Friday, 28 December 2012

On Identity & Post-Identity: Reflections of a Brown Man (Part 1)...

This post comprises a set of reflections peppered with professional musings about geopolitics and the world around us. 

There's probably an entire television series I could write simply based on 'interactions' that I've had at the airport. Whether it's been in Central Asia, the Sub-continent, the Middle East, Europe or of course, North America, I've never felt more brown than when I've walked into an airport. It's as if I spend a few extra hours in the sun on the days I travel. I'm crispy and a shade darker. Every Muslim - or Muslimish - male likely has a special razor he uses for long-haul flights, lest his 5 o'clock shadow becomes a security-risk mid-flight.

Brownness it seems is an odd curse in our world. There are entire industries dedicated to de-browning people. Literally. The leading products are those from our friends at Fair & Lovely, who politely inform us that our skin could get in the way of a dream job. There are also more 'intimate' concerns as well (for down there that is). Estimates are that the global skin whitening market reaches upwards of $18 billion in just Asia alone. Yet, it's not just an Asian (West or South) trend, our darker shaded brethren also partake in the habit. The Economist reported that a whopping 77% of Nigerian women use some form of skin-lightening product. And why not - from your personal life to your professional life, there are countless studies that shows being a little lighter and whiter can make your days brighter. In Mexico, it appears that dark skin can limit your socio-economic status. Nevertheless, who wants to live a life not comfortable in your own skin?

I think I've always been comfortable with 'brown' even if others have always been ambivalent about the term (and my own level of comfort with it). UPS' branded slogan, "What can brown do for you" was my slogan when I ran for student government at the Kennedy School of Government (n.b. never run for government at a school of government). This was to the chagrin of some of my latino-associated 'browns'. You see, 'brown' is an amorphous word that can encompass a range of individuals from across the religious, ethnic, and racial spectrum. Hispanic. Latino. Indian. Pakistani. Middle Eastern (Arab to Persian). Even Black. From there. Originally from there. Kind of from there. It's a catch-all term that belies ascription or description. It is a self-definition. There is much more of a tendency of society, Eastern & Western, global and local, to avoid the obvious or conversely assume while oblivious. It is why, the term Black when entering into popular consciousness is still uncomfortable in contemporary American society, even though many feel that it is the term that refers most closely to their being.

Our mass media culture is much more comfortable failing to acknowledge difference or accentuating it without understanding it. President Barack Obama is an African-American - even though he is half-white, raised by White grandparents in White America. Everything else is too complicated. The world looks for static and stereotyped identities when the truth is our own sense of self is much more fluid and dynamic. 'Brown' is at once simple and sophomoric while at the same time nebulous and nuanced. I've found that whether you like it or not, others will seek to define you along the lines they would like you to fit within - it's your choice, however, to live inside or outside those lines.

Growing up in the West, you are automatically attuned to your racial identity. In Canada you are a jigsaw piece to a mosaic multicultural puzzle. What exotic element do you represent? In Vancouver over 50% of respondents identify themselves as non-white. There, 'brown' is part of the visible majority (visible in being dark I guess) rather than a visible minority. In the U.S. you are expected to blend into some type of melting pot. There, across the nation, over half of children born in the country are born to ethnic and visible minorities.

Some people run from their background. It's an immigrant story not just specific to the brown-folk. Afshin turns into Sean, Mohammed into Mo, and the list goes on. That well integrated Muslim may be shaving, but he mysteriously disappears around prayer time on Fridays. I once had a friend who thought that 'Mosque' was the name of some club I went to every week. True story (actually true). One of the key things is to not speak like your parents, depending, of course, on how your parents speak. In my case, at 12, I still had trouble pronouncing the letter 'V'. For whatever reason, I would also mix up my 'Vs' and 'Ws' - being from West Vancouver, it was a bit of a problem.

Yet, as much as there are people trying to wash the brown away, there are others who soak in it. They bask in the familiarity of their likeness. Other brown-folk get the jokes. The inside jokes. About why the house may smell like curry spices. That at least one relative is an illegal immigrant. That you don't understand why white people can't dance (although your Bollywood numbers would cause you to question your own moves).

And all the while, whatever the second-generation immigrant choice, the society around you has already made its own decisions. For the former group, one day they'll walk into a room and realize: we're brown. It may be that your true name will be discovered. Once, when I came to my grade 7 science class, my teacher excitedly looked at me claiming he had seen my namesake in the movies over the weekend. He had just watched the Lion King and pointed at me saying 'Rafiki'. The fact that I actually do have East African roots, and relatives who live in Kenya was not known to him; he was just amused by the exoticism of the phonetic connection. It happens to the best of those hiding in plain sight, when they are asked to speak for a 'group'. You can run all you want but you are always an outsider to some people. After 9/11 all types of brown people who had never even contemplated their brownness were swept up - literally and figuratively - in the hysteria.

Yet, even the latter group, that seeks to withdraw into a bubbled existence of sameness, realizes the folly of that path. Going back to Mumbai. Or Baghdad. Or Cairo. Or Karachi. It's much more going until returning than going back. The first thing that normally happens is your language is bit off. That Hindi isn't really that good. You never quite mastered how to read Arabic. And there's that aunt who's kind of laughing at the fact that you aren't really brown anymore but white. What? Exactly.

Neither here nor there is the place of the East-West hybridity that is many of us today. You can be confused. And the world around you will be confused. Living in Dubai and working in the wider Middle East (another strange term of history) has only heightened the absurdity of dissonance for me. While in the West, your compatriots may give you the colour-blind benefit of the doubt, there ain't no leniency back East. The moment I get into a cab, the fellow brown driver (Nepali, Indian or Pakistani) tries to make the 'original' connection. But it's worse with your socio-economic classmates. With the cavalry of cacophonous colours collecting in the city, disaggregating the rainbow appears to be priority number one. There is no priority for understanding complex identities. As if you could wash the colour away with one generation (even if that was not what you were trying to do)? In Canada or the U.S., I'm a hyphenated identity or a misunderstood one, but in Dubai, I'm - Indian or Pakistani. Is it worth it to confuse people? To tell them your father is from Uganda - ah but he's not Black! Or that you are born in Canada - but you're not White! Or that you feel connection to India as much as Pakistan - but you're Muslim!

Being 'brown' really is a euphemism for what is really our ability to define our own identity. I'm Brown not Indian or Ugandan or Pakistani or Muslim or Eastern or Western. There's more to that identity than just pronouns and assumptions. And while people may feel it's inventive or counter-cultural, is it more so than the modern form of nationality? Until 1945, there was no such thing as the United Nations and most the developing world was the 'third world' under colonial rule. India and Pakistan didn't exist when my father's family immigrated in the late 1800s and early 1900s to East Africa - it was British India. Canada itself only became a country in 1867. There's a myth that migration is new and borders old. It's the other way around.

So then, what is my identity? How can you embrace a multitude of discrete faces without becoming unrecognizable? And can society and the world accept what confounds conventions?

These are some of the questions that I'll address in subsequent posts in the coming days. Yet, one thing I'll say:

Each of us has a multitude of identities we are always balancing that weave together to form our individual tapestries. We are a blend of ethnicity and language, religion and philosophy. Our parents and grandparents often have varying geographical roots and in our lives so far we've traversed many more. Where we settle isn't always where we started. For me, finding how this comes together becomes important for understanding my own individiual path. Yet, for society, and especially transitional societies, understanding this complexity of identity becomes formative in building stable nations in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

When did Canada go wrong on Israel/Palestine?

A lot has been written in the subsequent weeks following Canada's strong stand and vote against Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, in an almost intrinsic and essentialist stance. It is a relationship that Harper has said he would defend at any cost:

There is a history of how Canada's policy towards the Middle East conflict has shifted from neutral peacemaker to partisan cheerleader over the last decade and it started not with the Conservatives but with the Liberal Party, particularly under Paul Martin's leadership. Yet a lot of what is out there in the media is based on revisionism. I wanted to therefore post for the first time, exclusively on these pages, the official policy of the Government of Canada back in 2001, just over a decade ago, on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is in the form of a formal email that I received (as a freshman at Princeton!) from then Foreign Minister John Manley, clarifying Canada's position following the 'controversial' anti-racism conference in Durban that year. Obviously written by his policy team, it is still telling on the marked departure that Canada has taken from its more grounded and neutral past in the region.


Dear Taufiq Rahim:

Thank you for your e-mail of August 30, 2001, concerning the situation in the Occupied Territories, and the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 8, 2001.  I regret the delay in replying.

The Government of Canada has an ongoing dialogue, both in bilateral and in multilateral forums, with the Government of Israel concerning the general state of human rights, including minority rights. Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over the territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) and opposes all unilateral actions intended to predetermine the outcome of negotiations, including the establishment of settlements in the territories and unilateral moves to annex East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.  We consider such actions to be contrary to international law and unproductive to the peace process. Canada's policy on Palestinian refugees is based on UN Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948, which stipulates that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date, and that compensation should be paid for those choosing not to return.  Canada believes that the Palestinian refugee issue must be resolved in a manner in keeping with the spirit of Resolution 194 through negotiations among the parties directly concerned. Any solution must respect the rights, dignity and human security of the refugees, and should be consistent with international law.  Canada also believes that the best way to ensure a durable peace is to offer the refugees real choices.

The international community must work with the parties to encourage them to live up to their agreements and continue the active search for a just peace. Both parties must work toward the complete cessation of violence and terrorism, stay committed to the Peace Process and build upon the real progress achieved at Camp David and Taba. Please be assured that we continue to monitor the situation closely, and stand ready to assist Israel and the Palestinians to bring about peace. The objectives of the WCAR were: to review all factors leading to racism; review progress in the fight against racism; increase awareness of the problem; and recommend new and improved measures to combat racism.  Canada had hoped that the WCAR would lead to a renewed global commitment and action plan against racism and racial discrimination.

Canada stayed at the Conference in an attempt to ensure that the Declaration and Program of Action contained text worthy of global support, and to speak out against the elements of text that were inappropriate and unacceptable. At the closing of the WCAR, Canada believed it was necessary to issue a strong statement of reservation on the Declaration and Program of Action. Our concerns centred on inappropriate references to the Middle East, the failure to include the multiple forms and grounds for discrimination, and the issue of apology, reparations and compensation for slavery, colonialism and the slave trade.  The Canadian delegation registered its strongest objections and dissociated itself integrally from all text in this document directly or indirectly relating to the situation in the Middle East. We have said, and will continue to say, that any language presented in any forum that does not serve to advance a negotiated peace that will bring security, dignity and respect to the people of the region is - and will be - unacceptable to Canada.  A copy of a news release issued in this regard, to which Canada's statement of reservation is attached, can be found on our Web site at http:/, News Releases and Statements.

However, these reservations should not overshadow the positive elements of the final documents, or the strong role Canada played in influencing progressive strategies for indigenous peoples and in encouraging the role of civil society, especially youth, in combatting racism, in particular hate on the Internet.

The issue of Zionism was excised from the United Nations' books in 1991.  It had no place in the work of the WCAR.  Canada strongly maintained its position that any attempt to equate Zionism with racism was unacceptable.

Canada remains committed to fighting discrimination in all of its forms, and will continue to channel its international efforts through the United Nations until a global consensus is reached in which Canada could join.

Thank you again for writing.

Yours very truly,

John Manley

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Assessing Syria: Seeking a Way Forward

Today there was a pivotal meeting of the so-called 'Friends of Syria' group held in Marrakech, Morocco. At the meeting and just ahead of it, a number of countries recognized the Syrian National Coalition (the abbreviated name of the opposition group by consensus formed in Doha several weeks back) as the 'legitimate representatives of Syria.' Yet, this recognition and perhaps an approved tranche of funding, will certainly not be enough to end the despair and difficult situation in Syria right now. There are no easy solutions. I am reposting below a piece from a month-and-a-half ago that I wrote on a simple basis for a way forward.

This article was originally published on Syria Deeply, on October 29, 2012. 

In Syria today, there are no easy solutions. In fact, there may be no solutions at all, something that even UN Special EnvoyLakhdar Brahimi affirmed. Moreover, unless the objective is to destroy the castle in order to unseat the king, reinforcing the status quo of active conflict will only make Syria’s situation harder to solve.
The war scenes have been horrific over the last several months in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. The army has continued its systematic ground and air campaign, indiscriminately firing into vaguely-defined rebel areas in almost every major city.According to the United Nations, this has included: “murder, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, violations of children’s rights, pillaging, and destruction of civilian objects – including hospitals and schools.”
Aleppo’s historic Souq, purportedly the largest in the entire Middle East, went up in flames in late September.  In early October, a blast by the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group ripped through the heart of the city’s main square, brutally killing dozens of civilians and injuring countless more.  Violence from all sides continued with varying intensity through the Eid al-Adha holiday.
The Center for New American Security projects five potential scenarios in Syria. Unfortunately, some of these are either unlikely (i.e. #2 managed transition) or ominous (i.e. #5 disintegration of the country). The fourth scenario envisions that Bashar Assad remains in power after a protracted civil war, something that seems completely untenable for regional forces and many Syrians to accept, despite Iran, Russia and perhaps China in support. The first scenario, the sudden death of Assad, is neither a solution nor something to bank on. Even if Assad is killed, his regime is well entrenched in Syria. Scenario number three, which consists of the overthrow of the regime by the armed opposition, appears to be where the U.S., the GCC, and Europe have invested most of their energies, somewhat nervously.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that this latter scenario is dangerous, will not work, and is only leading to a greater conflagration of violence and deaths. UN Envoy Brahimi, who has extensive experience in conflict mitigation from Iraq to Afghanistan, has even told the Saudi King that the crisis “would not be resolved through military means.” Conversely, any scenario that keeps Assad in power and the regime status quo intact is a hollow solution that won’t satisfy the armed opposition, as the breakdown of Kofi Annan’s plan demonstrated (a plan that did not explicitly call for a regime transition). Yet foreign military intervention to dislodge the regime still appears unlikely and counter-productive.
That leaves us with a quixotic proposal that also seems like the only plausible option: the simultaneous call for a universal ceasefire and an immediate process of transition of the regime. Many rebel groups, particularly hardline Salafist jihadist fighters, would hardly be receptive to any ceasefire. Yet, other groups, such as the Farouq Batallion, could welcome a ceasefire if it was accompanied by real change in Syria’s leadership. Such a ceasefire could also be guaranteed by a no-fly-zone. This would give Russia and China comfort that the no-fly-zone is part of a universal cessation of violence, and not one simply imposed on the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, on the regime side, its supporters have already been meeting with opposition groups, demonstrating declining confidence in Assad. Russia has received several opposition delegations, and there are reports that Iran has met with the Muslim Brotherhood, although Tehran denies the meeting. Even in regime strongholds, such as Assad’s hometown ofQardaha, there have been growing skirmishes between groups as the situation has grown fractious.
The dual call for a simultaneous, robust ceasefire and a process of regime transition seems simple and obvious. And while there are many layers of complexity, and a complicated path to align stakeholders to make it happen, it is this dual call that is the only basis for a real solution to Syria. The alternative, a systematic escalation in violence, is no solution at all.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A world of Islams

This article originally appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine.

A world of Islams

By Taufiq Rahim ’04
Published in the December 12, 2012, issue

I remember waking up in my dorm room on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, to the shouts of my hall-mate and friend beckoning me to come next door. It was the beginning of our sophomore year, and I was a leader of the Muslim Students Associa­tion (MSA) at Princeton. Watching television in 1937 Hall, we were gripped and confounded by the horrific scenes that unfolded in the ensuing hours, which are forever etched in my ­memory —  as I am sure they are for countless others.

It was the start of what has been termed the post-9/11 decade, during which much of the world’s narrative was shaped by an “us versus them” mentality. Especially in the first few years, Muslims in the West endured an uncomfortable feeling that the surrounding society considered them suspect.
I fielded calls shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks from local newspapers, the reporters asking if things were OK for Muslims on campus. Though there were incidents, the general situation at Princeton was safe. I sometimes received hate mail. One group of students was assaulted one weekend in Boston and returned with the bruises to show for it. And, I, like so many others, was given the so-called special treatment and faced lengthy interrogations at JFK or Newark whenever flying to and from school.

I came to Princeton as a student like everyone else, but at some point I had to transform into an ambassador of understanding. The funny thing is, at the same time I was explaining Islam to promote understanding, I was questioning the state of Islam in the world around me. It is a duality that has stayed with me in the years since.

This year, on the anniversary of the attacks, a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, shocked the world once again. It also shocked the residents of Benghazi. This past January, I spent time with youth activists and entrepreneurs in that city. What I witnessed was a courageous and driven group of young Libyans determined to forge a better future. Alongside tens of thousands of their compatriots, many of these youth marched in mid-September to the central al-Kish Square in memory of the slain U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, calling as well on militias to disarm.

Their march was emblematic of the duality I experience. No doubt, there is still a need to combat what is more a “clash of ignorances” (not a clash of civilizations) across the divide between the Muslim world and the West. This was the impetus that drove two colleagues and me to found the nonprofit initiative Project Encounter, which promotes engagement and dialogue. We bring groups of young people from North America and Europe to the Middle East, to allow them to form their own narrative about the region. I feel that only through improved understanding and greater familiarity can we find constructive ways forward.

Nevertheless, through my work and travels in countries from Afghanistan to Syria, Palestine to Pakistan, and places in between, I find there is a need for just as much soul-searching within Muslim communities themselves.

When a cheaply made YouTube film can lead to violent demonstrations in more than a dozen countries, you cannot help but ask questions. When a young Christian girl can be jailed swiftly on the demands of an unhinged cleric alleging “blasphemy” in Pakistan, you cannot help but raise an objection. When a college is raided and 25 students are killed in Nigeria by a group whose name (Boko Haram) means “West­ern education is sinful,” you cannot help but be dismayed.
For many countries in the Muslim world, the next few years will not be easy. The political and economic challenges facing them are immense — and that’s an understatement. A few are in active states of internal conflict, if not internecine warfare. Others are under the grip of debilitating authoritarian regimes. So many are still afflicted by economic deprivation.

There are, of course, counterexamples. In places like Malaysia and Dubai, there are new economic models of development. The Arab uprisings have started to push back against political authoritarianism. Yet the forces of religious orthodoxy seem to be not only constant, but growing. Popular clerics who appear on Pakistani television are busy calling minority groups, such as Ahmadis, non-Muslims — with deadly consequences. I remember seeing the bloodstains in an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore in 2010, shortly after an attack by religious militants. More than 90 people had died in attacks at two mosques. Within a year, the governor of the Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, had been assassinated for opposing draconian blasphemy laws, as was the federal minister of religious minorities. What was the basis or justification for those attacks?

Sooner or later, everybody comes into the sights of the bully pulpit: marginalized groups such as Ahmadis, other religious groups and Muslim minorities, and then so-called “moderates.” Sufi shrines that existed for centuries have been attacked and destroyed by extremist groups in recent months in Libya and Mali. When I was working for an NGO in the Gujarat province in India, many of my meetings were held in Hindu temples, sometimes during religious ceremonies. What would the view of the hardline Muslim orthodoxy be of me?

Traveling through the wider region, you quickly realize that while the bullies are strong and loud, they are surrounded by people who would like to see a pluralistic and prosperous society. These are people like the young activists I met in Libya. They are the Saudi Arabian entrepreneurs who have formed an organization dedicated to the empowerment of women in the workforce (Glowork). They include my Syrian friends who are helping to ensure that those fleeing conflict have a place of refuge, no matter their sect or creed. They are like my former colleagues, who have spent their entire careers in Pakistani villages working on local development.

I’m hopeful that these progressive forces within many Muslim communities and Muslim-majority countries can coalesce to form a stronger and wider constituency for change. Such a movement would be the most effective bridge between the Muslim world and the West, as well. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Canada’s UN vote against Palestinian statehood only empowers extremists


This article initially appeared in the Toronto Star (December 2, 2012). The original article can be found by clicking on the title below.

Canada’s UN vote against Palestinian statehood only empowers extremists

“This resolution will not advance the cause of peace or spur a return to negotiations. On the contrary, this unilateral step will harden positions and raise unrealistic expectations while doing nothing to improve the lives of the Palestinian people.”
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird delivered this message in a strident speech from the podium of the UN General Assembly before the historic Thursday vote that affirmed Palestine statehood. But in the end his words failed to resonate with the rest of world, quite literally, as Canada found itself stranded in opposition to the resolution with a hodgepodge of Pacific island nations and Israel’s stalwart ally the United States (and, for whatever reason, the Czech Republic). The final vote was 138 countries in favour, 41 abstentions and 9 against, the latter representing only 5 per cent of the world’s population.

It wasn’t always this way. Canada traditionally played a much more even-handed role in the conflict, realizing the need to support both Israel’s security and Palestinian aspirations for statehood. But over the last decade Canadian policy on the Middle East conflict has become increasingly one-sided in its affinity for Israel. At the UN, Baird asserted that the resolution did not serve the interests of peace. Yet rather than promoting peace, the lonely Canadian UN vote only empowered extremists on both sides and could contribute to increased violence.

The push for recognition at the world body was the culmination of an effort that was launched roughly two years ago by the Palestinians, led by President Mahmoud Abbas. In his speech in New York, Abbas reiterated that this initiative was intended not to “delegitimize” Israel but instead to “affirm the legitimacy” of Palestine. The campaign is one of only a few non-violent forms of activism left in the Palestinian arsenal to achieve a two-state solution.

After more than 64 years of dispossession and 45 years of occupation, Abbas and the Palestinian leadership viewed the UN vote as a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. That message resonated not just with countries that Prime Minister Stephen Harper could dismiss but also with democratic nations such as Norway, Spain, France, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Italy — not really a motley crew of rogue states.

It would be easy to ignore the significance of the Canadian vote. After all, it’s hardly news that under Harper Canadian policy has lacked balance. But today the Holy Land finds itself at a seminal inflection point, where there is a greater tolerance for intransigence on both sides. Coming out of the crisis in Gaza, where residents suffered massive casualties and destruction, Abbas was viewed as a weak, irrelevant figure. His invisibility, combined with changes in the wider region, has meant that the profile of Hamas has been raised. During the recent conflict, leading political officials from the Arab world met with senior Hamas figures in Gaza for the first time in five years.

Beyond this, among the Palestinian community, commitment to a two-state solution has been waning. It is no longer viewed as tenable given the growing encroachment of settlements in the West Bank. Leading activists have started to reintroduce the democratic solution that promotes one state in which there is universal suffrage, as in the South Africa model. For them, Abbas’s UN initiative was dead on arrival, regardless of whether it received support.

Against this backdrop, the Canadian government’s message is that this last-gasp support for a two-state solution and a peaceful Palestinian movement toward that end is “utterly regrettable.” Not only that, the government has also intimated it will review its aid to the Palestinian Authority.
There should be no illusions about what this means. Palestinians — after many decades of waiting — are looking for realistic traction toward self-determination. If the peaceful avenues leading to that end are closed, it will leave only the extremist approach. Hamas will point out that Gaza doesn’t have any Israeli settlements, that their kidnapping of Israeli Gilad Shalit led to the release of Palestinian prisoners, and that Arab states are recognizing their leadership. And then they will ask: What has President Abbas done for you lately?

Beyond the question of whether Canada is on the wrong side of history, which hardly seems debatable, it now appears to be empowering violence and extremism. How can you support Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution and inexplicably oppose that very reality, claiming it is not conducive to peace? That cognitive dissonance should stimulate a deep examination of Canadian policy — there is a lot more at stake here than just a UN vote.