I spy with my little eye…

Am I being spied upon?

That’s a common question many Muslims ask themselves nowadays.

The use of informants within Muslim communities in Canada is no secret. My feature article in the Montreal Gazette (back in 2007) looked into the issue. I also spoke to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to get their response.

I still get reports every now and then of CSIS agents meeting up with people and wanting to ask questions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how it’s done.

But the interest in the Muslim community raises some serious dilemmas for ordinary Muslims like myself.

Who do you trust?

Trust is an important value – or so we like to think – in the Muslim community. We’re all brothers and sisters. Yet, a lot of times we’ve got to be very careful about what we say and how we say it, just because we don’t know who might screw us over.

Now, you might be thinking: “Aha, that mean’s you’re hiding something and don’t want ‘others’ to know about it!”

Not really. A lot of times, benign discussions (opposition to the Iraq war or the setting up of religious study circles, for example) can spark interest from CSIS. In the worst case scenario, something that’s said can be misconstrued and used against a person. That’s the fear anyway. Or an informant can possibly provoke a subject into saying something that could be remotely incriminating.

In any case, it’s not fun to have the feeling that you’re being spied upon. It’s even worse to know people think you’re a spy when you’re really not one.

That often happens to converts to Islam, mainly because the FBI has used supposed converts to spy on people and conduct sting operations. It happens to others too, like myself. While working at the Toronto Star in 2005, I was told by an imam (a friend) that some elder folks in the community were telling him to be careful of me as I might be a spy.

The bottom line is: There’s a serious trust deficit in the community, even if we don’t like to talk about it. Maybe that’s what CSIS wants.

To suspect or not to suspect?

The Qur’an clearly tells us not to suspect people. But the same verse tells us not to spy.

O ye who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is a sin: And spy not on each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, ye would abhor it…But fear Allah. For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. (49:12)

Despite that fact we have nothing to hide and aren’t up to anything sinister, sometimes people act in such a way that it’s hard not to think of, at the very least, the possibility that they are informants.

Is it really bad?

When CSIS is criticized for spying on Muslims, the solution often given is that it needs to work with Muslims and be more open. But if a Muslim starts working for CSIS (not that anyone goes announcing it) and if word got around, they’d be shunned and looked down upon. Take Mubin Shaikh as an example.

So the question is: Is it bad to work with CSIS? Maybe you could do it with good intentions, like stopping terrorism and making sure the innocent don’t get screwed over? How about the argument that if I don’t spy for CSIS, somebody else will and that somebody might not know much about the community and could start causing trouble for truly innocent people? What if the intention is just to keep an eye out for truly bad folks and stopping CSIS from unnecessarily bothering innocent people?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I just think about this sometimes. And no, I’m not contemplating about becoming a spy.

How to know if you’re being spied upon

Whether it’s bad or not, no one likes being spied upon. If you want to know if you’re being watched, here are some signs.

1. CSIS knocks on your door and wants to speak to you. That’s a no-brainer.

2. If you’re too high-value of a target or a big mouth, they’ll use a more undercover method of spying on you. Now remember, the best spies are those who arise the least suspicion. So someone will get close to you and ask you for advice and seemingly benign questions on your views on stuff.  Or they might try to provoke you to see what sort of reaction you give.

3. You notice strange clicks on your phone line, your line suddenly goes dead and a Bell repairman shows up, you come home and your security system is strangely turned off, your car is broken into (especially if it won’t start afterwards). These are all signs that you’re likely being watched.

Some of the above has happened to me and for all those undercover informants I’ve dealt with: I know who you are.

But it’s all good. I’m not doing anything wrong and believe it or not, I trust you that you won’t either. InshaAllah (if God wills).


Niqab issue makes it to Quebec’s National Assembly as niqabi student expelled again

The Quebec government has once again expelled a student from its French classes because she had been accepted for the class at another centre. Read more here.

This happened yesterday. Yesterday was also the first day Quebec’s National Assembly (the provincial parliament) reconvened after a break. Sure enough, the niqab issue was brought up by the opposition. And all indications are this is going to get a lot worse (blog post on that coming soon).

Here is a translation of the debate that took place at Quebec’s National Assembly:

Mrs. Beaudoin (Rosemont): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Confusion reigns in our institutions because of the laissez-faire attitude of the Liberal government. Nobody knows anymore how to treat the requests for religious accommodation. Last week, it was learned that it is the Minister for the Immigration who intervened to expel a young woman who did not want to withdraw her niqab in a Francization course at CEGEP Saint-Laurent. Today, the minister had to prevail again after this same young woman re-registered while keeping on her niqab in another course of Francization subsidized by the government. Its directive was thus not very clear.

For how many years will the government continue to to manage this issue on a case-by-case basis, by arbitrary decisions without clear directions for the government officials and the users?

The Speaker: Mrs. the Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities.

Mrs. James: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Initially, it is necessary to say, in the case which the deputy of Rosemont raises, the government assumed its responsibility. The Madam was met and it was clearly indicated to her: To take the Francization course….the Francization courses are to be given with the face uncovered.

So there is no compromise around it, it is not a blur, it is exactly that, Mr. President. It was the case the past week, it is the case today and that will be the case tomorrow. Because we will make no compromise on the equality between the men and the women and it is our government which makes the decisions to protect the values from Quebec, Mr. Speaker.

The Speaker: In complementary question, Mrs. the deputy of Rosemont.

Mrs. Beaudoin (Rosemont): Then, it is a case-by-case approach which continues, Mr. Speaker, it is what we saw this week and last week. But can the minister indicate to us precisely when and how her government’s policy on having the face uncovered will be known and especially adopted so that finally it applies to the students of the courses of Francization, but also in the whole of public institutions and semi-public institutions?

The Speaker: Mrs. the Minister for Immigration and the Cultural communities.

Mrs. James: Mr. Speaker, in the case which we’re dealing with now, there’s no case-by-case approach. The services for the person who presents herself, which wishes to attend the courses of Francization, that is to be done with the face uncovered. The person in question, and I repeat… Mr. Speaker, I would like that…


The Speaker: Mrs. the minister.

Mrs. James: In Quebec, we receive the services with the face uncovered and we provide services with an uncovered face, Mr. Speaker. Plus, the deputy prime minister thus indicated last week that the government intends to make other moves, but this is very, very clearly, and I want to repeat that for the deputy of Rosemont, there is no ambiguity nor compromise on this question. The Madam in question was met…

The Speaker: While finishing.

Mrs. James: … it was very clearly indicated to her that the services are given to those with an uncovered face.

The Speaker In complementary question, Mrs. the chief of the official opposition.

Mrs. Marois: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. For rightfully avoiding case-by-case decisions, can the Prime Minister finally take his responsabilities and accept to introduce into the Charter of the Rights and Freedoms of the person the fundamental values for the Québécois people and especially and finally to adopt clear guidelines to frame reasonable accommodation in Quebec, Mr. Speaker?

The Speaker: Mr. the Prime Minister.

Mr. Charest: The government precisely amended the Charter to reinforce the principle of the equality between women and men, which the leader of the official opposition supported. Moreover, her party participated in the parliamentary commission looking into this question. They even were, I note it today, divided in their opinions regarding the measures to be taken, on…

Yes, if one reads again what Louise Harel said at the time and what you’re saying today, obviously, another who left, I know it, but, Mr. Speaker, obviously there are divisions. That being said, on the principles, the Québécois values, the government always was…

The Speaker: While finishing.

Mr. Charest: … very clearly: The equality, the language, secularity, they are our values.


Canada wants to charge air travelers up to 900% more than US in security fees

Last week, Transport Minister John Baird announced $1.5 billion in new funding for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to “enhance Canadian aviation security.” The new funding will come from air travelers.

After hyping up why more security is needed and talking about all the wonderful technology air travelers can experience (like naked body scanners), the press release divulges how much more the government expects flyers to pay for these services.

Here’s what that table looks like:

Proposed ATSC Rates ($)

Current Initial Rate in 2002 April 2010 and Ongoing
Domestic (one-way) 4.90 12.00 7.48
Domestic (round trip) 9.80 24.00 14.96
Transborder 8.34 12.00 12.71
Other international 17.00 24.00 25.91
Note: The above rates include the GST or the federal portion of the HST where applicable.
Source: http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/mediaroom/releases-2010-h025e-5847.htm

So if you’re planning to take a round-trip flight within Canada, you’ll pay about $15 more. If you’re flying overseas, you’ll pay over $25 in security fees.

Compare that to the security fees in the United States (called the September 11 Security Fee) and you’ll notice it’s much more higher here in Canada. The Americans charge $2.50 per flight segment, for a maximum of $5.00 one-way, whether you’re flying within the US or overseas. So if you’re flying non-stop from Toronto or Montreal to let’s say London, Dubai or anywhere else around the world, you’ll pay $25.91 versus $2.50 if you flew out of New York or Washington. That over 900% more.

My first thought was that the Canadian government just wanted to rip off travelers. After all, why would our security cost more than the Americans? Security costs should be relative to the number of travelers.

But after poking around some documents, I realized the problem. CATSA received $618 million from the Canadian government in 2009/2010, while the US budget for the Transportation Security Administration was almost $6 billion. With the US population approximately 10 times more than Canada’s, that about right.

The problem is this: While the TSA in the US receives over $2 billion in fees and the rest (around $4 billion) in funding through the federal government, CATSA in Canada is expected to make up for most (if not all) of its funding needs through fees.

My recommendation: Seriously consider flying out from the US. Buffalo, Burlington, Detroit and Seattle are all good option.


Niqab in the news: Let’s hear both sides of the story

Once again, the niqab is back in the news, this time regarding a Quebec women who’s taking a college to the Human Rights Commission because it reportedly expelled her for not taking off her niqab. She’s an immigrant taking French-language classes paid for by the government.

There has been widespread discussion and condemnation of this woman and her behaviour. The problem: So far, it has all been based on what the school and the government have said.  Folks all around (Muslims included) have been jumping to conclusions without hearing the woman’s side of the story.

If you read the school and government’s account, it does seem like she was asking for too much. Yet, that’s assuming everything they’re saying is 100% accurate. But in the absence of her side of the story, it’s unfair to jump to conclusions and condemn her for what she supposedly demanded.

Golden rule (found in Islamic principles as well): Hear all sides of the story, then decide.

Kudos to the CBC for finding her and getting at least some comment from her. (See: Niqab veil-wearing Montrealer feels treated unfairly)

Plus, since when did seeing the face become an integral part of learning French? French, unlike Arabic, doesn’t have specific points of articulation that would require seeing the tongue or lips. Niqabis have learned French in the past, while wearing their niqabs. Why is it an issue now?

UPDATE: Something else came to mind. The original LaPresse article on this states the college told the woman she was free to take the course online if she didn’t want to take her niqab off. If seeing the face is so important to learning French, how do the online courses work?


Day after Canada’s hockey win, Canada’s hockey loss

As the country goes wild over its men’s ice hockey gold at the Vancouver Olympics, another Team Canada put up a strong effort but fell short by a goal, half way around the world at the field hockey World Cup in Delhi, India. Canada lost 3-2 to New Zealand in its first game at the tournament today.

This is the first time since 1998 that Canada has made it to the field hockey World Cup. Canada has won only 5 of 29 World Cup games.

For all the flag-waving patriotic Canadians out there, are you going to support the field hockey team or are you going pretend you don’t know about them because they’re losers? Do you support your country’s sportsmen only when they’re winners?