“Omar Khadr: A Muslim Between Canada & the West”
This article was originally published on the ReOrient blog: https://www.criticalmuslimstudies.co.uk/omar-khadr-a-muslim-between-canada-and-the-west/
Omar Khadr has had a lot written about him in the past decade, but particularly so in the weeks since he received a $10.5 million settlement from the Canadian government, as well as an apology. This settlement came out of a lawsuit that Khadr had launched against the Canadian government, based on a Supreme Court ruling that Khadr’s Charter rights as a citizen had been violated. The Canadian government failed to give him legal protection as a minor, failed to repatriate him and interrogated him in Guantanamo, knowing that he had been tortured by the US.
Khadr is a controversial and polarizing figure in Canada, not least because of his family, dubbed “Canada’s first family of terror” because of their vocal support for and links with al-Qaeda (Shephard 2008). He is also controversial because of the circumstances in which he was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15 and what the Canadian and American governments have done to him and about him subsequently .
As a polarizing Muslim figure, Khadr is situated at the intersection of two kinds of discourses: the national discourse about Canada as a “good” nation and the global discourse about the “civilized west” in the face of “Islamic” terrorism, radicalization and extremism. Both of these discourses revolve around moral categories of citizenship, which have been intensified through the political framing of the “war on terror” discourse as a fight between “good” western allies and “bad” Muslim terrorists (Jamil 2014). I am interested in the space occupied by Khadr in the intersection of these two discourses: What kind of Muslim subject can he be? What possibilities are present in this space?
Canada “the Good”
As a white settler society, Canada has a long history of seeing itself as a “good” nation of “good people.” In addition to being a moral category, “good” is also a racialized category, referring to the “goodness” of “civilized” white, Christian Europeans. The understanding of “Canada the good” has evolved over time, but it has always been possible because there are those who are deemed “bad” and “unworthy” of inclusion in it. At different points in time, historically, this has meant different racialized groups have been excluded from “White Canada”, beginning with the dispossession of the indigenous, and continuing to blacks and Asian immigrants in later centuries (Thobani 2007).
While the idea of Canada, like all living political communities, is and has always been a work in progress, in the contemporary period, politicians have mobilized it in different ways. Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government has put forward a political image of Canada as a “sunny” nation: a liberal, inclusive, multicultural, diverse country. Particularly in relation to Trump’s divisive, nationalistic American political rhetoric, Canada has sought to be the “good” neighbor in its welcoming attitude towards immigrants, minorities and Syrian refugees.
When the place of racialized minorities in the Canadian nation has been historically contingent, it is not surprising that the dominant discourse about Omar Khadr today is about his “worthiness” as a Canadian citizen. He is perceived as an “enemy” and a “traitor”. Critics believe Khadr doesn’t “deserve” to be Canadian, even if technically (and legally), he is and has always been a citizen.
This gap between being Canadian and being a citizen is what regulates the boundaries of the nation . It feeds a thinly veiled, racialized Islamophobia present in the questions directed towards Omar Khadr at different points in time. During his time in Guantanamo and upon his repatriation to prison in Canada, does he “deserve” to come back to Canada after being “convicted” in Guantanamo? In 2015, at his release on bail, does he “deserve” to be released? Most recently on the legal settlement in 2017, does he “deserve” the money?
“Deserving” implies worthiness of some kind, and it implies a judgment not only on who is the deserving, but on who decides who is deserving or not. It reinforces the racialized line between the “civilized” and the “barbaric,” between the west and the non-west, which runs through the bodies of Muslims. These questions connect the two discourses, the national and the global. Does Omar Khadr deserve to be recognized as a human being and as a Canada citizen? Does he deserve to be a Canadian? Does he deserve to be part of the “civilized” west?
“The Muslim Terrorist”
The securitization discourse associated with the “war on terror” has revitalized the “civilized/uncivilized” moral divide between the west and Islam. This moral divide is mapped onto the western nation, creating a distinction between “good (white) citizens” and “dangerous (Muslim) terrorists”, including other variations of security threats (extremists, the radicalized, etc.) In this context of securitization, the suspicion of being or “looking Muslim” is enough to place their belonging to the western nation in jeopardy. Omar Khadr’s case has fed this ongoing political discourse about Muslims as racialized “threats to the nation,” and specifically to the “civilized” white, western nation.
The American and Canadian governments, under multiple administrations, have treated Omar Khadr as a “dangerous terrorist” for more than a decade. As a child detainee at Guantanamo, all violence against him was justified because he was marked as an “enemy” of and by the American government . He and they all “deserved” it because they were not worthy of being treated as human beings (Slahi 2015).
In the dominant media and political discourses in Canada, Khadr became the exemplar of this dehumanized and racialized “dangerous Muslim”, despite the fact that he was a teenage boy. Harper’s Conservative government took a hard line against his repatriation. Ignoring the 2010 Supreme Court ruling stating that his constitutional rights as a citizen had been violated, the Conservatives continued to use him to underline their commitment to protect Canada from “the terrorists.” Khadr’s treatment in Guantanamo became part of the national discourse of Canada’s “war on terror.”
Back to Humanity?
Khadr’s detractors have long argued that he has no right to human rights because he is a “terrorist” and “traitor” to Canada. These categories have displaced and erased his moral right to citizenship. Like many others, his national identity and citizenship have been recalculated and made contingent on his Muslim identity.
But the legal settlement has offered a different subject position. His supporters have noted that the settlement is a legal recognition of his human rights under the Canadian Charter. This legal recognition has brought him back into the category of human . Khadr thus exists between two polarized Muslim subject positions, one in which he has no humanity and has been tortured as an “enemy” of the “civilized” west, and the other in which his humanity is restored because of the legal recognition of his Charter rights as a Canadian citizen. He disrupts both the national and the global discourses. He disturbs the idea of Canada as a “good” nation of morally “deserving” citizens by holding up a mirror that shows it is a country that was willing to be complicit in torture in the global “war on terror.”
For both the Liberals and the Conservatives, he exposes the tensions in their representations of “Canada the good.” For all their inclusive, liberal, multicultural Canadianness, Trudeau’s Liberals have tried to navigate an uneasy path between upholding the rule of law and a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of continuing legal action. Having lost the 2015 election, the Conservatives’ ideological view of Canada was already politically undermined, but it has now been legally challenged by the Canadian Charter and the Supreme Court.
It is worth reflecting on this political moment, on the discomfort that Omar Khadr’s repatriation as citizen has caused because it is a unique situation. The category of “dangerous Muslim terrorist” long appeared to be fixed as a one way destination, but the legal settlement disrupts it. The question now is what does coming back across that dividing line to humanity look like? What form can this return take?
In his statements to the media, upon his release from prison on bail in May 2015, and more recently in response to the settlement, Khadr has come across as non-threatening, un-political and has avoided any strong or confrontational words about the Canadian government’s actions. He has said that he is not angry at what has happened in his life, he is sorry for the pain he has caused, and that he wants to live peacefully. He has been quintessentially “Canadian” in his niceness.
Speaking to the press in May 2015, he thanked the Canadian public for trusting him and giving him a chance. “I will prove to them that I am more than what they thought of me. I will prove to them that I’m a good person.” Khadr has talked about his aspirations to a “regular” life: going to school, finishing his education, getting a job and starting a career, possibly in the health services. He has talked about his desire to learn, to grow, to start his life. In these comments is an emphasis on himself as an individual, separate from his family, and asserting his agency.
Nevertheless, this individual agency does not mean that Khadr is unaware of the limits imposed by the negative views of him in the media and political discourse. When asked if he would like to say anything to then-PM Harper, he jokingly said, “I’m going to have to disappoint him. I’m better than the person he thinks I am.”
While Khadr’s recuperation of his Muslim agency is important in creating a political space as a Muslim subject, proving himself as a “good person” or a “nice Canadian” does not challenge the national or global discourses that continue to function in good/bad dichotomies. It also maintains the racialized line of worthiness as a political and moral question of deserving to live in this country as a citizen and of deserving to be treated as a human being. The burden is not on Khadr to prove himself as any of these. As spoken word poet Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan has stated so eloquently: “If you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who’s not human.”
Thank you to Salman Sayyid and Shaireen Rasheed, respectively, for their discussion and comments.
 For more on Omar Khadr, see Michelle Shephard’s book, Guantanamo’s Child (2008). For more on the facts of his settlement, see her recent article https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/07/10/omar-khadr-fact-check-paints-a-clearer-picture-of-the-case-and-the-incident-underlying-it.html. In brief, Omar Khadr was captured at the age of 15 in a firefight between al-Qaeda and American forces in a compound in Afghanistan. He was first imprisoned and tortured in Bagram and later detained in Guantanamo for a decade, the only child held there. In addition to being tortured by the US, he was questioned by CSIS officials in Guantanamo, which Canadian courts later determined to be in violation of his rights as a citizen and as a minor. He was “convicted” by the military tribunal in Guantanamo for war crimes and transferred to Canada in 2012, as part of the terms of his plea agreement. In 2015, he was released on bail and has been living in Edmonton, Alberta since.
 As part of this regulation of the boundaries of the western nation in the “war on terror”, various countries, including Canada, UK and Australia, have made citizenship conditional and linked it to terrorism charges. The Conservative government passed Bill C-24, which revoked citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism. It was applied to Zakaria Amara, one of the members of the Toronto 18 convicted on terrorism charges. The law was repealed by the Liberal government in 2017 as part of Bill C-6, which also made other changes to the Citizenship Act.
 There are colonial continuities in the ways that violence and the power of the white colonial-settler state are applied against children: for example, residential schooling in Canada and the Stolen Generations in Australia. The erasure of this violence against indigenous peoples through a national amnesia and rewriting of history to maintain white moral innocence continues to have resonance today.
 I draw from Ramon Grosfoguel’s discussion of Fanon’s “zone of being” and “zone of non-being” as the dividing line and racialized hierarchy between those considered to be human and those considered to be non-human. See F. Fanon. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press and R. Grosfoguel (2016) What is Racism? Journal of World-Systems Research. 22(1), 9-15.
Jamil, U. (2014) Reading Power: Muslims in the War on Terror Discourse. Islamophobia Studies Journal. 2(2), 29-42.
Manzoor Khan, S. (2017) “This is not a humanising poem.” The Last Word Festival 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9Sz2BQdMF8 Accessed July 18, 2017.
Shephard, M. (2008) Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr.
Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.
Shephard, M. (2017) “Omar Khadr fact check paints a clearer picture of the case and the incident underlying it.” Toronto Star. July 10. https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/07/10/omar-khadr-fact-check-paints-a-clearer-picture-of-the-case-and-the-incident-underlying-it.html
Slahi, M. O. (2015) Guantanamo Diary. Larry Siems (ed.). Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Thobani, S. (2007) Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.