Promoter of controversial summit cartoon denied visa to visit Canada
Published Thursday, August 11, 2016 5:52AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 12, 2016 2:54PM EDT
The man who used an anti-Semitic cartoon to promote a session at a global summit in Montreal this week is one of many denied a visa to enter Canada for the event.
Seyyed Ali Mousavi had planned to provide three sessions of the 1,300 self-managed activities organized at the World Social Forum in Montreal, which runs from Tuesday to Sunday and is expected to draw 15,000 people. But the forum cancelled his session after getting complaints of a cartoon he posted linking the U.S. and Israel to Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.
The webpage for the session featured a cartoon of a Wahhabist emerging from the mouth of Uncle Sam, who in turn emerged from the mouth of a Jewish man with a beard and braids wearing a hat featuring a Star of David, reminiscent of imagery used during the Holocaust.
Another session was about "good and bad terrorists, making theory for useful terrorism for capitalism-zionism." Mousavi said in an email to CTVNews.ca that he doesn't understand who would be opposed to his message. All three of his proposed sessions made it into the conference package available to participants on the forum's website.
Forum organizers, who didn't respond to repeated requests for comment on concerns about the sessions, complained earlier this week about the number of people who were denied visitor visas for Canada.
The visa issue is one of a number of controversies plaguing the forum this week. It has also been the target of complaints it is hosting a number of sessions focused on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to apply pressure to Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians.
The onus is on potential visitors to prove they meet the qualifications, including not having a criminal record or posing a threat to Canada's security, as well as having enough money to support themselves while in Canada and sufficient ties to their home country that they're expected to leave Canada when the visa expires.
Mousavi says his visa was never approved, so he couldn't travel to Canada anyway for the forum. The Iranian citizen says he believes the Canadian government was pressured by Israel and Saudi Arabia not to issue his visa.
A spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said while the department sets up a special events unit to work with organizers behind major gatherings, the World Social Forum didn't follow up after registering itself.
"Since April 2016, no contact has been made with the special events unit by the organizing committee to inform the special events unit of any issues or difficulties in obtaining participants' visas," Nancy Chan wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca.
"On August 8, 2016, the IRCC special events unit proactively reached out to the event organizers to once again offer their assistance. We have not heard back."
Controversy over boycott, divestment and sanction sessions
The cancelled session drew attention to concerns by Jewish groups and some MPs that the forum is too open, giving a platform to contentious topics.
The World Social Forum calls itself the world's largest civil society gathering seeking to "find solutions to the problems of our time." It first met in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 and has met in several locations since then but never in a G7 country. The forum lays out four commitments for the 2016 "collective," including one that seems to block pro-Israel groups.
"We have already taken a stand to exclude all people, organizations or activities that promote any kind of oppression, supporting Palestinians and all the people struggling for their emancipation and freedom," one commitment reads.
Several sessions at the forum encourage boycott, divestment and sanction efforts against Israel, which critics say is a new form of anti-Semitism.
"By making it okay to endorse BDS, you create a climate where something like that kind of cartoon can circulate," said Eta Yudin, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
"That someone actually thought it was okay to post that cartoon on the website as part of the publicity for a panel, frankly, which was equally upsetting and equally unacceptable, that in and of itself tells you something about where the agenda has veered off the course it should have taken."
Tyler Levitan, a spokesman for Independent Jewish Voices, said the World Social Forum is a gathering for activists and others to discuss how to make the world a better place, how to fight for social justice, and how to promote "all kinds of struggles against neo-Liberalism."
"Within the movement of people around the globe who support the human rights of Palestinians, boycott, divestment and sanctions is the most common tactic that's used as a non-violent strategy to apply pressure on Israel to comply with international law," Levitan said.
Levitan says Independent Jewish Voices condemns the cartoon, and were among the people to notify the forum about it.
"It's a false idea that criticizing the idea of there being a Jewish state in historic Palestine is an anti-Semitic idea," he added.
Reaction from MPs
The controversy over the cartoon, as well as pressure by several MPs regarding the boycott, divestment and sanctions sessions, led the federal government to pull its logo from the summit website. A spokesman for Treasury Board President Scott Brison, who is responsible for the use of the Government of Canada logo, said the organization didn't have a partnership agreement with the government that would allow it to use its trademark.
Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather was approached by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs about the cartoon and says he and Toronto Liberal MP Michael Levitt spent a few days trying to figure out which government department was sponsoring the event. They eventually determined there was no funding, but that an arm's-length organization may have provided two student interns.
Housefather described a number of concerns he has about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, including a focus on Israel as the only side that bears blame in a long-running conflict.
"Moreover, these people at this conference are focusing on one state - only Israel. They're ignoring human rights violations in North Korea, in Iraq, in Syria, in Iran, [which has] executed more than 1,000 people this year," he said. "The only majority Jewish state in the entire world is the entire focus."
"I think most people don't support every action of the Government of Israel, which is a right-wing government that I disagree with very frequently. But that doesn't mean that it's right or fair to blame one side for the conflict in the Middle East that's gone on since before the state of Israel was founded in 1948," Housefather said.
While the government pulled its logo, two respected development organizations funded by Ottawa are still listed as sponsors.
The forum maintains a number of high-profile sponsors, including the Quebec government, the city of Montreal and McGill University. Two international development groups, Development and Peace and Uniterra, are also sponsors. Both receive federal funding through Global Affairs Canada for their development work, with Development and Peace working often in the Middle East. The organization has $3.7 million in funding this year to co-ordinate emergency shelter, water and sanitation to Iraqis internally displaced by Islamic State violence.
Uniterra is a joint program by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI, the acronym for its French name), which arranges short- and long-term volunteer opportunities in developing countries.
Kelly Di Domenico, a spokeswoman for Development and Peace - Caritas Canada, said her organization supports giving a voice to marginalized communities, which she says the forum does.
"The World Social Forum brings together thousands of individuals, social movements and civil society organizations, who discuss issues of injustice and possible solutions," Di Domenico said in an emailed statement.
"One of the strengths of the forum is that it is the people themselves who organize events and workshops, and there are over 1,200 activities planned over the next few days. Naturally, there is a risk attached to that and having oversight on of everything can be difficult, but the main organizers recognized that some content that was posted was inappropriate and offensive, and goes against the principles and spirit of the forum, and acted quickly to remove it."
Di Domenico said it's unfortunate the main focus is "on one event out of thousands that are positive," and that representatives from her organization were not attending workshops on the Middle East.
Conservative MP Peter Kent urged a deeper look into how much federal support was provided and whether money was given directly to the forum.
"There must be a recognition that it was wrong to do in the first place," he said of the use of the Government of Canada logo, adding that every department has discretionary funds for these kinds of events.
"I have a deep suspicion, although I have no evidence... if we look deeply enough, there would be certainly indirect if not direct support financially," Kent said.