“We are here because you were there.”

Two very different takes on the evolution of western responses to terrorism
November 1, 2015

RCMP members of Air Task Force–Iraq participate in a March 2015 combat search and rescue exercise for personnel of the Middle East Stabilization Force, which is conducting operations against Islamic State (Credit: Op Impact, DND)

The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 cast a long shadow over discussions of national security and surveillance across the western world. In Canada, for example, despite two startling incidents on Canadian soil in October 2014—the attacks on Parliament in Ottawa and against the Canadian Forces in Quebec—the public mood for expanding the powers of Canada’s security agencies quickly waned after the introduction, in January 2015, of Bill C- 51, the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015. In fact, the legislation galvanized Canadian society and influenced voting intentions many months later in the federal election.

At the same time, the public seems to have lost sight of the history of anti-terrorism legislation in this country. The 2015 bill was, in most respects, merely a follow-up to the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act, passed immediately after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. It also complemented a series of more recent reforms, including the Combating Terrorism Act of 2013, and other legislation that can be seen as the Harper government’s multi-part volley in the “war on terror.” 

Each new law has progressively widened the range of activities for which Canadians can be criminally charged, increased the powers of law enforcement agencies, and amended related acts (e.g., the Criminal Code) in order to broaden judicial powers of investigation and prosecution. This bundle of legislation reflects the Harper government’s belief that “Terrorism remains the leading threat to Canada’s national security.” According to Steven Blaney, former minister of public safety, “Our Government will continue to take all appropriate action to counter terrorist threats to Canada, its citizens and its interests around the world.” 

In fact, the Statistics Canada crime rate for terrorism was below one incident per 100,000 population in 2014, as it was in 2012 and 2013. Despite this, the agency asserts that terrorism violations were up 39% in 2014, bucking the trend of declining crime rates. This is derived by calculating the increase in the number of reported terrorism incidents (rather than the rate) between 2013 and 2014, from 76 to 100. It is an astounding example of misleading reporting by Statistics Canada.

The actual threats to Canadians come from accidents and illness, chiefly heart disease and cancer, with homicide reaching the top ten causes of death for those under 25. Both cancer and heart disease have been linked to poverty, as has accidental death among children. Regrettably, developing the complex legislation and matching funding to solve these long-standing causes of death lacks the headline-grabbing appeal of fighting “terror.”

Against this backdrop of government fear mongering on smaller threats and ignoring bigger issues, two recent books take drastically different approaches to the issue of terrorism. 

Religious Radicalization and Securitization in Canada and Beyond, edited by Paul Bramadat and Lorne Dawson (University of Toronto Press, 2014), is unusual both for its focus on Canada and its explicitly political intent, as seen in its dedication to “academics and government policy-makers working to keep Canada safe from the threat of terrorism without sacrificing the religious and cultural diversity, and mutual respect that distinguish Canadian society.” A political party could not have come down solidly on both sides with such finesse!

Bramadat and Dawson cast a very narrow net around their subjects: “violent forms of religious radicalization” and “securitization.” They believe religion has been overlooked as a major factor in radicalization, neglected by western scholars who have mistakenly embraced the inherent superiority of secularism. They define radicalization as a “growing readiness to pursue and support far-reaching changes in society that conflict with, or pose a direct threat to the existing order.” 

Using surprisingly weak words, they define religious radicalization as “the processes by which individuals and groups with a wide range of motivations come to embrace religious feelings, beliefs and practices that put them very severely at odds with their society and (often) their family members,” and securitization as “the way in which the state and society frame the individuals and groups drawn to radical religious subcultures” (emphasis added in both cases).

The latter term (securitization) is actually borrowed from the financial world, used to describe how assets are transformed into a security. It has been adopted by mainstream international relations to refer to the way “subjects” are “transformed” (not “framed”) into matters of security, thus enabling the state to take extraordinary means to assure its own security against them. Concerned, perhaps, that focusing exclusively on Muslims might appear to equate Islam with terror, Bramadat and Dawson include chapters on the Sikhs and Tamils of Canada, as well as some violent actions associated with the Aum religion in Japan. 

In contrast, The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror, by Arun Kundnani (Verso Books, 2014), casts an extremely wide net on its subject, with two significant differences from the Bramadat and Dawson book: it provides a much needed historical analysis of events before and after 9/11, and it tackles head-on the issue of racism and the fact that Muslims are very much the targets of this ongoing “war.” 

Bramadat and Dawson oppose the “conflation of race and religion.” They buy into the beliefs that the terrorist threat is severe and ubiquitous, and that as scholars their role is to isolate the religious factor in the identification of potential Muslim terrorists. Kundnani, on the other hand, believes that “cultural markers associated with Muslimness are turned into racial signifiers,” such that Islamophobia becomes a “form of structural racism directed at Muslims.” He considers terrorism a political response to western foreign policy, and finds attempts to identify early indicators of terrorism among Muslims as at best misguided and at worst racist. 

Waking up Muslim on September 12, 2001, in Europe as in North America, was not easy, and it got worse as the U.S.-led coalition launched a “war on terror” that came across as a war on fanatical Muslims intent on destroying the free democratic western world. The U.S. president George W. Bush attempted to distinguish between Al-Qaeda and peace-loving Muslims, and the early phase of the war focused on military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on possible Al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” in the West. But deep suspicion of Islam began to take shape. 

Global opinion fell into two categories, which Kundnani calls “culturalism” and “reformism.” Culturalists see violent extremism as inherent to Islam; reformists believe that 20th century ideologues have distorted Islam’s true meaning. Neither view acknowledges the political history of relations between the West and the Muslim world, and the vital influence of political events on the daily lives and opinions of those affected. It is in making these crucial links that Kundnani’s book excels. 

At the end of the Second World War, the old colonialist powers (the U.K. and France) and the newly dominant United States deliberately turned the Islamic world into a military, economic and ideological battleground in their war against Soviet communism. From the 1950s to the turn of the 21st century, these countries frequently undertook overt (Afghanistan, Iraq) and covert (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan) actions, usually with NATO or UN blessing, in countries across North, East and West Africa, in the Middle East and in South Asia. These actions were meant to shore up regimes that supported the West, regardless of political or religious labels. The unprincipled, power-seeking route they charted has culminated in the Syrian tragedy and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).  

With the 2004 murder in Amsterdam of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the 2005 London transit bombings by perpetrators found to be European Muslims, the domestic front of the Global War on Terror expanded; the hunt for “homegrown” terrorists began. Enabled by legislation hastily adopted in 2001 and continuing into the present, major western law enforcement agencies upgraded electronic surveillance capabilities and enlarged their informant base. Mosques and communities were “securitized” using infiltration techniques developed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program against Black civil rights activists and student organizations during the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Kundnani looks at the effects of the domestic “war on terror” on a long-standing Muslim community in Michigan, and a new Somali Muslim community in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Well before the Second World War, Henry Ford had begun to recruit Muslims from Asia and the Middle East to work in his Detroit factories. By the 1970s, Michigan Muslims had achieved fairly high levels of income and education and “were at the door of what’s called ‘whiteness’ in America.” These Muslims condemned 9/11 and experienced, with horror, the dangerous vulnerability of being associated with Muslim terrorists who appeared to be threatening the world they had themselves adopted. Even high-income professionals of Arab descent began to experience airport delays and were regularly refused travel visas. 

Among the Somali community in Minnesota, surveillance and the prevalence of informants was particularly strong because of suspected recruitment by Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in the southern Horn of Africa. Lacking the knowledge and trust of the community they are attempting to infiltrate, surveillance programs usually lead to fear, and to the breakdown of those very community networks that normally foster the solid education of youth and the rejection of violence. The option of peacefully vocalizing opposition to U.S. foreign policy does not exist for these youth. The loss of their right to freedom of expression and assembly has insidious long-term human consequences.

Lorne Dawson’s chapter on the “Toronto 18” (only 10 were charged) in the Bramadat-Dawson book starts with an exposition of the methodological difficulties of studying terrorist networks; for example, the impossibility of creating a control group! Because Dawson is focused a priori on isolating the role of religion in the radicalization of  “Salafi-jihadist terrorists,” terms that are not defined in a chapter full of hair-splitting definitions, what emerges is a sketchy picture of a “fairly aimless lot.” 

They are 10 young men with mid-level education and occupations, who were either born here or who came to Canada in their youth. All were raised in Toronto suburbs in fairly non-religious families. They came together in school and social groups focused on Islam. At least one reported experiencing post-9/11 discrimination. Dawson has absolutely no interest in the content of their opinions of political events either in their country of origin or their adopted homeland. 

In the same collection, Uzma Jamil studies one working class and one middle class Muslim community in Montreal. While the former felt more vulnerable, both groups believed “they are perceived negatively or are under greater scrutiny by majority groups in Canada” and—though, again, this was felt more markedly in the working class community—were reluctant to discuss politics among themselves or with their children. One Iraqi teenager felt that discussions of 9/11 were all about the suffering of the American people, “but I just don’t like talking about it because I know they feel sorry for their people, and I feel sorry for my people, so that’s why I don’t like getting into a discussion.” 

The extremists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo and Paris Hypercasher shootings were Muslims born in France of parents from former French colonies. The Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombs, were from Chechnya, but had come to the United States in their youth. Dzhokhar, the surviving brother, wrote the following in the hours before his arrest: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians, but most of you already know that…”

Martin Couture-Rouleau, who was responsible for the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu hit-and-run, was a Québécois recent convert to Islam who opposed the victimization of Muslims. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Parliament Hill shooter, converted to Islam in 2004 and had a Libyan-Canadian father. He explicitly referred to his opposition to Canadian policy in Africa in his online communications. 

Bramadat and Dawson would have us believe that with “more data, better data and more exacting analyses,” our public safety will be increased. But, in the end, even some of their own contributors and the studies they cite claim “there is no typical terrorist or path to terrorism.” 

Kundnani’s view of terrorism is much more nuanced, realistic and ultimately comforting. It recognizes that the kind of manoeuvering the United States, Canada and Western Europe have pursued in Africa, the Middle East and Asia—the most egregious case being possibly their support/non-support of the Syrian government—will continue to produce desperate suffering and injustice. It is naïve to think this will not sometimes produce individuals or groups who choose violent terrorism as a response to these injustices. 

For much of the 2015 federal election campaign, outgoing prime minister Harper was caught between public pressure to allow refugees from the Syrian horror into Canada, and the self-imposed need to remind us that this would increase the risk of terrorism. In a phrase coined by Sri Lankan Muslim activist A. Sivanandan, “We are here because you were there.” It is time for Canadians to understand the connection between policies we have allowed our governments to pursue and the consequences that come home to us. 

Clare Mian has been a teacher, department head, vice-principal, curriculum consultant and principal at both the elementary and secondary level. She is retired, and is a student again at the University of Toronto in the department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations.