There's nothing sinister or secret about what we do
Monday, January 17, 2005 12:50 pm
Ottawa Citizen, 01/12/05
By Riad Saloojee
(Riad Saloojee is executive director of CAIR-CAN. The same piece appeared under different titles in 4 other CanWest newspapers.)
In his most recent column, George Jonas laments the possible erosion of civil liberties as a result of civil suits over terrorism ("Civil liberties may be at risk in civil suits over terrorism," Jan. 10). His argument begins by noting that our organization, CAIR-CAN, was recently added to a U.S. suit on behalf of a victim of 9/11, John P. O'Neill, who was formerly part of the FBI's counterterrorism division. Mr. Jonas essentially argues that political advocacy-- no matter how disagreeable to him -- should not be criminalized or made the subject of civil litigation.
The suit betrays a litigious milieu common for some time in the United States: It is a shotgun suit, short on specifics, that targets more than 70 organizations, alleging, in broad and sweeping strokes, that they are all extremist, Wahhabi fronts.
As a rather bizarre endnote, we were added last week to the list of defendants and informed by a story-seeking journalist. We received no legal notice, no statement of claim and no official documents, prompting us to contemplate whether this was a type of "slapsuit," a strategic but frivolous lawsuit intended to silence public participation.
Mr. Jonas, though careful not to presume guilt on the part of anyone, quotes liberally from the unproven allegations of Mr. O'Neill's claim. For example, the argument advanced by the suit, he suggests, is that Muslim groups spread propaganda against police and intelligence agencies, and sabotage government anti-terrorist efforts, by creating "self-doubt, hesitation, fear and name-calling, and litigation ... so as to render such authorities ineffective in pursuing international and domestic terrorist entities."
Since 9/11, many Canadian and Canadian Muslim organizations have consistently decried tactics that limit basic civil liberties. Our activism for the past four years, for example, has often brought us head-to-head with Canada's security agencies. And our criticism, often trenchant, of these agencies has concerned the violation of civil liberties and the rule of law.
We have spoken, for example, to the issue of security certificates; the possible culpability of our intelligence agencies in the Maher Arar case and the other well-publicized cases of alleged torture against Canadians such as Abdalla Almalki, Ahmad Abou El-Maati, MuayyEd Nureddin and Arwad Al-Boushi; racial profiling; and Bill C-36, the anti-terrorism legislation. In every instance, the crux of our argument has been the same: We have advocated against the erosion of fundamental rights. We have advocated for the right to an open trial, to due process, to see the evidence against you, to be free from torture, not to be held without cause, and the rule of law, with its insistence that state actions cannot be arbitrary, discriminatory or without accountability.
Far from tying the hands of security forces, we have argued that there is no dichotomy between human rights and security -- that both are symbiotically connected, that the loss of one signals the loss of the other. Such an either-or approach to human rights and security must be rejected through front-line, public activism rather than an ivory-tower soliloquy.
Others, including Amnesty International, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the Canadian Bar Association, have advocated for similar-- even identical -- protection of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.
Activism in the public realm is a powerful and unforgiving filter. Under the public glare, all is noticed. We've never attempted to hide who we are. We are an open book, our work transparent. All our statements and opinion pieces -- many of them condemning extremism and anti-Semitism, for example -- are a matter of public record and are available on our website, www.caircan.ca
There is nothing cloak-and-dagger about what we do or what we believe. You don't need a public inquiry, or a public inquisition, to get the bottom of our work.
Labels such as "terrorist," "extremist," "fundamentalist," and "Wahhabi" pack quite a punch and are sometimes manipulated to secure silence. Interestingly, they are sometimes used by Muslims within the Muslim community to silence others, establish a high moral ground -- or even to get back at the fellow that did not vote for you in the local mosque election. Recently, they have been used by elements in the United States to smear Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), the Swiss intellectual Tareq Ramadan, and our very own Toronto-based scholar, Ahmad Kutty.
In Canada, thankfully, you generally succeed or fail by the quality and merit of your work, not through a guilt-by-association standard. Here we still insist on proof -- that essential edifice of our most basic and inalienable civil liberties -- over the whisper campaign in a politics of suspicion.