If you have social media, you’ve probably seen the clip: Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef calling the Taliban “our brothers” during a press conference on Canadian evacuation efforts in Afghanistan.
Monsef is running to be re-elected as the Liberal MP for Peterborough—Kawartha but spoke with journalists Wednesday in her role as the gender equality minister and part of the contingent of cabinet ministers currently shaping the government’s participation in the international air bridge out of Kabul.
But it was the way she addressed the Taliban — a listed terrorist entity in Canada — that quickly prompted a flood of tweets, including from alt-right pundits, accusing her of supporting or sympathizing with the extremist regime that seized control of Afghanistan nearly two weeks ago.
“I want to take this opportunity to speak to our brothers, the Taliban,” she said, adding that the government calls on the group to ensure anyone wanting to leave Afghanistan can do so safely, to honour the peace deal and to allow women and the voices of minority groups to be heard “in a meaningful way.”
Monsef quickly faced questions about why she described the Taliban as “brothers.”
She responded by saying it was a “cultural reference.”
“There are terrorists taking over my beloved ancestral land,” she said. “In terms of the terminology, if you go to masjids across the country, Muslims refer to each other as brothers and sisters, so, you know, rest assured I continue to believe deeply that the Taliban are a terrorist organization.”
Like always, though, context and nuance are important — never more so than during a heated federal election campaign and in the midst of a pandemic that has seen hate crimes spike across the country.
Monsef is herself a refugee whose family fled violence in Afghanistan.
Born to Afghan parents, Monsef has said she identifies as Afghan-Canadian and always believed she had been born in Afghanistan until her mother told her that was not the case following media reports that revealed she was born in Mashhad, Iran.
Her father was killed while she was a child and she has said the family travelled back and forth between Iran and Afghanistan until her mother brought Monsef and her two sisters as refugees to Canada, settling in Peterborough in 1996 when Monsef was 11 years old.
She is Muslim.
And while calling non-relatives by the term “brother” is typically only used in North America in reference to close friends, that’s not necessarily how it is used by everyone.
Mustafa Farooq, CEO of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said while he would not personally use the term for the Taliban, there are some segments of the Muslim community who will use the words brother or sister more broadly — including for those they disagree with.
“It’s important to recognize that the Muslim community is not monolithic, and so there are a variety of different folks who have different approaches to how we would conceptualize the term brother or sister,” he said. “I think there’s a way in which many folks think about the term brother and sister, think about brothers and sisters in humanity — whether or not we agree with them.”
He pointed to a hadith, or narration from the Prophet Mohammed in which he instructs followers to “help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.”
“People asked, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?’ The Prophet said, ‘By preventing him from oppressing others.'”
Farooq said Monsef would have to speak for herself as to her intent in using the term but that it would be “somewhat ridiculous” to try to draw a comparison or connection between Monsef and the Taliban based on her comment on Wednesday.
“I have every confidence that people will take this comment as some sort of indication that there has been a massive Muslim infiltration of the halls of Parliament,” he said.
“I think people need to understand more than anything else — I think it’s so important now — is the necessity of a little bit of nuance.
“I think Canadians are smarter than that. And Canadians deserve for themselves to look into stories as they’re emerging to figure out what to how to respond to them.”