Slayings in Quebec mosque, words are weapons too

Ottawa demo against Islamophobia on Feb. 4. Photo by Dennis Gruending
Ottawa demo against Islamophobia on Feb. 4. Photo by Dennis Gruending

We are heartsick about the killing of six men and the injury of several others in a Quebec City mosque on Jan 29. Those who were shot and killed as they prayed were Mamadou Tanou Barry, Ibrahima Barry, Khaled Belkacemi, Abdelkrim Hassane and Azzedine Soufiane Aboubaker Thabti. A  27-year-old Laval University student, Andre Bissonnette, has been charged with six counts of murder and others of attempted murder. Continue reading Slayings in Quebec mosque, words are weapons too

Racism in the Canadian election, suppressing our better angels

Syrian refugees cross from Hungary into Austria on their way to Germany in September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons
Syrian refugees cross from Hungary into Austria on their way to Germany in September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons

The main issue in the Canadian election was supposed to be who could best manage the economy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that it’s he, and warns that other political parties will run deficits and raise taxes. Of course, Harper ran six deficits in a row. Apparently, he runs good deficits but it would be irresponsible for others to do the same. Continue reading Racism in the Canadian election, suppressing our better angels

Charles Taylor on Muslims in Canada

Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum
Philosopher Charles Taylor in media scrum

The celebrated Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor made headlines recently when he said that the prime minister’s critical comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab (a partial face covering) were both “dumb” and a boon for terrorist recruiters such as the Islamic State. Taylor’s point was that the prime minister is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment and that in turn makes alienated Muslims in Canada more likely targets for terrorist recruiters. Taylor called the comments “a ridiculously disproportionate reaction” to the tiny number of women who wear the niqab in Canada. He speculated that some politicians are cynically trolling for votes by trying to sew division.

The news stories quoting Taylor arose largely from a scrum that he had with reporters following a keynote speech that he made to a gathering organized by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, a think tank named after the former NDP leader.

A public intellectual

Taylor, a professor emeritus of political philosophy at McGill University, is perhaps Canada’s most prominent public intellectual. He was, for example, one of the main speakers early in March at an international conference in Rome convened by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Taylor was also co-chair of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, which arose from a controversy stoked by some in Quebec against Muslims and other minority groups. The commission’s report Building the Future was released in 2008 after months of testimony at public hearings.

Taylor’s speech to the Broadbent Institute did target recent comments by some federal politicians, but at an earlier time he was also a blunt critic of plans by the Parti Quebecois to introduce a charter of values that would have forbade people working in public institutions from wearing clothing or accessories of a religious nature.

Historical sweep

Taylor’s speech was rich in its historical sweep, providing examples of how social exclusion has been practiced but also how it has been overcome. “We are in a race,” he said, “between measures that create solidarity and those that create division. We must create bonds of solidarity and avoid stigmatization.”

Taylor said that all societies at one time or another attempt to exclude certain people and groups. There was once a strong opposition to Irish immigration into the United States, but Taylor said that the Americans overcame it. The symbolic end to that discrimination occurred when John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the country’s president in 1960. “But today in the U.S. Hispanics are unwanted by a lot of Anglo-Saxon types,” Taylor said, but he predicted that Americans will get beyond that exclusion as well.

He used France as an example of a country that once had a positive attitude toward accepting immigrants, but that changed after World War II and especially after the war in the former French colony of Algeria. “There is now a deep alienation among immigrants in France and the country is aggravating it with anti-Muslim measures.”

Bonds of solidarity

Taylor asked his audience to think about how certain countries succeed in confronting the obstacles to welcoming newcomers while other nations do not. “If we allow people to get to know each other and if we create enough connections, we can get beyond this just as the Americans did with the Irish and the Polish,” Taylor said. “We have to build connections of solidarity and to include those who are excluded.”

All political leaders, Taylor said, have a responsibility to refrain from stigmatization. “It is really dangerous for the prime minister to say that Islam is anti-feminine because some women choose to wear the niqab. This creates confrontation and stigmatizes all Muslims and ultimately the bonds of solidarity may not be able to keep up with the amount of division. You can be desperate to win an election and think you can do that by creating tension, but if you succeed you may actually lose the country you want. We have to think in the long term.”

Despite the controversies, Taylor said that he remains optimistic about the likelihood of having solidarity triumph over division in Canada. “We can meet this challenge. We have done so in the past in Canada and in Quebec and we can do so again.”         




Manning Centre talkfest showcases “vapid conservatism”

MP John Williamson, foot in mouth
MP John Williamson, foot in mouth

Preston Manning fancies himself a big thinker and his recent networking conference in Ottawa was billed as an intellectual event for the conservative movement. But National Post columnist Andrew Coyne got it right in his column — the Manning conference was “vapid”. The Harper government has swallowed the movement and rather than talking policy the conference attendees showed themselves more interested in shilling for the Conservatives in preparation for the coming election.  Coyne says that the Manning event featured no fewer than seven sessions devoted to the use of social media and other campaign tools and tips. By my count nine federal MPs and cabinet ministers, not to mention premiers Jim Prentice and Christy Clark, were given platforms as conference speakers.

John Williamson’s clunker

The event, however, generated negative publicity when John Williamson, a Conservative MP from New Brunswick, put his foot in his mouth in talking about the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program. Williamson told the crowd that it makes no sense to pay “whities” to stay home while companies bring in “brown people” as temporary foreign workers. By the next day Williamson was hurriedly posting a series of tweets to apologize for his language. He is a former communications director for Stephen Harper and a former director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, the minister of state for small business and tourism, is a regular speaker at the Manning conferences. One wonders why since he has rarely made the news since being turfed as Foreign Affairs minister for leaving a bundle of cabinet documents at his female partner’s house in 2008. Perhaps Bernier, one of only four Conservative MPs from Quebec, was there as a nod to what has been a political wasteland for the Conservatives. Bernier is hardly known as an ideas man and chose to spend his time at the podium attacking Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his late father Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a former prime minister.

Oliver veers off script

Finance Minister Joe Oliver was there, too, ostensibly to talk about the economy. He abandoned his script, however, to warn about the dangers posed by Muslim terrorists and the wisdom of the Conservatives’ Bill C-51, which will potentially invade the privacy of Canadians in hitherto unimagined ways in the name of combating terrorism.

In fact, all cabinet ministers are veering off script these days, no matter what the topic at hand, to deliver a pat set of talking points about terrorism and how our fearless leader is the only one who can protect us from it. Welcome to the election campaign and expect to hear a lot more of this.

Conservative mismanagement

The terrorism-fearless leader trope has the added advantage of diverting attention from the economy, where the Conservatives squandered the billions of dollars in budget surplus left to them by the Liberals and then cut deeply into programs used by Canadians in order to reduce the deficit they had created. Job growth in Canada has been lacklustre at best and even the banks are saying that since the Great Recession poorly paid and temporary McJobs have replaced what was once full time and pensionable employment. Inequality among Canadians continues to rise along with alarming levels of household debt. Add that to a burgeoning trade deficit and a meltdown in the oil sector and one can understand why Oliver and the other ministers would sooner talk about terrorism and prisons than about the economy.

Working journalists?

The Manning Networking Conference failed to meet its public billing but the event received massive media coverage nonetheless. Several working journalists were listed on the agenda as speakers or moderators. One assumes they were paid for their efforts. The progressive Broadbent Institute will have a conference in Ottawa on March 26-28. Let’s all watch to see how much media coverage it receives.

Christians, Jews, Muslims plan Ottawa colloquium

David Lee: Christian, Jewish, Muslim colloquium
David Lee: Christian, Jewish, Muslim colloquium

Theologian Hans Kung once said that there will be no peace among nations until there is peace among the world’s religions and there will be no peace without dialogue. The three Abrahamic faith groups in Ottawa – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – have taken that advice to heart.

On November 10, 2013 the three groups will co-host a one-day colloquium at Carleton University in Ottawa. The theme to be addressed is: How can one be a person of faith in the 21st century in Canada?  (By way of transparency: I am involved in the organization of this event).

“We want to fill the hall,” says David Lee, who broached the idea of such an event. Mr. Lee is chair of the 50th anniversary committee of the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (OSTS). “We want to draw upon the experience and wisdom of the three faith traditions to address key issues going forward, regarding future possibilities and challenges for persons of faith in Canada.”

Mr. Lee says that OSTS approached the Jewish and Muslim communities about the idea and the response was encouraging. “People there were enthusiastic about holding an inter-religious event of this kind.  There is a great deal of mutual respect among us.” Continue reading Christians, Jews, Muslims plan Ottawa colloquium

Mar Musa cleric Paolo Dall’Oglio tours Canada

Frescoes at Mar Musa monastery, Syria

Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who spent decades restoring the ancient Mar Musa monastery in Syria, has taken the unusual step of touring Canada to call for action that would prevent the Assad regime from killing even more of its own people.  While in Ottawa recently, he was quoted as saying, “The international community cannot turn its back on the Syrian people, who are being tortured, jailed and killed for the simple act of demanding freedom of expression.” His tour also takes him to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York. While in Ottawa, he met with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Restoring Mar Musa

Dall’Oglio has spent most of the past 30 years at the Christian monastery of Mar Musa, which is perched high up on a cliff in the sun-baked desert hills about 80 kilometres north of Damascus. Mar Musa was built in the 6th century when Syria was at the centre of Byzantine Christianity and when monasticism was flourishing. Mar Musa gradually fell into decline and was abandoned in the 1830s.

Dall’Oglio visited in the 1980s and has since devoted himself to Mar Musa’s restoration.  With the help of the local community and foreign money, the monastery and its small 11th century church were refurbished. Mar Musa has become a centre of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims and a destination for others who arrive and stay awhile, provided they are prepared to help with cooking and cleaning.

Visiting Mar Musa

We visited Mar Musa in 2010, travelling in a small van from Damascus. Our young driver had been recommended by a friend who knew and trusted him. He pulled into a parking lot from where we would ascend hundreds of stone steps along the side of a gorge to get to the monastery. He told us that the secret police regularly wait in the same parking lot and question drivers about what their passengers had talked about on the trip out from Damascus.

After a steep climb we arrived at the high stone bench on which the monastery is built. There we ducked through a low doorway into the small, dimly-lit church with its priceless restored frescoes depicting the Last Supper and other Christian events. A priest was saying mass for a small group of French tourists so we sat quietly on the mats, participating in the ritual and looking at the frescoes.

Brutal crackdown

We did not see Dall’Oglio that day but his name has become synonymous with Mar Musa over the past 30 years. He is in anguish over the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on what began as peaceful dissent and calls for reform in Syria. The situation has now escalated into a civil war that is drawing in outside players, including the Iranians and Russians on the side of the regime, and the Americans, Saudis and Qataris on the side of the opposition. Each passing day also provides more evidence that al-Qaeda fighters have been arriving in the country to carry out jihad against a regime that they despise.

The Toronto Star reports that the Assad regime has killed at least 17,000 Syrians in 17 months, with twice that many missing — either in jails or dead. At least 125,000 refugees have escaped into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Between 2 million and 4 million Syrians are internally displaced.

Alawite minority

President Bashar al-Hassad is an Alawite, a Muslim minority group in Syria that comprises about 12% of the population and is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population. Bashar’s late father, Hafez al-Hassad, ruled with the country with ruthless determination, creating an informal coalition of religious minority groups including Christians, who comprise another 10%. More than 70% of the Syrian population is Sunni, but they are largely excluded from regime’s ranks and its patronage.

Christians in Syria

There are Christians on both sides of the current struggle. Some are represented among the opposition to the Assad regime while others support it. The New York Times has reported that their support “is often driven more by fear than fervor.” The newspaper continues: “For many Syrian Christians, Mr. Assad remains predictable in a region where unpredictability has driven their brethren from war-racked places like Iraq and Lebanon, and where others have felt threatened in post-revolutionary Egypt.”

In anguish

Dall’Oglio is in anguish. In May 2012, he sent a letter to special UN envoy Kofi Annan calling for the deployment of 30,000 UN troops to protect Syrian civilians from harm. That got him kicked out of the country and he now lives in Beirut. His call sounds much like the “responsibility to protect” doctrine promoted by former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy and others.

Dall’Oglio is critical of the Maronite Catholic church establishment in Syria, backed by the Russian Orthodox Church and some in the West. They believe that the Christian minority in Syria is better off under Assad than it is likely to be under any replacement.

That is a lie, says Dall’Oglio. He is quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, “Canada is full of Syrian Christians who escaped from there. Christians in Syria have faced one crisis after another, yet the church establishment thought Assad was protecting them.” He adds that many rank-and-file Christians have joined the struggle against the regime.

Selfish and self-serving

In any event, he says, it is selfish and self-serving for Christians to think only of themselves. “Are we only taking care of ourselves as a tribe? If we are Christians, we should be for the dignity and human rights of all the people of Syria.”

The irony, he says, is that the longer the Assad regime lasts, the greater the prospects of hard-line Islamists playing a bigger role, in the struggle, increasing the very danger that Christians are worrying about. “The things that happened in Iraq against Christians may happen in Syria as well,” he adds.

Pressure and aid

Dall’Oglio called in his meeting with John Baird for Canada to put diplomatic pressure on China and Russia, countries that continue to use their veto to block any action by the UN. He is also calling for more humanitarian aid for displaced people within Syria and for those who have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries.

Photos of Mar Musa

To see more photos of Mar Musa, please click here.

Christians fear regime change in Syria


Mosques, churches in Damascus

The Scottish writer William Dalrymple says that Syria has been a kind of oasis for Christians in the  Middle East.  But Syrian Christians are now faced with a painful choice. They can offer support to a brutal dictatorship that, generally, has protected them but has killed 5,000 of its citizens since calls for change and demonstrations began in the spring of 2011. Or Christians can participate in the opposition, which, if it topples the regime, may bring to power a Sunni-led government that could be ultra-conservative and anti-Christian. Continue reading Christians fear regime change in Syria

Izzeldin Abuelaish and Remembrance Day


Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (2009)

Although I have attended Remembrance Day ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in the past, in 2009 I decided to support a smaller event whose theme was peace and reconciliation. On November 10 I was one of about three hundred people who heard an agonizingly sad but ultimately hopeful speech by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. He is a Palestinian paediatric physician and peace advocate whose house in Gaza was struck by Israeli tank shell on January 16, 2009.

Continue reading Izzeldin Abuelaish and Remembrance Day