Sects and Violence
A year ago hardliners attacked Jawaad Faizi in the driveway of his editor's Mississauga, Ontario home—not the first time his writing had made him a target. The reason: his loud criticisms of certain Muslim clerics. A stirring example of journalistic integrity? Or something not nearly so noble?
Last April, at 8:50 p.m. on a quiet night, Jawaad Faizi picked up his ringing cellphone with his right hand while clutching the wheel of his car with his left. It was the voice of Amir Arain, his editor at Mississauga’s Pakistan Post, telling him he had just received an anonymous warning on his office phone. “Keep the Faizis safe; they want to kill him,” the caller told Arain. Shaken, Faizi hung up, and five minutes later rolled his beige 1992 Nissan Sentra into the driveway of Arain’s home. Behind him, another car silently crept up and blocked his exit. Before Faizi had a chance to take off his seatbelt or turn off the engine, he heard a loud slam from behind him and men rushed the car. He couldn’t see how many there were, but one of them appeared near his window, brandishing a cricket bat like a giant hammer and slamming it down on Faizi’s windshield. The shards of broken glass cut his head and arms and sprinkled down onto the grey pavement. Panicking, he crouched down as the bat screamed through the driver’s window, inches away from his head. One attacker reached through, punching Faizi while the other started making quick swipes at him with the bat, cutting his arms as he shielded his face. They yelled, warning him in Punjabi and Urdu to stop writing attacks on Islam and their leader. In a moment of clarity, Faizi reached for his cellphone to dial 911. Seeing the phone’s light, the attackers shouted “chalo, chalo” (“let’s go, let’s go”) and ran back to their car, disappearing into the night.
Police haven’t been able to identify the men behind the attack, but Faizi believes the leader they were referring to was the Muslim scholar, Pakistan-based Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, founder of the Idara Minhaj-ul-Qur’an. Faizi had criticized him in a column that appeared in the Pakistan Post two weeks earlier. It’s a charge Qadri’s local representatives adamantly deny. Faheem Bukhari, the clean-cut director of the Mississauga Muslim Community Centre where many of Qadri’s local followers celebrate their faith, says that members of his centre were in no way connected to the attack and insists he is open to assisting the police in any way.
Whoever the attackers were, they aren’t the first to try to intimidate Canadian-based writers in the Pakistani-Canadian community. Since 2000, several journalists working for community papers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have been pressured to censor their writing and omit comments or entire articles that may be perceived as critical of Islam. Zealots justify intimidation with scriptural verses that tell them it’s their duty to correct other Muslims whose actions or beliefs conflict with traditional Islamic law. But despite these threats, a handful of liberal Muslim journalists continue to report on both religious and secular controversies within their communities, and like Faizi, risk their safety and that of their loved ones for what they see as the truth.
This wasn’t the first time Faizi had faced violence as a result of his reporting—but it was the first time it had happened in Canada. As a reporter in Pakistan, Faizi says he was beaten on several occasions and faced men who threatened to kill his family before his eyes. His journalism career started in Lahore where he wrote for the Daily Jang, one of the country’s largest papers. Several of his older relatives worked there, and after covering the political beat, he was soon promoted to chief reporter at 21 and was sending his father’s friends at the paper out to report stories around Pakistan. Even after the promotion, Faizi earned a reputation for his bold investigative pieces, tackling topics other reporters wouldn’t dare touch for fear of reprisals. He specialized in features exposing the crimes of wealthy and corrupt religious leaders, politicians and criminals. In October 1999, he and two other journalists infiltrated the hidden Punjab jungle base of Riaz Basra, the infamous terrorist leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Faizi barely escaped with his life when one Basra loyalist recognized his face as he waited in the compound. He was able to publish an exclusive feature for the Daily Pakistan on the terrorist’s home in the next issue. In a country with a military government that openly censors the media through legislation and intimidation, it was not an easy road. He quickly learned to watch his back.
Then in 2001, a man broke into Faizi’s home and held his three-year-old son at gunpoint over another column on Lashkar. Putting himself at risk was one thing, but having his family in the crosshairs was another. Escaping the violence with his wife and two children, Faizi came to Canada in 2002, claiming refugee status. The family soon found a basement apartment in Brampton and survived on welfare until Faizi found work. Arain, who also had worked in Lahore as a reporter and sub-editor for the Daily Express, had recently launched the Post and was looking for staff writers. Mohsin Abbas, a journalist who had been on a police hit list in Pakistan before moving to Canada and who now works for The Hamilton Spectator, knew both men. He introduced them over Tim Hortons coffee, and the two agreed to work together.
Arain launched the Post in 2000 as the Canadian extension of his uncle’s paper in the U.S. Like many of the other 20 or so publications that serve Toronto’s diverse South Asian community, the Post features political, religious and business news from Pakistan and Canada in English and Urdu. Distributed free to grocery stores and restaurants throughout the GTA and across the country, the Post has a print run of 25,000 copies in Canada and reaches many of Toronto’s 61,000 Pakistanis. This large population has developed tight-knit communities in pockets such as Mississauga and Etobicoke. While many liberal Pakistanis get their news from mainstream English media, the Urdu community papers tend to cater to a more conservative segment that holds on to the old language and culture. These are the people who are most influenced by local religious leaders, explains Haideh Moghissi, a professor of sociology at York University and author of several books on Islam. She adds that the few imams who threaten liberal journalists feed ignorance and rely on the lack of education of their followers. “So when they say these Islamic practices of the Qur’an or Hadith would require aggression,” she explains, “given their authority, many believers would see it as the word of God.”
I meet Faizi and Arain on a sunny afternoon in October, during the month-long fast of Ramadan, at the Post’s Mississauga office. Layers of carpet, subfloor and cement separate the reporters in their small office from the salesmen and customers in the Sleep Country and Cashmoney outlets on the ground floor below them. After pouring himself some coffee, Faizi settles into his desk chair. I can’t see any family pictures amidst the stacks of papers and yellow Post-its in front of him, only the image of Qadri, with his grey beard, tight mouth and stern eyes staring from the cover of a book leaning on the wall beside Faizi. That same book sat on the passenger seat of his car during the attack. As we speak, Faizi rubs the hair above his forehead, touching the glass fragment the doctor left under his skin because surgery would cause more harm than good.
Faizi says he continues his work out of respect for his role as a sahafi—the Arabic word for journalist. It roughly translates in English to “God’s duty,” a mantle that many Canadian journalists would reject out of hand. But for Faizi, the connection is obvious. “A journalist,” he says, “has a few duties: he must always teach and tell the truth about people.”
The articles on Qadri weren’t the first over which Arain and Faizi have been threatened—and not all of the threats have been related to the coverage of religious issues. In 2004, the Post ran a story about Pakistanis who were arrested in Canada in possession of heroin valued in the millions of dollars. The following week, Arain received threatening phone calls saying the paper should not print pieces like that. Faizi reasons that some people were angered because the wrongdoings reflected badly on the whole community. Although these and other threats have made them cautious, Faizi and Arain never expected things to get physical here.
And Qadri makes an unlikely villain. He overtly promotes interfaith dialogue, opposes extremist interpretations of Islam and spoke out against Osama bin Laden after September 11. During a visit to Toronto in 2007, Qadri urged followers at a Mississauga mosque to take down a wall dividing the men from the women because he believes eye contact with the imam is necessary to fully grasp his teachings. His local followers didn’t comply, and when the paper ran a story about his proposal, Arain received threatening phone calls demanding he stop.
That was in January 2007. But three months later, Faizi wrote about Qadri again, this time in a column about a lecture the scholar held in Pakistan on the word “Muhammad.” During the speech, Qadri’s followers in the crowd pointed to the sky where the clouds before the moon formed the Arabic name of the Prophet. Faizi, basing his report on a press release from the Minhaj-ul-Qur’an, criticized the event and stated that Qadri claimed to be able to write the name of Muhammad on the moon with his finger. While some believe the event was a miracle, Faizi remained skeptical. His column was clearly marked as opinion under a title that translates as “The Imam of Balds,” referring to a dream he recounted in the column where the devil offered him the chance to be the king of all bald-headed people and introduce a new school of thought to Muslims, with the promise that he would be bestowed with wealth and power equal to that of Qadri. Even laced with humour, Faizi’s point was clear: in his dream, Qadri’s claim to be a great spiritual leader was as credible as Faizi’s claim to be the leader of bald-headed people—and its root was equally corrupt. From past experience, he knew these words would anger some in the community but Faizi maintains that as a journalist, he refuses to live in fear. The column was guaranteed to spark controversy—even in a mainstream newspaper, suggesting any spiritual leader had made a deal with the devil is likely to provoke letters and angry phone calls.
It did. Some callers praised the humour in the piece, but others called Faizi and the Post anti-Islamic and threatened violence if the paper kept printing attacks against Qadri and Islam. The day before he was beaten, Faizi filed a report to the Peel Regional Police 12 Division in Mississauga, stating he was worried about his safety. He says they told him not to worry.
So why did Faizi take on Qadri? His inspiration for the column came from his dream, which, he says, predated Qadri’s lecture and in which the devil told him Qadri had the power to write his name on the moon. After Arain showed him the Minhaj-ul-Qur’an press release, Faizi couldn’t believe the coincidence, and decided he had to publish the column alongside the moon miracle article in the next issue. Some are skeptical about Faizi’s explanation. Dr. Iqbal Nadvi, the imam at Oakville’s Al-Falah Islamic Centre and director of the Islamic Circle of North America, an organization that promotes Islamic tradition and education, says Faizi’s attitude has a more earthly root. “It is totally a sectarian thing,” he says, claiming Faizi is Wahhabi, a member of a reform movement of Sunni Islam that traditionally rivals Qadri’s Sufism. Wahhabism also tends towards extremism and literal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith. Even Faizi’s friend, Mohsin Abbas, agrees. “He’s very aggressive in his writing … a good thinker, but he’s got to put his sect on the side when he writes. You don’t use this platform to attack other people.”
It’s a charge that puzzles Faizi, especially coming from a friend. He maintains he is not affiliated with any religious group. Perhaps, he says, Nadvi and Abbas think he is Wahhabi because of his frequent references to scripture in his work. “I always give them examples from the Qur’an—if the Qur’an says this and you claim to be a Muslim, then why are you doing this, or this?” asks Faizi. “When any person thinks or writes like this, it’s very easy to say he’s a Salafi or Wahhabi.”
Tahir Aslam Gora is all too familiar with Faizi’s plight. Growing up in Punjab, he was a journalist, community activist and publisher with a reputation for being an articulate critic from within Islam. Gora has been threatened, offered bribes and imprisoned in Pakistan for speaking and writing his mind. He fled his home and eventually came to Canada where he hoped to find a less hazardous writing environment.
In 2000, Gora took over and relaunched a small Canadian community paper, Watan, saying he hoped to encourage debate and true journalism within a divided community. Like the Post, the weekly was written mostly in Urdu and distributed for free to local grocery stores and restaurants in the GTA, where it was read not only by Pakistanis but by members of the larger South Asian community. According to Gora, after he published several liberal articles, men from a local mosque went to each of the drop-off locations and took every copy of the paper off the stands.
Then, in June of his first year, Gora ran a small ad announcing a conference held by the Ahmadiyya, a persecuted sect constitutionally referred to as non-Muslims by Pakistan’s parliament for its belief that its founder was the second coming of the Messiah. Soon the imam of Jamia Islamia Canada in Mississauga was speaking out against Watan and Gora in his sermon. Gora claims he also received a call from the imam while working at the office, warning him not to print anything about Ahmadis or attacks on Islam again. The imam allegedly also threatened to ask his followers and local businessmen to stop supporting the paper through advertising. The journalist stood his ground.
“No, I don’t consider my writing against Islam, or against Muslims,” he explained. “I’m just furthering the debate. If you would like to write anything, send me a fax and I’ll print it.” In an interview with CBC’s The National last March, the imam denied ever making the call. But Gora remembers every word. One by one, over half of his advertisers backed out. So did some of the grocery stores that carried Watan. Gora says they came to him saying they were being pressured by local businesses and mosques not to help a religious dissenter. He adds that several advertisers were told that if they continued to support his paper, the mosque would start a campaign against their businesses as well.
In late 2000, Watan criticized the Taliban in a story about the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues by the regime. The next day Gora found a message on his office phone. On the tape, which Gora saved, a calm low voice says, “Your newspaper seems to be promoting anti-Islamic sentiment amongst our community, so maybe we should be inviting our Muslim community to ban and throw your newspapers out of their shops. This is a warning to you and your newspaper.” Not long after, he ran an article covering a sex abuse scandal at an Islamic school in Ajax, Ontario, where the principal was charged with assaulting four students (police later dropped the charges). Days later, as Gora was checking his messages at the Watan office, a man’s low voice threatened to blow up Gora and the newspaper. Alarmed, he immediately called the police, who sent a bomb squad to evacuate the building. No explosives were ever found and police were unable to track down the caller.
By February 2003, Gora had closed the doors of Watan. In a span of three years, 70 per cent of his advertisers had dropped out. Bankrupt and with few supporters remaining, he left Toronto and now works for The Hamilton Spectator as a columnist. His column often covers and comments on current Islamic issues. By separating himself from community papers and going mainstream, he feels he has found a haven safe from acts of retribution. “If I will not write, who will write? I feel that dying without telling what you have in your heart is not doing justice to yourself and to this planet,” says Gora. “I want to fight this battle until my death.” While Watan’s demise saddens him, he preferred to shut down the paper rather than yield to intimidation. He shrugs and grins. “I don’t know, I’m a stupid man. I cannot sacrifice news for commerce.”
But others do. Like similar papers catering to other ethnic groups, the Pakistani community papers vary widely in editorial content and quality. Because many of the publications are free, they are particularly reliant on advertisers to stay in print. Publisher Arain is proud of the Post’s hard journalism content that his competitors won’t print, as others opt instead for pro-business profiles and other inoffensive material. It’s a charge that Latafat Siddiqui, the editor of Canadian Asian News, one of Toronto’s two English-language Pakistani community papers, doesn’t duck. He has no qualms about printing articles for his advertisers; his paper runs between 10 and 20 per cent promotional copy, which can include profiles, requested interviews and political campaign messages. “You may call it a PR job,” he laughs. He estimates that the average Urdu paper is filled with around 20 to 25 per cent promotional editorial material. Mohsin Abbas, the journalist who introduced Faizi and Arain, explains that some of these publications are backed by religious sects, just as they are in Pakistan, and many don’t criticize anybody for fear of losing support. It’s easier to simply copy and paste from other Pakistani newspapers.
Is there an organized effort by Muslim leaders to stop liberal journalists from speaking directly to Canada’s Pakistani community in their own language? York University scholar Moghissi says no. Rather, she says, “I don’t think there is an organized effort yet.” She also suggests that historically, Muslims are much harsher towards members of their own community than they are to critics from the outside. Journalists working for Urdu language community papers are especially vulnerable because their publications cater to more conservative Muslims. That’s why Gora was targeted while mainstream publications that ran the same stories were not. But, she says, imams who try to silence the debate are overstepping their authority and those who incite violence should be prosecuted. “They should be punished, there is no question,” she says. “Then they would think twice when inciting violence.”
Many liberal Pakistani reporters have one thing in common: their belief in journalism as a passion rather than a profession. They have fled an oppressive military regime to practise their vocation, removing themselves from immediate danger but placing themselves in the position of having to rebuild their lives and careers in a new country. When the threats continue in a nation they’d believed would offer safer opportunities for their opinions and their reporting, these writers see few options. Gora is happy working in the mainstream media, with some book projects on the side. But even a connection to a major media outlet doesn’t guarantee safety. Abbas, who also writes for the Spectator, has continued to receive threats demanding he reveal key sources and retract his writing. Recently, he has adopted a personal policy of self-censorship after discovering that some of those threatening him know where his family lives back in Pakistan. Out of concern for his relatives, he’s maintaining a low profile and avoiding controversial stories until they can join him in Canada. “It’s not a short battle, it’s a long run,” says Abbas, “and I want to fight this battle until my death.”
And Faizi? Over jazz music and an afternoon coffee at a café in Toronto’s eclectic Kensington Market, he tells me the risks he took in Pakistan were crazy, especially for a man with a wife and children. Still, he clearly enjoys his role as a defender of the truth—as he sees it—and says he’ll never stop writing. He’ll continue his column at the Post, and plans to write about the attack again in a future column. He has book plans as well: one on the recent death of Benazir Bhutto, and another on the religious and militant parties of Pakistan. He wants the books to inform the younger generation of Muslims about the corrupt actions and brainwashing practised by religious parties. “I have a lot of stories,” he says, flashing a grin.