By Saloni Bhugra
Three years after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated, an “unofficial ban” on critiquing minority cultures is allowing dictators to flourish, says Iranian-born poet and author Banoo Zan.
On Dec 7, 2021, a suspect in the murder of Khashoggi was arrested in France. The arrest took place three days after French President Emmanuel Macron held a visit for the Crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, who allegedly ordered Khashoggi’s assassination.
“Who would’ve thought, someone going into an embassy will be cut to pieces, and their body would disappear?” said Zan, author of books Songs of Exile and Letters to my Father. She is also the founder of a diverse open mic club in Toronto named Shab- e She’r.
She moved to Canada in 2010 because of severe oppression.
“I was a critic (of Islam and the dictatorship in Iran) but wasn’t allowed the freedom of expression or thought. A lot of activists (and) journalists are killed in the streets. As we speak, there is an international court going on about the 2019 massacre that took place at a protest,” Zan said.
But Zan has also faced challenges publishing work of self-critical cultural expression in North America. To get more than 200 poems published, thousands were rejected. She said, “we are driven out of our country, like me,… so you feel that you’re not making a difference, your voice is not heard, but you live.”
She said that an “unofficial ban” on critiquing minority cultures leads to displacement and worsens the refugee crisis.
“When you live here (Canada), you are told that you are not allowed to criticize your culture… our dictators get away. As a result, they increase oppression, they increase cruelty. More people from my country leave and more of them have to go through this humiliating experience of becoming invisible people — less than human in other cultures.”
Zan has been a critic of Islam since she was a teenager. She believes the religion is having an “identity crisis” and needs serious reform.”Islam hasn’t caught up with the modern-day conversation of human rights and is unable to do that because of the way it is controlled by stupid, ignorant leaders,” she said.
Journalist Mayank Bhatt believes there is nothing wrong with criticizing religion, but said some people might be motivated by hate. He said self-critical expression enables debate and positively impacts artists and journalists, while “both artists and journalists have to necessarily walk the tightrope between freedom of expression as enshrined by the law, and hate speech, which is prohibited by the law. And there is a thin line that divides these two concepts.”
Zan said that Canadian multiculturalism can’t be real if it does not allow its minorities to criticize their own culture. And while she acknowledges the fine line between hate and expression, she said, “People who want to abuse your words, will do so, no matter how much censorship you impose on yourself.”
“I am concerned about the general ignorance of the Canadian mainstream to the rich diversity that has been — and is being) —created in Canada politically. Multiculturalism is 50 years old. And while it has achieved much, it is, in essence, an empty slogan,” Bhatt said.
According to a Nov. 2020 OHCHR report, 46 per cent Canadians have an unfavourable view of Islam, more than for any other religion; 42 per cent believe that Muslims face discrimination because of “mainly their own fault.”
Forty-seven per cent were in favour of banning headscarves in public (compared to 30 per cent of Americans). 56 per cent believe Islam suppresses women.
About 29 per cent also condemn the study of Islam and 31 per cent supported President Donald Trump’s restrictions on Muslims.
Zan said that Islamophobia can be tackled once people realize they can rationally enter a dialogue, like with any other religion. “If you go somewhere and say you’re a Christian, they treat you like humans,… they don’t see me as (a) human, part of which is Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not treating Muslims as humans capable of criticizing themselves.”
She said the real Islamophobia is treating Muslims like “immature children” who cannot analyze their culture and demand reform.
Bhatt said “we can only fight neglect and hate by creating an alternative space that promotes an alternative interpretation of a Canada that we want to create. This requires proactive intervention, and not blaming.”
Zan is calling for the progressive left media to stop refraining from criticizing what she sees as misogynistic traditions in Islam. “Who is going to be offended? It’s not the Muslim women, we go through this. It is the big shots that consider themselves as self-appointed community leaders, who want to monopolize power and have control over the communities, they will be offended.”
“Self-critical expression rather than censorship is the key to a democratic society. Self-critical expression is self-regulated — censorship is imposed by an extraneous authority,” Bhatt said.