Omar Alghabra: a Muslim Mole?

Omar Alghabra: a Muslim Mole?


Howard Adelman

As a follow-up to yesterday’s blog that dealt largely with Omar Alghabra’s alleged promotion of sharia law, after I sent out my blog and went to my electronic reading, I came across this story in Haaretz headlined:

Government Opposes Appointment of Women as Sharia Judges to Avoid Setting Precedent for Rabbinic Courts

Sharia law is recognized in Israel. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked supported the legislation because she wanted to be on the side of progress even though she is a member of the right-wing Home Party. However, the government as a whole opposed the legislation due to concerns from ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition. In other words, the Israeli government not only recognizes sharia law, but entrenches its most conservative propensities in order to cater to the ultra-orthodox Jews who support the government.

In this context, the accusations against Omar Alghabra concerning sharia law prove to be even more of a tempest in a teapot without even being able to find any tea leaves. What about the Canadian Arab Federation which Omar Alghabra once headed?  The charge is that Alghabra, when he was president of the Canadian Arab Federation in 2004, denounced one of Canada’s newspaper chains for using the term “terrorist” to describe violent Muslim groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. After all, is the organization not just the military wing of Arafat’s Fatah organization? On the other hand, that is precisely how it is designated – a terrorist organization – by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and the United States.

On this issue, there appears to be some grounds for concern. When Omar Alghabra was first nominated for Mississauga-Erindale (he subsequently won), in his nomination victory speech on 1 December in the Coptic Christian Centre of the Church of the Virgin Mary and St. Athanasias in Mississauga, he purportedly said, “This is a victory for Islam! Islam won! Islam won… Islamic power is extending into Canadian politics.” At least, this is what he was said to have said by a Coptic Christian who was there, a report that was quickly and widely circulated by the Canadian Coalition for Democracies. David Ragheb, a member of the congregation, reported the speech. Victor Fouad complained to Paul Martin, then the Liberal Party leader, and, when he did not reply, sent the following out to readers of his blog. “Attached is a proven plan to invade the democracy in Canada and to convert it to somewhat NAZI attitude by the MUSLIMS. Please do something before Mr. Martin sells it all to them.” He accused the Liberal Party candidate of using “expansionist Islamic rhetoric.”

Sheref El Sabawy, a network engineer and Coptic Christian who endorsed Omar to the Coptic Christian community, at the time said, “this was a big warning for us that we could be second class citizens (if Alghabra is elected). He has an agenda.” There is supposed to be a video recording of the occasion, but I have been unable to track it down. So I cannot confirm whether Alghabra make the remark or not. However, one of the strongest critics and proponents of limiting the entry of fundamentalist religious Muslims to Canada tracked the quote and found that it was accurate, but that it was shouted from the podium by a supporter of Omar Alghabra, Khalid Usman, not Omar himself.

Alghabra unequivocally denied that he made the remark. The allegations are “not true,” he said. They are false and inaccurate. “I didn’t say a thing about Muslims or Islam in my acceptance speech… The whole thing is untrue.” Former Mississauga-Erindale MP Carolyn Parrish, who was at the meeting, confirmed Alghabra’s statement of denial. “I honestly can’t say I heard Omar say that.” However, Alghabra also insisted that Khalid  Usman did not make the remark.

Further, if he did say what has been reported as having been said, there are a number of issues. First, why would he make such a statement in a Coptic Christian Church? Celebrating the participation of Canadian citizens of the Islamic faith in Canadian politics is one thing. Celebrating that participation as an expression and advancement of Islamic power is another. And saying that in a Christian Church is not merely insensitive; it is stupid. And what is the source of the report that a number in the audience responded with shouts of, “Allah Akbar”? (God is great.) I assume that a few people may have responded that way, but the audience? In a Coptic Church?

What makes the charge more auspicious are claims about Alghabra’s performance when he was President of the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) from 2004-2005. The CAF, established in 1967, was your typical ethnic national umbrella organization, originally embracing 40 Arab-Canadian organizations, and serving to liaise between Arabs and the three levels of government, the media and other civil society organizations. CAF served as a representative of Arabs on Canada’s Ethnocultural Council. It was akin to the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Chinese Canadian National Council. More recently, but, as we shall see, only after the presidency of Omar Alghabra, CAF ran into a conflict with the Harper government. Harper refused to meet with the CAF after he became Prime Minister. The CAF had been receiving money for English language instruction and newcomer orientation. On 19 March 2009, Jason Kenney, then Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, suspended CAF’s federal funding for those programs and threatened to suspend $180,000 of federal funding that went to support CAF’s job search program.

Why did Kenney take such action? Because the then president of CAF, Khaled Mouammar, quoted Norman Finkelstein depicting Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2008-09 as the actions of “professional whores of war.”  More significantly, Kenney accused CAF of not being a charity, but a spokesman for radical Islam since the president called both Hamas and Hezbollah “legitimate organizations,” whereas they had been labelled as terrorist organizations by the Canadian government. In contrast, CAF urged the government to “remove Hezbollah and Hamas from the list of banned organizations,” arguing both parties were legitimately elected. Recall that as soon as Harper became Prime Minister in 2006, he cut aid to Palestinians in Gaza when they elected Hamas. Harper also ran into conflict with the CAF on a number of other issues, including CAF’s criticism of the Harper government’s refusal to attend the Durban II World Conference, which both the Harper government and the Jewish community claimed was fostering anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism.

There are several issues at stake. Should the GoC be funding advocacy organizations, let alone radical advocacy organizations, to perform social services? In the Jewish community, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society performs social services, whereas the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) currently serves as the Jewish lobby. But there is a deeper issue within CAF that makes the organization more problematic. CAF is deeply divided between those who argue for an incrementalist and integrationist approach in representing Muslim and Arab interests. In 2004, the opposition within CAF accused the proponents of such a strategy of being Uncle Toms. Those critics advocated a more confrontational and anti-assimilationist position.

Three presidents of the CAF, John Asfour (1997-2002), Raja Khouri (2002-2004) and Omar Alghabra (2004-2005) represented the first approach. Khaled Mouammar (2006-2010) set CAF on a new path representing the second approach. This is interesting since Mouammar was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board for eleven years prior to 2005 where he earned a reputation for automatically accepting all Arab and Muslim refugee claimants. More ironic still, Mouammar is a Christian, not a Muslim. But he is unequivocally anti-Israel and, perhaps, anti-Semitic. Further, from his writings and comments, he seems to believe that, like CIJA, CAF should make transnational issues a primary concern of CAF and recognize the structural links between Canadian foreign policy and Canada’s alleged racist treatment of Arabs and Muslims.

Some observers (Wafa Hasan, Cultural Studies, McMaster) defend such an approach as the only way to combat Canada’s alleged structural racism and its defence of institutional power and Canadian “values.” This power position of the establishment in Canada is the real cause of Arab and Muslim-Canadian alienation. In other words, Canadians who uphold human rights and tolerance, pluralism and civil discourse, do so only to oppress disaffected and alienated minorities and retain institutional power by existing dominant Canadian groups. Given CAF’s new approach, contemporaneous with the installation of the Harper government in 2006, a confrontation developed between CAF and the government that came to a head in 2009. The government once gave over a million dollars to CAF, but has since cut back on most and perhaps all of those funds.

Omar Alghabra stood on the other side opposed to Khaled Mouammar. For him, a focus on foreign affairs discredits CAF and presents Arabs as single-issue and narrow-minded and biased. Positions must be taken because they have both a universal appeal and a universal application. He argued that Arab-Canadians are typically discredited when they focus on the political events in a region outside of Canada. But how is this possible if, in 2004, as President of CAF, he denounced the Toronto Star for depicting the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as a terrorist organization? Did he really write a letter to the Toronto Police Chief on behalf of CAF denouncing his trip to Israel?

With respect to denouncing the Toronto Star, a paper for which he often wrote opinion pieces, for depicting the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as a terrorist organization, what, in fact, happened, as far as I can understand by going back and reading newspaper archives from 2004, is that someone else made the remark and blamed Alghabra. When the Second Intifada was in full swing, Mohamed Elmasry, a Professor of Engineering and a widely published scholar, but also a spokesperson for the Canadian Islamic Congress, was the source of the remark. Although Elmasry supports a two-state solution as the only realistic possibility, he nevertheless is a rabid anti-Zionist (and possible anti-Semite, even though he denounces graffiti attacks on Canadian synagogues) and calls Israel an apartheid state.

However, the real controversial remark took place on the Michael Coren show. (19 October 2004)

COREN: Anyone over the age of 18 in Israel is a valid target.

ELMASRY: Anybody above 18 is a part of the Israeli army…

COREN: So everyone in Israel and anyone and everyone in Israel, irrespective of gender, over the age of 18 is a valid target?

ELMASRY: Yes, I would say.

Elamasry argued for the legitimacy of targeting all Israelis over 18 by any means, and insisted that such acts did not constitute terrorism. Any form of violence, he insisted, was justified in attacking Israelis. Omar Alghabra started defending Elmasry on behalf of CAF. However, in response to criticism, and after watching the full tape of Elmasry’s remarks on Michael Coren’s show, he immediately withdrew that support. “We commented on [Mohamed Elmasry] and took a position without watching the whole tape.” As a result, Alghabra admitted that CAF “had egg on its face.”

On the second issue, the controversy over the Toronto Police Chief’s visit to Israel that broke out at the end August 2005, the Chief said he was going to Israel to see how Israelis handled terrorism. Though the Police Commission Board defended the Police Chief’s right to visit Israel, Alghabra, as well as many others, were critical. There was no indication that this criticism meant Alghabra was critical of Israel, though, from his general disposition, he seemed to be very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and critical of Israel. In fact, Alghabra takes a stronger position than Abbas himself, certainly over the settling of borders. He goes further and claims that Resolution 242 demands Israel’s withdrawal from all the territories captured in 1967. (The resolution leaves out the definite article and refers only to territories.) But that position and his criticism of the Police Chief’s trip were perfectly appropriate for him to make, whether I or any reader agrees or disagrees with his position on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute or the Police Chief taking the trip.

What was totally inappropriate – and incorrect – was his insistence in the Jewish Tribune, where he interpreted that Resolution 242 required Israel to totally withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, was that this Liberal Party policy. The actual Liberal Party policy says no such thing, but insists that, in implementing a two-state solution, a safe, secure and democratic Israel must exist in peace beside a viable, secure and democratic Palestinian state. The Liberal Party’s position on Israel’s right to self-defence and on Hamas are far less equivocal. “Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”

As for mourning Arafat, another complaint cast against Omar Alghabra, that should have been a good sign. For though Arafat had indeed been a terrorist, as had Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Arafat had accepted the principle of a two-state solution and had won a Nobel Prize, as had Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (2004). After meeting Arafat twice and having become convinced that his worst failing was that he was both a poor micromanager and a flake, I nevertheless would not have expected any Arab community leader not to mourn Arafat’s passing.

What about Alghabra’s opposition to no fly lists? It just happens to be the position of most human rights organizations. After all, it is not as if putting someone on a list is subject to a court review that allows someone to question such an action. Rather, it is a punishing move by an unknown bureaucrat whose action the victim has no right or means to challenge. There is neither due process nor fairness. And once on such a list, it is almost impossible to get off. The argument is not against such lists, but against the absence of protections and processing in making a list. In September 2014, a Muslim Canadian Haligonian, Mohammed Yaffa, protested to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about the extended security checks to which he was subjected numerous times suspecting his inclusion on Canada’s secretive no-fly or guarded-fly list. Canada’s information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, took Ottawa to court over its secrecy. I have not read the results of either appeal. But if Legault was entitled to complain, certainly Alghabra was.

What about when these critics who cited Alghabra for telling Al Jazeera, “On the issue of Iran, Trudeau has clearly stated that he is for engagement.” But Barack Obama believes strongly in engagement. So even did Ronald Reagan in negotiating with the USSR. Engagement does not mean naïve acceptance of the other as if everything is normal. Non-engagement means ignoring contact; it means isolating Cuba. No matter how much I personally distrusted Castro, non-engagement is not the answer, but part of the problem.

On my many blogs on the Iran nuclear negotiations, I have advocated for engagement. This does not mean that I do not believe that Iran, other that Da’esh and al Qaeda, is the meanest agent in the Middle East turmoil. In fact, I argued that the nuclear deal would permit Iran to be even meaner and, therefore, more dangerous on the non-nuclear front. Nevertheless, I believe engagement is better than non-engagement in most situations, and certainly in this one. So this is a criticism that stems from ideology rather than discovering something peculiar and out-of-bounds specific to Alghabra.

So where does this leave us in the charge that Justin Trudeau has a Senior Policy Adviser who defends terrorism and has a deep hatred of Israel? If the latter, it has to be very deep because, though he is clearly sympathetic to Palestinians, there is no indication that he is anti-Israel. But is he a closet Islamist crusader? I just don’t know. He could be an incrementalist on behalf of Islam, secretly moving into a position of political authority. I have no evidence to exonerate him from such a charge. But I have plenty of evidence to insist that he be taken as innocent until solid evidence is offered to come to such a conclusion.

The evidence that I have found in testing the charges made against Omar Alghabra suggest that the accusers are more akin to Donald Trump than reputable critics. When I investigate their sources, often the charge and the source have only a tangential resemblance. And sometimes I come up with nothing at all, such as the reference to a paper by Tahir Gora in April 2014. What I do find is accusers who live in their own bubble and cite one another as authoritative sources for what they write instead of obeying the first and most fundamental guideline of investigations into the truth – what have you done to disconfirm what you believe?

So what is the source for the claim that in 2002, Mr Alghabra stated that he did not believe that Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood proxy group) or Islamic Jihad were terrorist groups? Alghabra may have made such a claim. But the proof text offered: an article by Ezra Levant in The Toronto Sun (“Courting the Extremist Vote, 22 August 2014). Try a Google or a Google Scholar search – Alghabra Hamas 2002. What you get is a series of articles or references in which these accusers cite one another as authoritative sources. Elmasry certainly argued for legitimating Hezbollah and Hamas. But thus far I have not been able to uncover evidence that this was Alghabra’s position. On the other hand, Alghabra evidently wrote a letter to Peter MacKay when he was Foreign Minister urging him not to cut funds to the Hamas-Palestinian Authority. I have not been able to read the letter. From the controversy over the issue and what I did read, Alghabra had urged that Canada not cut funds to the PA if Hamas joined the government.

There are other statements attributed to Omar Alghabra. “More than over a million Palestinians have been killed, millions of them have made refugees, and millions of them are in the concentration camps.” As one who has written a great deal on Palestinian refugees, the statement is blatantly false. But Omar Alghabra did not make it. The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada did. Whether Alghabra cited it or referred to it, I have not been able to find out.

There are other matters of real concern. Alghabra defended the Goldstone Report, one in which Goldstone later renounced the very conclusion that Alghabra defended. I have written a great deal on the Goldstone Report and have been very critical of it. Alghabra defended the Goldstone Report and asserted that there was “no accountability for Israel’s war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.” The lack of accountability, he insisted, has reached a crisis point. (6 October 2009) But this legitimate criticism of positions that Alghabra has actually taken was, for some reason, omitted from Ezra Levant’s critiques.

My conclusion is that these writers and critics (Levant, TSEC Network, etc.) of Alghabra to which I referred have little respect for the norms of good scholarship or even good journalism as currently practiced. If I had more time to conduct truly thorough searches and came up with the same results, I might conclude that they, like Trump, distort or deform the truth for the purpose of making a point. As for the readers who sent me the charges, I am pleased if my writing may make you less sanguine about the alleged truth “discovered” in the writings of fear-mongers.


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