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Activist-turned-judge plays moderator at SFU

B.C. judge Zahid Makhdoom moderates debate at Simon Fraser's Philosopher’s Café

BY DIANE MAR-NICOLLE | AUG 04 2009

When Zahid Makhdoom was named a Justice of the Peace for British Columbia, the well-known writer had to give up his political and social activism. Instead, he found a natural outlet for that impulse by becoming a moderator for Simon Fraser University’s popular and much copied Philosopher’s Café.

Mr. Makhdoom fled to Canada from Pakistan after being imprisoned and tortured for publicly airing his views on law, democracy and secularism. He first found work advocating for First Nations communities in Canada and the United States, then ran in Canada’s 1993 federal election. His judicial appointment in 1996, however, required him to give up his activist activities.

The Philosophers’ Café, he says, is a way to continue his interest in building a thoughtful society. “It reminded me of the very vibrant and powerful café culture in Pakistan, where writers and activists of all stripes engaged in important debates and discourses.”

The Philosophers’ Café – started at SFU more than 10 years ago by Yosef Wosk, director of interdisciplinary programs in continuing studies – offers topics for discussion in public venues, usually moderated by members of the community with an interest or background in philosophy and the arts.

Mr. Makhdoom has been leading the café at a coffee shop in Vancouver’s east end for the past two and a half years. Regulars and newcomers arriving to discuss questions in philosophy, politics or science are often greeted with a warm hug from the gregarious judge. The atmosphere is relaxed and casual, a direct reflection of his ability to put everyone at ease.

Mr. Makhdoom uses the same techniques in his courtroom as he does at the café. “As a judicial officer serving in a high-volume court, I have a duty to impartially and independently adjudicate,” he explains. “I must actively listen.”

As a moderator of the Philosophers’ Café, “I also must actively listen, draw out the silent ones and respectfully ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to engage. … Above all, I must remain impartial and committed only to the free flow of ideas.”

The judge, it seems, has found a second home.

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