Lawyer, activist, and founding member of Critical Muslim Voices, Hasan Alam on the dynamics of ego in power, the pervasiveness of Bill C-51, and using humour to help get people engaged with social issues.
Tracy: As we sat down, you and I were discussing how the dynamics of power can exist anywhere. Abuse of power and ego preoccupation can be found in the halls of Ottawa, or within an activist community fighting power structures. Want to begin with your thoughts on this?
Hasan: Looking at certain communities in Vancouver, there are personalities that dominate in an almost hegemonic way, which is reproducing structures of power even though a lot of these personalities exist within organizations or groups that are supposed to be horizontal, or replicating more socialist values. I don't think of those people as bad and I don't even think they're doing it consciously; that's the nature of power. It shows exactly how power can drive people with really egalitarian, socialist, or anarchist values to try to gravitate to the top to feel that surge. I've had conversations with friends about why this seems to happen a lot, and in one interesting discussion we came to the conclusion that, of course this should be expected. We can't look at these groups in a bubble; they're operating within structures of capitalism where these types of power dynamics play out every day. So why wouldn't these individuals also replicate those structures?
There isn't a clear model of something else to emulate. Do you think the amount of value we place on individualism, or the 'A' type personality, is a factor at all? It seems as though we're almost rewarded for being egotistical.
Yes entirely. If you've grown up socialized in this culture, it takes a lot of work to de-socialize yourself out of that on a subconscious level. Speaking about the psychology of it, we gravitate towards this behaviour because that's the system we've experienced. So when people talk about de-colonizing your mind, this is really part of that: cleansing your mind of our system. It's interesting to look at certain Latin American groups because a lot of them have been very successful in creating alternative models to ours. There is a true sense of horizontal structuring, or they have made efforts to decentralize power. The most interesting piece, which a lot of my friends have commented on as well - especially those who come from Latin American movements - is that spirituality is infused within a lot of these groups. As someone who does consider myself to be spiritual, I feel that this is really what we're missing from in a lot of our movements here. Spirituality adds a certain element of humility, an external consciousness that there is something larger than just this struggle, or this group. That's really powerful.
Without awareness of something larger than self-focused pursuit, something falls off balance; your goals become the source for unquenchable acclaim or other ego-filling reactions. If your only sense of worth must come from others telling you how great you are, these power dynamics will continue to appear everywhere you go.
Exactly. I should stop myself before saying that groups here don't have that [sense of something larger] however. I think there are many individuals within groups who have that spirituality, and that outlook on life and the world - especially within Indigenous groups. And now that the Indigenous movement has been growing, it's reminding all of us how important it is to be cognizant of the land, and to be conscious of mother nature or whatever you prefer to call it. With their inclusion being so strong in this collaboration, they're really bringing that awareness to the forefront. It's really interesting to me how we're seeing this language of mother earth, spirituality, and the creator come into the narrative of our struggles. It's a different type of identity and it brings a new type of worth.
I also wanted to ask if you've seen the documentary Secret Trial 5, and about your opinion on security certificates. You can clarify if I have it wrong, but essentially individuals are being charged under these certificates for a crime that they aren't informed of. They're given no details about the crime and even their lawyers aren't able to see the evidence against them.
I did see that. And unfortunately yes that's what it means; security certificates are pretty draconian. But both the timing of that movie's release, and also when the filmmaker Amar Wala decided to tour it, were awesome because that was right around the beginning of Bill C-51 and this dialogue was very important. In particular it mattered because it reminded us about the fact that Bill C-51 isn't coming out of a vacuum, it's coming out of this longer history within Canada that security certificates are a part of. With Secret Trial 5 there were five individuals who were post-911, were detained without evidence or charge, were held under 'immigration' laws (not even our criminal code), and their lives were destroyed, as were their families. I actually had the opportunity to meet Mohammad Mahjoub when he came to Vancouver. He was one of the five individuals who were held under security certificates and it was really heart-wrenching to hear his story. Not only was this man utterly tormented in detention, but it got worse when he actually got out. Once these individuals are released, the charges still haven't been dropped so they're being monitored by CSIS who come to their houses at random times, and they are constantly harassed. This man had a family and he wound up getting divorced as a result of the stress of that harassment. At one point he actually asked to be re-incarcerated because he would rather be put back in detention. I remember him saying, "Living in detention was easier than the hell that I had to live through every day when I was out." So this movie was really powerful for the reason that it was a reminder of the past that Bill C-51 is built on. This past has a very particular name too, it's called the War on Terror. That's what Bill C-51 is really coming out of, and that is what security certificates came out of. Canadians are often naive to the fact that Canada is playing - and has been playing - a very active role in this war right from the outset: in Afghanistan, and now in Syria. This war isn't just waged far away either, it's being waged domestically as well, and we need movies like this to make us realize that.
In discussing Bill C-51, I hear a lot of people say that if they're obeying the law they shouldn't care if they're being spied on. I've asked this questions to others as well, but in your personal opinion, why should law-abiding citizens be opposed to this legislature [Bill C-51]?
Yes that's a good question. Whenever I discuss this I always want to put this disclaimer there, which I think is a very important disclaimer. For a lot of marginalized communities, Bill-51 isn't that big of a deal. Because they've experienced it already. For example, the Muslin community has been experiencing measures within Bill C-51 like surveillance, detention without criminal charge, and the expansion of the definition of 'Terrorism'. This has all already been applied to the Muslim community without having to legislate anything, based simply on the fact that they're Muslim. The same goes for the Indigenous community who have been experiencing these measures for much longer; you could certainly call the residential schools a form of detention. So the important thing for me to state is that this stuff has existed. All of this has already been going on for our marginalized communities.
Now to answer your question, what's scary about this bill and why so many people are talking about it, is because Bill C-51 is just a way to massively expand these measures beyond those communities. A really good friend of mine, Itrath Syed, has a great way of explaining the history of the lead-up to this: the targeting of the Muslim community was just a testing ground. They were just testing out these measures and now that they've seen what they can get away with (because the public for the most part didn't really speak out), they've decided to step it up and apply it to the general public. Needles to say, I think marginalized communities are going to be the ones targeted the most, but this is going to limit everyone's ability to dissent. And that's a huge thing. Our ability to speak out and speak up for what's right and what's wrong is critical. A large part of security certificates, even though they're shrouded in this narrative of 'the War on Terror' or that we're facing a threat from Muslim fundamentalists, is that it's really about targeting domestic activism. It's about the Tar Sands and the Pipelines and the amazing mobilization that's happening against those threats to these Indigenous territories. That's what the Conservative government really wants to target with this legislature because the Indigenous solidarity movement is building every day.
Following the case of the 'BC bombers', it's pretty clear how far some of these kafkaesque measures can be pushed in the wrong direction. Essentially two people who were struggling with tremendous mental health illness were targeted by the RCMP and then pushed and provoked (with thousands of taxpayer dollars in a sting operation) into committing obscene acts, which I would call entrapment. The pair should have been given access to mental health facilities, not been the subjects of this undercover extravaganza.
Absolutely. I think you nailed it on the head when you brought up how they are these two people who have a history of mental health issues. They also have a criminal history as a result of their mental health issues, and they happen to convert to Islam only a few months before they were convicted. For how much emphasis that conversion received in the media, I think it's worth pointing out that it was mostly because they just wanted into a Mosque for a roof over their heads, so they decided to become Muslim. But there was this RCMP officer who was planted as another Muslim man in the Mosque. I don't know the exact details on what his title was, but I know for a fact (and there's been articles written on this) that he was the one who started giving these suggestions like, "Hey why don't we go get some guns." He even took them to target practise which they would have never been able to do otherwise. So yes that's entrapment. You're taking two individuals who are incredible vulnerable, who are marginalized, and instead of taking them to a mental health facility, or to social services, you're taking them in the direction of extremism by suggesting horrible acts, and providing the tools to cary those acts out. So again this isn't something that's coming out of a vacuum, it's part of these measures they have been implementing for a long time. We also saw this with the Toronto 17 some years back.
Want to briefly explain that case for me, The Toronto 17?
There were 17 Muslim teenagers who were convicted in Toronto, I think back in 2006. It was similar in that there were two moles, two undercover provocateurs placed by the RCMP who took these kids paint balling and took them target practising. One individual provided them with bomb making supplies as well. So in effect they're preying on these susceptible and easily influenced people in order to create a narrative. We should always keep in mind why this is happening too. This isn't a theory; there's a very rational reason you can see in terms of why they would do this - because it helps to fuel fear around Islamic communities. Doing these things creates a threat which helps to justify things like Bill C-51. With the Toronto 17, the Conservative [Party of Canada] brought this case into the media right before they were about to face budget cuts to CSIS. So right after the time this story broke, obviously CSIS got an overwhelming approval for their budget. It's very timed, there's a purpose there, and unfortunately it's nothing new.
Speaking of CSIS, I wanted to ask about the link between government and privatized military companies. We see it so much of it in the United States with corporations like Halliburton and Xe Corp being contracted out by the Pentagon, but do you see Canada following in this direction of increased military privatization?
We have an increased role in the Middle East, we're playing an increased role in Syria, but our military is "outdated" as a lot of people like to say. I think that's a great thing if our military is outdated [Laughter]. So I think privatization is an easier way to build a military force rather than getting public approval and funding, or having to recruit people into the Navy or the Army to expand your fleet. To [contract] privatized companies such as Halliburton it's an easier route because there's less transparency, and yes I think we're seeing that here too. It's also not just something were seeing abroad, it's something that were going to increasingly see domestically with increased private police forces. We're seeing it in the States where these things tend to start, like you said. We saw it in the Ferguson riots with the heavy police riot-gear and we saw it in Baltimore only months after. So that's a huge thing.
To understand this I think the financial aspect is really important to touch on here, in terms of the ability of the government to fund this. And that's where Bill C-51 comes in again: the ability of the government to put its economic interest before the interests of human rights and our freedoms of speech and dissent. Being able to suppress dissent is a really important tool for them. A recent example of this is when the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi came to Canada; a lot of people from the South-Asian communities (the Muslim and the Sikh communities) were outraged that the Harper government gave this individual a red carpet welcome. This is the guy who was responsible for what we could fairly say was genocide in Gujarat, and for continuing to support policies of Hindu nationalists targeting minority communities. But when I went to the protest there was this incredible police presence that pretty much shut down the entire protest. It really reminded me of how Bill C-51 will expand in these instances, and again allow the Harper Government to put its economic interest before issues of human rights.
What is the economic benefit of a partnership between Modi and Harper?
Well in Saskatchewan for example, they struck a 300 million dollar uranium deal. So Saskatchewan will now be providing the uranium to India for their Nuclear program. And that uranium isn't just going to fund Nuclear reactors, it's going to fund nuclear bombs; India is pretty open that they have a Nuclear arms program. If this is only one of the partnerships that we're forging here, then look at the principles we're supporting. Nuclear armament? Nuclear proliferation? That's what we're standing for now as Canadians? But Canada has a strong sense of amnesia about these things - more so than the US I would say, where these conversations are brought up a lot more often; they’re in the public forum for discussion. But for us, it’s not talked about often at all. Our Canadian government’s role in torture, our complicity in torture, our role in the War on Terror: all are overlooked and forgotten about because we’re still stuck in this mind frame that we’re peaceful and polite.
Talking about crackdowns on protestors, I find that in Vancouver the police department is somewhat benign. You come across some hardliners for sure, but overall they aren’t as militaristic as what places like Ferguson see. Do you think we might see an end to this too?
I do think that will go away. I agree that the average individual who has to interact with the police at a protest doesn’t have to deal with as much police brutality as people risk elsewhere. But if you look at individuals’ experiences in the Downtown Eastside with the police, they’re exceedingly brutal. It’s a different experience all together and that has to do with class, it has to do with privilege, it has to do with race. So your experience with the police in Vancouver can change radically based on those intersections of factors. Again with Bill C-51, yes, it certainty will get worse. Policing styles will get worse for marginalized communities, and they will get worse for the general public, but certainly those marginalized communities will feel the brunt. So I would say that we are definitely taking steps toward becoming a police state if we’re not one already.
Going back to Foreign Policy, to me and others who have looked at it beyond the surface level, it’s very clear that groups like ISIS are created precisely because of our militaristic policies and constant air raids all over the world. The increase of these retaliation acts that we’re calling Terrorism could be subdued if we stopped the expansion of the State to every corner of the earth. It's only human to retaliate against invaders in your own land.
In regards to ISIS in particular there’s a clear correlation between them and the Iraq war. The Iraq war created ISIS. To a certain degree the Iraq war even created Al-qaeda who were pretty much non-existent in a lot of ways before the Americans came. The war expanded the power and the recruiting ability of all these groups, because then they had this very real grievance they could draw people in with. All they would have to say is, “Look they’re bombing us. They’re occupying our lands.” And for ISIS too, the divisions that [the Iraq war] caused within the communities is unprecedented. They had for the most part lived side by side communally for thousands of years without these huge issues, like with the Shias and Sunnis living in Iran. But the divisions that the Iraq war caused were a huge catalyst in creating ISIS as well - both from the response of Sunni militants saying, “Well you’ve given Shias too much power in Iraq now, so we’re going to expand by creating this group." And a lot of people in ISIS now are people who come out of Saddam Hussain’s regime: they're former generals who are now leading the front. And that comes out of the United States' major major mistake of criminalizing every individual who was ever part of Saddam Hussain’s regime. That’s hundreds of thousands of people because that was an authoritarian Bathist regime - if you wanted to work for the government, you had to work under the Bathists. So if you criminalize all those individuals after the Iraq war, where else are they going to turn?
I've heard that ISIS isn’t actually as strong of power as we’re believing them to be. They were described like a spider web that was spun far across the land, but very thinly, and that they can't really secure those threads. Do you think they are actually a big enough threat to require our intervention?
I'm my opinion, not to the West. The people that ISIS is able to do the most damage against is within the communities it hasn't been able to [convert]. Their largest impact is on Syrians, and they have a large impact on minority communities within the Middle East. In terms of the West, ISIS doesn’t even say anything publicly against Israel, which is amazing to me. This is shocking because for most groups in the Middle East, certainly one of the largest grievances that they put on the forefront is the occupation of Helmand [Province]. But ISIS isn’t even talking about that, they’re talking about Shias and other heretic groups in the Middle East. So yes I think they are very splintered, but I think that ISIS employs a very sophisticated marketing machine by putting out these YouTube videos and these very elaborate productions. Unfortunately the West jumps on this bait and distributes the stuff which blows it up even further, adding to this image of ISIS being a huge boogie-man that exists out there. Again I think it's important to note that this is strategic: it helps the US to increase its militarization and increase its presence in the Middle East. It also vastly helps Canada expand its anti-terror legislation domestically. And I can't emphasize enough that we’ve got to be aware of that.
Omar Khadr is finally out of detention. I attended a talk by his lawyer Dennis Edney where for two hours he covered the absolute grotesque brutality Omar had endured. This is a child who had his village raided, people were being shot at and killed, and he may or may not have thrown a hand grenade over his shoulder while he fought for survival. He was shot at, had shrapnel in his wounds, and was in a coma for a week. When he woke up at Bagram Airbase he had military dogs barking in his face while sargents screamed that he killed someone. The boy went on to be held in a room with no light for months without seeing the light of day or a human face. He was then beaten relentlessly: in once instance tied upside down, tortured, forced to urinate on himself to then have his head used as a mop to clean the floor. At the end of the talk, after hearing all of this, a girl from Sun Media stood up and asked, that if he was a terrorist, didn't he deserve this? She then questioned, "What is he doing to prove he’s not a terrorist?” to which everyone in the room rolled their eyes and uttered, “Seriously?” She went on to pen an article about how the “protestors” at the talk had heckled her and cornered her, and that Omar Khadr shouldn’t be let out of jail. In my mind, no one deserves the type of treatment Khadr endured, but in her mind, a child did. What I find painful is that there are so many people like her who believe that these acts of barbarity are justified. Why do you think that is?
Yeah it's just such a sad story. I heard Dennis talk in Calgary a couple years ago and his case in point is that Omar was a child. He was a child soldier who was exploited by his family: his father was a member of the Taliban. So as a child, when you grow up in that environment obviously you’re going to be put into circumstances where you don’t have a choice to be there or not. He didn’t choose to be in Afghanistan, and he didn’t choose to be a child soldier. The main claim against him was that he threw a grenade at CIA operatives there, and even though there isn’t conclusive evidence that he did do that (because any confession of his was extracted under torture), he was a child solider, plain and simple. He was 14 or 15 years old. Under international law you can’t be tried as an adult at 15. So here is this individual who was taken under [military] custody and tortured and held for almost 15 years - so he’s grown into an adult under these horrible, horrible circumstances. It would be tough to find an answer to your question because what really gets me is how we can’t show mercy to a child. We can’t show compassion for an individual and that just makes me so sad. Our lack of empathy and our lack of outrage over our government’s role in keeping Khadr in those conditions is a product of how incredibly engaged we have become with 'othering' Muslim bodies. The creation of this Muslim monster, of this small individual who is deemed a “terrorist” exemplifies that deeply-set mentality. Using those terms creates a wall from us to actually feel empathy, or other natural human feelings; even for us to use our rational thinking. We should be thinking, “Hey he’s a child soldier, he needs to be saved not jailed.” However, I think that if any other person with any other racial and religious identity was in that circumstance, the public would be outraged. But those labels that are applied to him, and the othering that subsequently takes place is what allows Omar Khadr to have been kept in those circumstances for so long. What is horrific even further is who knows what type of psychological trauma he has now. They’ve already said that being in detention facing that physical trauma, as well as being held in solitary, has incredibly stunted his maturing as an individual.
After experiencing trauma from neglect (solitary confinement) and abuse (torture), what happens to the brain is life-altering damage. Depriving anyone of human touch and interaction harms the brain's prefrontal cortex, the grey matter that is responsible for impulse control and regulating emotions. The longer you’re left without connection, the worse the damage. When someone is abused, they automatically "shut down" so they don't have to endure the pain, but the long term effect of that survival mechanism is that it lingers, and their ability to recognize emotion suffers. So let’s say something does happen with Omar, whose fault is that? Who created that individual? Scientific research would say that we did.
Right, we are creating a threat through our own fears. That’s what these systems of torture and detention will do. They are only projecting what they fear into the world and making it a reality that will come back full circle. It's absolutely ludicrous.
I'll end with the last topic I wanted to ask you about. You’re quite funny; you’ve been in a few satirical videos, and have written things in jest. With all of this darker subject matter, how do you find humour eases us into being open to these types of discussions?
I think humour is a powerful way to engage people on these issues because for one thing these are heavy issues we’re talking about - they’re very serious things. But for a lot of people I think it can be overwhelming; they may avoid talking about them because life is hard enough as it is, and you might not want to bog yourself down even further. But I think humour holds powerful weight because you can communicate and talk about these very important issues. An example I often give of this is a comedian named Aamer Rahman. He’s a wonderful comedian from Australia who talks about issues of imperialism, race, the War on Terror, and other things, but through the avenue of humour. He was on Q - Shad is the new host of Q on CBC, and Aamer was one of his first subjects. It was a great interview because he talked about the fact that yes, comedy might not be the most powerful way to bring about social change, it might not necessarily revolutionize people, but it’s a discourse or a narrative through which people are willing to engage these very heavy issues, because the humour makes it lighter. You laugh at the end of the day about the sheer absurdity of how things are run. I think people who are critically engaged, such as myself and you, and others in these fields, all need to laugh once in a while. We need to be able to laugh about these issues and come together as a community in a less solemn way. When Aamer came [to Vancouver] it was a wonderful event because there were 200 or so people - all people who you might consider as ‘activists’ but who were all just sitting in a room laughing about these issues you’d usually want to cry about. And we were doing this in a space of community; it really brought us together. So humour is a way to just sit back, laugh out loud, and say, “Yeah shit’s really bad, but we’re going to laugh and we’re going to get through it.”
Well said. The power of wit is something else as well. You’re now there for two reasons: the sharp wit of a person’s mind and their ability to be sarcastic about things that are just so obviously wrong, but then you also leave learning something about the world as well.
Exactly and that’s the huge success of Jon Stewart and shows like his. The powerful impact that he’s had on American consciousness in his ability to take points that would usually be shut down right away in the US, and it just slides right in. I’m so blown away by how even issues surrounding Palestine and Israel he’s able to talk about so candidly. But because it’s couched and framed in the context of humour, people are more willing to accept it. My hope is that after the laugh, they all actually pause to think too.
Agreed. Thank you again Hasan, it really was a pleasure talking to you about these issues, you certainly know how to incite the power to change.
Thank you Tracy, a pleasure on my end too.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.