& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review of Belief by Phil Gurski in the New Canadian Media

Novel Explores Road to Radicalization

Book Review by Phil Gurski

Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto.  It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers. 
The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.
This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. 
It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land.  We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.
We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.
The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada.  There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.  
Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.
The mastermind
Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot.  These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it.  Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.
Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him.  Who was he?  Where did he come from?  Who else was involved in his plot?  How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .
The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq.  She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.
Flashbacks to India
I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it.  That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.
The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious.  They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.
Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral.  While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role. 
It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.
Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.
The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling. 
As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Review of Belief by Veena Gokhale in Montreal Serai

This is a novel, hot off the headlines, opening with Rafiq, a young, second-generation, Indo-Canadian Muslim being implicated in a plot to bomb public places in Toronto. His family, consisting of his father Abdul, a secular liberal and former labour leader from Bombay, mother Ruksana, a moderate Muslim who once ran a women’s centre in Bombay, and sister Ziram, who works for a settlement centre in Malton (Mississauga) and is preoccupied with her husband’s promotion and her own pregnancy, are all but shattered when Rafiq ends up in prison due to the incriminating evidence found on his computer. The scenes describing Rafiq’s incarceration are compelling.

Although it starts out as an action novel with an element of mystery – is Rafiq an innocent who refused to be drawn into a terrorist plot after a flirtation with extremism, or is he lying about his continued involvement – the main goal of the book is to plumb the psyches and motives of its main characters and reveal the tangled web of family relations with its loves, hates, loyalties and resentments, sharpened by the exigencies of immigration and the complexities of being a Muslim in the West (or for that matter anywhere).

Don’t expect literary lyricism. Bhatt writes in a no-nonsense, journalistic style (he is indeed a former journalist from Bombay) that works well for a lot of the narrative, though he could have done more “show” and less “tell” at times. Bhatt also follows an unnecessary prescription to describe in detail the physical features of each and every character, however minor.

But these are petty quibbles. The power of Belief lies in the way it penetrates Abdul and Ruksana’s family and their world, making the reader intimate with the horribly shaken lives of four multi-dimensional human beings. We see them, warts and all, and feel for them. Rafiq’s portrayal is particularly masterful: from a feckless young man to someone who reflects deeply on his actions and responsibilities.

Outside the immediate family circle is Nagma Khala who runs a daycare centre that Rafiq attended as a child. Nagma is another kind of devout Muslim, and clearly a great influence on Rafiq whom she loves as her own son. Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend – another reason for the novel’s relevance and strength.

This book is an indictment of the marginalization of minorities both in India and Canada. Abdul and Ruksana leave India and come to Toronto in the wake of the terrible 1992 wave of communal violence in Bombay. But these urban, English-speaking, professionally skilled immigrants can’t “fit in” here, nor can they find work that recognizes their experience. Their working life remains a perennial struggle, and they become marginalized, living in ethnic ghettos outside the mainstream. Worse, the children born to such parents – children who have been through the Canadian education system – can’t always find their rightful place here either.

The very “dream” that drives people here – “a better future for their children” – may thus remain unfulfilled. In fact, studies have shown that systemic racism affects second generation Canadians as well.

Read this book not only to know the realities of immigrant experience from inside out, but also to understand what drives some of the headlines we read. I can truthfully say that Belief helped me better understand the phenomenon of the radicalization of young, Muslim, second-generation, immigrants of colour.

The idea that injustice must be opposed, confronted, and a better world shaped as a consequence, runs through Belief. But what means are fair, what foul? And what if one is simply thwarted from taking action, one way or another? Challenging questions with no ready answers: questions that literature is so well equipped to take on.


Veena Gokhale’s short story collection, Bombay Wali and Other Stories, was published by Guernica Editions in 2013. Her first novel, Land for Fatimah, written with a Québec Government literary grant, will be published by Guernica in 2018. She lives in Montréal.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Light Bulb Strategy – Robert Craig

Rather unusually, I’m ending 2016 with two blogs on a different kind of ‘non-fiction’ books.

The first is a blog on a self-development book by Richard Craig – The Light Bulb Strategy (7 Steps to Switch It On and Lead a Brilliant Life), and the second book is on change management – Art and Science of Transformation by Harold Schroeder (see the blogpost below). Both authors are Canadian and Toronto-based.

Robert Craig is a personal development author, speaker and coach, with a background in finance, training, operations, project management, marketing, strategy and real estate investing. His book is about brilliance. “It’s about leading your life in such a way that you find your brilliance, grow it and share it with others. It’s about reaching your potential; having a fulfilling life and helping others do the same.” However, he says, brilliance doesn’t happen on its own; one needs to plan for it strategically. The purpose of The Light Bulb Strategy is to take a complicated subject – designing one’s life to be brilliant and making it simple to understand.

Metaphorically, Craig says, the light bulb is the individual. And then he takes us through seven steps to strategize about our lives. The 7 Steps of The Light Bulb Strategy is:

Step 1 - Change Your Light Bulb – this step is all about understanding our core – it’s WHO we are; our personalities, our values, our belief, our habits, our fears

Step 2 - Envision Your Light Bulb of the Future – This is where we get clarity on WHAT we want to do – daily, monthly, annually, and for the rest of our lives. It’s about defining our vision, our mission and our goals and ensuring they are all aligned

Step 3 - Power-Up Your Light Bulb – This is where you connect with your power source – WHY power. Here we define WHY we want to achieve our goals, vision and mission in life

Step 4 - Build Yourself a Better Light Bulb – This is where we define HOW we are going to achieve our vision; we determine our strategy and create a plan using our limited resources efficiently

Step 5 - Protect Your Light Bulb – This is where we define WHERE we will get our big things done. He glass globe itself represents time – time is limited. It’s about WHEN we are going to get those big things done.

Step 6 - Switch-On Your Light Bulb – This is steps is achieving balance between personal and professional lives. The better the EXECUTION of your personal and professional work life, the brighter the filament glows

Step 7 - Reflect on the Brilliance From Your Light Bulb – This step is represented by the actual glow of the Light Bulb. Here we will look at the levels of brilliance – the better the execution towards achieving your goals, vision and mission, the brighter your Light Bulb shines!

Craig then explicates each of the seven steps in great detail.

The book offers great insights into personal development and Craig makes his concepts easily relatable by linking them to everyday situations. Here’s a passage that had a poignant resonance with my present personal situation.

Being a parent is such a huge responsibility. Our influence helps to shape their lives as they journey to become adults. We set the example that they see every day through their eyes. They are always watching to see how we act, react and behave. We need to teach them strong values, but more importantly we need to live to those values.

We need to allow them to make mistakes so they can learn from them. We need to let them try different things so they can discover what their passions are. They need to be able to ‘Build their Base’. That is to build a strong, secure base which will give them confidence and a sense of well-being.

Communication with our kids is vital as well. We need to spend time and listen to them, understand them. To listen to their victories and understand what concerns they have about the world they live in.

Our kids are our future. We need to teach them strong values, share family traditions and love them unconditionally. We need to listen to them, talk to them, educate them, be present for them and watch them become brilliant.”

Read more about the book here: Robert Craig’s The Light Bulb Strategy

Buy the book here: The Light Bulb Strategy

Art and Science of Transformation – Harold Schroeder

Harold Schroeder’s The Art and Science of Transformation (2016) is an important contribution to the comprehension of the ever-changing field of organizational management. Schroder is a renowned Toronto-based management consultant with several decades of experience advising boards on crucial issues of change management. He is recognized for his superior relationship management, problem-solving, communications, and negotiations skills. He is experienced is building organizational capacity and achieving accountability.

In Art and Science of Transformation, Schroeder emphasises that in today’s business environment which is rapidly changing, organizations are required to undergo frequent transformations to remain competitive and efficient. He cautions that as most of such transformations are inherently risky, they fail if not handled astutely.

In his seminal book, Schroeder explains the concepts of ‘art’ and ‘science’ of transformation. “’Science’ of transformation is the use of change management tools, methods and techniques, such as those set out in the Project Management Body of Knowledge and including elements such as planning, resource estimation and risk analysis. ‘Art’ of transformation is the softer, people-related skills and attributes that are often personal in nature or develop from exceptional learning. These include communications and inter-personal skills, leadership and the type of attributes sometimes referred to in terms of ‘acumen’ or ‘emotional intelligence’.”  

The book is a fascinating study of the various factors that need to be adequately addressed by an organization not only when embarking upon a major shift in organizational paradigm, but also in the day-to-day management of people and projects. He observes, “Not all transformations require the same input or combination of art and science; the required skills and the balance of art and science will vary depending on factors such as project complexity, numbers and characteristics of stakeholders and perceived business risks. In any organizational transformation, it is crucial to achieving the right balance of art and science.”

 The Art and Science of Transformation is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of organizational change, especially in an environment where political policy changes necessitate rapid adjustments. The book is of interest to all – experts and non-experts because it breaks down the process of transformation management into specific modules and explains each of these processes in an easily-understandable manner.

And you may buy the book here: The Art & Science of Transformation