The Fearful Lives in a Land of the Free

I was given the chance to talk to 600 Muslim Canadians a few days ago. The dinner was in an Ottawa banqueting room and the guests also included the imam of the Ottawa mosque, the Ottawa chief of police and sundry uniformed Canadian army officers.

The imam sat between me and the Canadian capital's top cop - a genuinely decent guy who wanted Muslim Canadians to regard him as a friend - and we were even able to joke about the reality of those "random checks" which Muslims of Middle Eastern origin and a certain R Fisk seem to receive at North American airports. All well and good, then, until I got up to speak.

I warned the audience they might not like all they heard from me. And sure enough, when I told the audience that they were perfectly at liberty to condemn Israel and America - indeed, that they should condemn both when they abuse human rights, occupy other people's countries and shoot innocent civilians - but that I wanted to know why I so rarely heard them condemn the vicious police states in the Middle East and other areas of south-west Asia from which they originally came, I was greeted with silence. A smattering of Muslim diplomats sat like statues, thus identifying the cruelty of their regimes. The only immediate applause came when I remarked that the moment Western soldiers started shooting at Muslims in Muslim lands, it was time for the soldiers to withdraw.

Two interesting phenomena emerged from this remark. The first was that, when I finished, both the police chief and the Canadian army officers joined the applause. Canada's hopeless military involvement in Afghanistan is a subject of considerable controversy within the Canadian military. When the politicians have had their say, I've discovered, soldiers usually let us know their views.

Much more revealing, however, was the long car journey I took next day across the frozen tundra of Canada during which two Muslim Canadian men - yes, yes, they had beards - explained to me just why their community was so silent about the iniquities perpetrated by their local dictatorships back home. I had suggested that they were rather too beholden to those regimes - for funding and political support. They agreed - up to a point.

"Mr Robert, you have to understand something," the driver suddenly said. "They have their 'mukhabarat' agents here in Canada. Whenever there is even a dispute between families, anyone who's angry can report back that his antagonist is anti-regime. We have to remember that we have families still in our Arab countries. They can be arrested. Or we can be arrested when we go back to visit them."

Of course. Only a Westerner - only someone who automatically assumes that anyone with a Canadian passport is safe - could have failed to spot the flaw in the country's brave multiethnic society: not that Canada's vast communities from every part of the world live in the land of the free - which they do - but that their freedom is frighteningly circumscribed by the ruthlessness and lack of freedom in the countries from which they came.

And so I began to learn what it is like to be an Arab Canadian. It takes only a local argument to have an email winging its way back to Tripoli or Cairo or Damascus or the Gulf, informing the local despots that their dual citizen - Mohamed or Hassan or Abdulrahman or whatever - is a potential subversive and, ergo, a terrorist. And, so great is the co-operation between our beloved Western intelligence agencies and the torturers of these repulsive dictatorships that this "intelligence" is shared.

So only days after the original message has gone off to the Arab world, the "mukhabarat" privately tell the Canadian intelligence service - a truly silly institution called CSIS - that Mohamed or Hassan or Abdulrahman is a "terrorist". At which point, Mohamed or Hassan or Abdulrahman come under observation from CSIS as potentially dangerous terrorists in Canada.

At which point I realised exactly why my remarks in the Ottawa banqueting hall were greeted with a frozen silence. It isn't long ago, for example, that Maher Arar, who lives in Canada, was picked up by the FBI's goons while in transit at JFK airport and "renditioned" to an underground prison and torture in Syria, courtesy of information provided by CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The Canadian government subsequently awarded Arar $10m for this outrageous experience. But who wants to speak out against one's country of origin if it's going to end in the company of a well-trained torturer?

Just as Tariq Ali revealed the darkness behind the Bhutto legend in the London Review of Books last year, so my favourite lawyer, Gareth Peirce - she of In the Name of the Father fame - has now shone her crimson torch upon the British version of these iniquitous goings on.

In the same publication, she has given the most detailed account so far of the fraudulent British promises given to Arabs who chose to return to their savage homelands - rather than languish under a form of house arrest in the UK - that they would be neither tortured nor imprisoned after they went home.

When Benaissa Taleb and Rida Dendani were packed off back to Algeria, for instance, a British diplomat had promised that they would be detained for only a few hours. But they were both interrogated and beaten for 12 days in Algiers before being sentenced to years in prison. When Dendani appealed desperately to the British Special Immigration Appeals Commission, the SIAC didn't even bother to reply. And there was no reason why they should.

As Peirce has now revealed from court papers, private memoranda between the Home Office and Anthony Blair (I am truly sorry that I must mention this wretched man's name again), a caution from civil servants about the probable torture to which deported Egyptians might be subjected if sent to Cairo, was greeted by our former prime minister with the words: "Get them back." In reference to the Home Office's concern that Egyptian assurances could not be trusted, Blair wrote: "This is a bit much. Why do we need all these things?"

Am I the only one to react to the preachy, hypocritical sermon by this detestable man at Westminster Cathedral on Thursday with something more than disgust? Because it is his callous, immoral reaction to that deportation case - and the response of countless political leaders like him - towards Muslims in Europe and North America that led to that cold, hollow, frightening silence in the Ottawa banqueting hall. If I had been among the audience, I now realise, I would have remained silent too.

Robert Fisk's new book The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings, a selection of his Saturday columns in The Independent is out now.

(c) 2008

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