When Gandhi Met Hindy:

A Toronto Imam and his Community Take a Page from the Mahatma in pressing for Human Rights in Canada

TORONTO, OCTOBER 3, 2004 -- On the day after the 135th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, a group of 100 Toronto-area Muslims took a page out of the nonviolent apostle's book with a videotaping trip to the CN Tower, the world's tallest free-standing structure.

At first glance, such an event should hardly be newsworthy. But because we live in an age where Islam is daily demonized and Muslims are designated a suspect class who are jailed in Canada on secret evidence without charge or bail, this gathering comes with a fair bit of tension.

Indeed, it occurs in response to the questioning, arrest, and two-week detention in an Egyptian prison of Kassim Mohamed, whose own videotaping of the CN Tower raised suspicions among this country's "security" agencies that he might pose a terrorist threat. While Mohamed is suing the Canadian government and demanding that his name be cleared, others are acting publicly to show their disgust that such an arrest and detention occurred in the first place.

The CN Tower Videotaping Trip is a classic nonviolent direct action, aimed directly at the hypocrisy of the Canadian government, which invests money into persecuting Muslims for doing the same thing that hundreds of thousands of tourists (as well as postcard companies and tourism authorities) do every year in Toronto: take pictures of local landmarks.

Organized by Scarborough imam Dr. Aly Hindy, the videotaping trip also serves to highlight the many problems currently faced by a community under constant CSIS and RCMP surveillance and harassment. Numerous community members have been thrown in Canadian jails and held without charge for years on end based on secret "evidence", while others have been served up for rendition (torture overseas in Syria and Egypt) at the request of Canadian spy agencies.

As we gather at the entrance to CSIS at 277 Front Street West, a half dozen police, joined by private security and a few suspicious-looking white males in dark sunglasses and golf shirts who may or may not be CSIS -- "we can't confirm or deny that," one says in what is perhaps the dead giveaway of the year -- have gathered in anticipation of a crowd of Muslim women, men and children.

How interesting to see police here on this day, as they've been absent during numerous demonstrations organized by the solidarity group Campaign to Stop Secret Trials at this very spot over the past month. But today's gathering has clearly been organized by Muslims toting videocams and cell-phone digital imagers, so the colour-coded threat level seems to have gone up a notch.

After all, anyone with a camera knows that part of getting a good picture is standing still, aiming, and shooting. But to hear those words out of a Muslim mouth is enough to send Canada's spy agencies into a tizzy.

The videotaping trip has drawn a fairly large press contingent, asking the kinds of questions which show CSIS is not the only group in society that could use some sensitivity training. The press just doesn't seem to get what's wrong with current CSIS tactics of infiltrating places of worship, knocking on doors in the early morning hours, showing up at Muslims' places of work, bullying Muslims into spying on their communities, and jailing those who refuse to cooperate. All they ask in light of these practices is, "well, what would YOU do about terrorists?"

But the most common question of the day is as irrelevant as it is insulting: each time a microphone is stuck in the face of a Muslim, they are asked about their citizenship status. Non-Muslim supporters in the background note that they are NEVER asked that question when they speak with the media.

"How long have you been a Canadian citizen?" a reporter asks Kassim Mohamed, who has shown up to take part in the gathering, although he is scared of bringing a camera for fear of what may happen to him again.

"Would that make a difference in me being punished?" Kassim asks. "I've been asked that question a lot of times, and I don't understand this difference between being a Canadian citizen and a human being or a Muslim."

But it's a question which seems to matter to the media and to the government, which throws barriers in the way of refugees, "temporary workers" and permanent residents that are justified because they lack citizenship status.

Hindy points out there are two kinds of citizenship in Canada, with "the Muslim as second class because there are certain actions Muslims cannot do. We cannot take certain courses, we cannot take certain training, we cannot walk on the beach in the morning, we cannot videotape landmarks," all of which have landed Muslims in the cross-hairs of Canadian spy agencies.

As the group makes its way up the steps to the next concrete level on the way to the Tower, they ready their cameras and videos. Women in hijab, family members of the secret trial detainees in Canada, Muslim men of all ages and a few non-Muslim supporters are here on the bright fall day where, a hundred yards away in the Skydome, a Canadian baseball team is trying to hold its ground against being dominated by a team called the Yankees.

It mirrors concerns raised by many of those in attendance, who ask why Canada continues to jail its citizens when they are overseas and throw others behind bars on secret evidence at home to please the Yankee government and spy agencies.

Led by Hindy, an amiable former engineer with Ontario Hydro who himself was kidnapped and detained at the behest of CSIS while in Egypt in 2003, the crowd is in good spirits. Though some in the crowd appear nervous, they seem determined nonetheless to assert their rights and their humanity. In the best Gandhian tradition, they seem to say, if being a Muslim videotaping a world famous landmark is a crime, then they should all be charged.

"The RCMP admitted they started this national security investigation because he (Mohamed) was videotaping the CN Tower," Hindy says. "So we are coming here today to say, if that's the way they feel, let them do the same to us. They are wasting our money on this type of investigation. This is not intelligence, it is the opposite of intelligence. We were told they did this because of a zero tolerance atmosphere, but I call it a zero intelligence way of doing business."

It's time, he says, for a real investigation into the criteria used by the security agencies in determining who, exactly, constitutes an alleged threat.

Kassim Mohamed handles a series of questions from the press in a dignified manner. Although upset, he is focused, taking his time to answer, pleading with the world to understand that Islam is a religion of peace, created to bring justice to the world.

Although traumatized by his ordeal, Mohamed knows this is a much bigger issue than what happened to him. Asked if he is pleased by such a "show of support," he replies, "These people are not supporting me. They are supporting human rights." Asked if he wants to punish CSIS and the RCMP, he declares, "I don't want to punish them. The law should punish them."

Police keep close watch on the group as they make their way to the base of the tower. A fairly large group whips out their cameras and takes aim at the tower, marvelling at its height, the youngsters begging their parents for a ride up to the top.

Mohammad Haleem, a retired project management specialist, gently explains to the media that he will be pushing little buttons on his camera as he unpacks it from his bag. "I am doing something that is allowed by law," he says. "We are proud of the CN Tower. It is a good place to visit in Canada, and we can't let anybody deny us that."

What on the surface appears to be an everyday act nonetheless has a feel of resistance to it. A group of Muslims has chosen a public spot to stand their ground and assert their rights, in much the same way that thousands of African-American students gently refused to leave segregated lunch counters and bus terminals in the American south during the civil rights movement.

One journalist asks Mr. Haleem, "Have you found a sign that says 'don't take pictures of the CN Tower'?"

"You don't need signs to prevent people from doing things," Haleem replies. "There are hidden signs, and that's what we can't stand. The hidden sign is that some people are now forbidden from doing some stuff, and that is wrong. We have to fight for our own rights. The law should be applied to everyone equally."

"Who is not having it applied equally?" comes the next question.

"Well, people mostly with beards -- can I say that? Muslims. And that's not right."

Another journalist asks a straight-up question, the concern in his voice evident. "What if you were to take this tape to Egypt?"

Haleem calmly replies, "What is wrong with that? We have family, we have friends everywhere. I lived in many countries and I have pictures of every place for my kids, what's wrong about that?"

He is asked if he is concerned he may get into trouble for taking pictures.

"Of course, we will eventually. The point is that if we do not do this now we will get in trouble one way or the other down the road. So let's take a pre-emptive step against trouble by taking this video. How can this be dangerous to anybody? No one wants to hurt Canada."

Kassim Mohamed, his voice quaking with emotion, points out that he only taped 5 or 10 minutes of the CN Tower, yet he was not questioned about the three to four hours of tape he had of various Toronto Muslim community sites. If he was such a threat, he wonders, why was he never questioned about those images? Or is it that CSIS/RCMP concerns about security do not extend to those who worshipped at the mosques or ate at the restaurants he videotaped?

Before the crowd breaks up, they hear from another member of the community who knows what it's like to have CSIS on his heels. Ahmad Jaballah, the 18-year-old son of Mahmoud Jaballah (jailed four years on two separate secret trial security certificates in Toronto), states, "This is not about my dad or Mr. Mohamed or Mr. Mahjoub, it's Muslims in general. Yesterday they had my dad, today they had Yusuf Islam, tomorrow you never know who it will be. It's not about individuals in this society, it's about Muslims as a whole who are being targetted, treated unfairly. We are equally as human as everyone else, we deserve to live peacefully like everyone else. What have we done to be treated in such a way? If you want the bad people go after them, but don't judge a whole community based on two or three individuals."

Jaballah's comments close the first of what may be a series of interesting demonstrations emanating from the Muslim community, which seems to have broken some of the grip of fear that has kept many of its members silent, especially following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Hindy and his community have taken a positive step, asserting their right to be treated equally with good humour, dignity, courage and strength. They did not apologize for what they did today, they did not regret it, and they refused to be intimidated by the presence of police or the proximity of CSIS. Indeed, when asked if they were concerned that spy agents might be taking their pictures, Hindy cheerfully responded, "Fine, we'll take their pictures too!"

It was a small but significant reminder of a Gandhian campaign of long ago, when another targeted class protested for their rights. During 1924-25 in the Indian state of Vykom, untouchables who for hundreds of years had been forbidden to walk past an orthodox Brahman temple had had enough. They embarked on a 16-month campaign of standing in front of the temple and refusing to move until their humanity and their rights were recognized. Facing beatings, jail, drought and flood, they stood their ground, with the Brahmans eventually giving in, saying, "We can no longer resist the prayers that have been made to us, and we are ready to receive the untouchables."

It is not clear what, exactly, Muslims in Canada will need to do before their humanity -- their right not to be treated as suspects, not to be thrown into solitary confinement for years without charge, not to be deported to torture, not to be refused employment for wearing a hijab -- is recognized by Canadian officials and society at large. But it seems that after today, they have taken a positive step which has left just about everyone smiling for the camera.

(this report from Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada member Matthew Behrens, a white male who is never asked his citizenship status while at demonstrations)