One individual’s fight for freedom of speech

Leila Mouammar bears little physical resemblance to the emotionally charged, rock-throwing Palestinians on CNN. She is a poised and stylish Concordia University student with a PhD. Her distinction, however, is her connection with other Palestinian refugees. Like them, activism is at the core of her political identity.

This was evident on Sept. 9 when Mouammar was among 50 Concordia students who entered the Hall Building to protest the speaking engagement by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The heated exchange between Palestinian and Israeli supporters led to an intervention by riot police, leading the university to place a moratorium on activities relating to the Middle East until at least mid-December.

“We were exercising our freedom of speech,” explains Mouammar. “It was a peaceful demonstration until the police became involved.”

Mouammar viewed Netanyahu’s speech as a provocation by pro-Israeli groups. She and other members of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) intended the protest to be an exercise in free speech, claiming they had been denied freedom of assembly.

“Concordia is our university, we pay student fees and tuition – we had a right to voice our opinions,” says Mouammar, who personally felt the sting of tear gas after demonstrators broke a large window. “In Europe, police are not allowed on university campuses. It felt like Israeli apartheid.”

Mouammar has heard Netanyahu speak before and describes his eloquence as a dangerous means to publicize a hostile political agenda. “When you actually listen to what Netanyahu is saying you realize he is actually a guy who delivers hate speech,” says Mouammar. “He was waiting for something to happen.”

Despite the current moratorium, Mouammar praises Concordia for having such a politically charged student environment. “There is a support system at Concordia that activists can draw upon,” says Mouammar who explained how Palestinian students suffer for their lack of identity. “Many are ashamed of ethnicity because they feel people expect them to justify the entire Middle East crisis. People ask them ‘Why do you hate Americans?’ and it becomes a very uncomfortable situation.”

Raised in Toronto with a keen political identity and Christian upbringing, it was during the Gulf War that Mouammar noticed biases in the media’s portrayal of Arabs and Jews. She was drawn to activism on a 1996 visit to Israel and the West Bank. There, the harsh realities of the Middle East crisis became clear.

Mouammar’s political identity was sharpened after seeing where her parents were raised. The sense of loss she experienced from not having grown up in her Palestinian homeland inspired Mouammar to publicize a more balanced viewpoint than what students in North America received from American news sources.

Mouammar returned to Canada and started Students for Awareness in the Middle East (SAME) at McGill with a Jewish student, Dan Bitton. SAME provided students with a nonpartisan forum to discuss Middle East politics which rapidly increased in popularity.

After finishing her BA in humanistic studies at McGill, Mouammar moved to New York to complete a master in humanities and social thought. There, Mouammar remained active with Palestinian student organizations through the Internet. Through her web server she wrote letters in defense of Laith Marouf, a Palestinian student at Concordia, who was expelled for writing pro-Palestinian graffiti on university property.

In New York, Mouammar says she was threatened for admitting she was Palestinian. As a result, she decided to move back to Canada where she thought her freedom of speech could be exercised freely.

“Concordia has a buzzing reputation,” says Mouammar, who is completing an interdisciplinary PhD in conspiracy theories at 27 years old. “The campus environment here is a vanguard.”

At the Sept. 9 protest, Mouammar spoke with Jewish student Dan Bitton about starting a group similar to SAME at Concordia. “Everyone interprets events differently due to their factual contexts. We want to help both sides understand that there are two different histories at work,” says Bitton. “Otherwise it’s too easy to stereotype.”

Bitton adds that activists like Mouammar are essential to any possible resolution. “Most people have narrow-minded viewpoints and don’t know how to get their message out,” he explains. “Leila gets along great with others and understands where people are coming from.”

Mouammar emphasized the need for co-operation in light of the current international situation. “We are on a precipice. If the U.S. attacks Iraq we will be entering into a world war situation.”

Despite the outward intensity of political demonstrations, Mouammar wants others to know that political activism is not about violence, but understanding.

“Our main concern is to help people see others as human beings.”

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