Haroon and the Sea of Opinions
Ever since he joined The Toronto Star in 1978, Haroon Siddiqui has been engaging and enraging readers. Some think he is a badly needed voice for immigration and race issues. Others think he's little more than a Third World apologist
In the wake of September 11, commentary on the attacks dominated Canadian newspapers. The words varied, but much of the tone was the same. The Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee fulminated, “Many religious militants hate [America] because it represents a decadent Western culture that they see as a threat to traditional values.” Robert Fulford of the National Post raged, “Those who rule large populations through their version of religious doctrine and by killing their critics have excellent reasons for this loathing. America threatens every aspect of their existence, because America represents modernity in its most aggressive and developed form.”
And then, on the op-ed page of the September 19 Toronto Star, “It’s the U.S. Foreign Policy, Stupid” appeared: “Either out of ignorance or calculation, the theories on the motives for last week’s attacks avoid the most obvious….[I]t is due to American complicity in injustice, lethal and measurable, on several fronts….Not all the conflicts can be blamed on America but many can be and have been, especially in the last decade, only to draw indifference or, more scandalously, a barrage of propaganda blaming the victims themselves: that Muslim genes must account for all the savagery and suffering around them.”
It was vintage Haroon Siddiqui: forceful and unabashedly contrarian. After sketching his take on the issue, Siddiqui offered a suggestion: “America needs, beyond any tactical strikes or smart bombs it might deploy, a more humane and even-handed approach to the world.” It was a view sharply at odds with that of many of his fellow journalists.
Haroon Siddiqui is at odds with his fellow journalists in several other important ways. He is one of the few journalists in Canada in high-profile positions who are observant Muslims and visible minorities. He is also one of only a handful of print journalists who has been admitted to the Order of Canada while still in the newsroom-the Globe‘s Jeffrey Simpson and The Vancouver Sun‘s Max Wyman being among the few others. Most significant, though, is how Siddiqui regularly uses his twice-a-week space to offer cogent but dissenting positions on immigration, multiculturalism, and international issues.
One admirer, Carol Tator, an academic and co-author of The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society, describes his work this way: “He says, I’ll give you some new lenses you can put on to help you see the world perhaps in a different way than you might have.” Fulford, on the other hand, charges that Siddiqui’s columns are laced with an anti-West bias. As he wrote in the June 2001 issue of Toronto Life, “Siddiqui makes the most strenuous effort to bathe Third World countries in a soft light. No matter how outrageous its actions, a non-Western government can usually count on him for a little understanding.” But Fulford’s view is atypical; it’s almost impossible to find anyone who doesn’t admire the 59-year-old Siddiqui as a person and a journalist, even at the notoriously fractious Star, where he has been for more than 20 years.
He joined the Star in 1978 as a copy editor and moved through the foreign affairs analyst, news editor, and national editor slots before serving as editorial page editor from 1990 to 1998. On his retirement from that position, the paper awarded Siddiqui the special designation of editorial page editor emeritus. With his new title came the task of consulting on the paper’s strategy and direction with publisher John Honderich, who says, “Haroon’s got a wonderful ability to take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head and ask, why do you think that?”
During his time at the Star, Siddiqui shared a National Newspaper Award for spot news reporting in 1983, and was shortlisted for an NNA in 1992 for editorial writing and in 1998 for column writing. But many of his honours come from outside the world of journalism: in addition to the Order of Canada, he was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2000, and is the recipient of numerous community awards, such as the Canadian Islamic Congress Award for Media Excellence and the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce Professional Man of the Year Award. Last fall he received an honorary degree from York University. The citation read, in part, “His columns are written out of extensive knowledge, regard for facts, acknowledgement of nuance, love of this country and a bedrock conviction of the essential respect necessary for each individual, respect assured by the laws of the land and their observance.”
Siddiqui was born in Hyderabad in south central India on June 1, 1942, the eldest of six children in a Sunni Muslim family. (He continues to practise his religion, but won’t discuss his faith, considering it a private matter. He also won’t discuss his wife, Yasmeen, whom he’s been married to since 1983, and his two teenaged sons, Faisal and Fahad. He says only, “I face the music for what I write. Why should they?”) His father, Mohammed Moosa, owned a construction company, while his mother, Amtul Baseer, who had a passion for poetry, ran the household. “If she wanted to admonish us, she would recite a couplet. And you were then left to translate it and interpret it. The language was mostly poetic, instruction was poetic.” Siddiqui’s childhood was marked by a “middle- to upper-class” life in a home he speaks of warmly today. “I am what I am because of the indulgence of my parents,” he says. “I often think, what did my parents give me and what did they do that was most beneficial? Extraordinary love and affection. Total sense of security. Absolute, 100 percent sense of who we are. I never had any sense of inferiority complex. I could go anywhere, I could walk into any room, I could knock on any door, meet anybody. I was not overawed by anybody. I think that is their greatest legacy.” They also, he says, instilled in him a “Protestant work ethic”-a somewhat odd characterization, given his roots-which taught him “Whatever you’re doing, you must work hard at it. If you have taken on the responsibility, you must fulfill it.”
Taught at home by tutors who schooled him in Arabic, Persian, English, math, and his native Urdu until he was 10 years old, he then attended a boys’ public school before enrolling at Osmania University in Hyderabad. There he flitted from one discipline to another, finally earning a bachelor of science. “One never really thought of what you wanted to do in life. And it was never expected that you decide what you were going to do. You were busy growing up. There were no expectations placed upon us.” It was while a student that he had his first experience with writing for something other than academic purposes, assisting his father by composing business letters. “I was his all-purpose boy. His secretary, in effect.” He considered a second degree in literature, but chose journalism instead, which he also studied at Osmania.
His reasons for this choice are hazy today. “It just seemed a neat profession that gave me a passport to see the world,” he says. He clearly recalls, though, advice his father offered when he chose journalism. “It will be very easy to be popular and very difficult to be respected. I hope it will be the latter for you.”
In 1963, after graduating, Siddiqui went to work for the Press Trust of India news agency in Bombay as a reporter and copy editor. Shortly after that, he had a casual but fateful encounter with Roland Michener, then Canada’s high commissioner to India, at a reception. “A young man like you should go to Canada,” Michener advised. “Why would anyone want to go to Canada?” responded Siddiqui. “It’s so bloody cold there, isn’t it?” Several months later, at another function in Bombay, Siddiqui ran into Michener again. “The old man remembered it, and he said, ‘Didn’t I tell you to go to Canada?'”
But it was not yet time for Siddiqui to leave. When his father suffered a heart attack, as the eldest son, it was his responsibility to head the family, an obligation he says there was a family expectation to fulfill, but which he met with no resistance. He quit his job at the news agency to look after the business, then after his father died in 1965, ran the company until 1967, when it was shut down.
It was at this time Siddiqui decided to emigrate. For India, it was a time of economic and intellectual turmoil. Fighting between India and Pakistan over Kashmir continued, and the first woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was trying to cope with food shortages and unemployment throughout the country. As a journalist, he wanted more freedom and opportunity. “You’re young, people are leaving, so you just go,” he says today. Desire for adventure, not desperation, was his motivation.
The 25-year-old Siddiqui considered England, Australia, and the United States, but perhaps Michener’s advice, or news from friends who had visited Canada and reported it was a good country, led to the “lucky accident” of his arriving in Toronto in October of 1967. He was the first in his family to leave India, “a pioneer.”
He arrived in Canada on a Saturday. Monday morning Siddiqui made his way to The Globe and Mail, where he was interviewed by then managing editor Clark Davey. Davey, who had got his own start in papers at his hometown Chatham News, was concerned that Siddiqui had no Canadian experience. He suggested he try the Brandon Sun in Manitoba, where Davey was acquainted with publisher Lewis Whitehead. Siddiqui’s response was a reprise of his earlier conversation with Roland Michener: “I asked Clark, why would anyone want to go to Brandon? Isn’t it colder in Brandon?” Unwilling to leave Toronto, Siddiqui ended up selling men’s suits at Simpsons.
He learned quickly that starting a life in Canada had challenges other than climate. In Toronto, there was no cricket, which he had played avidly in India. And all the shops were closed on Sunday-what did people do on Sunday? Food in India was a major part of the culture and family life, and Siddiqui pined for the flavours and customs of his homeland. But in the still WASP-dominated Toronto of the late 1960s, he recalls, “The only places to go were these lunch counters where they’d serve you pea soup and hot dogs.” He reports, though, that he faced no other adjustment issues as an immigrant in Toronto, making friends easily and never feeling out of place. In fact, he swears that he has never experienced any racism in his life personally, but says this doesn’t prove that racism doesn’t exist, only that he is lucky.
With time he grew used to the bad food, but selling suits was harder to adapt to, although he says, “It was fun for three reasons. It paid semi-decently, 90 bucks a week. I was good at selling. And you could get clothes for yourself. I got a leather coat, a suede coat, and a dozen suits.” After six months of unsuccessfully seeking work as a reporter, he decided to phone the Brandon Sun and was told to come out: there was a job for a general reporter open.
The first thing the news editor asked was if he knew what frontage foot was. “I said I have no idea, and he said you better find out because you’re covering city council as of Monday night. I said, I’ll go and find out what frontage foot is and cover city council if you promise never to send me to chase an ambulance or a police car. So the deal was struck.” He may not have been chasing police cars, but Siddiqui was still dissatisfied. The 17,000-circulation Sun served a community of 30,000, and like most dailies of moderate size, focused on local issues and events. “As a writer I found it very limiting. I was used to covering things like cricket as a young reporter. You’re travelling with the national team and you have a great hoopla and there are 50,000 people in the stadium. And there are great stars who are playing cricket who are your friends, and fans and girls. And then you go to a boring city council meeting Monday evening in Brandon, Manitoba. That was very tough,” he says.
Surprisingly, given how exotic a figure he was in the small town, he doesn’t recall any negative experiences, which he attributes to the kindness of the residents. “In small towns people are very friendly. There was some degree of curiosity. Where is India? Where is Hyderabad?” But there was no animosity.
Charles Gordon, managing editor at the Sun from 1969 to 1974, remembers Siddiqui as a brave and gutsy reporter who at times had to be reined in. “You wanted somebody who had that kind of courage,” Gordon says, remembering how Siddiqui suggested the paper stop covering the mayor because he had grown so exasperated with him. Andy Moir, today a Nova Scotia bed-and-breakfast owner and editor of the independent newspaper Passages, was a rookie reporter when he joined the paper in 1970. “I was a prairie boy who hadn’t seen much of the world at all. To meet a guy like Haroon Siddiqui who had theories and ideas was a real eyeopener for me,” he says. Siddiqui in turn describes his time at the paper as “a good education, a good learning experience.”
The Sun was the ideal place for Siddiqui to develop his contrarian streak. Although he continued to cover city council, soon after joining the paper Siddiqui also began reporting on provincial politics during what was an exciting time on the prairies. The 1969 Official Languages Act, giving French and English equal status federally, was widely loathed on the prairies. The Sun supported it editorially. A year later, when Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in response to the kidnappings of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross by the FLQ, Manitobans generally supported the prime minister’s move. The Sun opposed it. “We were really hated then,” Siddiqui recalls matter-of-factly.
Also significant for Siddiqui was the provincial election in Manitoba in 1973. Two parties were headed by Jewish Canadians, the Liberals by Izzy Asper, now executive chairman of CanWest Global Communications, and the Progressive Conservatives by Sidney Spivak. “There was a lot of anti-Semitic murmur in the rural areas, and I was among the first to write against it.” This, he says, “left a mark on me.”
Siddiqui’s chance to make his mark on the Star came in 1978, when he was recruited by Martin Goodman, then the paper’s editor. He became foreign affairs analyst in 1979, then news editor in 1982, and, in 1985, national editor. Carol Goar, now editorial page editor, was national affairs columnist when he edited her section in the mid-’80s. “I remember him asking for unconventional stories. They were refreshing and they were just not standard political thinking,” she says. During this time, Siddiqui began to devote time to projects concerned with diversity, joining, for example, a group at the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association that studied the treatment of minorities in the media. This interest continues for Siddiqui-since 1990 he has sat on an Advertising Standards Canada committee that looks at the portrayal of minorities in ads.
Carol Tator, who has worked with Siddiqui on various panels and forums on diversity in the media, recalls her delight in 1990 when he took over as editorial page editor. “We wanted to light candles we were so happy. There was this collective sense of relief, almost, that finally we would have a voice and an ear that would hear the issues around minorities and racism. We knew that we had an ally on the inside,” she says.
Under Siddiqui, the Star became an opinion leader on many issues. With quiet pride, he says, “We were the first newspaper in Canada, if not the whole Western world, who called for the recognition of Macedonia as a separate state, despite huge opposition from Greek-Canadian readers. We were among the first, if not the first, to call for humanitarian international intervention in Bosnia. We were among the first to write for international intervention in Kosovo. We were among the first to call editorially for humanitarian intervention in Somalia. And all these things came about.”
Goar remembers Siddiqui’s bold leadership when she worked as an editorial writer under his direction for one year. “Haroon would sometimes be deliberately provocative, even to the point of defending points of view that he didn’t altogether believe, just to get a really vigorous debate going.”
In 1998 Siddiqui retired from the position and began writing his own twice-weekly column. After serving as editorial page editor for eight years he felt he had done a “tough and grinding” job for long enough. The idea to try out a column was jointly made by Honderich and Siddiqui. But the title of editorial page editor emeritus was Honderich’s call, Siddiqui says modestly.
His space soon became known as one devoted to unusual topics. “Siddiqui’s column is one of the only columns across Canada that deals with multiculturalism, immigration, and that gives voice to cultures that are nonwhite on a regular basis,” says John Miller, director of the newspaper program at Ryerson University’s journalism school. Siddiqui insists, though, that he hasn’t made multiculturalism his beat. “People have a desire to slot you as ‘guy who likes to write about minority issues,'” he says. “Other people say ‘guy who writes about small-l liberalism.’ Or ‘guy who writes about international issues.’ But I write about everything.”
It’s true that his subjects range from the frustration of dealing with Bell Canada’s automated customer service line to his favourite Indian author, R.K. Narayan. But more often than not, his column is devoted to immigration, racism, and Middle Eastern and South Asian politics. And since last year’s terrorist attacks, he has frequently focused on issues that sprang from the tragedy.
It’s these pieces that have left some fuming. Of “It’s the U.S. Foreign Policy, Stupid,” Marcus Gee, Globe and Mail world columnist, says, “Anti-Americanism of that kind I think is silly at any time, but at a time like that I just thought it was in terrible taste.” Margaret Wente, also a Globe columnist, agrees. She calls the “Stupid” column a classic example of blaming the victim for the crime. “He, of all people, should have been alert to the critical problems posed by Muslim fundamentalism, by failed Muslim states, and by the poisonous public discourse of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism that pervade much of the Arab world.” But his Starcolleague, Nathan Laurie, an editorial writer, defends the article: “When someone named Haroon Siddiqui says it, it seems to carry a different message. Many people read it as America got what it deserved. I don’t think he said that at all. He said, how did we get here? But if your name is Haroon Siddiqui, you’re defending all Muslims, be they terrorists or not.”
Earlier last year also found Siddiqui offering a different take on another high-profile event involving Islam. Much of the Western world was outraged when a young Nigerian woman was sentenced to 100 lashes for committing acts of adultery she said were forced upon her. “The case…tells us as much about ourselves as about the perpetrators of that punishment,” wrote Siddiqui. “They are doing it in the name of Islam. We are reporting, commenting and agonizing over it in the name of humanity. The motives of both sides are suspect….Aren’t these the same editorialists, commentators and human rights activists who have been mute on the ongoing killings of the Palestinians? And the Chechens? And the Kashmiris? And the more than 1 million Iraqi civilians who have died a slow death under the decade-long, Canadian-backed economic sanctions?….They are all entitled to their view, spoken or assumed, that Muslim blood is cheap. But they shouldn’t be surprised that their sympathy for a Muslim teen in a faraway land is seen as hollow, even hypocritical….We must help her, of course. But our plea for her most basic human rights would have carried greater weight if we were more consistent, less arrogant and a lot more understanding of all our fellow human beings.”
In typical Siddiqui style, he asked readers, have you thought of it this way? Response was vigorous and mixed. One reader wrote, “His view stands alone in the Star as the most objective and informed that has thus far been published.” But another reader called Siddiqui’s perspective “a very simple-minded view of the world or an intentional attempt to provide a personal perspective.”
Mixed reactions are common to Siddiqui’s columns. Robert Fulford pins the blame on what he calls Siddiqui’s Third Worldism. “Whatever goes wrong, the West is at fault. If government in Africa doesn’t work, it’s the legacy of colonialism. If people starve in Indonesia, if forests burn in Brazil, if Iraqi children die for lack of medicine, it’s all because the policies of the West are callous, insensitive or selfish,” Fulford said in last June’s Toronto Life. Referring to a Siddiqui column that appeared in March 2001, Fulford wrote, “He found a way to look with a degree of tolerance even on the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan.” Siddiqui calls Fulford’s response rubbish. “I have never defended the Taliban. In fact, I was the first one to criticize them. I called them obscurantist. I called them evil. Right from day one, before anyone knew about the Taliban.” He says the true meaning of his column can be summed up in one sentence from the text: “We would have had greater credibility in trying to save Afghanistan’s historic treasures had we been more helpful in saving its human beings.” He also defends his larger record: “I’ve been a strong critic of many Third World countries. Of autocratic Arab states. Monarchical Muslim nations. Jingoistic India. Narrow, fundamentalist Pakistan. What happens is that people will take only what they want, a little slice, and keep hammering at it.”
But Siddiqui has his fans too. Many minority groups value his perspectives, inviting him to speak at their functions, and writing warm letters to the editor in response to his work. “I, for one, am extremely grateful and appreciative of the fact that there is a voice like that of Haroon Siddiqui who writes a lot of what I feel and go through,” says Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation. On the other hand, Lisa Armony, director of communications for the Ontario region of the Canadian Jewish Congress, says that while her organization appreciates that Siddiqui has encouraged understanding and tolerance, the congress feels at times he exhibits no understanding for Israel’s ordeals. In response, he says, “I don’t write to please various lobbies. I’m not failing to recognize the right of Israel to exist. But at the same time I’m free, like any editor or writer or columnist, to be critical of this or that policy of the government. In the same way that I’m very critical of the government of Pakistan, very critical of the Sri Lankan government, very critical of Milosevic, and Serbia, on and on. The list is endless.”
Of his at times dissenting views in general, Siddiqui says it’s not about being critical or deliberately provoking people. It’s about moving people forward. “You try to lead public opinion. If you lead public opinion, you generally try to be ahead of the curve,” he says. “When you are the first in line to say something, you face the wrath of a lot of people.”
Fulford also criticizes Siddiqui’s position as a journalist because of his frequent speeches and involvement with boards and committees. “He’s a figure. He’s a statesman. And this is terribly crippling for a journalist. Whatever he does is a significant statement of something or other. There’s a spotlight on him that isn’t on other people, because he’s spent so much time on this one set of issues.” Siddiqui vehemently disagrees, saying, “I do not represent anybody. I represent myself and my ideas.”
It is this very quality that Fulford criticizes that many praise. John Fraser, master of Massey College at the University of Toronto and National Post arts columnist, believes Siddiqui is one of the most useful journalists in Canada, despite his often disagreeing with Siddiqui’s point of view. “He doesn’t speak with the same voice that the majority media voice is,” says Fraser. “He doesn’t write from the perspective of the old generation of Canadian journalists.”
Star columnist Ian Urquhart agrees: “He performs an important role in journalism in the city because he has links to groups that most journalists don’t even talk to. And he’s willing to take contrary positions on issues both national and international. Without him there would be a vacuum, a void.”
Goar points out another void Siddiqui has vigorously addressed: improving the Star‘s diversity coverage, both in the pages of the paper and in the newsroom. “We try very hard to promote diversity at the Star, in principal, as a concept. For Haroon it was never a concept. These were people he knew,” she says. Honderich credits him with creating “an awareness at a very senior level that we should do much more. He’s been a major force for change and that’s something which I value.”
While Siddiqui may be a force for change at the Star, he’s less certain about how he wants to alter the world. When asked what is the one thing he would make different, he hesitates. Finally, he says, “I want more civility in discussion and debate. I want people not to get personal. People are always looking for motives. Ideas should be weighed for what they’re worth. I present an idea and people should say this is a crappy idea. Here are 10 reasons why this is a crappy idea. They don’t say that. They say, oh, it’s because you’re brown or you came from India or you’re a Muslim. What difference does it make?”
The world is changing, Siddiqui says, especially Canada. And through his columns, his connections with minority groups, his trademark siding with the underdog, Siddiqui is reflecting this. “We have such a simplistic narrative about them and us. Them being there and us being here. But I’ve long made the argument that the ‘them’ are us. The ‘them’ are here. Who are ‘them’? ‘Them’ may be the folks in Rwanda. But the ‘them’ from Rwanda who have migrated to Canada and are my next door neighbours, they are us. It’s a new kind of narrative, you see, and it’s difficult to grasp. I don’t have all the answers. But at least I want to ask the questions.”
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.