For years, many wondered about the lack of political activism within Arab diaspora communities. Was it apathy? Un-flinching loyalty to Arab states, especially in the wave of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab media stereotyping? Why did Arab expatriates readily criticize Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, but stay silent about brutal repression of Arabs by their own leaders?
The answer is simple, albeit well hidden: fear of reprisal back home. Many Arab embassies kept a close eye on the activities of expatriates, with particular focus on criticism of the regime. The ominous message that filtered through diaspora communities was that participation in such activities – no matter how peaceful – could put family in jeopardy. Dissent, crushed at home, would not be tolerated abroad.
These implied threats had a chilling effect, as Canadian citizens of Arab origin hesitated to exercise Charter rights of free expression and assembly. Dissent – if not muted altogether – was exercised surreptitiously. There were few public campaigns by Arab communities to highlight the plight of political prisoners or unjust policies within Arab states. The personal and political costs were simply too high.
There was less risk in voicing objections to Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. Yet even there, some feared the reach of Mossad and advised restraint. “It may be illuminating to many Canadians – and particularly to the Jewish community – to realize that fear, not indifference, has long kept Arab Canadians from criticizing the human-rights abuses of Arab governments alongside those of Israel,” notes Natalie Brender, who writes about Canadian diaspora politics.
The security fallout from 9/11 further enhanced self-censorship within the diaspora. Collusion between Western security agencies and the mukhabarat, their Arab counterparts, cemented the silence, as any criticism of Arab state policies would be portrayed as Islamic extremism.
But in 2010, the sacrifice of Tunisian merchant Mohamed Bouazizi galvanized Arab populations to finally say khalas! (Enough!) The spirit of revolution spread throughout the Arab world, as once-feared dictators toppled. People found the courage to sacrifice their well-being for a better future, and so was born the Arab Spring. The “Arab street” collectively engaged in the highest form of jihad, defined by the Prophet Mohammed as “speaking out for justice in front of the oppressive tyrant.” Or as we put it, “speaking truth to power.”
Arguably, a Diaspora Spring soon followed. The long reach of dictatorship receded as Arab populations demanded basic dignity. Inspired by their courage, the diaspora swung into action.
Suddenly Arab expatriates organized, co-ordinated protests and spoke out about injustice in their homelands. Grassroots activism has since become a way of life for many families and students. Many returned to help rebuild society. There was a new-found resolve to fight for basic human dignity, not to mention pride in homegrown revolutionaries, such as Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni who was one of three recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Over the past 15 months, there have been regular demonstrations in Ottawa by Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Libyan and Syrian groups, with simultaneous protests held in other Canadian cities. Different groups have supported each other’s efforts. Diaspora members have protested in front of embassies and spoken freely to the media, no longer afraid of being identified by foreign agents. They have highlighted human-rights abuses overseas and suggested concrete foreign policy options for the Canadian government. Last summer, I met a dynamic group of Ottawa women who worked tirelessly to organize fundraising dinners, picnics and marches for the freedom of the people of Libya – despite having loved ones still living there.
Unfortunately, the heavy-handedness of transnational repression continues. Well before last month’s expulsion of Syrian diplomats for transgressions committed by Syria’s Assad regime, a few were put on notice for threatening tactics committed in the West. Last August, The Wall Street Journal reported intimidation of expatriates by Syrian diplomats in Washington and London who branded dissidents as traitors. The U.S. State Department publicly rebuked the Syrian ambassador, confining him to a 25-mile radius around Washington.
A 2011 policy brief on the Syrian diaspora by the Middle East Institute chronicles chilling reprisals against family members of Syrian-American activists. In one such case, the elderly parents of Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali were brutally beaten by Syrian security forces after their son gave a pro-opposition performance in Washington last summer.
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