot Act, which was passed in October 2001. Not only were thousands of Muslims rounded up without charge, some of whom are still held in jails in horrible conditions, but they have been abused, tortured and denied access to lawyers and to trial. Muslim visitors to the US, including many Canadian citizens, have similarly been abused and humiliated. On September 11 Ahmed Kutty and Abdul Hamid, two imams from the Toronto area, were detained at Fort Lauderdale (Florida), handcuffed and interrogated for 16 hours before being deported back to Canada: their case is typical of the cavalier way in which US immigration and customs officials treat foreigners. Neither imam is known as a revolutionary; perhaps Kutty’s real "crime" is that he was educated in Saudi Arabia, which is common for imams from India and Pakistan (Kutty is originally from South India) who are looking for employment. After September 2001 Kutty became well known for his sermons against fellow Muslims’ "extremism." These appear not to have impressed the Americans.

Far more serious is the plight of the 680 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was once again highlighted by the announcement on September 20 that an American army chaplain, one captain James Yee, had been arrested on charges of espionage. Yee, an American-born and American-trained army officer of Chinese descent, accepted Islam some 10 years ago and went to study in Syria. After the events of September 11, 2001, he frequently appeared on US television to condemn the attacks and their perpetrators. Last November he was appointed "chaplain" to the prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay. He was arrested on September 10 on "suspicion" that he might be involved in espionage. What he could possibly spy on in Guantanamo Bay is not clear, but he was reportedly being interrogated at the naval base in Charleston, South Carolina.

Both in Canada and the US, the treatment of immigrant Muslims is getting worse. Suspicion seems to be driving security operatives on both sides of the border, with the Americans being much more brutal. That is little consolation for Muslims in Canada, as the arrest in August of 20 Muslims –” 19 from Pakistan and one from India –” showed (in September another was arrested, bringing the total to 21). They were all accused of being a "security threat", without explaining how and why. It appears that they had all overstayed their visa, but that is a far cry from being terrorists. One of the lawyers for the Canadian immigration department conjured up the spectre of al-Qa’ida "sleeper cells" because these people had used fake documents from a school –” the Ottawa Business College –” that no longer exists. Interestingly, the owner of the offending school has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Three of the 21 persons have now been ordered to be deported on immigration violation charges; no link with terrorism has been shown so far.

The Canadian government has been less than enthusiastic about defending the rights of those of its citizens who are of Arab descent or are Muslims. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, for instance, was arrested at J F Kennedy airport in New York in August last year as he returned from a vacation in Tunisia. He was sent to Syria, where he is believed to have been tortured. It was later revealed that the Americans were tipped off about him by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Although prime minister Jean Chretien sent a letter to Arar’s wife in Ottawa in May promising to take personal interest in his case, so far nothing more has been done. There is close cooperation between Canadian and American intelligence agencies. Two Canadian citizens, the Khidhr brothers, one of them a minor, are in Guantanamo Bay after they were arrested in Afghanistan, but they have had no consular access. Mansour Jabbara, a teenager from St Catherine, was handed over to the Americans last year; he was accused of having "links" with al-Qa’ida. Such disregard for the rights of its own citizens has raised serious questions about the Canadian government’s intentions.

In the US a number of state legislatures and local counties have become sufficiently alarmed by the intrusive nature of some provisions of the so-called Patriot Act of 2001 to refuse to endorse them. Provisions that call for monitoring the books people borrow from libraries have been rejected. A number of librarians have refused to comply. And last July the US House of Representatives voted –” by 309 to 118 –” to repeal a provision that allowed officials to conduct "sneak and peak" searches of suspects’ homes without notifying the target. But there is little concern about the plight of immigrants who have been targeted by over-zealous officials.

Undoubtedly life has become difficult for Muslims in North America; it is also likely to get worse as Bush and company come under greater pressure because of their lies. As next year’s presidential election approaches, the right-wingers are likely to cry wolf over yet another non-issue to keep people distracted from the mess Bush has made in his first term. As Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist, predicted his column of September 11, the next presidential campaign will be a lot nastier than the last one. Muslims will once again become the scapegoats, and pay the price, for Bush’s scaremongering tactics.