Muslim man taken off plane for praying

Posted by admin on Sep 10th, 2006

For Muslims, guilt by association. MARINA JIMÉNEZ Globe and Mail

When Ahmed Farooq crosses the Canada-U.S. border, he isn’t surprised when he is singled out for questioning. He is, after all, a young, single, Muslim man born in Saudi Arabia who fits the racial profile of would-be terrorists. But the fourth-year medical resident at the University of Winnipeg never expected to be hauled off a United Airlines flight for praying.

That’s what happened last month, after a fellow passenger complained that Dr. Farooq was trying to “control the aisles” when he exchanged seats to pray next to a window. The accusation meant Dr. Farooq — who was returning to Winnipeg from a physics course in Sacramento — was marooned at his own expense in Denver for a day.

“Why should I be taken off a plane just because I’m a certain religion?” said Dr. Farooq, 27, who immigrated to Canada when he was 12. “I have seen people take out their Bibles to pray. But if I had taken out a Koran in the environment there is now, it would have created fear.”

The Denver police officer who interviewed him told him the crew overreacted, he said, while an airline spokesman has said the company is obliged to take any allegations threatening passenger safety seriously.

Five years after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States — and just over one year after London’s terror attack — Canada’s Muslim community is still feeling the sting of guilt by association.

The incident with Dr. Farooq on the United Airlines flight occurred a week after Scotland Yard foiled an alleged terrorist plot in London to use liquid explosives to blow up transatlantic passenger planes. And then there is Toronto’s own “homegrown” terrorist cell which became public this summer, when 18 Muslim youths were arrested on charges of hatching a plot to blow up targets in downtown Toronto.

These events have spurred Canada’s Muslim community of 750,000 to engage in a sometimes painful and divisive debate about how to speak out against terrorism and at the same time address larger questions of discrimination, civil rights and integration of newcomers.

“Since 9/11, we feel we have to come forward and denounce terrorism and extremism and violence. But at the same time, we resent that we have to do this,” explains Karl Nickner, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada (CAIR-CAN).

“But if we don’t come forward then the public representation of Islam will be what Osama bin Laden did.”

The debate among Canadian Muslims hasn’t generated a consensus over the vexing questions facing the community. There are signs the divisions are growing wider, over competing interpretations of the religion, how to articulate a shared vision of Islam, and the relationship Muslims want to have with one another and with non-Muslims.

A telling example of how difficult the struggle has been was the implosion last month of the Muslim Canadian Congress. The MCC, a small, progressive, secular group, announced it was splitting up, with the breakaway group claiming the MCC was out of step with mainstream Muslims.

“The message that MCC has been giving out is not addressed to Muslims, it is aimed at making Muslim-haters feel secure in their thinking,” noted a press release from the newly formed group, the Canadian Muslim Union.

Niaz Salini, the CMU’s president, says she wants to work within the wider Muslim community to promote progressive values, including gender equality, freedom of speech and gay rights. “These are the values of Canada. You have to accept you’re living in a secular democracy. At the same time, you cannot spit on your faith.”

Mohamed Elmasry, president of the more conservative Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC), says living in the shadow of 9/11 has been a challenge for Muslims.

“We want to live and let live. But we don’t want self-hating Muslims to smear Islam. That is what the moderate groups have done,” he says.

At the same time, he adds, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have propelled the community to become more politically engaged.

Others say the very notion of the “Muslim community” is a false construct. Canada’s largest non-Christian religious group is extremely diverse, representing more than 50 countries and the Sunni, Shia, Ismaili and Ahmadi sects. The “silent majority” may identify as cultural Muslims and, until now, did not necessarily feel a kinship with fellow Muslims from different countries.

“I’ve been living in the country for 18 years and I never felt like a lab rat like I do now,” says Uzma Shakir, with the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. “To be treated in a differential manner after 9/11 is something I never asked for.”

Muslim organizations such as SALCO focus on advocacy and civil rights, and say Muslims have no more responsibility than anyone else to address the terrorist threat.

Other advocacy groups, though, have begun to tackle the thorny issue of how to dissuade young people from being recruited by Islamic radicals who entice them to commit crimes here or abroad.

Many of those arrested in the Toronto terrorism plot were born in Canada and evidently radicalized here, and not in overseas training camps.

It is impossible to talk about terrorism committed in the name of one of the world’s great religions without considering the international sphere and what some call the “global protest movement” of Muslims. With controversial wars under way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the perception that Islam is a religion under siege, disaffected Muslims in Canada have a ready cause.

The CIC has posted a “Better to be Safe than Sorry” note on its website, warning Muslim parents to monitor their teenagers’ on-line habits, watch out for membership in foreign political associations and be aware of excessive preoccupation with religious rituals or other unusual behaviours. It also cautions mosques to be on guard for the infiltration of the congregation by “foreign Muslim groups who may have hidden agendas.”

CAIR-CAN, and a number of other groups, have asked all three levels of government to help organize a summit to address the problem of marginalized youth who are falling prey to radical extremists.

Khaled Mouammar, head of the Canadian Arab Federation, believes Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East and participation in the war in Afghanistan feed radical inclinations. “Canada is justifying killing people by the hundreds and thousands saying we’re fighting terrorism. This is shameful. Canada is not abiding by international law. Israel is the major threat to world security,” he says. “You in your media and at The Globe, I’d like to hear you say something about the 200,000 Iraqis who have been killed.”

(Estimates of civilian casualties in the Iraq war range from 42,000 by the Iraqi Body Count project to 100,000 by the British medical journal The Lancet.)

Mr. Mouammar, an Arab Christian, is even skeptical of the case against the Toronto 18, saying it is “all based on presumptions and entrapment.” The Canadian government is alienating many immigrants, he adds: “These people who do criminal activities, you are giving them an excuse by having injustices perpetrated against Muslims.”

This line of reasoning was heard across the ocean last month in London in the days following the foiled terror plot. Muslim leaders wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair saying Britain’s foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East was fuelling extremism at home and making the country a target for terrorists.

Other Muslims disagreed, pointing out that it is key to remember that the “lethal ingredient” in the cocktail of anger is the twisted interpretation of Islam that says you can kill yourself and go to heaven.

This fact must be acknowledged — or Muslims merely feed into the “victimization” narrative, says Tarek Fatah, the MCC’s founder.

“Many Muslims have made an industry out of perceived anger. Every mosque, every sermon is ‘you’re being victimized,’ ” Mr. Fatah says. If the Muslim community were really concerned about all grievances against Muslims, he adds, why don’t they speak out against the killing of Muslims by other Muslims in Darfur, or the suppression of Kurds?

Mr. Fatah believes the debate is driven by ideological differences between fundamentalists and progressives, a debate being played out in Muslim countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Moderates disagree with the radical interpretation of Islam, which they say is intolerant of other faiths, demands a literal interpretation of the Koran, and aims to create an Islamic empire.

This is not to discount the very real experiences of discrimination and marginalization of Muslims within Canada.

For his part, Dr. Farooq is heartened that everyone from his MP to Fox News called to ask about his ordeal. But he believes that both the government and the community must work to expose such breaches of civil liberties.

“There should be an acknowledgment that these sorts of incidents are occurring,” says Dr. Farooq, who has not received an apology from United Airlines.

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