The Gulf Within:
Canadian Arabs, Racism & The Gulf War
The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, & The Gulf War
James Lorimer, Toronto, 132 pages, $16.95
Reviewed By Sadia Zaman
The Gulf Within documents the experiences of Arab and Muslim
Canadians during the Gulf War. It's about the subtle and not-so-subtle
anger and distrust other Canadians and institutions demonstrated
towards these groups. It is a series of stories about how that anger
and distrust shattered many Canadian's belief in their own country.
Author Zuhair Kashmeri is a senior reporter, and his experience
shows. His language is simple. In part one he chronicles the experience
of nine families. In part two he looks at the role of the Canadian
Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the media and Canada's multiculturalism
Kashmeri is stronger in part one where he's doing what he does
best: reporting. Part two, a mixture of reporting and analysis,
is less captivating.
In the first nine chapters Kahmeri captures the profound disillusionment
and betrayal Arab and Muslim Canadians felt during the war. He gives
voice to their grievances, puts a human face on communities usually
stereotyped, and shares their disappointment in a country that promised
It's a story most reporters missed.
While the media profiled the fears of the families left behind
as the warships sailed for the Gulf, Canada's Arabs and Muslims
were suffering a different kind of pain.. There's the Imam (religious
leader) who received hate calls after he spoke his views on the
war. One caller threatened to machine-gun his children. There's
the Muslim woman whose hejab (head covering) was ripped off and
whose blouse was torn open in the parking lot. For four hours she
sat on the sidewalk and cried. There's the little girl who was told
by her teacher that she must write a letter of support to Canadian
troops. Meanwhile her family in Iraq was being bombed. The little
girl wrote the letter, along with an anguished note to her father,
Kashmeri is sensitive to the pain. And he asks the question that
must be asked: Is this tolerance? For many Canadian Muslims and
Arabs the symbols of war were not yellow ribbons, military bands
and desert storms. They were pipe bombs, hate mail and rascist grafitti
It's clear Kashmiri earned the trust of the people he interviewed,
through his cultural sensitivity and his willingness to discard
mainstream perceptions. During the war, mainstream media had trouble
eliciting meaningful comments and analysis from Muslims and Arabs
because these groups simply did not trust the media.
Although Kashmeri does not pretend to offer comprehensive analysis
of the role of CSIS, the media and multiculturalism he does attempt
some analysis. And here the book loses its strength.
The author asks important questions about who CSIS monitored and
questioned, and why. Take the man who owns a donut shop. CSIS visited
him after receiving a complaint that Arabs met in his coffee shop
to discuss the war. The man told CSIS everyone was talking about
the war, Arabs and non-Arabs.
Many other Muslim and Arab Canadians were approached by CSIS for
questionable reasons. And at times, some Muslims and Arabs' human
rights may have been violated during some of that questioning. But
The Gulf Within does not go far enough in examining these
incidents or in questioning the role of the security services during
Canada has for many years abused minority groups in war times.
During the Second World War it was Italian and Japanese Canadians.
The scars from those persecutions have yet to heal. Kashmiri should
have put the experiences of Muslim and Arab Canadians into historical
context, by making stronger comparisons and by examining what if
anything Canada learned from the earlier injustices.
Kashmeri criticizes politicians for not alleviating the fear of
terrorism. With few exceptions, politicians toed the line. The government
needed to create a strong enemy to maintain public support for the
war. And it would have been difficult to maintain that support if
the government softened the threat of terrorism at home. Arab and
Muslim Canadians became the victims. Kashmeri needs to explore the
political processes that played on unnecessary fears.
Kashmeri strongly criticizes the media's portrayal of Arab and
Muslim Canadians, and the constant attempts to hype the threat of
terrorism. He cites a Toronto paper that quoted an FBI spokesman
as identifying terrorist agents in Metro Toronto. When other
media tried to find the FBI spokesman, they couldn't. A freelance
accountant later admitted to the RCMP and FBI that he spoke to the
No doubt there were many instances like this during the war. They
need to be investigated and reported. Were these incidents just
attempts to sell papers, or were they symptoms of racist attitudes
towards Muslims and Arabs among journalists? Kashmeri does not study
the attitude of his peers. Yet a critical analysis is needed.
Then there is the sanitized language, which created a war without
victims. The language issue has been discussed many times since
the war and Kashmeri is well aware of how language becomes the tool
of war makers. But the language issue needs to be analyzed in much
more detail. Words in headlines helped create the image of Arab
and Muslim Canadians as fanatics and terrorists.
To borrow from Noam Chomsky, the media took their cues from government
to perpetuate the notion of "worthy" and "unworthy"
victims. The propaganda model Chomsky has detailed worked extremely
well for the Pentagon. And for the most part, Canadian editors and
reporters did little to question the process. Kashmeri's book does
not adequately examine how American rhetoric was perpetuated in
Canada, and how that rhetoric created victims in this country.
Most Canadians are proud of multiculturalism. We bask in the warm
feeling we get when we tell people from other countries about ourselves,
about how we are a country of immigrants. Most of the people interviewed
in this book believed in Canada's multiculturalism policy when they
came to this country.
Kashmiri warns us not to be seduced by the glow of multiculturalism.
He exposes inherent double standards. Who is allowed to dissent
in a multicultural country? And if the protesters are a part of
a culture we do not understand, does dissent constitute a national
security threat? Why should people of Arab and Muslim backgrounds
not care about ancient cities being bombed, about their families
being killed? Are they less Canadian for doing so? Do their experiences
with intolerance mean the mosaic is crumbling?
The Gulf Within should be but a prelude for more reporting and
analysis of expectations in a multicultural country. Expectations
that make racism and intolerance a much more painful betrayal.
The book leaves a critical question unanswered. Kashmeri's sense
of justice, his compasison and his interest in the fate of Arab
and Muslim Canadians fueled his desire to write this book. If he
had not written it, would it have been written?
This article originally appeared in Sources, 29th Edition.
Sadia Zaman is a broadcast journalist in Toronto. She has reported
for CKTV Regina, CBC radio and television, and a TV Ontario consumer
show. Right now she's a reporter on "It's About Time",
a social affairs program on Vision TV.
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