Free Raif Badawi: Plea at UN Human Rights Council

President Donald Trump in his address to the UN General assembly in New York last week critiqued some of those countries holding positions in the human rights council that offer no human rights for their own citizens.

I tend to agree with him as I have seen during my trips to the UNHRC in the past five years the rise of the influence of the OIC and the plight of certain communities under authoritarian regimes.

There is a consensus that the United Nations is a body that is impotent and has no influence on world events. In a way that is correct. However, it is the only international body we have, and sooner or later, we do make a difference since everything is tabled and recorded.

At the very least, the member states who attend are forced to listen.

This was the case as I headed out to Geneva for the 36th session of UNHRC. I am accredited with The Center for Inquiry in Washington and was accompanied by Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of CFI. We agreed to be there during the middle week of the session when most people are there.

Apart from the formal sessions and the plenary, the council is a place that is always buzzing. There are more people schmoozing in the Serpentine bar than in the main hall where the statements are made. There is a buzz of different languages, costumes and cultures which holds the attention.

Added to this are the peacocks roaming the gardens of the council. The place is beautiful.

The highlight of my UN visit this time was meeting Ensaf Haider, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in a Saudi prison for urging religious freedom.

Ensaf who has been out of Saudi Arabia since 2012, now has political asylum in Canada and lives in Quebec with her three children. Her only aim in life is to free her husband from Saudi jail and lashes.

Raheel Raza with Ensaf Haider, wife of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi at the UNHRC in Geneva (
Raheel Raza with Ensaf Haider, wife of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi at the UNHRC in Geneva (Photo: courtesy)
Ensaf addressed the council and spoke directly to the Saudi Ambassador saying, “My husband did not commit any crime. He only aspired for a better future for his country.”

I was fortunate to be able to spend some quality time with Ensaf who is a beautiful human being both inside and out. She is brave and committed to getting her husband out of jail and said she needs the world to help.

She said, “When Raif was going to be lashed, the whole world rallied for his cause. But I’m afraid they will forget, and I want to ensure that the world never forgets. I’m doing this not as a personal mission but for universal human rights and I will continue till he is released and my children see their father.”

Ensaf has a special message for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She said that if he can give millions to Omar Khadr and speak about giving citizenship back to Canadian terrorists, he can and should give honorary citizenship to Raif Badawi (like he did for Malala Yousafzai). This would be very symbolic and send a strong message to the Saudi leaders.

I traveled back to Toronto with Ensaf and made her a promise that my organization and I will rally to her cause and that of Raif Badawi to help ensure that the world never forgets.

One perk of being at the UNHRC are the side events which are much more interesting than the plenary. I attended a few of these.

One informational side event was about defending female victims of terror. It’s not something that is talked about enough. There were actual victims of terrorist attacks present – one in a wheelchair. We learnt that women, who are equally victims of terror, face more discrimination. They are legally socially, economically and emotionally deprived of support and in many cases (those who have been raped) are ostracised from their communities.

The UN is working on a resolution to give these women greater participation in peace and security efforts and amplify their voices to be recognized as direct victims of terrorism.

One interesting fact I noticed is that the whole world is at the Human Rights Council to speak about their grievances. Everyone has a beef with their state and leaders and is eager to blame someone else for their woes. There are people supporting their state and those against the state. Luckily, they all have a voice at the council in the form of NGO’s who are invited to speak under Item 4 which is the General Debate.

In this context there was a side event about the oppression of the Baloch people (Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan). It’s controversial whether this province wanted to be part of Pakistan but was annexed by military action anyway. The Baloch people are largely tribal and they claim that the separatists have been systematically targeted by the Pakistan military.

Ironically, at another event hosted by Pakistan, the rhetoric was more on the lines that the roots of Pakistan’s violence in Balochistan is a result of colonization. One of the speakers at this event said that it’s a conspiracy by India and intervention of USA for subversive purposes. The speaker, who is a Cambridge graduate, went on to say that there is a tendency in the International community to create “rogue” states like Pakistan, Iran and Korea.

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O CANADA – HOW I LOVE YOU, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS……


Last week an American radio show host asked me curiously how come I chose Canada as my home. Without blinking an eyelash I said to him “I came to Canada on a visit 30 years ago and it was love at first sight. That love affair still continues and I’m proud to be Canadian.”
It also brought back memories of an article I had written many years ago in The Globe and Mail titled O Canada how do I love thee? I can still count the ways.
My memory goes back to our arrival in Canada when I first tasted the freedoms that are offered here. It was heady and inspiring. At first I couldn’t get used the idea that I, as a Muslim woman from Pakistan, could say and do as I please.
Having grown up in a culture where women were supposed to be seen and not heard, Canada became a beacon of hope and once I started on my journey of individual thinking, nothing held me back.
Ironically I have lived longer in Canada than any other country including my land of birth, Pakistan. I have seen Canada grow and change and I admit that not all the changes are positive. But this is the country where we have the freedom to express our opinions and disagree with policies that are not in sync with Canadian values.
As Canada turns 150 years, I know that there is no other country of world I would rather live in and see my children and grandchildren prosper. Prosper they have thanks to opportunities and hard work.
I travel a lot out of Canada and as soon as I re-enter Canada, I say a word of thanks for having Canada as my home. My Canadian citizenship is a privilege, not a right and for me it comes with a sense of responsibility and loyalty to this land I call home. I will battle to my last breath to keep Canada strong and free.
God Bless this land, glorious and free and those who live in it.
Happy Birthday Canada!

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COMMEMORATING EID AL FITR

It is with a heavy heart that we commemorate Eid al Fitr. This has been a tragic month of Ramazan with senseless bloodshed of innocents.
Let’s not forget that the explicit purpose of the month of fasting is to reflect, feel for the less fortunate and ask forgiveness for our errors. I pray as we move forward that the future will help us become better human beings and Muslims who embrace pluralism, tolerance, mercy, kindness, inclusiveness and respect for every other human being no matter who they are, what they believe, or choose not to , and wherever they hail from.
Then and only then can we truly wish each other Eid Mubarak
Raheel and Sohail

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MANCHESTER – HOW DO WE GRIEVE WITH YOU?

The recent horrific and murderous terrorist attack at Manchester Arena hits close to the heart as I am a mother and grandmother. Twelve children under the age of 16 were among the 59 casualties taken to hospital after the attack, according to David Ratcliffe, medical director of North West Ambulance Service in UK.
There is no way we can sleep at night knowing our children are now the targets of barbaric terrorists. Such horrendous attacks seem to have become a way of life in the West and while we are not surprised, the horror waves this particular attack sends through the world are unprecedented.
Obviously the families affected by this immense tragedy and ordinary citizens must be angry and frustrated with questions on their mind.
My question is: what is the Standard operating Procedure (SOP) for grieving?
The single most effective weapon the enemy uses is Islamophobia so if we ask tough questions, it’s not acceptable. If we want to know the reasons why Jihadists are killing our children, they call it Islamophobia. So essentially dialogue and discussion around the ideology surrounding a global jihadist insurgency are not welcome because we now live in a world where political correctness is the norm and word police are out to get you if you go over the prescribed limit on words usage.
Is this an effective way of dealing with an enemy who has declared war on our world and our values? Of course not!
In a statement our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was shocked. I fail to see what is shocking about this. One is shocked when something you are not expecting happens. Terrorist attacks are horrifying and barbaric but not shocking if you already know the subversive agenda of the enemy.
At an interfaith event this past weekend in Montreal, all speakers agreed that we must identify the evil in our midst (even if it happens to be within our own communities) and then try to eliminate it. Like a virus, it must be identified, isolated and then removed. We also agreed that it’s not enough to say we are for peace; we must identify and remove the barriers to peace.
It is now time to show Muslims some tough love. Every Muslim individual, Mosque and Islamic organization should be asked to condemn (not just ISIS because that’s easy):
1. Condemn the notion of armed Jihad as obsolete in our times
2. Condemn the ideologies that emanate from The Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and Khomenists
and
3. To uphold the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
If they fail to do so, you know where they stand.
Today let’s pray for Manchester. Tomorrow let’s pray for our leaders to have enough courage to name and shame this ideology so together we can fight the radical Islamist agenda that has a mandate to destroy our freedoms.

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HEY WORD & THOUGHT POLICE – CATCH ME IF YOU CAN! Raheel Raza

As a writer I was member of The Writers Union of Canada for some years and used to regularly receive their magazine Write. In my early years as a journalist it was a handy tool to help with the “Canadian experience”.
So it was with shock that I read the controversy surrounding Hal Niedzviecki, Write’s former editor, who said “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation… In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” He has since resigned.
The shock is not with what Niedzviecki wrote, but the knee jerk reaction of TWUC officials who are begging forgiveness for the opinions advanced by Niedzviecki who also suggested (much to my delight) an “Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
I believe I could be nominated for this “appropriation prize”.
In my years as a journalist, I’ve written about communities and cultures totally different from mine. I covered the centennial of the Sikhs in Canada and received amazing feedback from that community. I wrote about Zoroastrians because there was no one covering stories about this minority community and I knew a lot about them. I’ve also been guilty of writing about Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures because I’m fascinated by their spirituality. Of course I did my research and ensured that I’m doing justice to another culture.
Similarly as a South Asian, I’ve written about faiths other than mine. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Muslims largely comprise the South Asian community and I’ve taken pleasure in covering events and stories about these faith communities. One reason that Canada prides itself on its diversity is that fact we as immigrants interact on a daily basis with a variety of cultures and traditions.
So it’s no secret that my dream novels characters are from diverse faiths and cultures. Does this make me guilty of “cultural appropriation”? In some eyes perhaps but I have the freedom to imagine these cultural interactions because this in reality is what’s happening on the ground. Romances across faith and culture are happening all the time. But who would be competent to write about them under cultural appropriation rules? The universe of qualified writers who fit the same demographic would be exceedingly small.
The idea that I, as a South Asian should only write about my own culture, is abhorrent and unacceptable in a country that prides itself on free speech.
Or does it? Last I checked Canada was a democracy and not a police state. My progress as a writer happened only because of the freedoms I embrace in North America and I will fight tooth and nail to preserve these values.
So to read scandals about the rise of word and thought police, not just in case of TWUC but in other instances as well (i.e. Professor Jordan Peterson of University of Toronto) is very concerning. I note that in academia is where word police works best. I was informed that in some Universities, there are lists given out about words that can’t be used and strict rules governing student’s rights to question some issues related to specific cultures. There are also events cancelled when the speaker is controversial. What does this say about Universities being the bastion of free speech allowing students to think critically?
I noticed this most when I travelled across dozens of College and University campuses screening the film “Honor Diaries” which deals with Honor Based Violence. This is when the terms “cultural appropriation” and “cultural relativism” were first thrown my way, not by students but by academics. Ironically the critics could not slam me for being a Muslim woman speaking about violence in Muslim majority societies, so they attacked the director, producer, and funders of the film. Good way to deflect from the real issues!
It’s great to see that other writers have weighed in on the debate. Those concerned about free speech have expressed their own disgust at the actions of TWUC.
Jonathan Kay writes in The National Post about “political correctness, hypersensitivity and tokenism”, all of which I too believe are undermining our efforts to be creative, artistic and critical thinkers.

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RENEWING OUR FAITH IN HUMANITY

“We all face death in the end. But on the way beware to never hurt a human heart’ Rumi
We live in times when the world faces many challenges. Politicians are selling their souls for votes, leaders and lying for popularity and we are being brainwashed to trust no one. Therefore we sometimes feel that humanity is at a loss.
On this Mothers Day I want to reflect on how we renewed our faith in humanity and found that there is indeed good in everyone. It’s been a humbling and learning experience.
My mother in law (Amma) used to live with us for many years and like any other relationship we had our ups and downs, but we tried to do what we thought was our best. Few years ago she needed full time care and went to Pakistan to her daughter’s home. Both my husband and I had twinges of guilt over time that we could have done more. It’s always in retrospect that this happens and few people are blessed enough to have second chances.
A month ago Amma became seriously ill in London U.K. and was taken to Northfield Hospital where she was in intensive care for a week and then transferred to a hospital room. Her kidneys had stopped working.
While we were shattered at this turn of events, it turns out that it was a blessing in disguise in that Amma was able to get the initial treatment that literally saved her life. She had no health coverage in UK so this was unaffordable in the long term and the only solution was to take her back to Pakistan where she wanted to be anyway.
What happened in those weeks since she was taken ill and how people, ordinary humans from across the globe, transcending all faiths and cultures, came to our help has totally been an eye opener for us. From candles being lit everyday in a Toronto church to Anna the considerate nurse at Northfield Hospital to concerned friends who reached out to us from Israel offering her health care there, everyone was caring and compassionate. None of this was about religiosity – it was only about humanity at its best.
Across three continents Amma’s children (and grandchildren) all came together in amazing ways to confer with each other on the best way to deal with the situation. But how to undertake this seemingly impossible journey? Well we decided that we would do this as a tag team with each one doing their part.
Sohail and I cleared our calendars and flew to London. Here we were met by his brother and son (who had been Amma’s caregivers for over two months) at the PIA check in desk. We were originally sceptical because PIA had a reputation of not being on time and we had a preconceived notion that they would be inefficient. Once again we were proven wrong. From the start PIA personnel went out of their way to be efficient and helpful. This is not just duty but above and beyond. The check-in clerk was very helpful getting Amma and me seats together and ensuring Sohail that he would not be seated far from us as in Ammas condition her only option was to fly Business Class with an attendant.
Then came the intricate and challenging process of getting across Heathrow Airports lengthy corridors with a patient so sick that she was nauseous the entire time and cried out in pain at every movement. I thought that the personnel would become impatient but they treated Amma with kid gloves, speaking to her gently and helping us across immigration and to the lounge. They brought us tissues and clean up gear and assured Amma she would be okay. Amma was nervous and trembling with fear on how she would be transferred to the aircraft. Truth be told so were we.
But the wheelchair handlers were gentle and firm. At one point Amma cried out “how will you take me?” and one of them said “Amma this is our job. We are trained to do this so don’t worry, we won’t hurt you”. True to their word, two of them gently lifted Amma from one wheelchair to another, wheeled her the entire way and then delicately lifted her onto the seat. By this time I was biting my nails with tension but these people made it happen.
The crew was so kind. They brought me hot towels, tissues, bags and helped me settle Amma. They waited patiently when I fed her and looked after all our needs with gentle care and understanding. And the plane left on time. We were so impressed.
At Islamabad airport the same thing happened but in a more organic way. They are not well equipped so everything had to be done manually. However the loaders and helpers were as kind and caring as they would be to their own mothers. At that end, Amma’s son-in-law had made all the arrangements and was waiting inside with a protocol officer who whisked Amma away in an ambulance to the hospital and we did not have to wait in any lines for immigration or customs.
The hospital called Shifa in Islamabad is state of the art. Clean, efficient beyond words and upto par with the latest technology. Amma’s doctor took one look at her and said “I’m not going to let you die”. The nurses and personnel once again were kind and compassionate along with being efficient. Amma who had not eaten anything for 48 hours was able to get something she liked and they made sure she was well taken care of.
This is to say that our one week trip was a mind-changing experience like no other. Not only did this renew our faith in humanity but it also gave us a chance to show our love and care for our mother. Now Amma is home and settled with her daughter and we know she is on her way to recovery because she is fighting back (in more ways than one).
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi

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A MEETING OF MODERN MUSLIM MINDS

Sunday March 26 was a wet, dark and cold day in Toronto. But inside the boardroom of Hilton Garden Inn, there was warmth, light and critical thinking.
This is because Muslims and non-Muslims came together for a one day summit to speak about issues that face all of us.
The event was hosted by Muslims Facing Tomorrow and supported by The Canadian Coalition Against Terrorism. Organizations attending were: The American Islamic Forum on Democracy, Middle East Forum, Muslim Reform Movement, The Clarion Project and Forum for Learning. We were professionally and artistically facilitated by Courtney Lonergan.
We discussed strategies to strengthen ourselves in combatting Islamism as reform minded Muslims with all the challenges involved.
The event culminated with a dinner for supporters of our movement. There were heartfelt speeches by Dr. Daniel Pipes, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser , Asra Nomani and Professor Salim Mansur. Also attending were Professor Jordan Peterson and Ezra Levant.
The response was overwhelming. One attendee wrote “all my heroes in one place. The evening inspired me to reaffirm my commitment to participate in this work through my writings…” and “A wonderful dinner with wonderful people. Thank you Raheel Raza & MFT for all your dedication and passion in the fight against extremism.”
Stay tuned for more information and action as this movement grows.

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