What does it mean to welcome Omar Khadr? University students and the lesson of hospitality

Tyler J. Pollard interviews David L. Clark

lady_writing_a_letterEarlier this year, professor and public intellectual, Dr. David L. Clark, invited the President and Vice-Chancellor of McMaster University, Dr. Patrick Deane, to support offering Canadian citizen Omar Khadr a spot in the university’s first-year class. And he invited his fellow professors to join him in teaching Mr. Khadr remedial classes, should the young man be willing and able to attend McMaster. Dr. Clark’s initiative came directly on the heels of Mr. Khadr being granted bail from the Canadian prison to which he had been transferred after more than a decade of brutal incarceration in Guantanamo Bay at the hands of the now largely discredited U.S. Military Commission. Importantly, Dr. Clark’s challenge sparked a much-needed conversation about the responsibilities that public universities have to young people whose lives have been undone by Canada’s intensifying culture of fear and militarization. Expanding on his initial gesture of peace, Dr. Clark has now deepened his commitment to Mr. Khadr, young people, and the cultivation of what he describes in our previous interview as “a more just, democratic, and humane public sphere” by starting The Hospitality Project: Five Hundred Letters of Welcome to Omar Khadr:

As a way of affirming the irrepressible solidarities joining youth to youth, I am inviting students (and those who were once students) to write letters of encouragement to Mr. Omar Khadr—five hundred in all. These letters can be brief or long and about any topic, but written in the spirit of hospitality and in the name of peaceableness and humane reconciliation. It’s up to students to decide: a friendly greeting; a wish for good health and prosperity; an expression of solidarity; a reflection upon war; a desire for peace; a longing for understanding; an entreaty; asalut; an apology. As my colleague and friend, Dr. Susan Searls Giroux asks, “Can the university stand for peace?” My hope is that students will avidly take up this challenge, demonstrating by example the importance of fostering shared understandings rather than shared fears. Letters should be addressed to Mr. Khadr, care of 500goodwishes@gmail.comYour return address will be removed. You do not need to sign your letter. It is writing the letter of welcome that counts whether you feel able to attach your name or not! All letters will be posted on The Hospitality Project website once it is up and running. When we reach five hundred letters, I will have them printed and delivered to Mr. Khadr. For more information, and to see excerpts from letters that have already been sent, please see The Hospitality Project Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/The-Hospitality-Project-Five-Hundred-Letters-of-Welcome-to-Omar-Khadr-1637764599797112/timeline/

In the following interview, Dr. Clark discusses the social and conceptual contexts informing The Hospitality Project. Crucially, he considers how the project might encourage young people to think and act not with fear but with hope – a timely impetus, to be sure, given the degree to which “terror” has largely characterized the popular public and political discourse about Khadr. At the precise moment that Justice June Ross of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has lifted many of Khadr’s bail restrictions (one of which forced him to speak English with his family and to do so only in the presence of a chaperone – a most inhospitable constraint), Dr. Clark calls for students at McMaster and other Canadian public universities to stand for peace and justice in a time of seemingly permanent war.

Tyler J. Pollard: I wonder, Dr. Clark, if you might discuss why it’s so important for these letters to be written, as you suggest, in “the spirit of hospitality and in the name of peaceableness and humane reconciliation”? What is it about notions of hospitality, peace, and reconciliation that make them so important to this particular project? And, I’d add, to what extent does this gesture summon questions of justice and considerations of what a truly just response to Khadr’s torture and incarceration might look like?

clark.Q&A.imageDavid L. Clark: Thank you for your generous and, after all, hospitable questions. Given the specific occasion of this interview, I can’t help but begin by remarking that you address me not only in the spirit of understanding and reasonableness but also in the form of a welcome – a generous openness – and thus in anticipation of momentarily ceding your voice to another. Those are precisely the qualities that I imagine quickening the letters of welcome addressed to Omar Khadr.

Since I’m a humanities professor, and thus interested in informing contexts, let me begin by saying something about the name of The Hospitality Project before going on to talk about Mr. Khadr, whose suffering at the hands of the U.S. Military Commission and whose vilification in Canada is the raison d’être for the Project and forms part of my ongoing efforts to encourage the public university to play a more active role in the creation of a robust public sphere. As you know, hospitality is a very ancient cross-cultural concept and cluster of practices that speaks to the irrepressible obligation to develop a shared, porous, and welcoming world rather than the injurious, segregated, and warring one that we currently endure and to which Mr. Khadr has been mercilessly exposed. In a highly militarized age, fuelled by xenophobic fears, the latter world can feel like the overwhelmingly inevitable one but I do not believe for one moment that that is the case. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine the university classroom, and thus teaching and learning in all its myriad forms, existing or surviving, if not in earnest of a more democratic and less unjust world. Otherwise, what would be the point of addressing students in the name of knowledge and being addressed in turn by them? Teaching and learning are fundamentally acts of generosity or hospitality; the classroom is, properly speaking, a scene of fragile openness to other ideas, questions, histories, cultures, politics, and futures. Without that openness and without the vulnerability that comes with that openness, teaching and learning would be only the mechanical communication of information, the very anathema of what a university stands for. So hospitality – including the hospitality of teaching and learning – represents a direct point of resistance to militaristic values, including those that govern too many of the narratives that Canadians are today compelled to adopt to describe themselves. Hospitality is an old idea and not without its complexities and limitations, to be sure, but it has striking contemporary relevance. Just look at the human catastrophe unfolding in Europe and the Middle East at this very moment, and how different nations and transnational groups wrestle with the question of whether or how to provide shelter to the men, women, and children who are dying in the thousands fleeing some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. The present moment thrums with questions that could hardly be more pressing: What does it mean to practice hospitality towards others? What are the fatal consequences of turning our backs on those who in fact have an imprescriptable right to live and to thrive in this world, which is the only world we have? What are “the rights of hospitality,” as the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, dared to ask in 1795, on the brink of the first total war? What are the obligations owed to those who deserve and who desperately need a home in which to flourish?

omar-khadrThese are questions that are very much in the air right now, and they inform my initiative regarding Mr. Khadr, who has for too long been characterized as an unwelcome enemy even and especially in the country of which he is a citizen. The fact that hospitality has become an issue in the upcoming Canadian federal election is very promising to me, and my hope is that the ensuing discussion, assuming it gets any traction beyond the actual election, leads to the country opening its doors more widely to those whose suffering is incalculable and whose needs are enormous. As a teacher primarily of youth, and as someone who has worked closely with the hopes and fears of young men and women for so many years, it matters deeply to me that so many of those who are seeking to escape the most horrific conditions imaginable are themselves young people. The human costs of war are now and have perhaps always been hugely borne by young people.  Wars are fought almost entirely by youth, including the useless war that Canada fought in Afghanistan, where Mr. Khadr was captured as a child. Wars are fought in regions of the world whose populations are largely composed of youth. So it stands to reason that a university like McMaster, which wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the youth that make up almost all of our student body, should be committed to affirming solidarities among youth in wartime.

In wartime, it’s encouraging to see Canadians in effect asking party leaders to stop characterizing them solely as “taxpayers” and instead to speak of them as citizens of the world, which is to say citizens with worldly responsibilities towards others, both at home and abroad. Hospitality reminds us that as difficult as the logistics of welcoming newcomers and strangers might be, the act of welcome itself is not a problem or a burden but, quite to the contrary, an affirmation of the importance of the other’s thriving and thus the beginning of a new and more peaceful future. What are the large and the small ways in which we can cede our place to others and in doing so become something new, something that changes the very idea of who “we” imagine ourselves to be? Hospitality means thinking and acting in earnest of unprecedented forms of belonging. Hospitality stems from the incorrigible need to do justice to others and to seek practical and meaningful means to accomplish that task, a task that is intrinsically never-ending and inexhaustible. The thought of hospitality encourages those of us blessed with living in relatively peaceful and verdant conditions that the world is also a murderously precarious place, and that we share that world and that we are obliged not to bunker down behind our borders coveting our portion of it.

Photo: Christos Pantieras, HEY.HORNY.GRRR. (2015)

Photo: Christos Pantieras, HEY.HORNY.GRRR. (2015)

So by giving The Hospitality Project the name that it has, I’m thinking about what it means to be a welcoming citizen and, in particular, what it means to be a young man or woman who bears witness to the grotesque mistreatment of Mr. Khadr, swept off the battlefield as a child and locked away in one of the most notorious prison sites in the world, his life pulverized by a nation committed to indiscriminately hurting others and to subjecting prisoners like Mr. Khadr to a discredited judicial process that few Canadians would tolerate if they found themselves caught up in its implacable gears. The Project itself has many origins, but the most important one is my deep dismay at how Mr. Khadr has been treated by the Canadian government and indeed by Canadians more generally. Mr. Khadr’s severe and lengthy maltreatment in Guantanamo Bay, where he was incarcerated without being charged for more than a decade, as Senator Romeo Dallaire memorably said in the Senate Chamber in 2012, “taints this government, as well as this country and all of its citizens.” Senator Dallaire, who knows a thing or two not only about actual combat, but also about child soldiers, strongly encouraged Canadians to focus on the violations of Mr. Khadr’s rights and on what the Canadian government’s complacency about the matter says about our country’s supposed commitment to peace and to democratic values. Elsewhere I’ve invited Canadians too to consider the measured words of Dr. Constance Backhouse, Distinguished University Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa: “Some cases enshrine the defining moments of their time,” she notes; “Omar Khadr’s is one. Future generations will rightly judge our shocking dereliction of responsibility in this matter [and] our collective Canadian failure to extend justice and humanity.” And let’s not forget award-winning journalist, Michelle Shepherd, who has been writing about Mr. Khadr for years, pointing out how, in the midst of post 9/11 paranoia (remember that he was captured and tortured less than a year after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center) he was disappeared as a real human being and transformed into a kind of exemplary subject of the punishing state. The film that she co-directed with Patrick Reed, Guantanamo’s Child, was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim.

These voices calling for reasonableness and peaceable understanding inspire me and have led me to think more concretely about what it means to be an educator in this country and whether Canadians have the courage and the foresight to welcome rather than abandon, abject, or repudiate others . . . and that includes citizens, like Mr. Khadr, who has consistently been treated as an alien insurgent, a terrorist, and a threat to national security when there is no evidence that he is any of these things. That’s why I wrote a public letter to the President and Vice-Chancellor of McMaster University inviting him to hold a spot open in our first-year class, should Mr. Khadr be interested, qualified, and permitted to enroll. And that’s why I am now inviting students at universities across Canada to reach out to Mr. Khadr in the form of letters of welcome. My initiative responds directly to the appalling characterizations of Mr. Khadr that surge through the blogosphere and that are given a certain legitimacy by the current federal government whose treatment of Mr. Khadr has been consistently overruled by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Let me point to but one example of how Mr. Khadr is thoughtlessly condemned and how a craving for vengeance rather than a desire for justice fills the air. In an attempt to bait her audience, a Hamilton television reporter who interviewed me this summer insinuated that Mr. Khadr was comparable to the convicted serial rapist and sexual murderer, Paul Bernardo. If you offer Mr. Khadr a space in McMaster’s first year class, she suggested, then why then not give one to Bernardo too? Could someone say or suggest something more cruelly inhospitable than that, I asked myself? I was standing half a meter from the reporter when she made that remark and, camera rolling, I looked into her eyes and thought, well, this is what entitled hopelessness and misanthropy looks like—the calculated foreclosure of anything like a peaceful future, without regard for the injury it causes to others or to how it diminishes all of us. When you face that kind of blood-thirsty cynicism about Mr. Khadr, you grasp in your bones two inter-related things:  that we are living in a social setting calibrated to this kind of exclusionary violence; and that we are obliged as engaged citizens to do whatever we can to mitigate its effects and to model much more humane ways of belonging together, ways modeled not on promulgating sharing fears but on teaching shared understandings. That’s one of the several reasons why I am initiating The Hospitality Project. What is called for is not fearfulness and fantasies of murderous vengeance but rigorous understanding and gestures of welcome . . . in short, hospitality.

Now, as it happens, I regularly teach Jacques Derrida’s extraordinarily illuminating seminars on the question of hospitality to my undergraduate students, and I’m always impressed by how, notwithstanding the subtlety and difficulty of Derrida’s argument, students connect powerfully with Derrida’s remarks and with the question of the obligations that flow from playing a host to others. In ways that I am still sorting out, hospitality as a political and ethical concept resonates strongly with young men and women in the classroom . . . perhaps because those students sicken of the militarized ethos in which they are compelled to live and to which they are most vulnerable, and perhaps because, in different ways, they feel like poorly treated guests in their own country, too often starved of a more hopeful future. Hospitality forms part of the curriculum for me, but it is also a question that comes up in my research work, much of which focuses on the later work of Kant, for whom hospitality was nothing less than the key to a more peaceable future. He saw young men being conscripted into ever larger armies and ever larger wars. He saw communities indiscriminately savaged by combat that knew no bounds. But he had the courage—he was, after all, a philosopher employed by the state and directly answerable to the Prussian sovereign who ruled over what was then the most militarized nation in the world—to speak against armed belligerency and against the machinery of war that had destroyed governments, economies, civilian populations and, worst of all, thinking itself.  He said several times that the fortunes sunk into costly wars would be so much better spent on educating the citizenry. He wrote his great anti-war pamphlet, Toward Perpetual Peace (1795) as a kind of letter addressed to citizens of the world, calling for hospitality and peace against the dominant forces of enmity, polarization, and cruelty. A great deal of political theory in both Kant’s age and our own is founded upon the assumption that political life is about hurting those deemed to be “enemies” and helping those deemed to be “friends.” But for me this kind of thinking plays directly into the hands of an already militarized culture, transforming Canadians into what Ian McKay and Jamie Swift call “a warrior nation,” i.e. a country whose dominant narratives are activated by belligerence, aggression, and manufactured worries about homeland security. The concept and practices of hospitality offer Canadians a wholly different narrative with which to understand themselves and those who have been forced to suffer because they have been declared to be an “enemy.” Whatever Mr. Khadr is, he isn’t an “enemy” . . . and one small but important way of registering that fact is to write a gracious letter of welcome to him. He deserves respect, civility, graciousness, and understanding. He deserves warmly and concretely to be welcomed and hospitality is fundamentally about the practice of welcoming—never an uncomplicated gesture, as Kant and Derrida both knew, but one that is intrinsically worthy, to be offered for its own sake and without the expectation of getting something in return. Kant’s and Derrida’s notion of hospitality gives us a very different way to think about belonging and co-existence, a sociality rooted in the importance of helping others, of offering others sustenance and shelter. Much has been made recently of Canadian universities committing themselves to the project of decolonization, which is a wholly admirable project. But the one thing that I would add to this effort is that decolonization is not only an indigenous question; it is also a matter of working to free ourselves from the contemporary ethos of militarization and enmity, which schools us into embracing authoritarianism, isolation, and an unthinking attachment to a world polarized between “friends” and “enemies.”  Decolonization in the 21st century surely means rejecting these grossly withered and withering ideas about what constitutes a polity and indeed a world. It means shedding ourselves of a country for old men and instead turning our eyes more resolutely to the hopes, needs, and desires of the nation’s youth. Hospitality can be marshaled in this struggle and where better to see it flourish than at our public universities and among our good students? My invitation to Canadian university students is designed to encourage them to reach out to Mr. Khadr in that spirit and to ask each of those students, in their own inimitable way, to say to Mr. Khadr:  “I refuse to be conscripted into the ‘warrior nation.’ You are worthy of being greeted and I greet you, one student to another.”

Photo: Christos Pantieras, HEY.HORNY.GRRR. (2015)

Photo: Christos Pantieras, HEY.HORNY.GRRR. (2015)

 

Tyler J. Pollard: Can you talk a bit more then about the ways in which this gesture acts as a counterpart to the institutional challenge you posed to Dr. Patrick Deane, President and Vice-Chancellor, McMaster University, and the larger university community earlier this year to make available a spot for Khadr to enroll as a first-year undergraduate student? The former challenge, as we discussed in our interview this past May, was one of holding the public university accountable, while The Hospitality Project here seems to be offering young people, the students of these institutions, an opportunity to speak. Why is it so important that young people have their voices heard here?

David L. Clark: You are absolutely right to point out that this initiative is directed towards a different audience, not to the university’s senior administration or to the management of public universities at large but very particularly to the students without whom, after all, there would be no higher education. The two initiatives are deeply linked, to be sure, since the letter that I wrote to President Deane was deliberately public in nature, and thus meant to be read by everyone, including students. Moreover, my letter to President Deane and The Hospitality Project share the same twofold focus:  first, to find a way meaningfully to reach out to Mr. Khadr, who is, after all, not a phantom enemy to be feared and reviled but a real person, a young man whose youth was unjustly destroyed both by his military captors and their many, many civilian apologists in Canada and the U.S., and to reach out to him in the spirit of friendship, dignity, respect, and civility. The object here is to join others in offering Mr. Khadr hope, succor, and solidarity; second, to engage Canadian public universities, beginning with the one in which I happen to teach and research, encouraging these universities to live up to their public mission in concrete ways and to take a more legible stand for peaceableness and against warring enmity, for a more just future and against those who would murder justice and the future. “Can the university stand for peace?” my friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Searls Giroux asks so pointedly. That question means a very great deal to me. As far as I am concerned, Can the university stand for peace? is McMaster’s secret but true university motto, rather than the one that we inherited from the days when it was a Baptist college—a motto that is, in its own way, also a call for peaceableness and community! My hope and intent is to contribute in whatever way that I can, beginning with the initiatives regarding Mr. Khadr, not only to answer Dr. Searls Giroux’s searingly timely question in the affirmative but also to demonstrate in persuasive ways that the university is indeed up to this task and that in fact standing for peace is central to its role in Canada’s future. Both my letter to President Deane and The Hospitality Project are, as I say, then, quickened by those two imperatives.

About the first initiative, I should say here that President Deane did respond to my letter and that we had a frank discussion in his office this summer about my motivations and objectives. We agreed on some points and disagreed on others, but I consider that discussion the first step in an ongoing process whose outcome I wouldn’t want for a moment to prejudge. One of the promising things that came out of our discussion was President Deane’s decision to invite Dr. Arlette Zinck to campus next spring as part of the university’s Seminar on Higher Education, whose theme this year is in fact “The Engaged University.” Dr. Zinck is the courageous professor at King’s University College, a private university in Edmonton, who, along with a team of volunteer instructors, has been actively involved in teaching Mr. Khadr since his dark days in Guantanamo Bay. Dr. Zinck’s commitment to addressing Mr. Khadr’s unjust treatment in the form of teaching and learning is exemplary, a shining example of the nexus between education, goodness, democracy, and justice. She offers all of us at McMaster a valuable lesson about what “the engaged university” actually looks like. She practices a hospitable life, welcoming Mr. Khadr as a student who, like all Canadians, deserves an education. Let us try our best, individually and in groups, to address Mr. Khadr in the same spirit, greeting him in ways that involve the public university in the project of public service and in the name of peace.

320px-McMaster_University_-_University_Hall_tower_and_archwayBut as you suggest, the two Khadr initiatives, the letter to President Deane and The Hospitality Project, are also importantly different. Institutional authority is concentrated in the university’s senior administration and that is an authority with which all of us at McMaster must reckon each day, often in very positive and affirming ways. But students also have a voice—many voices—and they too should be given every opportunity to speak and be heard, in particular about questions and issues that connect them to the democratic polity of which they remain a vital part. Writing letters of welcome to Mr. Khadr is one way of taking on that work, publically signaling their commitment as students, as vitally important participants in the project of higher education, to peaceableness and dignity. At the same moment and in the same gesture, those students reach out to Mr. Khadr, each in their own way, offering him support, encouragement, understanding and respect. What’s interesting and telling to me is that by far the largest response that I got to my original letter to President Deane came from students. It was students who by far took up what I said to President Deane with the most enthusiasm and understanding. They were the ones who saw right away that that the letter addressed the very idea of the public university by inviting McMaster to demonstrate hospitality towards a Canadian citizen who has endured the worst forms of inhospitality. It was mostly students who reached out to me to affirm the importance of treating this young man with dignity and respect and it was students most of all who affirmed the possibility of Mr. Khadr joining them one day in their classrooms. So on that level, appealing to students to write letters of welcome to Mr. Khadr makes so much sense. Students wrote to me so warmly and positively, so it stands to reason that they might well want to do the same for Mr. Khadr, whose suffering they regret and want to help alleviate.

Ms. Sophia Topper, a McMaster student and writer for the student newspaper, The Silhouette, asked me in an interview if I considered these letters of welcome as a kind of riposte to the hate mail and hateful commentary that I certainly received regarding my invitation to President Deane to hold a place open in our university’s first year class. Such an astute observation to make! As I said to Ms. Topper, that connection had not occurred to me but it also makes sense. The letters of welcome for which I am calling are written in a spirit utterly opposed to the sorts of cruel xenophobia that taints far too much of what is said and circulated about Mr. Khadr, the same irrational blindness that led to his torture and incarceration in the first place. These letters are informed by a spirit of reasoned hopefulness, not the irrational hopelessness that leads people to want nothing more than for Mr. Khadr to endure more suffering and for his young adulthood to be destroyed, just as his childhood was. Elementally speaking, a personal letter can be such an interesting and powerful thing, a call and an appeal to the other, made without a guarantee of an answer. But there doesn’t necessarily need to be a response, since it is the opening address itself that counts most, the salut or gracious gesture that says so much, quite apart from whatever any individual letter might actually say. What those letters individually say matters too, to be sure, since each student will put his or her singular stamp on them and each will bear a signature, a sign that a real person joins Mr. Khadr in a common cause against all the fear-mongering and war-mongering. Just think of what could happen here: dozens of letters of gracious curiosity written by students to a student, written by young people to a young man; letters written from a public university in the name of public values, including our shared responsibility to be hospitable towards others and to demonstrate generosity in materially significant ways at the precise historical moment in which Canadians are schooled into adopting militaristic values that dissolve the public sphere and starve us of a more just and equitable future. Let us make of the university, beginning with this university, a Shiloh, meaning a “place of peace,” remembering that peaceableness is not a sabbatical from difficult knowledge and critical thinking but the condition of their concerted intensification. Let students lead the way.

 

Tyler J. Pollard is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. The title of his dissertation is “Youth Indebted: Neoliberalism, Education, and the Violence of Perpetual Debt.” He is Assistant Editor of the Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Managing Director of the Public Intellectuals Project, and graduate-student representative of the Association for Research in Cultures of Young People (ARCYP).

David L. Clark is a Professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies and Associate Member of the Department of Health, Aging, and Society at McMaster University.

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