Fatima Syed: Focusing on Maryam Monsef’s comments on the Taliban is a distraction from what Canada should care about: protecting Afghan lives

Good and needed commentary on Monsef’s remarks, providing the cultural context for her her use of “brothers”:

If you watch the video of Tuesday’s ministerial meeting close enough, Maryam Monsef looks down at her prepared remarks and pauses before she calls the Taliban “brothers.”

“I want to take this opportunity to speak to our…” Monsef pauses. Her lips quiver. Her face flinches. “…brothers, the Taliban.”

At that moment, I knew exactly what she meant. I also knew exactly what she was about to suffer next, and I sensed from her pause that she might have too.

As a Pakistani-Canadian (with no actual brothers), I have called many men around me “brother,” or “bhai” in Urdu. My older male cousins, my older male friends, shopkeepers, taxi-drivers, and, yes, even government officials who are from India or Pakistan.

It is as Monsef said, “a cultural reference” (although, I would have said “cultural practice.”) I can’t give you an English equivalent because there is none. There are many cultures and communities across the Middle East and Asia that use the term “brother” in varying ways as a term for any male who is older than you, above you in rank, or in a position of power. While no two cultures are the same even if they contain many similarities, that’s the simplest way I can put it.

It’s how we all talk. We — Arabs, Afghans, South Asians and more — address people not just by name but how they are in relation to us and our place in society.

Most Canadians watching Monsef’s remarks would not have known any of this. For all the pride we have in this country’s multiculturalism and diversity, we don’t actually care to learn enough about one another’s cultures, traditions and practices — things that make this so-called melting pot of a country.

If we did, we’d understand why Monsef, an Afghan refugee who has more experience with the Taliban than me and most of us, used the term “brothers” when referring to the Taliban.

Instead, speaking on that national stage, it became obvious that it was a bad choice of words used in the wrong context, the wrong setting and the wrong moment in time and for the wrong audience.

I am troubled by Monsef’s word choice; she is a federal cabinet minister who should’ve been more careful. But I’m much more troubled by the way Canadians responded to her.

In minutes, the political right used this moment as a way to disparage the Liberal party in the midst of an election campaign with Islamophobic comments and graphics. Fear-mongering against the Muslim community started almost immediately. And as exhausting as it is, I must once again note, religion does not equal culture; they are separate and distinct (and we should probably have a mandatory class on that in every school and university across Canada.) “Sharia law” was trending on Twitter. The word “deport” was being used way too freely across the Internet. Monsef — again, a refugee who escaped the Taliban — was called a terrorist by many online.

Canadians did what they always do when a racialized cabinet minister makes a mistake or does something they don’t understand or goes against the “normal” way of things: they vilified Monsef and othered the community she belongs to at a moment when they need all of us the most. And they did all this on the day we learned that there were an estimated 223,000 self-reported hate crimes in Canada in 2019, and less than 1 per cent were captured in police-reported statistics.

I can’t imagine the strength Monsef would have needed to gather to look up at the camera during her remarks and implore the Taliban — the very group she was lucky enough to escape — to protect her former countrypeople and any family members, friends and neighbours still in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine what was going through her mind when she looked up at the camera during Tuesday’s meetings and kept her gaze squarely there to ask the Taliban to “stop the violence, the genocide, the femecide, the destruction of infrastructure.”

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with her politics or the words she used. We need Maryam Monsef now more than ever. In theory, she is the champion of those still waiting to escape or return to this country — the country we tout as a safe haven for all.

Canada, there’s work to do — and demanding the resignation of a federal cabinet minister whose culture you don’t understand isn’t on the to-do list.

You can help sponsor a family. You can help advocate for faster immigration processing times. You can donate to the various groups trying to help the almost 1,000 Afghans that have arrived in Canada in a rush, who need homes, mental health support, friends and care.

Attacking Monsef, dismissing and denouncing her culture will only create an unsafe and unwelcoming environment for new Afghan refugees. If Canada truly is the diverse, accepting society we think it is, it’s far past time we start acting like it and learning about one another.

On Thursday, Canada announced that its mission had officially ended in Kabul. A few hours later, explosions rippled near Kabul’s main airport, resulting in U.S. and civilian casualties.

A lot of Canadians are about to become “brothers” to Afghans who have lost theirs or are leaving them behind. They need us.

Fatima Syed is a Mississauga-based freelance journalist and host of The Backbench, a podcast about Canadian politics. Follow her @fatimabsyed.

Source: Focusing on Maryam Monsef’s comments on the Taliban is a distraction from what Canada should care about: protecting Afghan lives

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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