“Critical Muslim Voices and The Elections”: A Conversation with Hasan Alam

Hasan Alam is a lawyer, activist and a founding member of Critical Muslim Voices. A few weeks ago I got the chance to sit down with him and talk about Critical Muslim Voices, what the upcoming federal election means for Muslims, the Islamophobic rhetoric surrounding the elections, and the presence of CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) on university campuses.

Zehra: Can you tell me about Critical Muslim Voices and why it was founded?

Hasan: Critical Muslim Voices came out of a group called Critical Muslims. Critical Muslims was a book club that myself and a few other people started about three years ago now. A bunch of us living here in the Lower Mainland felt like we wanted a space where people could come together–anyone who self-identifies as Muslim–and talk about issues that were important to us and provide a space for people to feel like they have community, regardless of what their perspective is, their political viewpoints are, what their background is, ethnicity, sect, sexual orientation–whatever. For a lot of us, we felt like we couldn’t find that in mainstream spaces–mosques per se. We started off out of someone’s living room as about seven or eight people.

Our primary focus was not just to discuss issues related to being Muslim, but to also create a sense of community amongst ourselves. Sometimes we would just meet, hangout and share food. Members came and went and our size fluctuated. After about two or three years of talking about a lot of hard and pressing issues, ranging from gender inequality to racial inequality, indigeneity, sexuality–challenging issues to talk about within the context of religion–we decided the we wanted to start hosting events because it was frustrating that we would come together biweekly and every time we would meet there would be something messed up happening in the news in relation to Muslims. Our voice would only be heard within the confines of the living rooms we met within, and it wouldn’t be heard outside. We felt like, “Wow, we’re saying a lot of important things in this living room, but it’s not being heard except inside this living room.” That’s really tragic because there’s such a large void in the mainstream of critical Muslim voices. The only voices that are really heard are those of “native informants” or Muslims that [are] Islamophobic themselves.

I stress the word “critical” because there are quite a number of Muslim organizations now out there, mainstream Muslim organizations, that claim to speak for Muslims, but it’s usually this one very specific voice speaking. Usually an orthodox Sunni voice with one perspective. A lot of the time it takes on this tone–I’m not saying all the time–I think there are some Muslim organizations out there that do a lot of work, and no one’s perfect–but, a lot of times the tone of voice these Muslim organizations take on is an apologetic one. It’s always like, “Oh we’re not terrorists. We’re good Canadians. We’re sorry for what this person did, but we’re not like the rest of them.”  These voices also don’t address the underlying systemic racism or issues, such as why is the Muslim community targeted all the time? What is the Islamophobia that is taking place here? What is the inequality that’s here? What is the relationship between Islamophobia and other communities in Canada that have and continue to face systemic racism, such as the indigenous stewards of these lands ? What about imperialism and Canada’s growing role in global occupations? These larger systemic issues and the intersectionality between them are never addressed by these voices.

That was really frustrating for us. So we felt like we need to get this alternative voice out there. We decided to form a sub group called Critical Muslim Voices that would have the aim of fostering community, but also being more vocal in our perspectives and getting out there and talking about issues like Bill C-51, and build relations with other racialized and marginalized communities such as the indigenous community.

What’s really important to us is providing a space for people to come together where they can have their voice heard and talk about issues that are critical to the Muslim community. I don’t think at this point in time you can really go into a lot of our mosques and talk about these issues. And I think that’s understandable to a certain degree. I get the hesitancy of why mosques don’t want those really politicized conversations happening in their spaces because these spaces have been targeted by the Canadian state ever since 9/11. There’s this real paranoia and fear of being surveillanced, of having members of our community interviewed by CSIS, of CSIS knocking on our door and dragging away young members of our community. Our community has gone through the experience of security certificates and having our citizenship stripped away — so of course we’re paranoid about having critical discussions that sometimes question the state – but that wasn’t a good enough reason for us to stay quiet.

The goal of Critical Muslim Voices is to provide a space for our community to have these really important conversations but also provide an alternative voice in the mainstream discourse with the very large disclaimer that we don’t speak for everyone in the Muslim community. We aren’t the voice of the quote unquote Muslim community. We are just one voice in the milieu of this very diverse and heterogeneous community.

Critical Muslim Voices hosted their first event back in April, and it garnered quite a bit of attention. What was that event about?



That event was about Bill C-51, Canada’s new “anti-terror” legislation, more popularly known as the Secret Police Bill. At that point, the bill was going through parliament and pretty much set to be passed,  and we felt it was really important to hear some Muslim voices on the bill because Bill C-51, since its introduction, has been shrouded in a rhetoric of Islamophobia. It has been justified on the basis of a fear of Muslims or the Muslim other.  The surveillancing measures in the the bill have been justified on the premise of the risk “homegrown terrorists” and how mosques in Canada are breeding ground for these terrorists — to roughly quote Stephen Harper himself. We thought it was important, given the lack of Muslim voices that were speaking to Bill C-51, to provide a perspective on what the impact of this Bill was going to be on the Muslim community in Canada.

We had a three speaker panel that spoke about Bill C-51; how Bill C-51 fits into the larger War on Terror, which Canada has been engaged in both domestically and internationally. We also had one speaker touch on the role and impact surveillancing has within the Muslim community itself. We had a great turnout. We also had a great community dialogue that happened after the event because it was mostly Muslim voices that were speaking about how this bill is going to be impacting us, but also the larger context within which this bill is happening, the paranoia within Canada, the Islamophobia that has existed in Canada both prior to Harper regime but which has dramatically escalated under the Harper regime as well.


Left to right: Zool Suleman, Hasan Alam, Rahat Kurd and Tahia Ahmed

We’ve repeatedly heard Islamophobic rhetoric surrounding Harper’s campaign, his public comment linking radicalization with mosques, his obsession with ISIS. Why is Harper so obsessed with Muslims, and so Islamophobic?

[laughs]. That’s  a good question. I think there are multiple reasons. On the one hand it’s political. It’s strategic. They’re speaking to their base of Conservative voters and supporters,  and to this base fear mongering and general xenophobia has always been a mobilizing force, especially when it comes to the vote. and aside from the Muslim community, when we look at Canada’s longer history, fear mongering has always been able to mobilize the vote. Just instilling a fear of an Other has helped mobilize populations to garner support for political parties.

It’s important to point out that this isn’t just Harper, and this fear mongering predates the Harper regime. When 9/11 first happened, it was the Liberals that were in power and it was the Liberals who introduced some of the first and most intrusive anti-terror legislation at the time, which Bill C-51 is rooted in. Maher Arar happened under the Liberals. A lot of the security certificates that were legislated and passed and enacted were done underneath the Liberals. Some of the heaviest surveilancing of Muslims in Canada has happened under the Liberals.

Even before the Liberals–Canada has a history of doing this. If not just against Muslims, then against the first Chinese migrants that came here. If not the Chinese migrants, then the Indigenous people. The fear of the Other has always been utilized by the Canadian state to garner political support and to shift the views and attention of the population away from what really matters at the time.

I think a lot of this Islamophobia also helps to take away the attention of the public from what Bill C-51 might be targeted towards, which is targeting the Indigenous sovereignty movement, the environmental justice movement, and dissent to Canada’s growing role in international interventions and wars. Bill C-51 will allow the Canadian government to surveillance and detain indigenous and environmental justice activists and subdue dissent to the pipelines. It’ll give the state the power to subdue dissent to Canada striking deals with war criminals such as Modi in India, which has already happened. Bill C-51 is so much larger than the Muslim community, but the Islamophobia helps to mask these larger repercussions.

You spoke earlier about one of the aims of Critical Muslim Voices being to connect and build relations with the Indigenous communities as well. Why do you think it’s important for Muslims who are settlers on this land to do so?

I think you said it yourself when you said the world “settler.” Regardless of your religious or ethnic identity, if you are a settler in Canada then you have an obligation to learn more about the history of the colonization that took place on this land, to learn about the history of the Indigenous people here and their role as the stewards and protectors of this land, to acknowledge the occupation of this land, and to be an ally in the best possible way that you can be. This is an obligations that applies to everyone that is a settler, including people that identify as Muslim.

There’s an interesting relationship there between the Muslim community and Indigenous people, which also exists between other racialized communities. One of our speakers at our Bill C-51 events, Khelsilem, who comes from an Indigenous background, spoke to the fact that, “look, Indigenous people have a history of being targeted, a history of having phobias created around them, a history of being put into residential schools, of being surveillanced”. Muslims here in Canada who, having experienced that now, especially post-9/11, have that shared experience.

Of course, you can’t compare the experience of Muslims in any way or form to that of what the experience of Indigenous people has been, but there are common points of oppression and lived experiences that we can build solidarity on. I think it’s really important for us as a community to do that because we do speak a lot about our own oppression. We speak about war and occupation, but as a community we need to start being more vocal about the occupation that’s happening right here in Canada.

Audrey Seigl from Musqueam doing a welcoming for the last Critical Muslim Voices event

Audrey Seigl from Musqueam doing a welcoming for the last Critical Muslim Voices event

According to a recent article I read by the The Star, statistically speaking Muslim communities have not had a very high voter turnout during elections. This time around we seem to be hearing a lot more Muslim communities trying to get politically engaged, to vote, courting the Muslim vote–organizations such as Critical Muslim Voices and I also recently heard about Canadian Muslim Vote. Do you think there’s something different about this election?

Yeah, but I think before I speak to that, it’s important to speak to why historically a lot of racialized communities including the Muslim community haven’t had the highest voter turnout. There isn’t just one reason for that, but one important reason is because the Canadian system itself has been so alienating to them. They haven’t had the best interaction with the system itself so they don’t feel motivated to vote. By and large the system has discriminated against them. Just look at the current elections discourse around the niqab and citizenship oath taking ceremony — the underlying message that is being sent out here is that Muslims are second class citizens here in Canada that don’t belong, unless we conform and give up our identities. With political messaging like this, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen low voting turnout from the Muslim community — the state is almost shouting at them that “you don’t deserve to vote”. And I think the Conservatives are very purposefully and strategically doing this to keep Muslims away from voting booths because they know that Muslims in Canada haven’t traditionally voted for them.

Now, under the Harper regime the targeting of Muslim communities has been taken up a notch. The urgency is now being felt a lot more by Muslims in Canada. Given measures like Bill C-51, given the Harper government’s targeting of Muslim women and trying to dictate what they should or shouldn’t wear, trying to ban the niqab, trying to ban the headscarf, cutting refugee health care–which by and large impacts the Muslim community because we are such a large population of the refugees that come to Canada. The changing of the immigration laws and the limitations that have been placed there–a lot of that has been shrouded with a lot of Islamophobic rhetoric. I think the community is hearing that and they want change. I don’t think changing the Harper regime itself will be the only thing that needs to be done, but it’s an important step.

I should also clarify that for Critical Muslim Voices we’re not so much an organization that is trying to get out the vote. We ourselves as an organization acknowledge that there are a lot of Indigenous communities out there that are even questioning the legitimacy of the election process, given that it is a colonial system. What we want to do is to create a space where Muslims can come and talk about the issues and rhetoric surrounding the elections, talk about them as a whole or talk distinctly about the thing called the “the Muslim Vote”.

You’ve mentioned before that for a lot of these marginalized communities the kind of things Bill C-51 seem to be entrenching is not new–the surveillance, detention without cause, etc. At the same time we hear a lot of about voting strategically, bringing an end to Harper regime by voting. Do you think replacing the Conservatives with another one of the mainstream parties within the political system will do much to secure and protect marginalized communities from violations of their human rights?

I think voting out Harper is important at this point in time. I think it’s really important to get rid of Harper just because of the degree to which he is pushing the Canadian state and its policies along this neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian path. Specifically for Muslims because so much of his political rhetoric and policies are aimed at targeting our communities.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that this history of targeting Muslims and this history of targeting marginalized communities precedes Harper, precedes the Liberals, precedes the NDP–it goes back to the creation of the Canadian state. It is a part of this state’s history to target marginalized communities.

So, is getting rid of Harper important? Yes. Does the struggle stop there? No. We need to take to task whoever comes in. The systemic marginalization, whether racial or economic, will continue regardless of who’s in office. I’ve stated that under the Liberals we saw the security certificates. We saw Maher Arar,  We saw a lot of problematic things post-9/11 under the Liberals. Even with the the ranks of the NDP and Mulcair right now there is a witch hunt taking place and anyone in the NDP that has anything pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist to say is being purged.

It would be incredibly naive to say that getting rid of one political party is going to fix everything. The struggle needs to be strategic. It needs to be on the electoral level, where we vote strategically and get rid of the Harper government. But also, the grassroots mobilization  and resistance needs to continue, which  is aimed at changing the system as a whole and ultimately decolonization.

How do you think Bill C-51 could impact Muslim student life or Muslim activists on campus?

That hits home for me a bit. I remember being a Muslim student on campus post-9/11, being very involved the Muslim Student Association on campus. I was on the executive and at one point president. It was sort of the beginning of my own political activism, which has roots in the post-9/11 era, resisting the environment of Islamophobia which was incredibly ramped up at the time. I was interviewed by CSIS strictly based on my involvement in the Muslim Student Association and because I was a young Muslim male that was remotely politically active. I wasn’t someone that was talking about jihad or overthrowing the Canadian state, or anything even remotely politically radical at the time – I  was a member of a student organization and that’s as far as my politics went.  But, I was targeted. In my mind now, with Bill C-51, with Canada having so much more power around surveillancing in comparison to when I was involved with activism on campus, I think there’s definitely a much larger threat to Muslim students, Muslim organizations, Muslim activists, and racialized activists in general (regardless if you’re Muslim) on campus to be surveillanced, possibly detained, and even deported if you don’t have status. Under Bill C-24, you could even be stripped of your citizenship.

I’m also interested in knowing what you think about the presence of CSIS on university campuses, how administration may have to comply, and what that means for campus activism.

I’m not familiar with just how present CSIS is on university campuses. I do know that they certainly go out there and recruit on campuses. They had their table set up on career days trying to recruit people. I remember being on campus and [CSIS] trying to specifically recruit me because I was Muslim. Because I came from the ethnic/religious background of people they regularly try to surveillance. I should have just told them at that point: I’m sorry but you already interviewed me — but it was a different type of interview.

In all seriousness though, it’s disturbing how CSIS and the RCMP have tried to increase their presence within mosques and Muslim community spaces. It happens in this really problematic way where they will approach Muslim Student Associations on campus for example and say: “We want to host an event with you where we want to hear your voice and your concerns.” But what will happen is they will come on campus and they’ll host these events where they’ll talk about the “signs of radicalization” and what you as a Muslim student on campus should look out for if your fellow Muslim students is being “radicalized”. It’s fostering this culture of “ratting out” on each other or surveillancing each other.  That’s the kind of culture CSIS is trying to foster within the Muslim community. And never really acknowledging what it is that is creating these so called radicalized youth: the Canadian state’s surveillancing and monitoring of Muslims, the detainment of Muslims, the active role which the RCMP and CSIS plays in entrapping Muslims, the Canadian state’s lack of funding for mental health and social services which is in fact what plays a major role in radicalizing these youth.   

I’ve heard people say why should I care about CSIS or Bill C-51 if I’m a law-abiding citizen and haven’t done anything wrong. How would you respond to that?

It is a commonly said thing: “If I don’t have anything to be scared about, why should I do anything?” Well, number one: a lot of people–especially if you’re Muslim–who have been targeted under security certificates and Canada’s other anti-terror legislations have been innocent law abiding people. Maher Arar was a law-abiding person. Adil Cherkaoui was a law-abiding person. The men held under security certificates were by and large law-abiding people. The countless other people whose names we don’t know of but who have been detained, have had interactions with the Canadian state, were law-abiding people. What they weren’t were white Anglo people. Unfortunately, in their case that worked against them–the fact that they had Muslim names and were racialized people. Having that identity alone makes you a target in this day and age under this legislation.

Apart from Muslims, people as a whole, if you’re a racialized individual–or maybe even if you’re not a racialized individual–I think you should always be scared and cautious if you are giving the state more power to spy on you, to look into your personal life. That should always be scary. That information that they collect can be used for a variety of reasons. If not to incriminate you, but to wrongfully incriminate somebody else. Your online footprint is not just about you; it’s about everyone else around you. That information can be used in a variety of different ways. That’s the issue.

I think you have to have a lot of privilege, or pretty much come from a white or caucasian background to confidently be able to say “well, I have nothing to hide”. I think we’re also talking about allyship here or what it means to be an ally. This is where allyship comes in. If you’re a white Canadian and you’re saying, “Oh, why should I care–they’re only targeting Muslims”, if you care about social justice you should say, “No. Even though I might not be targeted, this is where my role as an ally comes because I know that this legislation can be used target people of racialized backgrounds.”

There is a Critical Muslim Voices event coming up in October. What will this one be about?

Our event is on October 14th. It will be at 6:00 PM and it will be held at Surrey City Hall. The event is about the elections. The title of the event will be “CRITICAL MUSLIM VOICES: UNPACKING ELECTORAL POLITICS: A Dialogue for Muslim Communities.” I want to stress that it will not be a “get your vote out” event. It will not be asking different candidates from political parties to come out and give their pitch. The goal of the event is to acknowledge the fact that a lot of the talk that is happening within the elections is about Muslims, it’s about Islamophobia, or legislations and policies that largely target Muslims. Yet, what’s missing from the elections, from the campaigns, from the debates, is the voice of Muslims. So we want to provide a community forum where people who self-identify as Muslim can come out and talk about what their concerns are with regards to the elections, what the issues are that they think matter, what their point of view on the elections is. Do they vote? Why don’t they vote? Again, it’s about creating a safe and inclusive space where people who identify as Muslim can openly and freely voice their concerns and beliefs about the elections and the rhetoric surrounding it.

We’ll have a number of speakers who will speak broadly about the issue of the Muslim vote, what the main issues are in these elections. The majority of the event will be dedicated to opening up the space to community dialogue. We’re holding it in Surrey specifically because we want a lot of the people from the community to come out. We don’t want it to be Vancouver-centric, as a lot of “politically progressive” events are. We want to actually have people from the community there.

I look forward to being there. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me about these really important issues.