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November 1, 2012

Discussing the Arab Spring

The Canadian Charger

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The Arab Spring is on the minds of Dr. Qais Ghanem and Elie Nasrallah as much as on the mind of Arab expatriates living in the West but with a difference.

The two men recently held a book launch at Ottawa’s St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral on.  In line with the broad ecumenical outlook expressed in the book, St. Elias is frequently the venue for Muslim gatherings.  Ghanem is a liberal-minded Muslim and Nasrallah a modern Christian.  Their book, My Arab Spring, My Canada, focuses on the place of the Canadian Arab diaspora.

The book advocates for an Arab Spring among Arab Canadians and call for Arab immigrants and their children to engage in their communities, to take part in volunteering, to participate in intercultural programs, and to become political. 

Ghanum, a retired distinguished neurophysiologist, is certainly an outstanding example of that the book calls for.  He is the founder of Potlucks for Peace, a space for Jews and Muslims to meet together and get to know one another on a personal basis.  He hosts a radio show to introduce immigrant communities (Dialogue with Diversity), and he was a candidate for Parliament, running for the Green Party.  Elie Nasrallah is an immigration consultant who also writes commentaries for various publications in Canada and the Middle East.

The book presents Arab Canadians with a challenge, to balance their desire to maintain the traditions that they bring and the need to integrate in their new home.  Central to the challenge is the need to promote the full empowerment of women, a challenge not just for Arabs in Canada but for the whole Arab world.

The authors also address the divide between parents and their children.  Arab children growing up in Canada will in many ways be Canadian, and parents need to be prepared to accept that, they argue.  They need to allow their children to date, as Canadian children do.  Specifically, the authors reject the double standard, whereby boys can and girls can’t. 

In another, though related, area, the book criticizes the hijab and niqab.  At the book launch, Ghanem gave a half-hearted nod to the hijab, “but not the niqab.”  The book suggests that these both are “because they are coerced—or some Canadians think.”  Perhaps that is too simplistic.  There are many women who choose to wear the hijab.  In some cases, it is a matter of religious conviction and in other cases it is a matter of habit and therefore of comfort.  There are many cases where it is not a matter of coercion and may not even be an effort to conform.  A couple years ago a young woman on the street was wearing a hijab—along with white shorts, certainly not what would be her father’s influence.

A good part of the book deals with immigration statistics.  However, what is lacking is an interpretation, an analysis of the meaning of the statistics.  Especially important is an analysis of data relating to family reunification and to delays in the process. 

One reason why this kind of analysis is important is because the current Conservative government have been making inroads into the ethnic vote.  They appeal on the basis of social conservatism—a focus on “family values”, against “loose” morals, against abortion, against homosexuality, etc. 

When ethnic immigrants are trying to get a foothold in Canada, facing financial challenges and needing various social services to help them settle in and provide income support when needed, their direct interests put them in opposition to the Conservatives’ dog-eat-dog approach. 

Immigrants’ support of the Conservatives is an example of what Marxists have called “false consciousness.”  The Tories do not favor a strong family unification program allowing family members’ rapid admission to the country.  They do not support family values where they count. 

At the launch, Ghanem addressed the book’s call for women’s rights.  He also spoke of the need to attack racism, “which does exist among Arabs.”  As well, he told those in attendance that Arab Canadians need to be concerned about injustice wherever it occurs.  It is not good enough to be concerned about the Palestinians.  “We need to care about the Tamils too.”  He sees a need to build alliances with other ethnic groups and justice-seeking groups.

When it comes to advocacy for Arab causes, the book regrets the weakness of the advocacy groups such as the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations and the Canadian Arab Federation.  It points to the power and influence, by contrast, of Jewish organizations.  The reason for the difference?  Money.  Jews are far more generous in support of their advocacy organizations.  So when it comes to Canadian policy on Palestine, whom do the politicians listen to?  “Suppose,” said Ghanem at the book launch, “that every Arab wage-earner contributed just $10.”  That amount would make a major difference.

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M. Elmasry

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