Don’t Keep Yelling ‘Islamophobia’ To Silence Genuine Debate

My article at Huffington Post

Don’t Keep Yelling ‘Islamophobia’ To Silence Genuine Debate

On the day when Canada and its Prime Minister were getting ready to confer an honorary citizenship on Nobel Laureate Malala Yusufzai, and when Stephen Harper was going to moderate “Strong Girls, Strong World” session with Malala as a participant, the very foundation of Canada’s democracy and freedoms came under attack.

On that day, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, son of a Libyan immigrant, who had only recently embraced Islam committed an act of jihadist terror, killing unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was standing in guard at the National War Memorial. He then stormed the parliament and was killed in a shootout. There are strong suggestions that Zehaf-Bibeau was influenced by the Jihadist ideology that may have become even more potent by addiction to drugs and other factors.

Just a few days earlier another recent convert to Islam, Martin Ahmad Rouleau killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, and injured another soldier. He was known to Canada’s anti-terrorism agencies and his passport was seized under suspicion that he has Jihadi connection and may travel abroad to take part in activities related to ISIS.

Both these terror attacks took place after, “ISIS” had urged supporters to carry out attacks against Western countries, including Canada.

While these incidents resulted in deep grief and anguish for all Canadians, various Muslim leaders raised alarms that any association of these terrorists with Muslims will give rise to Islampohobia.

AQ Mufti, former leader of Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) tried to highlight, at a Facebook discussion had the audacity to write that, “Michael Zehaf-Bibeau has committed a heinous crime, against our motherland, and he has got his punishment.”

As if the death of a terrorist during a shootout, completes the investigative and judicial process, without finding out who else has been involved, and what other risks are there that need to be explored.

At a CBC program, lawyer Faisal Kutty suggested that glorification of violence, in the society, was one of the causes of the terrorist violence. His focus was on Islamophobia.

It seems that the Muslim leaders have not learnt any lessons from the acts or conspiracies of violence committed by Canadian Muslims within and without Canada. The have forgotten that Toronto 18 was a reality.

In a recently published book, Religious-Radicalization-and-Securitization-in-Canada-and-Beyond. Lorne Dawson, under the chapter, ‘Trying to Make Sense of Home-Grown Terrorist Radicalization: The Case of Toronto 18‘, writes:

“Long after the sensational news broke, many Canadians remained skeptical that there was a serious threat from home-grown terrorists…..Canadians were inclined to dismiss the group as ‘a bunch of bravado-filled but bumbling incompetents who were not capable of carrying out their plans…. slowly but surely, however, as the remaining 11 either pleaded guilty or were convicted, and as the findings of the court cases, in particular the “Agreed Statements of Fact”, became public, the reason for doubt dwindled. It became clear that a catastrophe was narrowly averted.”

In Call for Transnational Jihad, Lashkar-e-Taiba 1985-2014, Arif Jamal, established a connection between one youth who was convicted from among the Toronto 18, and Aabid Khan of a U.S. terrorist cell.

Since then, several young Canadian Muslim men have been arrested and convicted on terrorism charges, and some have died abroad committing terrorism. After Ottawa incident, Imam Yusuf Badat of Islamic Foundation of Toronto acknowledged at CBC that even Canadian Muslim girls are now getting involved in acts of possible terrorism abroad in Syria.

Contrary to what Muslim pundits keep pushing, Canada is not indulging in Islamophobia, but it justifiably reacts to real acts and threats of terrorism by Muslim Canadians.

The Canadian spirit of inclusiveness is evident everywhere. That hijab-clad Muslim women work safely from Tim Hortons to public and private offices without any fear of intimidation and harassment, is itself proof that the leadership of Islamic organizations is the one spreading false fears in an effort to trivialize the enormity of the jihadist challenge.

It is Jihadi rhetoric and conspiracy theories that poison the minds of Muslims.

The U.K. Telegraph reports:

“[T]hat Britain’s most high-profile radical Islamist preacher, Anjem Choudary, had influenced those involved in the Ottawa and Quebec attacks”.

Such rhetoric and conspiracy theories can also be found at the videos of North America Muslim Foundation (NAMF)’s TV program The Free Radicals, in Canada. In an episode titled Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s Letter to Malala Yousafzai, Imam Sheheryar Shaikh and other participants suggest that, the shooting of Malala was a western conspiracy, that Taliban are losing a PR war, and that their struggle is against Imperialism, and for liberating their land from the foreigners.

At a recent seminar, “Caliphate as a Political System? Myth or Reality” Imam Shaikh asserted that the Islamic Caliphate is a divine promise, and will materialize. Only a few weeks ago the same Imam and Farooq Khan the president of NAMF at a TV program hosted by Rawal TV, suggested that the beheading of western men by ISIS may also be a conspiracy, since one cannot determine as to who the masked executioners are?

These conspiracy theories and Jihadi rhetoric have so clouded the Muslim mindset in Canada that they rarely come out to denounce Muslim terrorism with a united voice. And if they do, they refrain from renouncing the doctrine of armed Jihad.

We Muslims should realize that if we need to save Canada from threats of terrorism, then we should shun the ruse of Islamophobia, and Jihadi conspiracy theories. We are living in Canada as a pampered minority, where the society accepts all our demands of exclusion, meets our request of providing prayers areas in private and public spaces, and lets us pull our children out of many secular programs. If we fail to reciprocate and keep yelling ‘Islamophobia’ to silence genuine debate, then the host society has an absolute right to act in revulsion towards us.


In Your Face – Piercing the Veil of Ignorance About Niqab-Wearing Women

In Your Face – Piercing the Veil

Piercing the Veil of Ignorance About Niqab-Wearing Women

by Natasha Bakht
Read the article by clicking the link : In Your Face – Piercing the Veil


This article examines three judicial decisions in three different jurisdictions involving niqab-wearing women in courtrooms. Particular emphasis is paid to the Canadian Supreme Court case of R v. NS in which a sexual assault complainant wanted to wear her niqab while testifying. The uniquely challenging context of sexual assault, which has garnered much feminist attention and reform internationally, is considered. It is argued that serious consideration must be given to the multiple rights of Muslim women by reassessing the traditional use of demeanor evidence. Some judges in these cases attempt to be inclusive of niqab-wearing women in accordance with policies of multiculturalism, yet they do not go far enough in protecting Muslim women’s rights. Other judges refuse to accommodate the niqab entirely. This troubling analysis parallels attempts made to exclude niqab-wearing women from public spaces in Canada and permits dubious objections that certain requests for accommodation have gone too far.


Shared for general public interest with the permission of the author.

  1. Natasha Bakht, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, 57 Louis Pasteur St., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada. Email:

Originally  Published by:

(Natasha Bakht is an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa. She specializes in the intersecting area of religious freedom and women’s equality. Natasha lives in Ottawa with her son, Elaan. She is also an Indian contemporary dancer and choreographer.)






  1. University of Ottawa, Canada
  1. Natasha Bakht, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, 57 Louis Pasteur St., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada. Email:

Recognizing and Responding to the Seeds of Religious Intolerance: The Case of Niqab-Wearing Women

Recognizing and Responding to the Seeds of Religious Intolerance: The Case of Niqab-Wearing Women

by Natasha Bakht

(Natasha Bakht is an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa. She specializes in the intersecting area of religious freedom and women’s equality. Natasha lives in Ottawa with her son, Elaan. She is also an Indian contemporary dancer and choreographer.)

Remarks presented at the 4th Annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom, May 26, 2014. It was also published at : Convivium Volume 3, No. 15 under the title; Niqab and Otherness .

(Shared with the gracious permission of the author in larger public interest).


The western world is at an astonishing historical moment, when in the twenty-first century, women’s clothes are the subject of legislation, judicial consideration, and much public approbation. I am referring in particular to the situation of Muslim women who wear the niqab or the full-face veil and the growing agitation that has been expressed about them publicly.

There are a variety of reasons offered in support of the belief that women should not be permitted to wear the niqab in certain venues. Some of these include: the niqab oppresses women, prevents integration, offends secularism and tolerance, decreases security and communication, is impolite, encourages proselytism, and is not a religious requirement.  These explanations for why certain public displays of religiosity ought to be banned reveal more about niqab-objectors’ illogical, bias-laden and viscerally negative reactions than any legitimate concerns that the niqab may actually raise.

 Why women wear the niqab?

The niqab cannot be understood as a symbol with singular meaning. There is a new report from Ontario produced by the Canadian Council of Muslims Women that interviews niqab-wearing women and finds that the reasons provided for wearing the niqab are highly personal and diverse.  Contrary to the prevailing view that male family members force niqab-wearing women into this attire, the study suggests that many women in fact, faced familial opposition to their personal decision to wear the niqab.  The report really puts into question the contention that we must rescue niqab-wearing women from oppression.

In fact, the decision to wear the niqab or indeed any clothing is likely a strategic choice made in always-already constrained relational environments, whose costs and benefits vary depending on the circumstances.  Instead of being unilateral instruments of submission or “free” expression, the “preference” to wear the niqab is shaped by multiple interactions and regulation.

My research has shown that niqab-wearing women are not the submissive women society believes them to be.  They are in fact, acting as advocates in courts of law, teaching in schools, pursuing higher education, litigating their rights in courtrooms and interacting with male cabinet ministers about issues of concern to them. The niqab is a critical component of who they are. To deny them access to fundamental legal institutions on the basis of their identity is to deny their dignity.

People often describe how uncomfortable the niqab makes them feel. I would suggest that comfort is an ineffective measure for interactions in a diverse society. Nonetheless, it might be useful to consider what it is it that makes us so uncomfortable. It may simply be fear of the unknown, or fear of that on which we have inscribed ideas of radicalism and terrorism.  Fear, like discomfort is a bad adviser. Dr. Katherine Bullock has suggested that our discomfort is about the interruption of the “gaze”.  With the niqab-wearing woman, she sees us, but we do not see her. Thus, she subverts the typical power relations in that she sees, but is not seen.

Another explanation is the origins of the dominant Western scopic regime, in which vision is central, to the fact of marking Christ as the observable, earthly image of God. Valerie Behiery argues that the Christian West’s foundational ocularcentrism has led to secularism. Whatever the reason for our dislike of the niqab, and there may be others, to live peacefully in a diverse democracy we need to develop empathy that enables us to see the world from the point of view of others.

My remarks will concentrate on Canadian prohibitions or attempts at prohibiting the niqab. These debates are of course also happening with vigour in parts of Europe, the UK and the United States.  But, amazingly we in Canada, have had four incidents in which niqab-wearing women feature prominently.

1) Veiled voting

Identification arguments play a key role in claims to ban the niqab in public spaces. Veiled-voting became an issue in Canada when the federal government introduced Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (visual identification of voters).  The bill, which was introduced by the conservative government in 2007, requires voters to have their faces uncovered to enable election officials to identify them visually, even though there would be no means of taking a visual comparison of the voter’s face with a photograph because people can submit two pieces of non-photo identification in order to vote. Indeed voting by mail is also permissible under the Canada Elections Act. The irrational insistence on seeing one’s face apparently defies logic. The bill, which died when Parliament was prorogued, was an attempt to prevent voter fraud, although there is little evidence of a problem of voter fraud in Canada. The bill was really an attempt to counter the problem of the “mythical, multiple voting veiled Muslim woman.” As one Globe and Mail editorial stated, showing one’s face would only prove that the voter “has a face.”

The question that arises when unfounded and unexamined objections to the niqab are raised is whether the restriction on attire is actually a subterfuge for discrimination. In the veiled voting incident, identification was obviously not the real concern.

 2) Citizenship Ceremonies

In December 2011, in a unilateral move by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, face veils were banned during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.  Minister Kenney was able to make this move without any consultations because the changes were made under the regulations to the Citizenship Act.

The reason for the change was that some MPs and citizenship judges had complained that it was “hard to tell whether people with their faces covered are actually reciting the oath of citizenship”, which is a requirement under the Act. So, women who have overcome all of the concrete hurdles to Canadian citizenship, which are by no means minimal, are denied this coveted privilege because of complaints from some that they are not engaging in the symbolic act of declaring one’s Canadianess. Niqab-wearing women, it seems, cannot be trusted to pronounce the words of the oath. We need to actually see their mouths moving.

Minister Kenney also said in his explanation for the new regulation: “Allowing a group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is counter to Canada’s commitment to openness, equality and social cohesion.” His comments disclose a very particular and polarized construction of ‘us’ as insiders and ‘them’ as outsiders.

Sara Ahmed examines the figure of “the stranger” in multicultural discourse in Australia. She suggests that the nation requires strangers in order to exist, to set the limit of the nation. She argues that multiculturalism may seek to differentiate between those strangers whose appearance of difference can be claimed by the nation, and those stranger strangers whose difference may be dangerous to the well-being of even the most heterogeneous of nations. Muslim women who wear the niqab represent these “stranger strangers.” While some outward appearances of difference can be assimilated so long as the person is “the same underneath”, the dress of some strangers, niqab-wearing women in particular, is simply the outward representation that the stranger refuses to be “native underneath”.   

3) Niqabs in Courtrooms

In R v NS, the Supreme Court of Canada examined whether a devout Muslim woman sexual assault complainant, could wear her niqab while testifying in court. NS is a Muslim woman from Toronto who has worn the niqab for over eight years and alleged that two male relatives sexually assaulted her over a period of several years. The lawyers for the accused objected to the complainant wearing her niqab.

They argued that in order to effectively cross-examine the complainant, they needed to be able to see her face to gage her reactions to their questions. They also argued that the trier of fact would have difficulties making credibility assessments unless they were able to see her face.  Judges and juries are permitted in law to assess the credibility of witnesses and the accused based on demeanour evidence. That means they are permitted to evaluate the trustworthiness of a person in court based on their appearance, attitude and/or disposition. Although much case law exists to support this contention in Canada, there is also a growing body of case law and social science literature that warns judges about the excessive use of demeanour evidence because of its inherent unreliability.

It is very common for individuals to believe that they can determine when they are being lied to. However, Prof. Paul Ekman in his study of lying found that with rare exception, “no one can do better than chance at spotting liars simply by their demeanour.” In racial profiling cases, perfectly innocuous behaviour is often interpreted as suspicious simply because the observation was occurring through stereotypical lenses.

In the sexual assault context, the concern is that demeanour evidence will result in reliance on inappropriate myths about the way women ought to react to sexual assault, penalizing those who do not fit into such rigid characterizations. It is women’s words that matter, not women’s bodies, or how we look or what we are wearing.

The NS case challenged a foundational premise of our legal system: that those who see the witness are at the greatest advantage. The social science evidence suggests strongly this is not the case.  The question was whether the Supreme Court would be wiling to overhaul our system accordingly. It was not.

The majority decision does not prohibit niqab-wearing women from courtrooms outright.  Instead, it provides trial courts with an analytical framework to structure their reasoning, but it is one that skews the balance in favour of a ban of the niqab more often than not.  The court has said that when evidence is uncontested the woman can wear a niqab.  But in sexual assault cases, the evidence will necessarily be contested. The majority’s concern is the accused’s right to a fair trial, which is of course important.  But interestingly, they fail to consider their own guidance from a previous case called R v Mills in which they said what constitutes a fair trial is consideration not just of the rights of the accused but also the public interest in the prosecutions that are sensitive to the needs of victims and witnesses.

The effect of the judgment will be that niqab-wearing Muslim women will be less likely to report their sexual assaults, an already underreported crime, thus renewing rape myths about the way sexual assault complainants ought to appear. The decision further marginalizes an already stigmatized group and tells them that justice will not be done for them.

4) Bill 60 – Niqabs and Public Service

The province of Quebec was until recently embroiled in a debate about the “Charter of Quebec Values”. This bill proposed to amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms by, among other things, making it mandatory to have one’s face uncovered when either providing or receiving a state service.

Essentially, niqab-wearing women (and in fact all people who wear “conspicuous religious symbols”) would have been prevented from working in government service despite their competence and training simply because of an unproven legislative assertion that they would be unable to perform their jobs neutrally or without religious bias. Niqab-wearing women, and no one else, would also have been prevented from accessing government run services such as childcare, health care, and education despite the contention that Bill 60 was in part about the equality of men and women.

We continually hear that the niqab is a symbol of women’s oppression. But, there is no evidence that the wearing of this religious garment is causally related to inequality between men and women. Rather, restricting public employees from wearing garments they sincerely believe to be required by their faith subverts gender equality as it could make many Muslim women more dependent on the patriarchal sectors of their communities by further estranging them from the public sphere. Education and employment are some of the best means to ensure integration and autonomy.

The state should not be in the business of telling people how to dress. In my view, the major oppression these women face is coercive and state-sanctioned attempts at removing their clothing publicly, and discriminatory attitudes and systems in place that prevent them from effectively participating in all parts of society.

Although most federal political parties denounced Bill 60, it is very telling that there was little concern over the bill’s predecessor, Bill 94, which targeted only niqab-wearing women and not all people who wear religious symbols. Bill 60 did not become law, but the Quebec government’s backing of these discriminatory ideas legitimized and emboldened public views, and we saw an increase in acts of vandalism, reports of harassment, and acts of anti-Muslim intolerance, from spitting to racist insults.

Incongruous Messages About Niqab-Wearing Women

In recognizing the seeds of intolerance against niqab-wearing women, one might want to consider the incongruous messages deployed about them. The veiled woman is both threat and threatened. The equality of niqab-wearing women is threatened and they are in need of rescuing from their male oppressors that force the niqab upon them. But they are also threatening in the attire that they wear to hide their identity publicly, defraud the electoral system, prevent a fair trial and open communication with the state.

These mixed messages reinforce a conception of “us”, and the nation as secular, equal in its relations between men and women and religiously neutral; whereas, “they” are wholly religious, unequal and repressed. The nation can be inclusive of some, but niqabi women take things too far. She must remain Other. Indeed, these examples shore up the pervasive belief that wearing the niqab is a practice that asks too much of the rest of society. These ideas seep into mainstream consciousness and lower the bar in terms of what can appropriately and publicly be said about Muslims, and indeed what can be done to them.

The integration of Muslim women is articulated as a problem, but its cause is located not in society with its systemic barriers to inclusion, but in Muslim women’s choice to veil.  I would suggest that it is only by considering the plight of the most marginalized that justice can be achieved.

Malala’s Nobel Prize Could Make Her Exile Permanent

Sharing my article at Huffington Post.
You can also read it at this link

Malala’s Nobel Prize Could Make Her Exile Permanent

While the announcement that Malala Yusufzai has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Kailash Satyarthi of India was greeted with jubilation across the world jubilant, many in her native Pakistan have shown open hostility towards her while her admirers fear that she may now never be able to return to her birthplace.


Their fears are based on many factors, which include the treatment of the first Pakistani Nobel Laureate, physicist Abdul Salam, who remained a pariah in his home country because he belonged to the hated Ahmadiya sect of Islam.

Since she was shot two years ago, only Pakistanis who believe in liberal ideas, women’s rights, and education for all have praised Malala’s struggle. And these unfortunately are no more than a handful.

In a country overtaken by Islamists with an absolutist mindset, a very large segment of the population considers Malala’s struggle and her near death shooting as some kind of Western and even Zionist conspiracy. Most Pakistanis consider Malala as an American agent who is out to hurt and defame Pakistan.

The fact her father has engaged high-priced public relations companies to manage his daughter’s affairs has merely added to the credibility of her naysayers.

Winning the prize jointly with India’s activist for children’s rights, Kailash Satyarthi, is certain to add fuel to fire in a country that has always considered India as its arch enemy, where all the efforts of reconciliation by well-meaning people including Nawaz Sharif the current prime minister of Pakistan have been thwarted by Pakistani establishment, led many a times by its army.

It is ironic that when Malala was hurt her treatment was made possible only because of the direct intervention of the then Pakistani president Asif Zardari and the Chief of Army staff General Ashfaq Kayani. They are not there anymore.

Even though the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has greeted Malala on her achievement, he is powerless to protect Malala in the country where the governor of Punjab province was killed by his own bodyguard because he was trying to protect a victim accused of blasphemy. The murderer has since become a folk hero.

Ironically Pakistan’s Imran Khan has also greeted Malala, but in the province ruled by his political party, Malala’s book, “I am Malala” has been banned .

After the Nobel Prize announcement people on Twitter world have been asking:
“@ImranKhanPTI will you lift the ban on @MalalaFund book now or still afraid of Talibans?”

And there has been no response from Imran Khan. Another tweet addressed to Imran Khan declared that Malala is an enemy of Islam:

“@ImranKhanPTI I am Muslim first.Her derogatory remarks against Islam in her book could have stirred reaction. Banning was right.”

While Malala’s award has received a mixed reaction in Pakistan, the statement for the arch fundamentalist religious party reflects the general attitude there, Liaqat Baloch, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a rightwing religious-political party, said:

“Malala is a Pakistani student and she is getting a lot of support and patronage abroad. On the surface this is not a bad thing and we welcome this, and there is no objection to the award, but the attack on Malala and then her support in the West creates a lot of suspicions. There are lots of girls in Pakistan who have been martyred in terrorist attacks, women who have been widowed, but no one gives them an award. So these out of the box activities are suspicious.”

This is the kind of mindset that has driven the Pakistani public opinion not just there but also within the Pakistani expatriate community in Canada and the U.S..

When the petition to award the Nobel Prize was circulated last year, it was a surprise to note that only the first generation of Pakistani expatriates signed the petition and the majority of second-generation Pakistani youth were conspicuous by their absence as the signatories.

A faction of Pakistani Taliban who had the sympathies of Pakistani politician Imran Khan, and who were behind the attack on Malala, have again issued a statement condemning her. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said:

“No wonder on love and sympathy of infidels for Malala as (President) Obama, a mass murderer of Muslims is her hero and her tireless efforts against Islam.”

It is this apathy and widely prevalent conspiracy theories that will make it impossible for Malala to ever return home.

Her fate will be not too different from an earlier Mulsim woman Nobel Laureate Tawakol Kamran who had to move out of Yemen after threats to her life in Yemen, and was granted Turkish citizenship.