Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Saudi Women Driving: Public Naming and Shaming along with the Arresting, Fining, and Flogging

Michael Bou-Nacklie/Michael Bou-Nacklie
A Saudi woman fastens her seat belt before driving in Jeddah, western Saudi Arabia. From the excellent article by Ahmed Al-Omran, "Saudi Woman Sentenced To Lashes After Defying Driving Ban".

A friend emailed a link to the article below pointing out that the persons charged were named in full, whereas usually Saudi criminals or alleged criminals are not named in Saudi print media--except for terrorists, in my experience. Others have observed that non-Saudis living in Saudi usually are named. I was struck that this public naming in full puts Saudi women who drive in a special category of persona non grata which overrides their nationality and non-terrorist activity--or is the idea of Saudi women driving that terrorizing to some?

A Saudi woman drives a car as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving, in Riyadh. (AP). From the succinct, effective article, "Saudi woman sentenced to 10 lashes for driving".

Saudi woman driver vows to appeal flogging sentence
Published: Sep 28, 2011 02:23 Updated: Sep 28, 2011 02:23

JEDDAH: A court in Jeddah on Tuesday sentenced a Saudi woman who flouted a driving ban to 10 lashes.

The driver, identified as Shayma Jastaniah, was found guilty of driving in Jeddah streets. Two other women are scheduled to appear in court later this year on similar charges.

Arab News contacted Shayma, who expressed her dismay at the sentence. “I am still in shock and I cannot think straight because of what I have had to go through. I will appeal the sentence.”

She told Arab News that she drove only once and it was before high-profile campaigner for women driving Manal Al-Sharif was caught. Shayma holds an international driving license.

Shayma's lawyer Adnan Al-Saleh told Arab News that his client was waiting for a fair and just decision on women driving.

He said women driving is not considered in any way a criminal charge in Saudi law or Islamic teachings.

“This is not an issue related to morals or custom nor is it a crime that requires punishment. The courts now consider any woman driving a car without a Saudi driving license to be committing a crime punishable by lashes. It means that any woman caught driving in the future will suffer the same punishment, and maybe even prison,” he said.

“In this situation, the woman driver has the right to appeal the case and submit her objections because this is an initial sentence. The case will then be transferred to the court of appeals.”

He said Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah gave the green light to women to participate in the Shoura Council and vote and run for the municipal elections, yet the Saudi courts were punishing women for driving.

“How can she be allowed to lead a nation when she is not allowed to drive?” added Al-Saleh.

He said Shayma received two punishments. The first was a fine because she drove without a Saudi driving license. The second was lashes.

“Why was she given two punishments? On what basis, after she paid the fine, can you then whip her? Is it because she is a woman? What if she was a man? Why can’t men be transferred to court and get lashed? What is the problem with woman driving?” he questioned. “She did not smuggle drugs, and she did not cause an accident.”

Zaki Safar, founder of the “Saudi Men For Women Driving” campaign, said ultra conservative elements in society were not happy with the king's new directive giving women more political power.

He added that they have no qualms about being vociferous when voicing these sentiments.

Safar said it is otherwise difficult to explain the decision to try fellow woman driver Najla Hariri as well as the conviction of Shayma.

Hariri, who flouted a ban on women driving, is to stand trial after the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution in Jeddah decided to prosecute her. She drove her car more than once to support the “Women2Drive” and “My Right2Dignity” campaigns and was detained for driving on Aug. 24. She was referred to a Jeddah court. The first hearing will be held next month.


Later, I remembered that women activists are also named in full, in Saudi print. Also perceived as that terrorizing by some?

Related Posts:
Saudi Women Driving Garners Attention; Saudi Women's Education Brings Substantive Change--Including to Driving
On Women Driving, in the West and Saudi; Other Parameters of Women's Quality of Life; Hope for Change
Saudi Women June 17 Driving Guidelines (Women2Drive): If you are going to do it, drive safely!

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?

Saudi women waiting for their drivers outside a shopping mall in Riyadh. From the informative article, "Saudi Woman Sentenced To Lashes For Driving". (AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Obama's Diminution on Palestinian Demand to UN

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures toward the audience after he addressed the 66th U.N. General Assembly at at United Nations headquarters Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. (AP / David Karp)

There is so much happening at the moment in MENA countries, and in their interactions with the US (whether overt or covert) that it is hard to know where to turn first. However, I thought that this article was a good starting place for a number of potential discussions as readers gravitate to one or more aspects that strike them as comment-worthy.

The focus is Obama's speech at the UN on the eve of the Palestinian demand, not for recognition as a state, which has been already granted, but for a seat at the table--any of the UN tables, even in the most modest of categories, pending a regular full member seat. From there, the author reviews Obama's track record on the Arab Spring as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While I agree that Obama has squandered the goodwill towards him and the US on his election and with his speeches, particularly the one in Cairo, in the honeymoon of his presidency, I don't think the author is clear enough that Obama either sat back and waited until a winner was obvious, or desperately tried to keep friendly despots in place until they had been removed by the sacrifice of their peoples. "Leading from behind" can be tantamount to not leading, or peeking out from behind the covers until the situation is settled and co-opting a "victory for American values", and America's always "standing with the people of ____" (fill in the MENA country of the occasion).

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. (Carolyn Cole/MCT)

MIDDLE EAST: The incredible shrinking Obama
By Mitch Potter Washington Bureau
Published On Sat Sep 24 2011 in The Toronto Star

WASHINGTON—“Misplayed,” said the New York Times. “Painful to watch,” said the Washington Post. “Et Tu, Obama,” said the Arab News, channeling the mood from the turbulent Mideast streets.

And here in Washington, a rising sense that far from throwing Israel under the bus, as circling Republican hawks continue to charge, President Barack Obama has instead thrown Pax Americana into the abyss. Tumbling, ideals-first, toward the wrong side of history as the Arab Spring surges forth, more angry than before.

How does one reconcile the Obama who lofted a new day of dignity for all twentysomething months ago in Cairo with the one that showed up at the United Nations Wednesday?

Knotted like a balloon-animal alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama didn't simply lay down his marker against the Palestinian drive for statehood.

More than that, the president sang verbatim from Netanyahu's hardline Likud playbook in a speech that chronicled Israel's anguish without a mention of Palestinian pain. In the view of many, the president also effectively served up whatever remained of America's “honest broker” status in Middle East peacemaking on the alter of domestic politics and the calculus of re-election.

The dust of this week's drama at the UN is far from settled.

But even as the Security Council readies for a Monday session to weigh Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' formal request for statehood — a process that could take weeks — a diplomatic failure of huge consequence seems assured.

The Palestinians came to New York believing they had sewn up the required nine votes in the 15-seat Security Council.

And in the desperate act of forcing the American to wield its veto against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, a massive moral victory would be theirs.

The Palestinian hope was to “internationalize” the peace process; to give the world a greater say in leveraging the two-state solution that has eluded 11 consecutive White Houses.

Now even that seems to be falling away, as U.S. and Israeli diplomats work behind the scenes to hive off the votes of the SC's rotating seat-warmers. Gabon, Portugal and Nigeria suddenly find themselves inadvertent players amid the pressure to shift against the Palestinian drive.

The knee-jerk meme in peace circles is to point fingers singularly at the Washington-based Jewish lobby.

But the vanishing daylight between the Republican Party and Israel's right-wing Likud is driven also by the votes of a large portion of America's Rapture-ready evangelical Christians.

Washington is home to more than one variety of Jewish lobby. There is J-Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” pressure group that points to a succession of polls showing the majority of North America's Jewish diaspora favour the two-state solution, the sooner the better.

But J-Street officials were holding their heads in their hands this week, watching the UN events unfold. They opposed the Palestinian statehood drive on the grounds that unilateralism never brings peace.

On this point, history agrees. Neither the 2005 Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, nor its earlier retreat from southern Lebanon — both arranged unilaterally, without partners — moved the peace needle one iota.

By contrast, the two deals that have paid decades of dividends are Israel's peace pacts with Egypt and Jordan. However cold that peace may be today, it has held.

Anyone old enough to remember Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat will recall the enormity of political courage it took to cut those deals.

The tragedy today is that Abbas, in the sunset of his political life, may well be the one Palestinian who can do it. But he is up against a White House with no courage left to spend.

“This is a new moment of desperation that screams out for historic leadership,” said J-Street's Israel director, Steven Krubiner.

Krubiner argues that what is good for the Palestinians is great for Israel because the alternative spells doom. Israel's continuing settlement expansion will soon render two-states impossible — and leave Israel in an existential demographic dilemma, with the Israel Defense Forces ultimately representing a Jewish minority ruling over a stateless Palestinian majority.

“What does Israel do when these stateless people outnumber them? You either give up democracy, you give up territory or you give up your identity as the national homeland of the Jews — you can't have all three,” he says.

“Our worry is that Israel as we know it is not going to exist unless we get to a two-state solution now. We might be looking at a very ugly 30 years. But if the Palestinians give up on statehood as hopeless . . .”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made the same plea this week in a New York Times opinion piece. Ditto opposition leader Tzipi Livni, time and again. Ditto a group of former IDF generals and security chiefs, who launched their own Israeli peace initiative as a roadmap against chaos.

“The ultimate point is that friends don't let friends drive drunk. And right now Israel is driving off a cliff,” Krubiner told the Star.

“We believe Obama understands this. Yet he is trapped by the right-wing pandering in Washington, which in our view does not represent the majority of American Jews.”

Among the mistakes of the past 30 months is the fact that Obama himself has yet to visit Israel once during his presidency. This seems a glaring omission, given his high-profile outreach to Muslims from the lecterns of Cairo and Istanbul.

However much he showers Israel with military support, Obama has yet to look Israelis in the eyes. Many Israelis broadly interpret the love as a cold love, just like Israel's cold peace with Egypt and Jordan.

Some Israeli moderates on Saturday looked in despair to the European Union as a natural peacebroker to salvage the embers of a two-state outcome.

An EU-led process, argued Ha'aretz columnist Carlo Strenger, might “retain the glimmer of hope that reason and humanity will overcome fear, hatred and fanaticism on both sides.

“This is the moment for Europe to show leadership,” wrote Strenger. “The moment to assert the moral vision of politics beyond the pure power play that has guided Europe's unification.

“The two-state solution must be saved, because it is the only way to freedom and dignity for the Palestinians; and the only way to safeguard the dream of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.”


President Obama addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2011. (Credit: AP)

Your comments, thoughts, impressions?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to supporters during his arrival at the government compound, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP / Majdi Mohammed)

Related Posts:
The Pro-Israel Lobby: Defending Israel or Stifling Debate including of the Saudi Peace Initiative--The Doha Debates Chez Chiara
Nuclear Warheads: If Israel, why not Iran, Saudi, the GCC, or MENA? The Doha Debates Chez Chiara
Peace in the Middle East: Will Obama Do Any Better?--Doha Debates Chez Chiara
The Arab Awakening and Shifting Oil Sands: Obama's Georgetown Speech; "Ethical Oil"; Canada's Bible Belt
A Post-Modernist Reading of the Obama-Osama Entwinement in History
How Osama Transformed Obama
Find other more specific posts by regional category in the side bar (GCC, North Africa, MENA) or by country using the search function in the side bar.

Palestinians hold pictures of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the government compound, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP / Bernat Armangue)

Friday, September 23, 2011

HH Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel Interview: On Saudi Women, Driving, Clinton, Obama, Allegations Against Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal

September 21 at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting

HH Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel has been in the United States in the last few days participating in the Clinton Global Initiative, which always meets at the same time as the UN, As Vice-Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the Al-Waleed bin Talal Foundation. She was also a guest interviewee on Piers Morgan Tonight. Her 9 minute interview was an unchallenging one, but I thought she gave some interesting answers, and proved herself an articulate as well as a beautiful woman.

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (R) and his wife Princess Amira al-Taweel (AFP/File, Khaled Fazaa)

What are your impressions of each of the themes raised in the interviews?
What insights or knowledge did you gain from how HH presented her answers?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions?

Related Posts:
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children Part III-- Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children: Reflections

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Saudi National Day-September 23, 2011: Joy in Accomplishments and Desire for Improvements

Arab News, "Saudi cities covered in green on eve of National Day" Published: Sep 22, 2011 21:26 Updated: Sep 22, 2011 21:26.

I have read a number of news articles about Saudi National Day this year, and the celebrations on the streets the night before. The article below struck me as one of the best because it shares the desires of a number of Saudis for improvements of diverse types in a country they love, and care about enough to critique, and thus work toward change.

Jubilant Saudis express their hopes, aspirations
Published: Sep 23, 2011 01:00 Updated: Sep 23, 2011 01:00

National Day is the day when locals of all ages take to the streets, dress up in green, rejoice and celebrate. To them it’s a day of recognition and unity and they are proud to be part of the Saudi culture and heritage.

Saudis living in different parts of the world also hold special celebrations to mark the day. It is also a time when locals express their hopes and aspirations that would better life in Saudi Arabia.
Arab News talked to youths and sought their opinion on what they expected in the Kingdom that would bring about a secure future.

• Amal Sameer, 26-year-old high school teacher, said Saudi Arabia lacks a good education, and on this National Day she demands better schooling for the younger generation in order to give them a bright future.
“Children have to be provided with a first-class learning environment that would help them get a better education,” she said. “We don’t have high-quality schooling programs, which leaves students not interested in their studies. When I compare our local schools with international schools, I find the international programs very attractive which makes their students more sophisticated and knowledgeable,” she added.

• Empowering citizens is what Mohammad Al-Bakri, 28-year-old businessman, is asking for. “I want to be able to report a case and then be given the authority by the anti-corruption committee to follow up on proceedings of the investigation and report on any developments of the case,” he said.
“Imagine five people reporting five different cases of corruption. Each of them will be given the responsibility of following up and reporting to the commissioner of the anti-corruption agency. This way the man who reports the case will own the case until it is resolved,” he added.

• Talah Saleh, 20-year-old journalism student, seeks free media and freedom of speech. “We are one of the few countries that control media and block certain news, so how would the public know about what’s going on in the world and if the source of news here is credible or not,” she wondered. “We are also a country that bans publishing and distributing certain books. Authorities, for their part could issue a warning at the beginning of the book but people should have the choice to either read it or not,” she added.

• The country with the green flag should go green accordingly, said Zainah Awad, 32-year-old stay-at-home mother. “I was born and raised in the States and when I got back to Saudi Arabia I noticed that no one knows anything about recycling, reducing and reusing,” she said. “We are an educated community we should know more about being environment-friendly. We need awareness campaigns that would educate people about the importance of going green,” she added.

• Saudi Arabia needs public services that would compete with the best international standards according to young businessman Ali Al-Banawi. “We need public services such as libraries, parks, a state-of-the-art zoo, and well developed areas for tourism (beach side, desert, mountain, oasis) all of which must be in direct ratio with the number of citizens of every city/neighborhood,” he said. “I believe we need that because the problems that families, youth, and adults of all socioeconomic background have are caused by lack of proper edutainment facilities,” he added.
“These services will have a trickle effect on many key aspects of our life, including education, the economy, health, social connectedness. In addition, studies have shown their potential to reduce crime and misbehavior,” said Al-Banawi.

• Twenty-five-year-old businessman Karam Khashoggi would like to see improvement in the quality of services in the private and public sector. “I would like to see improvements in departments which interact with consumers in both government and private sectors, we waste a lot of time to get one thing done and this affects us badly,” he said.
“Some have created monitoring system such as recorded phone calls or tracked e-mail/fax communication, but no one is following up, which creates huge incredibility in both sectors while the price is (our time) and lost efforts,” he added.

• Saudi women’s voices need to be heard, according to 37-year-old businesswomen Layla Al-Nasser. “Saudi women should learn more about their rights and demand them. Simple rights like equality, freedom and the right to drive,” she said. “We need to take charge of our own lives, we need to be able to get jobs, drive to work, travel and rent houses without the approval of male guardians in every single step we take,” she added.

• But for this Saudi youth, he just wants to gear up to celebrate the National Day by wearing the color of his country’s flag and turning the day into a green day.
“I have been celebrating the National Day for years now, and every year I go to the car workshop and paint my car green, to me green is the color of pride,” said Mohammed Al-Qahtani, 23-year-old college student. “I don’t do anything special, I just drive around the city along with my friends to watch the celebrations down the streets,” he added.


In a similar vein, see the excellent post by Saudi blogger Qusay of Qusay Today, "On Being Saudi, and How I feel about it".

Related Posts:
Saudi Arabia's National Day 2010--80th Anniversary!
September 23-Saudi National Day/Inauguration of KAUST
September 23--Saudi National Day/ Inauguration of KAUST: Update
Remembrance and Family Heritage in Bicultural Saudi/non-Saudi Families
Roads of Arabia - Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Louvre from 07-14-2010 to 09-27-2010
Routes d'Arabie: Archéologie et histoire du royaume d'Arabie saoudite au Musée du Louvre du 14-07-2010 au 27-09-2010
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children: Introduction
Royal Saudi/non-Saudi Marriages and Their Children: Reflections

If you are Saudi, how are you celebrating Saudi National Day?
What what are your hopes and aspirations for your country?
If you are a non-Saudi based in Saudi, what is your experience of Saudi National Day?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Arab News, "Progress adds to joy of National Day", Published: Sep 22, 2011 22:41 Updated: Sep 22, 2011 22:57.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Putting 9/11 in Perspective(s)

There are many perspectives on 9/11 and its aftermath. More seem to germinate with almost any newsworthy event since. Current coverage of the "decade" 2001-2011, in anticipation of the remembrance of that day 10 years ago, explores and adds to the burgeoning ways 9/11 is legitimately and tangentially related to actions within the United States and abroad since.

The weekend edition of Canada's Globe and Mail has its full regular section Focus devoted to the socio-political ramifications of 9/11, but also parts of the News, Sports, and Arts sections. The national network, the CBC, for two weeks has been running various documentaries on the attacks and their consequences. As the population of Canada tends to stay as far south as possible, most Canadians have long been used to having US television and radio stations easily accessible from their homes, including in the days of the aerial antenna on the roof. Standard cable packages now include the closest ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS affiliates, along with at least one 24hr news station, most commonly CNN and/or FOX News in their domestic, not international versions. Of course, no one is forced to watch, listen, or read about 9/11 coverage or commemorations, yet it tends to be ubiquitous, even on the local Canadian city news.

Many Canadian locations were directly affected by 9/11, on the same day and in the days immediately following. Tiny Gander, Newfoundland became the airport to which most transatlantic flights headed to northeastern US destination were diverted. Others were diverted to other airports in the Maritimes, like Halifax, Nova Scotia, but also to airports across the country, with Vancouver being the western hub. Toronto, Ontario, the financial centre of America's northern ally was seen as a possible target, as was nearby Niagara Falls, Ontario,which is a main supplier of energy and part of the grid for the whole North East of the USA. Toronto airports were on lock down. Families in the Maritimes and other major centres of diversion took in stranded Americans, or volunteered at temporary shelters for them. Canadians from all provinces donated goods and money, and some even went to New York to volunteer their skills.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

It has often been said that the United States and Canada are great neighbors, trading partners and the best of friends. Friendship gives us comfort and it gives us strength, but can be tested in difficult times. In one of the darkest moments in our history, Canada stood by our side and showed itself to be a true friend.

On the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we remember with gratitude and affection how the people of Canada offered us the comfort of friendship and extraordinary assistance that day and in the following days by opening their airports, homes and hearts to us. As airspace over our two countries was shut down, hundreds of flights en route to the United States were landed safely by Canadian air traffic control in seventeen Canadian airports from coast to coast. The small city of Gander, Newfoundland, population 9,600, received 6,600 diverted passengers, while Vancouver received 8,500 people. For the next 3 days — before our air space was reopened — those displaced passengers were treated like family in Canadian homes, receiving food, shelter, medical attention and comfort.

Ten years later, we continue to be grateful for Canada's friendship, and for the solidarity you continue to show us in our shared fight against terrorism. The United States is fortunate to share a border with a country that understands, in your words, "There is no such thing as a threat to the national security of the United States which does not represent a direct threat to this country."

On this anniversary, we recognize all the gestures of friendship and solidarity shown to us by Canada and its people, and give thanks for our continuing special relationship.


Signed Barack Obama

There is no doubt that 9/11 had an immense impact on the world and many individuals in it, whether they are particularly aware of it or not. Part of that impact was understandable shock, grief, and fear directly related to the attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and the Capitol in Washington. Lives were lost, and the symbolism of the targets was clear: the economic, military, and political power of the USA. A very small minority felt a celebratory sense that the USA was getting back some of its own, or a barely acknowledged pride that Arab Muslims, often derided by former colonial and current neo-colonial powers could have pulled it off. Overall Muslim countries, and individual testimonies describe horror, grief, compassion, and a rejection of the attacks as unIslamic, contradictory to jihad as a legitimate defensive war, to martyrdom as unsought for death in a defensive action, and to the prohibition against voluntary suicide.

Yet most of the impact was in the response to 9/11 by the US administration of the day, that of President George W Bush--the response beyond the immediate attention to security and rescue. Part of this was in the rhetorical tone set almost immediately: us against them, "yer either fer us 'r agin us", "wanted dead or alive", the "axis of evil". The latter was particularly pernicious as it went beyond bringing individuals to justice, and to deliberate analogies to WWII, the last uncontroversially "just war", serving as justification for myriad violations of universal human rights and freedoms within the USA and abroad, for flagrant contraventions of multiple clauses of the Geneva Convention, for the Bush doctrine of a particularly broad form of pre-emptive war, and for defiance of just war theory itself, in the "War on Terror".

The supreme irony of a war on an emotion seems to have been lost, perhaps deliberately so, on the namers of this particular presidential war--beyond the pale of previous presidential wars on poverty, cancer, drugs. Like these other wars, the War on Terror is a war on a concept, and therefore potentially a perpetual war, one which allows for continual investment of resources, and energy. Such a war maintains and necessitates a constant state of psychological tension, material and mental preparedness, and socially acceptable, institutionalized paranoia. It has an ill-defined enemy, which can come over time and space to encompass any number of perceived manifestations of the concept. The declarer defines and redefines the war in perpetuity. The enemy cannot surrender to end the war. The war ends when the declarer decides it has--if the declarer decides it has.

While the USA is drawing down from the wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, there is no seeming end to the War on Terror. Guantanamo Bay is still open for Geneva Convention defying business. The undeclared war on Pakistan continues, still undeclared, even escalating. Extraordinary state powers relating to security, "war measures", continue, and were signed into continuance by Obama in the first months of his presidency. Similar measures are forced upon allies, including Canada, which is constantly at pains to prove its toughness on security, the tightness of its border, its ability to arrest and hold Muslim men without charge or normal judicial rights (to a lawyer, to an informed defense), and to produce whatever "intelligence" on whomever, no matter how incipient or flawed, for US extradition to black sites and outsourced torture in MENA dictatorships fostered by the US.

Allied countries' bids for independent action in this War on Terror are punished, as Canada was for not declaring war on Iraq. Bush not only snubbed us politically with the diplomatic equivalent of a slap in the face, but took pains to make sure Canadians realized non-compliance would result in economic penury. Our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, then in opposition, was part of a group that took out a full page ad in the New York Times stating they were in favour of joining the war on Iraq, and against then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's decision not to.

Now that Harper is in power, and the Iraq War is so unpopular, he has changed his mind. However, he does compensate for not being in on that war, by being Israel's very best friend in the world (even more pro-Israeli than the Obama Administration), and building Canada's military--at great expense--along with its profile in the national psyche. Harper has changed the curricula for citizenship classes and testing, along with those in the public school system, to focus on Canada's history as a fighting nation, rather than a nation of peace-keepers. We too are fed the national security rationale.

National security is important, but a war on an emotion of fear, terror, feeds on fear-mongering and induces perpetual heightened awareness, and the psychological tension of an acute traumatic stress disorder, long after the stresser has passed. To maintain this acute state, there must be constantly newly discovered threats, incidences, potential attacks. In between, there are a series of post-traumatic stress reminders. To commemorate the loss of lives on 9/11 is understandable, particularly on significant anniversaries. To memorialize the casualties of a war during that war is a sign of a perpetual war.

That there were such obvious ideological and material gratifications for members of the Bush administration in how they responded to 9/11 has led to considerable distrust of government, political parties, and the ability of the system to protect all of its citizens without abusing them. There are arguments floating about that the response to 9/11 is responsible for the current political malaise in the US--the divisiveness of the politics, the general distrust of politicians and government by voters, the disaffection for all things political by the general population.

There are also arguments floating about that the Arab Spring is a result of 9/11, the American responses to it, and American ideals. These include the suggestion that by taking out Islamic extremism as a viable political force, the US has created a political vacuum that has forced the rise of secular opposition groups. American ideals of capitalism and democracy are seen as underpinning the belief systems and actions of these Arab revolutionaries. At the same time, there has been fear-mongering about tribes, and Islamicist extremists being behind the rebellions or taking them over even in countries where there is very little evidence of any such activity. This American co-opting of revolutions that rose without them, and where they have consistently been behind the curve, smacks of ongoing neo-colonialism.

Framing international events from a very narrow American perspective is not new, but it is unique to the US. Other countries also perceive the world from their own paradigms, but seem to take greater pains to understand the world from the perspective of other nationals. This is evident in their discourse within the media and in other social institutions including academia. The result in the context of 9/11 is a constant American drip drip of analogies to 9/11, justifications by 9/1l, and expectations that others will respond and react as they have--to 9/11.

Part of that response does involve religion. Although Americans like to believe theirs is a secular state, it is a secularism framed within Christianity from the discovery, through the pilgrims, the settlers, the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and on to the present day. There is no doubt that despite the careful framing of the War on Terror as a war on Islamic fundamentalist extremism, Islamicist terrorists, Muslim extremists, or whatever other personal or choice of terminology--Stephen Harper prefers "Islamic terrorism" interchangeable with "Islamicism"--to distinguish from Muslims generally, it has impacted Muslims generally.

It has impacted American Muslims and those in other non-majority Muslim countries specifically. Recently I was asked where I was for 9/11, meaning where was I when the 2 planes hit the twin towers. I don't remember where I was, except that I was probably buried in some research because I didn't learn about it until about noon. After ascertaining that it was true, and not a "War of the Worlds" style hoax, my first reaction was to start praying that no Muslims had been involved as perpetrators, a sort of "Please, PLEASE, let this be like Oklahoma City, pllleeezzze...". I knew that if Muslims had been involved, the result, especially under George W Bush's administration would be this--an all pervasive overreaction, a convenient excuse for more than was required.

This became clear rapidly in the US and in Canada as innocent Muslims came under suspicion, brown people of all ethnicities found themselves under greater scrutiny (Rohinton Mistry for example), and some had the misfortune to be arrested, and jailed on home soil (the Toronto 17, the Toronto 18, both sets predominantly Pakistani-Canadians, other Arab Muslims in Canada), or worse transported to a living hell in the homelands they had long left behind (Maher Arar, Abousfian Abdelrazik). Omar Khadr, arrested in a fire fight in Afghanistan at the age of 15 has had the full Guantanamo treatment for the worst of the worst adults.

In more individual and personal ways the average non-newsworthy were also affected. A Moroccan friend who was studying here in 2006 mentioned to me that people always asked her if she were Muslim, and after she said yes, asked if she were "practicing". She had no idea what this meant, until I explained that it derived from Christian distinctions between those who are nominally whatever denomination, but don't actually pray, attend mass, or services, belong to a specific church group, etc. It seems it was passable for her to be Muslim as long as she wasn't a practicing one, didn't actually behave as if she were, or act on her religious beliefs. Over time, and after living in Europe for a decade, she has become avidly non-practicing, as she reminds me every time I send her Eid greetings.

A South Asian-Canadian Hindu friend with a great number of Muslim friends, all of whom seem to be international students or recent immigrants named Mohamed, describes being insulted as "terrorists" and having eggs thrown at them by passing cars, more than once, while walking as a group--between classes--in good downtown areas. His affinity for Muslims began when he and the only other brown kid in his kindergarten class, another Mohamed, had to battle their way through the playground bullies to get home each day. Now, thanks to the response to 9/11, he is back in the trenches.

My pizza guy, an older Afghani, describes being about to start university when the Soviets arrived in Afghanistan, and how he walked out of Afghanistan--literally walking from Kabul into Pakistan--at the first shot fired. He made his way from country to country until he could get to Canada, where as a modest worker he has been able to bring all his family from Afghanistan, marry, and have 5 children of his own. He describes this with pride. One evening he blurted out with shame and humiliation mitigated by anger that he had that afternoon been taken from the store, and questioned on the side street by the RCMP as if he were a supporter of the Taliban whom he despises. His greatest fear was that his children who attend a nearby public school would pass by and see him so humiliated as to be questioned publicly by the RCMP.

More subtly still, my Libyan students, long after 9/11, but during some exacerbation of attention to terrorist threats, and well before the Arab Spring, felt uncomfortable carrying the standard university student backpack on public transit. They felt they were looked at with suspicion, and that people avoided sitting near them. When they gathered to pray in the area designated for them to do so in the library, there were complaints, though they were out of sight, and largely out of earshot. They were then told to pray in a stairwell--neither particularly clean nor uninterrupted.

One of my depressed Pakistani patients, when asked about support systems, began saying that he went to prayers and the group he prayed with on campus were supportive--then looked aghast that he had said as much, and started to try to take it back, until I reassured him that was a positive coping strategy and encouraged him to continue. He later made a statement, and caught himself just before he added the expected, "Inshallah". I added it for him, and he looked surprised, puzzled, and then relieved.

I have made it a practice to ask Muslim patients who wear hijab if they had any backlash about it, as part of a review of potential stressers. Some did, some didn't, most tried to minimize it. Hijab is taken as a sign of being Muslim, and a practicing one, so no need to ask those questions. Some had further questions about it or the implication that they were brainwashed, and subjugated. Some have been harassed enough that their husbands asked them to stop wearing the headscarf in public. Feminist PhDs have told me they know all about Morocco...then proceed to describe "the treatment of Moroccan women" in a way which makes it clear they are thinking of some fictional Gulf State.

The American response to 9/11 has also specifically impacted Muslims in Muslim majority countries--beyond those who have been "bombed back to the Stone Age", though certainly those too. American foreign policy, set by the Bush Administration before it took power, a plan to reassert domination in 7 Middle Eastern countries consecutively, found a convenient justification in its response to 9/11. Iraq was moved up ahead of schedule, as a piece of unfinished business by an administration top heavy with veterans of the Geoge HW Bush administration. Libya folded pre-emptively, at least temporarily. Other dictatorships made further accommodations with the USA. Israel was given a free pass on bombing Lebanon and Gaza. The Quartet ignored internationally approved elections in Palestine and set up their own system of government and sanctions. These governmental actions have implications for resources or not in the interest of their respective national peoples.

Airport security affects us all, including the Irish friend with a banal Irish name who is on a no-fly list through no fault of his own. In his case this is an inconvenience more than anything else. Others are reminded that their ethnicity, religion, gender, age bracket, and country of origin make them candidates for special treatment each time they fly in and out of a Western country. One Saudi student who returned to her studies in mid-August complained to me of the treatment all the Saudis received at the airport. Loud, passive aggressive commentary about Saudis, in front of all the Saudis deplaning: "they", "they don't even speak English", "they get their degrees handed to them for a fee", etc. This is of course minor in comparison to other sufferings, but there's the rub...the chipping away, the repeated "small" injustices, insults, snubs, suspicions, questions...

And so, while I sympathize with those whose loved ones died on 9/11, I sympathize and empathize with the others who have been "collateral damage" to the American response to 9/11.

May all rest, and live, in peace.

World Suicide Prevention Day 2011--Multicultural Societies and MENA

One of my favourite "cocktail party" conversations involves discussion of mental health issues with those who deny them, and the efficacy of treatment, then ask for advice and recommendations in diverse covert ways. I am not being facetious in this. These conversations have made me realize that I can be helpful, in a semi-professional manner, to people reluctant to seek professional care--at least for the time being. They have also enlightened and modified my professional understanding of mental health and mental health care delivery.

These conversations most often occur in settings where I am doing my best imitation of a corporate wife, or being the token Canadian-born Canadian in a room of one minority culture or another, or being the only non-Arab in the room, or some combination of these. They sometimes start with a loud public derision (in polite form, of course) of psychiatric illness as being fake, psychiatrists as being useless and too stupid to get into a real medical specialty, and the psychiatrically ill as being weak personalities or malingerers.

Sometimes there is an acknowledgement that such problems occur in Western societies, but not in "my culture/country" because "we have family and faith". I usually agree with the protective role of strong, extended family ties, and faith-based coping strategies as important preventives and supports for the mentally or emotionally challenged. I do so in all honesty, because research bolsters common experience to show that this is true. However, if possible in the context, I do introduce the idea that professional care doesn't replace the importance of these supports, but adds to them, and offers help in a way non-professionals cannot, particularly as much mental illness is biologically induced, mediated, or exacerbated, no matter the other psychological and social factors involved.

This public conversation is often then followed by a private one--either quietly spoken seatmate to seatmate, sometimes by the loudest of the public disclaimers; or later, in a one to one conversation off to the side of the group, by the disclaimer or someone else, sometimes even the spouse of the disclaimer. That conversation usually starts with "You're a psychiatrist, right?". I have come to recognize that this seemingly unnecessary question has important functions. It helps the person introduce the topic, reassures them that they are speaking to a professional, gives them time to calm their anxiety about doing so, even in a friendly, "this is not really a consultation" setting, and allows them to have a reassuring affirmation verbally and non-verbally (nod, smile, open posture) that yes I am, with the unspoken subtext, "...go on...". They then introduce a concern about a family member, a friend, a neighbour, sometimes themselves, but most often themselves in a helping capacity. I take this at face value, since it might be true, and whether or not it is the precise truth, it is a useful way to discuss the topic while letting them save face, and maintain their self-identity.

As a result of both types of conversation I have had the opportunity to learn more of how different cultures (including corporate cultures, a study unto themselves) frame and present mental health issues, seek to resolve them, and interact with the majority culture when they are an ethnic or other social minority. While I have always appreciated that good quality self-help or psychiatric/psychological books written for the general public have an important role in mental health self care, and as an adjunct to professional care, these conversations have made me more aware that for some people they are the only acceptable way to access much needed information and guidance.

Particularly in the private conversations, people will share the titles of books they have bought or borrowed and read, and ask my opinion of them, or ask for recommendations. I am particularly impressed with the wives and mothers, who may or may not have much formal education, especially beyond high school, who have made the effort to seek out and read these books, including from public libraries. I am impressed because, although I have every confidence in the intelligence and capacity for life long learning of those with even no or little education (television and videos are another resource),  these women have crossed a cultural line to obtain openly mental illness related books. In more traditional settings, and in their home countries, they may have gone only so far as to seek religiously-themed psychological works. Some of the latter are very good too, and combine excellent contemporary understanding of mental illness with a religious framing that is helpful for believers.

Once I picked up one such religiously framed book lying on a living room couch in Morocco during the summer academic vacation. It was well-written and the faith base was broad. The reader was a family member who was a medical student in France, despite herself, and in compliance with her mother's wishes, also the quiet and somewhat overlooked middle child in a family of strong personalities, going through a parental divorce. We had a brief discussion of the book's quality without engaging in the whys and wherefores. She is now a general practitioner with a specialization within that broader practice.

I am also impressed with all those from any culture who have the courage to seek professional mental health care where there is a need, or they are wondering if there is a need. Some, like recent immigrants, immigrants who have held more closely to their culture, the children of immigrants, and international students have done so against ethnic stigma and rejection of psychiatric solutions in favour of family and religious ones. Again, family and faith are helpful--until they prove insufficient.

Sometimes the family is the problem, and particularly in an immigrant context there are few extended family members to confide in or have mediate among the problematic members. The solution to find an excuse to live in another city with a different family member may be less available or involve changing countries, and may only be a short-term, partial solution anyway. Sometimes the particular interpretations of a faith are the problem, or the counselling available from religious leaders is unskilled or inappropriate.

Within MENA countries there is generally greater stigma against mental illness as found in many traditional cultures compared with less traditional ones. Mental illness or emotional distress may be perceived as a failure of the individual's faith or family. The evil eye may be seen as causative and various measures may be taken to reverse it, or counteract a hex. Some can be quite extreme, as are the exorcism techniques at Bouy Omar, the famous mental health marabout in Morocco. Others are as simple as wearing verses of the Qur'an as amulets.

I once saw a young Muslim man who had been brought back to the psychiatric hospital after a previous admission because of a relapse. After the initial discharge, the patient took his antipsychotic medication with his family's encouragement. They also took him to London England to visit a particular religious figure who blessed him and gave him amulets of Qur'anic verses to wear. He did so.

Eventually, like all psychotics commonly do, he stopped taking his prescribed medication. After a time, he relapsed. His family brought him back for assessment and to receive further medication. In discussion, they believed he had relapsed because the amulets had broken and fallen off. No matter. They did come to the psychiatric hospital, and for medication specifically. I encouraged them and him to use both the medication and the amulets. Unlike some others, I don't see these as mutually exclusive or even conflictual.

Islam in particular encourages the faithful to seek help from science for their afflictions. Hopefully, as MENA countries move from more pressing needs in often third world economies, or still limited infrastructures in rapidly evolving wealthy economies, and away from dictatorships that have other priorities, there will be greater investment in mental health care initiatives beyond psychiatric hospitalization and treatment for only the most disturbed and most difficult to control. Public education about mental illness, or emotional distress in its broader and milder forms, can help reduce stigma, and foster the acceptability of professional help seeking. Most importantly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

World Suicide Prevention Day is one ounce of prevention. The 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 have taken a deliberately cross cultural approach to the topic after a number of years of broader perspectives. The 2011 focus is on multicultural communities within majority cultures. There are always such minorities, even in seemingly homogenous majority culture countries. The smaller, the more recent, and the more disenfranchised the minority group, the fewer professional resources tailored to their needs.

MENA countries have minority groups of longstanding ethnic communities who have migrated there over time, or became minorities after national boundaries were drawn, and of expatriates, both guest workers and guest professionals, and their families. Some MENA countries are, from their national creation, composites of different faith and ethnic groups who form more of a plurality than a true minority. Depending on the affiliations of the ruling power and international pressures they may be more or less well served in all aspects of their social lives, including culturally sensitive, accessible mental health care.

The events of the Arab Spring have brought new meaningfulness, purpose, and hope to many, but also new sources of frustration, trauma, grief, and loss. Suicidal thoughts or gestures may be a part of any of these. Individuals, families, and friends struggle with the consequences of imprisonment, torture, injury, killing, and a general atmosphere of insecurity, even where there is not outright war or military repression, which also have specific challenges. Some places like Gaza are in a chronic state of traumatization by undeclared war.

The events of the Arab Spring and more particularly of the Arab Summer have also brought new minority groups within majority cultures, as families, towns, and ethnic groups flee or are forced to new locations with a country, across borders into neighbouring countries, or overseas. Family and group cohesion at these times are particularly important. Those dealing with refugee communities have learned that it is best for mental health outcomes to keep families intact, and to provide community groupings drawing on the resources of the displaced group to help each other, and have a sense of purpose and social structure themselves, as well as drawing on necessary broader supports.

Below is information from the website for this year's World Suicide Prevention Day, with ideas on actions to be taken in follow up.


World Suicide Prevention Day is held on September 10th each year. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness around the globe that suicide can be prevented. Disseminating information, improving education and training, and decreasing stigmatization are important tasks in such an endeavour. The theme in 2011 is "Preventing Suicide in Multicultural Societies".

The themes of the last two years of the World Suicide Prevention Day have focussed on suicide prevention in different cultures across the world. This year's theme aims at raising awareness of the fact that all countries in the world are multicultural. Many countries harbour different minority groups, in the form of various indigenous and/or immigrant groups, refugees and/or asylum seekers. Some countries comprise many different ethnic groups due to artificial borders having been drawn by former colonial powers. This means that in all countries there are a variety of ethnic and religious groups living in the same society.

Multicultural societies require cultural sensitivity in all suicide prevention efforts. However, a common mistake is to treat culture as something objective that explains differences. When we find differences between cultural groups in a society, e.g. suicide rates and risk factors, we tend to explain these in terms of cultural differences. This can, however, conceal the real reasons for differences that may or may not have something to do with culture at all. Examples of other factors that may be important are unemployment, poverty, oppression, marginalisation, stigmatisation, or racism. Moreover, culture is not a static or measurable variable; rather culture describes the dynamics evolving in an interaction between individuals and their surroundings. So, at the same time as we need to be culturally sensitive and aware of potential cultural differences, we must not let "culture" overshadow other important factors that might be at play. Neither must we overlook similarities in our vigilance to find differences.

The WHO estimates that about one million people around the world die by suicide every year. However, many countries still lack reliable suicide statistics, and even countries with reliable statistics may lack knowledge about the magnitude of the problem in (some of) their minority populations. This knowledge might also be challenging to acquire due to stigma having a larger impact in various minority groups compared to the majority. Nevertheless, such information is needed. Some studies have shown that suicide rates among immigrants are more similar to the suicide rates of those in their original country compared to the new country in which they have settled. Other studies, however, show that this varies across country and subgroup. Therefore, we need to be careful about drawing universal conclusions.

Risk factors for suicide vary across cultural groups. Knowledge about common risk factors in a society often stems from research in majority populations. However, in a multicultural context we need to be aware that some risk factors may play different roles in the suicidal process as well as in suicide prevention for some minority groups compared to the majority population. For instance, risk factors for elderly men in the majority population may have little relevance for young immigrant girls. In addition, other factors that might have a different impact on minorities compared to the majority population are attitudes towards suicidal behaviour and suicidal people (e.g. taboo, stigma), religion and spirituality, and family dynamics (gender roles and responsibilities).

Studies have shown that stereotyping might be common in the health and social care system in dealing with minority groups. Therefore, we need to be careful to distinguish between how the rules and traditions of a cultural group define how members of that group may or should behave and how individuals from a cultural group actually do behave. We must not let stereotypes rule what we perceive or do. Some of the previous research reporting average values for immigrant groups or comparing heterogeneous groups of immigrants with the majority population in the country may contribute to such stereotyping in suicide prevention. However, it gives little meaning to compare the relatively homogeneous majority population in a small country such as, for instance, Norway, with Asian immigrants to this country since the latter group can comprise people from a vast number of very different countries, cultures and religions, as Asia stretches out from the Middle East to Siberia. In the health and social care system the individual must not be met as a representative of a cultural group, but be allowed to be themselves with their own beliefs, attitudes, understandings, thoughts, and knowledge.

Gender issues and racism in therapeutic settings are important to be aware of in multicultural societies. Use of interpreters in the health and social care system also requires special attention when a sensitive issue such as suicide is on the agenda. Often, minority populations in a community are small and interpreters are recruited from the same social circle as the client. If suicidality is particularly taboo or stigmatised in the minority group, it may be necessary to check the interpreters' attitudes towards suicidal behaviour and suicidal people because these might affect both what is being said by the client as well as what is translated and how by the interpreter.

National suicide prevention strategies have now been implemented in several countries, but not all of them reflect the fact that the country is comprised of various minority groups. The strategy/program is often aimed at the majority population and a specific cultural perspective or focus is missing. Strategies therefore may need revision with this in mind and countries still not having initiated suicide prevention efforts should integrate a cultural perspective from the start.

Even though suicide is a complex and multifactorial phenomenon with cultural differences, there are still some suicide prevention efforts that might have "universal" effect.

  • Experiences of connectedness are important in the mental health and wellbeing of all people. Thus, communities that are well integrated and cohesive may be suicide preventive.
  • Educating professionals of health and social services as well as communities in general about how to identify people at risk for suicide, encouraging those who need it to seek help, and providing them with needed and adequate help can reduce rates of suicide. These efforts require both cultural sensitivity and cultural competence.
  • Methods of suicide vary across cultural contexts, but restricting access to whatever means are commonly employed has been found to be effective in reducing the number of suicides (e.g. safe storage of firearms, pesticides and medicines; restricting access to bridges and high rise buildings commonly used as jumping sites).
  • Educating the media on how to report on suicide responsibly, and
  • Providing adequate support for people who are bereaved by suicide.

Suicide prevention in multicultural societies needs to be targeted as a multidisciplinary effort. Effective suicide prevention involves a multifaceted and intersectoral approach to address the multiple pathways to suicidal behaviour in a socio-cultural context. People who can contribute to suicide prevention include, for instance, health and social care professionals, researchers, teachers, police, journalists, religious leaders, cultural leaders, politicians and community leaders, volunteers, and relatives and friends affected by suicidal behaviour. People also tend to open up to bartenders, hairdressers, and taxi drivers, among others. In short, suicide prevention is everybody's business, and thus everyone can contribute.


WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY, September 10th, is an opportunity for all sectors of the community - the public, charitable organizations, communities, researchers, clinicians, practitioners, politicians and policy makers, volunteers, those bereaved by suicide, other interested groups and individuals - to join with the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the WHO to focus public attention on the unacceptable burden and costs of suicidal behaviours with diverse activities to promote understanding about suicide and highlight effective prevention activities.

Those activities may call attention to the global burden of suicidal behaviour, and discuss local, regional and national strategies for suicide prevention, highlighting cultural initiatives and emphasising how specific prevention initiatives are shaped to address local cultural conditions. Initiatives which actively educate and involve people are likely to be most effective in helping people learn new information about suicide and suicide prevention. Examples of activities which can support World Suicide Prevention Day include:

  • Launching new initiatives, policies and strategies on World Suicide Prevention Day
  • Holding conferences, open days, educational seminars or public lectures and panels
  • Writing articles for national, regional and community newspapers and magazines
  • Holding press conferences
  • Placing information on your website and using the IASP World Suicide Prevention Day banner, promoting suicide prevention in one's native tongue (
  • Securing interviews and speaking spots on radio and television
  • Organizing memorial services, events, candlelight ceremonies or walks to remember those who have died by suicide
  • Asking national politicians with responsibility for health, public health, mental health or suicide prevention to make relevant announcements, release policies or make supportive statements or press releases on WSPD
  • Holding depression awareness events in public places and offering screening for depression
  • Organizing cultural or spiritual events, fairs or exhibitions
  • Organizing walks to political or public places to highlight suicide prevention
  • Holding book launches, or launches for new booklets, guides or pamphlets
  • Distributing leaflets, posters and other written information
  • Organizing concerts, BBQs, breakfasts, luncheons, contests, fairs in public places
  • Writing editorials for scientific, medical, education, nursing, law and other relevant journals
  • Disseminating research findings
  • Producing press releases for new research papers
  • Holding training courses in suicide and depression awareness
  • Becoming a Facebook Fan of the IASP (
  • Following the IASP on Twitter (, tweeting #WSPD or #suicide or #suicideprevention
  • Creating a video about suicide prevention (/
  • Lighting a candle, near a window, at 8 PM in support of: World Suicide Prevention Day, suicide prevention awareness, survivors of suicide and for the memory of loved lost ones.


Consider the candles sincerely, though belatedly, lit.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

ArabPsyNet (In Arabic, English, and French) a resource for Arab psychiatrists and psychologists with relevance to non-professionals.
World Psychiatric Association (Advancing Psychiatry and Mental Health Across the World); including academic journal issues in Arabic;  a section on Public Education addressing major mental illnesses including suicidality.
Gaza Community Mental Health Group with resources on setting up support and training programs for those traumatized by torture, war, deprivation, and the resulting challenges to the family constellation and the individuals within it men, women, and children.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back to School for Canadian Muslims: Faith and Education Choices

Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School can attend a Friday afternoon prayer in the school so they don't have to miss class. (April 2, 2011), from Let the students pray at school

Immigrants often come to Canada for financial and social opportunities not available in their home countries, or less easily available. They also come, and often make the decision to stay, based on educational opportunities for their children. Public school education in Canada is of high quality, and there are no fees involved except for extras. This makes a public school option attractive to most Canadians. In general though, as cut backs through the 90s affected the public education system, parents who can afford it have chosen private school options, most often secular.

Jewish families have long chosen to send their children to private Hebrew schools, when they can afford it. Jewish communities have made the development and continuance of such schools a priority. Fundamentalist Christians, sometimes of specific ethnicities, have done the same.  For historical reasons Roman Catholic schools have had a unique status.

There is a long tradition of faith-based schools in Canada. Indeed, all schools at one time were faith-based. When the French lost to the British in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the Treaty of Paris (1763) guaranteed French language, Roman Catholicism, and education in French language Roman Catholic schools for French Canadians.  While the French Canadian school system was distinctly Roman Catholic, the English Canadian school system was distinctly Protestant. Depending on province and sometimes region, in other words depending on population and local governance, either one could have been labelled and paid for via taxes as the "public school" option. For the other there would be extra fees.

More recently, through the 80s and 90s, Protestant public schools became more secular and less monarchist. While they have always accepted children of all races, ethnicities, and faiths, they have gradually removed the morning "Our Father" prayer, singing of  "God Save the Queen", and celebration of specifically Christian holidays, like the traditional nativity play at Christmas time. Instead, different school boards have opted either to ignore all religious studies, or to specifically incorporate teaching on different faiths and cultural activities related to holidays that are significant to their local populations. Individual teachers have a certain leeway in how they choose to integrate these, or not.

All schools are obliged by law to accommodate their individual or collective students' beliefs.  This is particularly true of public schools which are funded by tax payer dollars, while private schools, whether faith based or not, have more rights to determine specifics, like dress codes, within their schools. There have  been challenges to these rights, famously the right for Sikhs to wear a kirpan, whereas knives are usually forbidden on school grounds. Muslim girls have been challenged about wearing hijab, particularly for sports safety reasons, but have the right to do so within school based activities.

There have long been individual accommodations for students of whatever faiths, around their time off for holidays, or other requirements. For example, my mother taught a high school student who refused to stand for the playing over the intercom each morning of "O Canada". As a Jehovah's Witness he was not allowed to honour patriotic symbols. Since she couldn't tolerate him sitting through the national anthem, especially in the presence of the rest of the class, they agreed he would go into the hall for the playing of the anthem, and return when it was over. They both lived happily with this solution for the year she had him in her home room class.

Most Muslims in Canada are recent immigrants, and most have their children in public schools. A few send their children to private Islamic schools, that is, schools which follow the provincial curriculum but have additional classes in religious studies, follow Islamic dress codes, and are often segregated. Those in public schools receive their religious education elsewhere, but are accommodated for their beliefs, holidays, and dress, as are all Canadian students. For example, during Ramadan, schools with a high Muslim population set aside a separate room at lunch time for Muslim students to pray and reflect, lead by parent or local volunteers. Individual Muslim students would also be accommodated to meet their needs even if they were a small minority in a school.

Friday prayers in the auditorium at Valley Park Middle School, Toronto. (John Goddard/Toronto Star). Original caption: "The girls sitting at the back during Friday prayers are menstruating and not allowed to sit with everyone else", accompanying the article, "Mallick: Time for someone to speak up for shy young girls" by Heather Mallick, Star Columnist

Just before the ending of the school term last May-June, one school's religious accommodation of its Muslim students drew media attention after a Hindu activist group protested. The school's high Muslim population would attend obligatory Friday prayers at the closest mosque, which was still a challenging distance away--all distances being greater in time commitment during the winter. In order for the students to be able to return to their next class on time, and to return at all, the school decided to allow for Friday prayers to be conducted in the school auditorium, lead by the local religious leaders, and to be attended on a voluntary basis by any Muslim students who wished to do so. This effectively accommodated the religious needs of the school's students, and eliminated Friday afternoon lateness or absenteeism.

This went on for 3 years without problems, until the complaint was launched. Unfortunately there was much media misinformation and hand wringing over this rather standard accommodation. Some of it was incredibly ignorant of the Canadian school system--including from Canadian reporters. Other articles misrepresented what was happening at that particular school, or launched into Islamophobic crusades to liberate the Muslim students, particularly the girls praying at the back of the auditorium, or sitting further back when menstruating. Needless to say, the blogosphere went even further than the mainstream media. The Toronto District School Board, responsible for this school, is not backing down on this accommodation.

The article below is a good brief overview of the situation, linking it to an American example of fairness towards Muslims, and rejection of Islamophobia.

14-year-old Manigha Satari, left, and Rida Zahra, 12, eat food they purchased in the school. Valley Park Middle School at 130 Overlea Blvd. requires all their students to eat lunch in the cafeteria [along with a number of other schools, in a bid to improve nutrition and decrease obesity, by stopping students from eating at local fast food outlets].

Canada remains a model of mutual respect
Jul 24, 2011 21:47

The Toronto District School Board of Canada and the news network CNN stood out this month for fairness and refused to jump on the Islamophobia wagon.

For North American Muslims, enjoying equal rights with fellow North Americans but harassed by malicious allegations, these actions reflect the decency of the Canadian and American people and offer them hope.

In the Walid Shoebat saga, CNN performed its journalistic duty faithfully. It investigated Shoebat who has been raking money, sometimes a half a million dollars a year, speaking and writing denouncing Islam and calling American Muslims a threat to the United States. He spoke even at US government institutions, basing his expertise on Islam and terrorism on being a former Muslim and terrorist. He was born in Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. He claims that he bombed Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem and was jailed by Israelis before moving to the US. He said he converted to Christianity in 1993.

As CNN's Anderson Cooper stated in two reports, which included interviews with Shoebat, his claims are dubious. CNN found no evidence of the bombing of Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem or of Shoebat being a former Palestinian terrorist or ever being in Israeli jails. His relatives in his village denied his having being an activist. Hopefully, Americans will now see Shoebat as a self-serving Islam basher whose words are not to be trusted.

In the Canadian case, the Muslims’ freedom to worship was challenged.

For three years Muslim students of the Valley Park Middle School in Toronto have prayed on Friday noon in congregation. Canadian schools, universities, private offices and government institutions routinely make “reasonable accommodation” to meet the religious obligations of all Canadians. Sikhs, for example, are allowed to wear the kirpan. Prayer and/or meditation rooms are also provided at Canadian airports.

Suddenly, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy objected to the use of school premises for prayers. A Jewish Defense League spokesperson called for monitoring the prayers to ensure that the imam conducting such services doesn't preach intolerance. The president of Canadian Muslim Congress expressed concern that Ismailis and Ahmadis might not be invited to such prayers because they are not viewed as mainstream Muslims while another CMC official objected to girls praying in the back rows. CMC has said it might sue the school board. The International Campaign against Shariah Courts leader called the service a “political statement” by Muslims. A Canadian Council of Muslim Women official also called for monitoring the prayers.

Friday congregation prayers are obligatory on Muslims. All that the school did was to enable Muslim students to follow their faith. This is no more a political statement than are services at synagogues, churches or temples. As for “monitoring,” media, students and politicians of different faiths often attend Muslim Friday prayers at mosques to listen, exchange views or to just meet Muslims. No Muslim objects.

There is no evidence that Ismaili or Ahmadi students at the Toronto school, if any, wanted to join the prayers and were refused. Ismailis pray at their own jamaatkhanas and their prayer services are reserved only for Ismailis. Ahmadis visit mainstream mosques for funeral services of friends. They never pray, however, behind Shiite or Sunni imams. They pray only behind an Ahmadi who owes allegiance to Ahmadi prophets and caliphs. Mainstream Muslims, Ismailis and Ahmadis maintain excellent relations in Canada. But they pray among their own and, like Canadians of other faiths, neither join nor invite others for prayers. As to the claim that women have to pray in the back rows, this argument could be used to ban Muslim prayers throughout Canada — and the practices of many other faiths.

Most Canadians cherish freedom and do not want agitators to sow divisions and acrimony. Christian groups, the Hindu Canadian Alliance, the World Sikh Organization and Jewish Community Council support the right of Muslims, and all other Canadians, to freedom of religion. In many cities Muslims prayed at churches, at their invitation, before their mosques were built.

The Toronto District School Board has stood firm and reiterated that it upholds the religious freedom of all students and will continue to provide them with reasonable accommodation without discrimination or favor. It said Muslim students will continue to pray as they wish.

So Canada remains a model of mutual respect despite occasional efforts to sow dissension. Muslims are grateful for this blessing but they and all Canadians have to remain vigilant to safeguard their freedom and harmony.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.


On Labour Day, September 5th, just before classes began for this school year, there was another interesting article on schooling choices being made by Muslim parents and students. Part of what was interesting to me about this article was that it was deemed newsworthy.

Many, if not most, of "my Muslims" have attended Roman Catholic schools, or at least Roman Catholic nursery, day care, or kindergarten schools, often in former French colonies. Their parents were concerned that they get a high quality education, at a reasonable price, and an early mastery of French, so started them in schools run by nuns at the age of 3, then switched to public schools at age 6 or 7 for their obligatory education. Some switched to private French schools run by the French government, and so following the norms of laïcité, that is no religious symbolism in schools, similar but different to American secularism.

In my experience, Saudi students in Canada on medical specialist scholarships, most often have their children attend secular English language nursery, daycare, and kindergarten schools, then public schools, in order to best ensure their grounding in English before they return to the Saudi public system in Arabic, or sometimes private schooling in Saudi Arabia.

In order to best appreciate the article below, one should realize that Roman Catholic schools in Canada follow the provincial curriculum (including evolutionary science), add religious classes based on Catholicism, and cover interfaith topics in later years. In Ontario, at least, Roman Catholic schools are paid for by taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers may choose to direct the educational portion of their taxes to the public (formerly Protestant) system or to the Catholic one (which has its own local boards of education, in English and in French).

Saadia Sediqzadah, first year medical student at University of Ottawa prepares her notes in her apartment in Ottawa. Ms. Sediqzadah is Muslim and went to a Roman Catholic high school. Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

Muslim students enrolling in Catholic schools
EDUCATION REPORTER— From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Sep. 05, 2011 10:53PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Sep. 06, 2011 7:10AM EDT

At a time when progressive sex education and gay-rights clubs are becoming an increasing part of the secular curriculum, many devout families in the country’s most populous province are looking for a faith-based approach to learning. In Ontario, however, the only publicly funded faith-based option is Catholic schools – and that’s just fine for some Muslim parents, even if it’s someone else’s faith.

For Seid Oumer, an observant Muslim and a father of four from Ethiopia, Catholic education has a lot going for it. He sells the other Muslim parents on the benefits of uniforms, discipline and the faith-based approach.

Mr. Oumer’s 16-year-old daughter, Daliya, has been attending Catholic religion classes at Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., for two years.

“I find it very interesting, I like getting an idea of how our religions are very similar,” she said.

Ms. Oumer feels comfortable using the chapel whenever she needs to pray. The only time she feels a little awkward is on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter or Remembrance Day, when the school attends Mass, and she’s left alone in a pew while her classmates line up to take the Holy Eucharist.

“They suggest that non-Catholics go up for a blessing, but I don’t know, I don’t want to do that,” she said. “So I sit down and everyone’s like, ‘Why aren’t you going up?’ I tell them I just don’t want to.”

Though at least one parent must be Catholic in order for a student to enroll in a Catholic elementary school, at the high-school level faith doesn’t matter as long as there’s room. Declining high school enrolment has meant that there often is room – about 10 per cent of the pupils attending Catholic boards in the Greater Toronto Area are non-Catholic.

Shared Abrahamic traditions and an emphasis on modest dress help make Muslim students feel at home at Catholic schools. Over the past decade, there is anecdotal evidence that more and more of them have been taking advantage of the fact that at the secondary level, Catholic schools are open to any local family who wishes to register, be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Rastafarian.

In the Catholic board, religious accommodation hasn’t ignited controversy like it has at the Toronto District School Board.

This spring, when it became widely known that a Toronto middle school was allowing an imam to lead prayer sessions in the school cafeteria on Fridays, critics including Jewish, Hindu and secular groups accused the school of taking accommodation too far, saying such services were inappropriate during class time. This summer, they rallied outside that board’s headquarters protesting “the mosqueteria.”

One of the reasons Muslims students attend Catholic schools is because many Canadian Muslims are recent immigrants from East Africa and South Asia where “often, the best schools are the ones run by nuns,” said Shafique Virani, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. “That image may have remained from when they were back home.”

So far, no one has tried to quantify the trend or study the reasons behind it, he said.

Mr. Oumer said he is grateful that in Catholic schools his children will be taught a conservative approach to reproductive biology, sex education and same-sex relations.

Sometimes the local Catholic school does have a better reputation or higher standardized test scores than its secular counterpart.

That’s what prompted Saadia Sediqzadah to ask her parents if she could attend Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ont., east of Toronto.

She says her father was worried she might convert, but that his biggest concern was that she might face discrimination or bullying at her new school.

“He said it was okay if I didn’t tell anyone I was Muslim,” she said. “But I decided I had to be up front and I went around to everyone and told them, ‘Hi my name is Saadia, I’m Afghan and I’m Muslim.’ ”

The fall of her Grade 9 year, Ms. Sediqzadah said there were only a few Muslims at her school, but by the time she graduated, in 2006, there were close to 40.

“It’s word of mouth, parents talking to other parents,” she said. “Often families are related or from the same community and they’re telling each other good things about the Catholic schools.”


Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
What type of school system or systems did you attend?
What advantages/ disadvantages did you experience because of it?
Where would you prefer (your) children to study?

See Also:
Living among Christians on Jordian-Syrian Muslim blogger Jaraad's experiences at a Rosary Sisters School in Kuwait.

Sarah Rostom. Grade 12 Erindale Secondary School [public] student Sarah Rostom's team won the most awards at the Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament and Muslim Association of Canada Youth Quest in Toronto. Rostom won more individual awards than any of the other participants at the event. Photo courtesy of Zayn Media Inc. From the article Erindale tops in Muslim competition


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