Canada’s Islamophobia problem

Why increased surveillance won't prevent terrorism
Photo: Light Brigading

Toronto suffered through its much-anticipated municipal elections last month with a high voter turnout and minimal talk of Rob Ford. Unfortunately, the vacuum left by Ford-related gossip (the former mayor is now city councillor for Ward 2), was filled by a more sinister phenomenon: increasing Islamophobia.

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Fuelled by the violence in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa, the dark underbelly of Canadian xenophobia came to the surface last month as cowardly individuals maligned, defamed, pelted garbage at and vandalized the reputations and physical bodies of several Muslim candidates. This is part of a deeper social tendency in post-9/11 Canada. A 2013 Angus Reid survey shows that 54 per cent of Canadians outside of Quebec have a negative perception of Muslims, with Quebecers polling at around 69 percent. After the incident in Ottawa that resulted in the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, there’s no indication that such attitudes will soften.

At the heart of this trend is the conflation of the Islamic tradition with violence. Peddled by crude ideologues of negligible worth, the depiction of Islam as a hateful ideology leading (inevitably) to terrorism holds much contemporary currency. “What do you expect?” is still the tone that dominates Canada’s national conversation on Muslim political violence and its origins. This is certainly the posture taken by the Harper administration, as the Prime Minister wasted no time in announcing that his government will table laws to strengthen Canada’s security state.

The reality behind terrorism is of course much more complicated. Experts who study Muslim radicalization still grapple with great difficulty when it comes to how the process works. What’s clear though is how small a role religion plays as a motive. Violent radicals are not singly prompted by their faith to kill innocent people. Instead, as studies have shown, they’re usually motivated by a political cause. Anger at, say, Canada’s invasion of Afghanistan or at Stephen Harper’s support for Israeli policies provide a “cognitive opening” that primes a person to be exploited by radical rhetoric. This is a highly localized and individualized process that has been examined by reputable institutes such as the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. Studies produced by such groups emphasize the need for local solutions, and stress that religion is not solely responsible for acts of terrorism. Politics, poverty, alienation, mental illness and personal afflictions all tend to play some role at some point.

But those who try to put forth these nuanced realities are often met with scorn. It’s easier to simply peg the blame on Islam, arguing that is violent and hateful messages can only produce violent and hateful adherents. Anything else forces a country to look in the mirror and to question its own assumptions. Commentators such as Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept were told that it was “too soon” to start asking a country to examine itself immediately after a national tragedy. Meanwhile, it’s not too soon for Stephen Harper to use the same attacks to justify his agenda to stuff more security measures down Canadians’ throats before the next election.

The bulk of the announced security measures have yet to be introduced, but critics inside and outside of government have stated that Canada’s present laws are more than enough to do the job. Though many Conservatives love to say that Muslim terrorism and radicalization poses the greatest threat to Canadians, the number of people killed in Canada by such attacks has been small since 9/11. In other words, if “Islamicism” is indeed this country’s top concern, then our security apparatus must be pretty darn good; there’s no reason to “bolster” what already works then. Moreover, reports from North Carolina’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security show that homegrown terrorism remains minimal. So, if anything, a restriction of invasive security tactics should follow, but that isn’t about to happen any time soon.

For starters, Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney has tabled a set of amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, seeking to give Canada’s spy agency the power to coordinate with other agencies to surveil people outside of the country’s borders. It also allows CSIS to keep the identity of its sources and informants secret. Dubbed Bill C-44, this set of amendments was supposed to be tabled on the day of the Ottawa shooting, but is now going through second reading. What follows will likely be a set of hardcore provisions meant to give law enforcement and intelligence agencies even more legal leeway. Yet the efficacy of surveillance has been called into questions in recent years. Leaks by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden prompted a number of studies by groups such as the New America Foundation to examine the impact of surveillance. The foundation found that of 225 indictments, kills or convictions for terrorism, only four were influenced by surveillance activities. In other words, the evidence that spying works so well is thin at best.

The Canadian Bar Association, several prominent judges and numerous government watchdogs across the country have since warned against pushing through laws like this. Unfortunately, for Harper it’s much more convenient to exploit a moment of fear in order to up the Tories’ poll numbers.

Meanwhile, an emphasis on localized solutions for radicalization, carried out by local leaders and groups, remains outside of Ottawa’s legislative language. CSIS understands that those planning the next explosion in Canada most likely operate outside the purview of their own communities. A 2010-11 CSIS study on the process of radicalization obtained by the Globe and Mail shows that the agency is aware that “lone wolf” radicals have either distanced themselves from the community or been ostracized for their intolerant rhetoric or erratic behaviour. These individuals then work in the dark, where they’re least likely to be detected. They are few in number but pose a threat. The way to mitigate this threat, if we take seriously the conclusions of respected experts, is to empower local communities. In this case, it means the empowerment and inclusion of Muslim communities across Canada — something that would make all Canadians safer, yet Harper’s Tories would rather be dropped into a pit of poisonous snakes than pursue this meaningfully.

Over the years, Harper’s cabinet has gutted or maligned a plethora of major Muslim-Canadian organizations. The government’s rhetoric shows that it will pursue further policing and spying on Muslims. This will certainly alienate the Muslim community, which already feels that it’s being singled out unfairly. And it gives even more ammunition to radical preachers around the world who love to market the idea that Canada and the West are at war with Muslims and Islam. In other words, Harper’s security-heavy approach actually makes Canadians less safe.

The smart thing to do would be to equip Muslims with the necessary resources to regulate themselves. It’d also help if politicians listened to Muslims more and actually got to know their communities and what makes them upset (or happy). Instead, we have a prime minister who has promised more Canadian military involvement overseas, with a bulked-up surveillance state at home.

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