September 22, 2006

Something Irrelevant

One personal frustration that bothers me more than it should is this: when I think up a great comeback days or even weeks after an initial remark. Conversely, one of the most satisfying feelings is when I do successfully respond in a timely manner. Thus, the following incident was immensely satisfying in a weird, inane way.

I was in Ottawa after one of my weekly cross-country flights from Vancouver. I was speaking with a friend, who had recently graduated from University of Waterloo. Somehow, we started discussing the quality of tap water; apparently, it is much better in certain parts of Ottawa then others. I mentioned that Vancouver tap water was good. The Waterloo graduate then said, "Man, the water over in Waterloo is terrible."

Quickly, my reply came, "is it because the Water comes from the Loo?"

Toilet humour, but it made me laugh no less.

Moral: Not every story needs a moral.

And with that irrelevant anecdote aside, I am going to take a break from Irrelevant Opinions to sort out some thoughts, focus on Ramadhan, and work on some personal projects.

May you all benefit greatly from the blessed month that is upon us. Ameen.

September 17, 2006

Le fureur du jour

So the issue of the day is the obscure quotation of Pope Benedict regarding the Prophet Muhammad salallaho'alayhi wa salam. Unlike the cartoon issue, these words came from a highly influential figure whose words carry much weight in world theology. For the most part, the response has been more civil and restrained than back in February, but there have been some unfortunate episodes of violence and at least one murder. Nice way to demonstrate that Islam isn't a violent religion, guys.

Since I don't believe that the Pope is a regular reader of Irrelevant Opinions, I'm not going to bother dwelling on the issue, as others have already written so much. And if, Mr. Ratzinger, you are reading, es tut mir Leid. Sorry.

Here are some worthwhile reads on the issue:

Pope criticises, Anjem embarrasses | Indigo Jo Blogs

Responding to Provocations | Musings of a Muslim Mouse

When You Just Don't Care Enough | Izzy Mo’s Blog

And if the Pope is reading this, here are two earlier posts that you might find educational:

Legacy | February 2006
Muhammad, the Last Prophet: Animated Film | August 2006

September 15, 2006

Faith over Fundamentalism

As usual, a Sikh taxi driver drove me from my Vancouver hotel to the airport for my return flight to Montreal. The topic of conversation, of course, was the bloody rampage yesterday at Dawson College. Details regarding the gunman have started coming out, including the fact that the gunman was of Indian/Sikh origin. This troubled the taxi driver. "How come he became like this?", he asked. "I've never heard of a Sikh doing such things."

"But he wasn't a Sikh," I said. "He may have come from a Sikh background, but I don't think he considered himself to belong to any religion. He was just evil, and religion had nothing to do with it."

It felt weird; normally, I find myself trying to defend Islam against the horrible actions of some who claim to be Muslims. Today, I found myself defending Sikhism against the actions committed by the Dawson gunman. In this case, there was clearly no correlation whatsoever. Of course, if the gunman came from a Muslim background, this would clearly be considered a terrorist act. The way I see it, it was a terrorist act regardless of who was responsible; were people not terrorized by the threat of a gunman roaming the hallways of the college?

Where people are trying to find a correlation is with regards to the gunmans' association to the Goth subculture. I had written earlier against the Gothic subculture as a very misdirected attempt to tread away from the norm; they focused entirely on image while ignoring the real threats present in mainstream society, particularly the rampant commercialism. One reader, himself part of the Goth subculture, interestingly remarked that he had never considered the Goth subculture from the perspective of someone already outside the mainstream. That is, since many Muslims are often considered outsiders themselves, their perspective on the subculture would be relatively free of the usual criticism directed towards their kind.

The obvious comparisons to the Columbine massacre have been plenty, and are deserved. In both cases, the gunmen belonged to middle-class suburbia, in relatively normal homes with relatively normal families. One important difference was that the Dawson gunman was reportedly not affiliated with Dawson College in any way, while the Littleton pair attacked their own school. His choice of the college as his target appears to be entirely arbitrary; his "revenge" was not against specific people, but simply an attack against a random group of youth he found to be vulnerable. And that's just sickening.

A lot of criticism has been raised against the website where the gunman kept his blog. Apparently, an earlier murder in Alberta also involved members of this website. I took the time to read some of the forums on the site, and found some very disturbing comments. While many were quick to condemn the actions (they almost sounded like Muslims!), a surprising number of them appeared to be defending the gunman. One wrote that "the way you people are cursing him and attacking him makes you no better than him." Excuse me? I think cursing and attacking a guy who just walked into a school and shot over twenty people isn't as bad as shooting over twenty people. Another wrote, "where were his parents?"

The unfortunate part is that the blame always seems to be directed towards everything else, because we simply can't figure out why a person would actually do such a thing without any motivation or influence. It's perplexing, but it appears to be the natural result of a society devoid of morality and faith. Of course, many argue that faith actually causes more hatred than it prevents. They'll point to the many episodes of religious fundamentalism today, and make a strong case out of it. But again, it comes back to the same discussion the taxi driver and I had; some people are just evil, and religion has nothing to do with it.

The website, seemingly taking a page from nearly every Muslim organization in North America, has issued a strong condemnation on their website, saying that Goths remain peaceful and loving, albeit depressed people. Blaming it all on the Goth culture is as much a flaw as blaming all of terrorism on Islam; however, just as there are certain questions Muslims must ask themselves regarding their direction and place in the West, the Goth subculture needs to do the same. Unfortunately, most people don't quite consider them to be a legitimate "organization" of any sort, so their condemnations will fall on deaf ears. Then again, so do ours, most of the time.

What can we do? I don't think anyone knows. No matter what anyone does, no matter what laws are in place, or no matter what people try to believe, there will always be crazies who go their own way. Right now, many of the families of the victims, as well as the victims themselves, have found some reprieve in the church. Some comments published in the Gazette demonstrated that even those who were never religious before simply did not want to feel alone and confused, and found comfort in the hallows of the nearby church. And of course, prayers were made at many local mosques.

It's fitting; no matter how much people say about religious fundamentalism, no matter what atrocities are committed in the name of God, we as humans always turn back. Because in spite of all our shortcomings, in spite of all our ingratitude, Allah still loves His servants. Allah still wants us to return to Him. And even while some continue to associate partners to Allah, or reject Allah entirely, the doors of repentance always remain open.

Update 9.17.2007: Great post by Shan - The Blame Game

September 13, 2006

driven by emotion, lacking a motive

It's one of those things that happens somewhere else. Unfortunately, Montreal is somewhere else to the rest of the world.

A man, reportedly in his mid-20s, walked into Dawson College in Montreal with an automatic weapon, opened fire against a mass contingent of students in the cafeteria, and eventually either turned the gun against himself, or was shot by police. There have been conflicting reports throughout the course of the day; some say there were up to three shooters, others give different descriptions. What has been confirmed is that two are dead (including the shooter) and at least nineteen have been injured (several seriously). No motive has been established.

Dawson College is part of the CEGEP network, the brief post-high school/pre-university phase we all go through in Québec. Many of my high school friends studied there, while I went through John Abbott College. I can't think of anyone right now, but I'm certain that I know current students of Dawson; there are only a handful of options for English-speaking students, and Dawson is definitely the most central one.

I was only 8 years old when a gunman entered École Polytechnique in Montreal, killing fourteen young women before killing himself. I didn't quite realize the ramifications of the event at the time. I was probably in Grade Three at the time; I remember writing about it for the "Current Events" journal we needed to keep back then.

It's incredibly frightening that such people exist in our own backyards. What are their motivations? How can someone foster that much hate, that they would be willing to just start killing people randomly? This is not Iraq or Palestine where people are growing up in the midst of violence, where everyday is a nightmare. This is Montreal, the home of hockey and smoked meat sandwiches; where does such hatred come from?

There is currently a murderer on the loose in downtown Vancouver, accused of killing a number of homeless people in the last few weeks. The murders have been occuring on the streets I walk everyday, yet no one knows exactly who is responsible, or what their motivation may be. The sad reality is that some people need no motivation; they have simply lost any trace of humanity they once had.

The motivation for the Dawson shootings remain unclear; perhaps, we'll never know. Media reports stated that there was no clear link to terrorism, but whatever happened clearly was an effort to terrorize innocent people. I imagine that for some twisted individuals, the posthumous glory is enough of a motivation; after all, there were several incidents of "copycats" in the wake of the Columbine massacre. The children responsible for that atrocity have left something of a legacy, however morbid. Whatever the motivation, there can be no justification. The students will never be the same, nor will the school itself.

For the average person like me, it hurts to feel so helpless. Being helpless against aggression and hatred overseas doesn't worry me as much as it should, because the physical distance is a legitimate barrier. But when you see and hear of these sorts of atrocities from your own city, it's another story altogether. Like many of us felt eleven years ago after the Toope murders, we are forced to ask ourselves, is there anything we could have done?

It's a bit of a conundrum; we'd like to think we can do something to prevent such senseless acts, but at the same time, we don't want to hold ourselves responsible. No matter what anyone does, no matter what efforts are in place to prevent such incidents, there will always be people who fall through the cracks.

Hopefully, we'll see the details unfold over the next few days as the investigation begins. Unfortunately, none of those details will change anything, nor make this any less of a crime against humanity, nor will it alleviate the suffering of any of the victims. Investigators will investigate, reporters will report, and bloggers will blog, but that will not stop haters from hating or murderers from murdering.

May we all be protected from hatred, injustice, and aggression. Ameen.

September 11, 2006

Monday, September 10th, 2001:

Of all places, I happened to be in Moscow.

"So, what's the story?", my friend asked.

"You're not going to believe this. The flight has been delayed seventeen hours," I replied. We had already been waiting for a few hours. I had just returned after running around the dismal Moscow airport for hours trying to figure out what the heck was going on; there were no indications as to where we were to gather for the final leg of my journey, to return home.

"Seventeen hours?!"

"Yep, seventeen hours. The flight is at 3am. We should be home around 8:30am Eastern on September 11th."

* * *

Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 - Montreal:

We were tired, hungry, but relieved. We were finally home. I walked towards the exit where I caught a glimpse of my family, awaiting my arrival after an entire summer overseas. A security guard pulled us aside, and sat us down in a room outside Customs.

I didn't know why. There must have been at least a hundred people on the plane, but only three of us - myself and my two friends - were pulled aside. Quickly, we discovered that something was greatly amiss - security started running about, barking into their radios.

"Do you know what just happened?", one guard angrily asked me.

"No idea," I replied.

"Two airplanes just hit each other on top of the World Trade Center in New York." There was no clear consensus as to what actually happened in those initial moments, but what they did know was that all air traffic controllers in the United States were being urged to ground all flights. I didn't know what was going on, but somehow I was being singled out for some reason.

And then they instructed me to open up all my suitcases. I complied, as did my travelling companions. They searched everything, digging through my books and notepads, finally stumbling upon a bag of jewellry my aunt had put away in my suitcase without my knowledge. I was slapped with a big fine for misrepresenting the goods I was bringing into the country. During their search, they also inquired about the purpose of my visit to Pakistan, my earlier visit to Saudi Arabia still listed on my passport, and why I wasn't aware of the contents of my own suitcase.

Finally, I was let go, over an hour after everyone else on the same flight had already left.

I finally met with my family. My greatest worry at the time was the week of school I had already missed. That worry didn't last very long.

* * *

Friday, December 14th, 2001 - Ottawa:

It was just before Jumah prayer. I was living at the University residence, descending to the lobby in my usual gray thobe.

On the elevator, an older, caucasian man looks me up and down, and asked me, "So... did you see the tape?"

He was referring to the Bin Laden "confession" tape that was revealed the day before.

"Oh yeah... that tape. Yeah, I saw it. I wasn't convinced, to be honest."

"You know what I think?" I had gotten fairly used to hate speech by that point, so I was mentally prepared to respond; fortunately, I never had to.

"You know, as soon as it happened, I was sure it was Bin Laden," he said. "But after seeing that tape, and how it was so obviously a fake, now I'm starting to think otherwise. That they would go to such lengths... it's clear that it's fake."

* * *

Friday, September 8th, 2006 - Vancouver:
I watched Loose Change for the first time. Nearly five years had passed, but my mind was never settled on the whole issue. Earlier, I had a discussion with a colleague regarding my misgivings around the whole "official story".

"So, you don't believe that it was done by terrorists?"

"No - that's not what I said," I replied. "It was done by terrorists. By definition, it had to be done by terrorists - it was an evil, murderous act to promote some twisted ideology. I just have this radical notion that terrorists don't have to be Arab or Muslim."

* * *

I don't know what to believe about what happened, except that it was horrible, inexcusable, and the guilty will one day pay a horrible price. At the same time, I don't consider it to be any more an act of terrorism than bombs being dropped from fighter planes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. And for those, there's no doubt as to who is guilty.

Loose Change, and similar media efforts, raise some fundamental questions. The typical responses, minus the profanities, are as follows:

1) "Yes, and Elvis was escorting the plane while riding a unicorn."

2) "Yeah right, you stupid liberals. Go back to killing babies and raping men."

3) "What, you want me to believe some crappy low-budget film made by some stupid kid? What's more likely, that the government would go to such lengths to kill it's own people, or that some stupid kid just wants to get attention and make a whole lot of money?"

4) "Shut up you stupid moslem, we're going to blow up your countries and send you back to the stoneage you damn towelhead."

A whole lot of ad hominem, unfortunately. The actual arguments are rarely challenged, primarily because no one wants to believe that the allegations can be true. If they were, it would challenge every idea of freedom, democracy, and justice the Western world has ever thought existed. Thus, anyone who dare question the official story is dubbed to be a fanatic, a nutcase, or a terrorist.

I have read a few actual counterarguments, but none that can stand up to even basic scrutiny. At best, they'll explain how the collapses of the North and South towers could have happened, but none of them dare try to explain the absent wreckage at the Pentagon, or the collapse of Tower 7. They won't even start on the suspicious trading and insurance claims that preceded the terrible events.

* * *

Whatever one believes, one must never lose sight of the fact that this was not the beginning; this was merely one of many atrocities which have been committed not for religion, not for democracy, but for wealth and power.

I'm struggling to find a conclusion, probably because there has been no conclusion to the events that I've written about here. I'll leave the politics to other blogs; I've written far more about politics than I am comfortable with already. While I search for my conclusion, I hope everyone else has success in coming to conclusions of their own.

September 07, 2006

Sidewalk Afterthoughts

Every once in a while, I let myself get frustrated. That's a fairly natural human emotion, but I tend to feel guilty afterwards; life overall has been very kind to me, and the worries I struggle with seem so insignificant in retrospect. Monday was one of those days where I let impatience overcome me, forgetting all the good in my life for the sake of a few minor frustrations.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it holds a dark secret: there is more poverty here than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Downtown Eastside area, situated just a few blocks from beautiful waterfront condos and trendy boutiques, is home to what is considered to be the poorest area of Canada. The sad consequence is that the neighbourhood is rife with drugs, homelessness, and prostitution. The crime rate is reportedly one of the highest anywhere in North America, and the results of that trickle into the more mainstream areas of downtown.

I see more beggars on the street here than anywhere else in Canada. The impoverished come in all shapes and sizes; if you were to see some of them just walking down the street, you'd never expect that they would have to beg just to make ends meet. Many of them are young, with seemingly good heads on their shoulders; they could have so much potential were it not for the drug addictions. Others have lost their wits entirely, walking around aimlessly for days on end, yelling and screaming profanities at the wind and rain.

And that's when I start feeling guilty about ever feeling frustrated. There was no choice these poor souls made that have brought them to where they are. None of these people simply decided that this was the life for them. They fell victim to circumstances mostly beyond their control, and now walk the streets with little hope of ever enjoying a comfortable life. They walk hungry, dirty, and incapable of even sorting out their own thoughts. Their beds line the sidewalks, and trashed coffee cups become their wallets. And my daily realities far exceed even the best of their dreams.

Neither my talents nor my hard work have saved me from such a life. There was no choice I made which protected me. Every breath I take, and the comforts I enjoy while taking them, have been gifts from my Creator. And perhaps the greatest gift I have is that I recognize this to be so; how many millions of people go through their lives with no belief at all? How many millions of people suffer from hardships without having the comfort of faith in their corner? It is a gift in itself to believe that there is Divinity listening to our thoughts and prayers; without this, we would all fall entirely to despair.

Ramadhan is fast approaching. Sometimes, I look at the beggars in the streets and try to justify my complacency by reminding myself that I will be fasting for an entire month in a few weeks. But that fasting, as valuable as it is, is still insufficient to truly show gratitude for all the favours I have been blessed with. Fasting in itself is a favour, because it is a sign that I have been given the gift of faith. So how do I show gratefulness for the ability to fast? What thanks do I give for the ability to perform prayers during the night and day? As one scholar said, "prayer alone is not a sufficient token of gratitude to Allah. In fact, the prayer is itself another blessing we must show gratitude for."

Truly, no amount of action on our part will ever complete our obligation towards gratitude, but Allah remains the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. We do what we can, and pray that our actions are accepted; please remember me in those prayers.

Update 9.16.2006: Please read this wonderful post at Reflective Dust for a practical response to this piece.

September 03, 2006

Random observations on airline safety

It's amazing people still fly anywhere.

* * *

Awaiting my flight at the Ottawa International Airport, I passed by a drink stand and asked for a bottle of orange juice.

"Sure," said the cashier. "But because of the new restrictions, I'll have to pour it out of the bottle and into this cup before I can give it to you."

"Um, okay." I replied.

The cashier pulled the bottle off the shelf and began pouring the contents into a plastic cup. She looked up and smiled.

"Don't worry, we're fighting terrorism."

* * *

I can't bring deodorant on a plane, but I can bring a Dell laptop that may explode.

* * *

An Iraqi American was refused entry onto a flight because of Arabic writing on his t-shirt.

The story: Arabic T-Shirt Sparks Airport Row | BBC News
The personal account: Back from the Mideast | Raed in the Middle

* * *

Panic erupts on a flight bound for Ottawa because of a flushed iPod.

The story: iPod prompts airport scare in Ottawa | Ottawa Citizen
The reaction: Flying the Paranoid Skies | Ottawa Citizen
The personal account: I played a game, I became a terrorist | World of Warcraft Forums

* * *

A pilot flying from Ottawa to Winnipeg locks himself in the toilet in the middle of a flight.

The story: Canada pilot in toilet trip drama

* * *

There were six well-publicized crashes in August 2005, making it one of the worst months in commercial flight history:

August 2006 began with the uncovering of an alleged plot to blow up a number of commercial aircraft at Heathrow Airport. There were two major commercial airline crashes in August 2006, followed by another on the first of September.

And yesterday, a British Royal Air Force plane crashed, killing all twelve soldiers on board.

* * *

Well, at least we won't be subjected to the threat of an Arabic t-shirt on a flight.

Update 9.06.2006: Another amusing story out of Ottawa:
Speeding Driver blames lack of goats | Reuters

Not related to this post or worthy of it's own blog entry, but I just had to put it somewhere.