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The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, & The Gulf War

Kashmeri, Zuhair
Publisher:  James Lorimer
Pages:  132pp   Price:  $16.95  
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 policy.

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 tolerance.

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, asking forgiveness.

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 on mosques.

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 the war.

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 paper.

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?

[Review by Sadia Zaman]

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