Published on Sunday, November 23, 2003 by the Toronto Star
New Canadian Heroine Emerges from Arar Case
by Haroon Siddiqui
I first heard her on CBC-Radio.
She was as calm as the subject matter was unsettling — her husband's unknown fate in a jail in a far-off land of torture.
She was as methodical as his story was complicated, even convoluted. She sounded patient when impatience and anger would have been perfectly understandable.
Then I saw her on television.
She cut right through the thicket of stereotypes that would have trumped a less confident hijab-wearing Muslim woman, the wife of a man accused, with no public proof, of terrorist connections.
When Maher (pronounced May-herr) Arar returned to Canada after 374 days in a Syrian jail and held a news conference in Ottawa Nov. 4 detailing the horrors he had been through, she sat beside him.
"If it were not for her, I believe I'd still be in prison."
The next day Alexa McDonough, former leader of the New Democratic Party, rose in the House of Commons to laud Monia Mazigh: "We pay tribute to this remarkable woman.''
Despite her high visibility, though, there has been little said or written about Mazigh herself.
``She has inspired Canadians with her unrelenting efforts to raise awareness of what happens when the rights of citizens are trampled in the name of so-called national security. We are all deeply indebted to Monia Mazigh," McDonough said.
So I talked to her and those who know her.
Riad Saloojee of the Canadian section of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the first group to take up the Arar case, has come to know the family well.
He said in an interview he looks up to Mazigh as "a new role model, an archetypal new Canadian heroine for the new Canada — one who's committed to her faith but stands for universal values," as does Canada.
McDonough, who championed the Arar case in Parliament, said in an interview:
"Monia is a communicator's dream: she's highly intelligent and focused. She has an intensity about her. She has a sense of humor. She's humble and unassuming. She's extremely articulate" — in French, English and Arabic.
"At a meeting when we were discussing the Arar case, a lawyer in the room said, `This woman belongs on the Supreme Court of Canada. She has a wisdom beyond her years, and an impeccable sense of justice and how it is supposed to work."
But Dr. Mazigh, 34, is a Ph.D. in financial economics from McGill University, who has taken time off to raise her two children, daughter Baraa, 6, and son Houd, 20 months.
Never an activist, she was a private person until she got a phone call, while holidaying in her native Tunisia, from her mother in Ottawa that Arar had been detained in New York.
"I was shocked and surprised," she said in a phone interview. "But I thought it would be a matter of days — it might be related to the new immigration laws."
She understood the gravity only when she returned home and a lawyer, arranged by the Canadian consulate in New York, called to say, "there were rumors that he might have been deported to Syria."
As she started dealing with Ottawa, she said her biggest frustration was that "they were all hiding behind the fact that he was a Syrian citizen."
But Syria, like many states, does not let its natives renounce their original citizenship.
"He never wanted to go to Syria. He did not go there by choice. He had been kidnapped and sent there."
Mazigh did realize the implications of the post-9/11 era:
"If you mention `terrorist,' people are going to be afraid of you. Who's going to care about a Canadian Syrian-born Muslim?
"Very few people would listen to my story."
But, "I called my MP every day. They don't call me back. But I call. I write letters.
"I decided I was going to do that all my life" — if she had to.
Two more things kept her going: her children and her faith.
"My children. I was upset seeing them growing up without their father. And I worried about their future, that they were going to be treated in the same manner as their father.
"I did not want them to be treated like second-class citizens. I did not want them to be accused or suspected of being a terrorist because of their origin, because they are Muslim and they bear a name that has an Arabic sound."
Secondly, "my faith helped me a lot, Alhamd-o-lillah (thanks be to Allah) ...
"No, I did not pray more or read more Qur'an. I've to be honest with you. I am a normal person — I pray, I fast (for the month of Ramadan). But I had many spiritual discussions with myself. I felt closer to my Creator.
"My faith kept me strong and, Inshallah (Allah willing), will keep me strong in the coming days."
What was her worst moment?
"Every day was very bad ...
"But nothing seemed to me worse than seeing my husband's rights being deprived. I was very upset, angry and very concerned when I didn't see any action (by the government on his behalf). I never heard of a Canadian being deported to Ireland because he is of Irish descent.
"Of course, it's the Americans who did that (sent Arar to Syria). But why was there not strong action to bring him back home?
"To me, it was about due process. A Canadian citizen traveling on a Canadian passport must be treated according to Canadian values."
She said she kept telling politicians and bureaucrats: "You know, if this man has done something wrong, bring him to Canada and judge him here."
Her spirits were uplifted as a Maher Arar Support Group sprang up, run by the Ottawa-based Solidarity Network, and supported by the Canadian section of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.
Her faith in Canada was fully restored, she said, the day she testified before a House of Commons committee. "I was amazed that so many politicians from different parties spoke up and offered to help. It was not party politics. They were taking up the case of a Canadian."
Told of the characterization of her as a new Canadian heroine, she said: "Oh, my goodness," and fell silent.
Three days after McDonough's tribute to her in Parliament, Mazigh was also lauded in a sermon at Masjid Toronto at Dundas and Bay.
Farhad Khadim, a volunteer imam who takes turns leading the Friday prayer, told the congregation Mazigh had turned public perception of a Muslim woman on its head.
Told about that, Mazigh said she was forced by circumstances to play a public role.
"I hope I used it the right way," she said, and urged Muslim men to "encourage their wives and daughters to raise their voices, and be outspoken."
But, in a post-feminist sensibility, she emphasized that she did not see the issue as gender warfare.
Nonetheless, "Muslim attitudes here must change. We have to take the wonderful opportunity of democratic Canada to get educated and protect our rights."
Finally, how is Arar doing?
"Alhamd-o-lillah, every day is a new day."
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