When times are hard and a society is overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty logic is often the first casualty. What was rationally explained yesterday loses transparency and becomes opaque and blind faith born out of insecurity replaces the need to know. The case of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar and his yearlong ordeal is the case in point.
Last September Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian decent, was stopped and taken into custody at New York's JFK airport by US immigration officials. Mr. Arar, en route to Montreal after vacationing in Tunisia, was anxious to get back to his family. Within days Arar was put on a plane and deported to Syria, a country he had not visited in nearly 18 years.
At no point he was charged or given an official reason as to his arrest. Arar and his wife were highly educated upwardly mobile new immigrants, not the kind of shadowy figures often painted of terrorist suspects. He has a master's degree in Computer Engineering and his wife is a PhD in Mathematics.
What was alarming about the Arar case for many Canadians of Middle Eastern descent was that his Canadian citizenship and passport bought him no protection. He was simply discarded like a piece of rubbish, his fate of no consequence to US Attorney General John Ashcroft and Home Land Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
The Canadian government made some noise and its Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham made some remarks publicly about putting questions to Colin Powel but Americans, poised for a confrontation with Iraq and wearing the cloak of indignation tightly around their collective selves were in no mood to bother with a puny nuisance like the Arar case.
For all intent and purposes Maher Arar was a forgotten man. In the months that followed Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, with the help of some progressive lawyers, embarked on a one-woman crusade on Canadian media to make her husband's plight public. She asked pointed and disturbing questions, which mostly remained unanswered.
Syrian government had informed the Canadians that they intended to charge Arar with membership in the Moslem Brotherhood, a banned organization in Syria. Mr. Arar's wife categorically denied that her husband had any links to Al Qaeda or any other terrorist organization and demanded the Canadian government to secure his release from Syrian jail.
Last month Maher Arar was finally released to the custody of Canadian government and was reunited with her family. In a press conference, flanked by his lawyer and his wife, a tired and weary looking Arar recounted torture and interrogation in Syrian jail and demanded a public inquiry as to the hows and whys of his case.
So far no public inquiry is forthcoming. Mr. Ashcroft and Canadian solicitor General Wayne Easter met and discussed the issue but claiming national security, revealed little about the case. However it now appears that the Canadian government, at least its intelligence branch, played a part in Arar's deportation.
Certain intelligence reports about Arar were conveyed to the FBI by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), which may have played a part in his detention at the New York's JFK originally. All Mr. Ashcroft was willing to say was that it was deemed in the national security interest of US to send Arar back to Syria.
And here is were the break down in simple logic appears. If Maher Arar was in fact linked to Al Qaeda or the Moslem Brotherhood and a threat to the US (and so far no one has taken this officially back) why was he not put under custody in the US? It's true he is not a US citizen but neither are tens of so-called enemy combatants in Camp X. If Arar is to be deported to anywhere why not to a friendly country like Canada where he lives and is a citizen of.
The Canadian intelligence already had a file on Arar and could deal with him accordingly.[i] Why would the Americans send a “terror suspect”, someone who could potentially provide them with valuable information, to Syria, a “rouge state”, one on US State department's list of so-called terrorist states providing financial support and military bases to Hezbaollah and Hamas? Is it possible that the Americans wouldn't at least notify Canadian officials before deporting one of their citizens to a potentially life threatening situation?
Any which way you look at it, there isn't much logic in all of this unless one is willing to have faith in the magic wand of “national security” to explain all. Because when we are scared we relinquish our right to know and to logic and are asked by the state to trust it completely.
The cynical conclusion is that neither the Americans nor the Canadians had conclusive evidence connecting Maher Arar to Al Qaeda or any other terror networks but decided to relieve themselves of his case by simply dumping him into Syrian hands. Let the Syrians do our dirty work. Torture may be a dirty word in the US and Canada but apparently common currency in Syria. Given the right set of “stimulants”, either Mr. Arar would fess up or end up dead. Either way he's off our hands. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows.[ii]
[i] The single piece of incriminating evidence against Mr. Arar seemed to have been a rental agreement co-signed by a man currently in custody in Syria under suspicion of association with Al Qaeda. According to Arar, he had been friendly with the man's brother through a computer business he had owned at one point. As is the case with most ethnic groups doing business within the community is common practice. Originally the man's brother was supposed to be the co-signer on Arar's rental agreement, but that day the hand of fate interfered, he was held up by another business and sent his brother instead. The situation is best described, well… Kafkaesque.
[ii] A comprehensive view of the Arar case can be found on The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's site at www.cbc.ca/news/background/arar/