muslims, politics, war on terror

Definitions of Threat

The law students society at York University’s Osgoode Hall organized a panel discussion on the politics of “deradicalization” this Thursday and brought together some well-informed Muslim voices: Faisal Kutty (scholar, law), Kathy Bullock (scholar, politics and Islam), and Yasin Dwyer (chaplain).

Several important points were raised, but all were relatively critical of how the issue of radicalization is perceived and talked about these days (especially after the October shooting).

The “culturalist” tendency to fixate solely on the religion of radicalized individuals was critiqued thoroughly, as it doesn’t address the well-established fact that almost all those who engage in terrorism is motivated first-and-foremost by a political cause. Issues like poverty, mental illness, and social alienation also seem to play a role at some point, depending on the individuals’ circumstances. Having imams talking to troubled individuals simply about religion isn’t going to do the job in most of these cases. The culturalist approach suggests that the Islamic religion is intrinsically “designed” to lead its readers to violence. This is false. Yet, when it comes to recommendations of how “radical narratives” can be countered, the political nature of individual motivations are never fully addressed.

The more interesting and complicated point raised by the speakers had primarily to do with language and definitions. “Radicalization” has been defined by some law enforcement groups by “tell-tale” signs that look like nothing more than the behaviours exhibited by peaceful Muslims. For instance, if a person believes that a caliphate should be established, it doesn’t mean that s/he is “radicalizing” to the point of committing a crime. Believing in a caliphate, a very anachronistic/idealistic view (not common), sounds scary and dark, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the believer endorses terrorism or violence. The Ottoman empire was referred to as a caliphate by many Muslims until the end of WWI. Some believe that a similar entity should exist today to anchor the Muslim world (good luck with that one), but it doesn’t mean they support the utterly depraved ways of, say, ISIS, which also foolishly calls itself a caliphate. (Suffice it to say that they don’t really qualify.)

Other “tell-tale” signs may seem more sinister. A Muslim person may be expressing some very exclusivist views of Islam in a way that prompts many to label him/her as a “salafi/wahhabi.” This is like the kiss of death because, in common post-9/11 parlance, nothing good can possibly come from these religious/ideological orientations. They are, in our contemporary discourse, intrinsic vehicles for ignorance and violence. But ignorant as some of its adherents are, not all salafis or wahhabis take after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Not all are violent or advocate terrorism. For instance, the Saudi wahhabi state scholars were giving fatwa against suicide bombing long before 9/11. One may vehemently disagree with many of their literalist and exclusivist interpretations of Islamic scripture, but we have to be fair here.

Yes, the vast majority of those who join Al-Qaeda or ISIS self-identify as salafis, etc, but it’s important to note here that these people are a very tiny fraction of salafis–most of whom are much more obsessed with ritual and are politically disengaged/quiescent. The real problem is that since these ideological sects within Islam can very easily be used to judge/exclude Muslims who don’t conform to certain ritualistic strictures, it’s very easy for these sects to be enjoined with violent political ideologies/acts. Returning Western state terrorism with Muslim terrorism is a lot easier to justify if one can misappropriate salafism or wahhabism in a way that okays the killing of those who don’t conform to a specific type of “Muslim.” But it does not then follow that those who espouse such exclusivist “salafist” views automatically take up arms and want to exterminate people. Studies show that they need a political grievance (or more personal factors, like mental illness) to even be open to committing those kinds of violent crimes. Religious belief alone is not enough.

One can think “radical” thoughts and still be peaceful. Today, opposing Western occupation and encroachment alone can qualify a person as a “radical.” Since Western countries take freedom of speech and thought very seriously, then Muslims who think or say outrageously exclusivist things should also be protected under the speech laws. Unless they’re actively or specifically inciting violence (very rare), then their speech should be protected. There have been times in the US and Canada when white supremacists and (alleged, given the link used here) anti-Semites have been protected under free speech legislation. The few “salafis/wahhabis” who hold similar/equivalent view should be treated in the same vein.

Photo (from left): Kathy Bullock, Yasin Dwyer, Faisal Bahbha (moderator), Faisal Kutty
Photo Credit: Steven Zhou

Advertisements
Standard
middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada’s Patriot Act Moment

In this essay published by the good people at The American Conservative, I critique the Stephen Harper government’s legislative approach to solving the problems of radicalization and homegrown terrorism. The assertion that these dangers are more worrying than all other public safety threats in Canada is an unsubstantiated exaggeration. The data and studies I cite don’t point to these concerns with a huge amount of alarm. Moreover, according to experts I cite, the government must empower local communities to self-regulate as the way forward. 

Public Safety officials have expressed that local partnerships are important, but the Harper administration’s gutting of civil society organization (especially those who disagree with the CPC’s right wing politics), make it difficult to be optimistic. Bill C-44, which would legalize CSIS’s coordinated spying of individuals abroad as a part of the “5-Eyes” alliance, and protects the identity of the agencies informants and sources. The bill is making it way rapidly through Ottawa’s legislative process and is schedules to be studied for a mere four hours by a parliamentary committee, which probably won’t want to hear the advice that Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has to give. 

Watchdogs say that Canada’s laws are good enough to fight terrorism. The CPC doesn’t think so, and what’s yet to come should scare all Canadians. 
___

Published by The American Conservative on November 26th, 2014

When the United States Senate refused to consider reforms to its surveillance state last week, it voted under a cloud of ominous warnings from former spy directors and soon-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about ISIS and the specter of domestic radicalization. At the same time, Canada is publicly processing the aftermath of an actual act of domestic terror and drumming up its own climate of fear in order to expand its surveillance powers.

It’s always uncomfortable for a country to ask “why” when a member of its own citizenry decides to commit acts of political violence against his/her state. It’s uncomfortable because the act of answering such a query is the political equivalent of looking in the mirror. It’s unsettling to see one’s own blemishes reflected back, and much easier to avoid the ordeal altogether. But as political claims about radicalization are being used to justify significant public policies, it is important to have an accurate understanding of the mechanisms at work.

Canada is going through this disquieting process right now after a gunman named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa last month before shooting up Parliament. He was eventually gunned down, but the city was thrown into a state of panic, with the Prime Minister hiding momentarily inside a broom closet. The shooting was the most prominent episode of domestic terrorism for Canada since the FLQ days of 1970.

Debate over the nature of the attack ensued immediately after the perpetrator’s identity was revealed. The pundits zeroed in on how the country ought to deal with homegrown terrorism and pontificated endlessly on radicalization and “Islamic terrorism.” This is not a new debate for Canada or the West in general. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), has put radicalization as one of its top priorities for years, as have the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

It didn’t take the Conservative government long to announce that new security measures are going to be introduced. These new provisions are supposed to bolster Canada’s security state by giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies more “tools” to do their jobs. The moment of vulnerability and panic was obviously there for the taking, and the Stephen Harper administration exploited the opening. It has paid off, for now, as the Tories shorten the gap in the polls between them and the Trudeau-led Liberal Party in advance of next year’s general election.

The Harper administration’s emphasis on extra surveillance will play itself out legislatively in the coming months, but it has already begun by introducing a bill to allow Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, to broaden its scope of operations. The bill gives CSIS the opportunity to spy abroad or to tap other agencies to collect the data of Canadians abroad, and also proposes giving CSIS informants/sources more anonymity, something that will certainly affect the due process of law in Canada. This bill is just the beginning of what is likely to be a wave of anti-terror legislation to be introduced in the coming months.

Many of those who participate in such debates have tried to ask the “why” question, and a few have come to the conclusion that it’s Canada’s increasingly interventionist and jingoistic posture toward the Muslim world that prompts domestic terrorism. In this view, Canada’s participation in the “War on Terror,” and the Harper administration’s over-the-top support for Israel has antagonized the Muslim world, which now sees a once “peace-making” Canada as an enabler of oppressive politics. Some then take matters into their own hands.

Of course, most do not choose to engage in acts of political violence to express their dissatisfaction with Canadian (or American, or European, etc.) foreign policy, and homegrown terrorism has killed a relatively small amount of people in Canada since, say, 9/11, as compared to more banal dangers like drunk driving or the flu. Furthermore, studies done out of the U.S. conclude that radicalization is decreasing over time, which, logically, should be mirrored by a decrease in surveillance. But that’s just wishful thinking.

The Tories’ security-heavy rhetoric is simple to understand, as it cuts the world into black and white, while not doing much to differentiate between violent Muslims and average ones. In fact, many have voiced their concern that Harper has not taken the time to condemn the anti-Muslim backlash that has resulted from last month’s incident. This has created an atmosphere where the national conversation on terrorism often conflates the Islamic faith with violence. The coalescing of this conceptual trope has raised serious concerns over the antagonizing of the Muslim community, which will certainly be a major target for increased policing and spying.

This doesn’t bode well for Canadians at all if security is the top priority. For though the actual socio-psychological process of radicalization still isn’t well-understood, experts like political scientist Robert Pape have suggested that Western occupations and interventions do indeed play a role in prompting the process. However, it’s not the only factor that leads a person down the path of political violence. Anger at Western policies in the Muslim world and elsewhere provides a “cognitive opening” that primes an individual to be exploited by radical rhetoric. Former Obama advisor Dalia Mogahed, who led Gallup’s effort to survey the Muslim world, also refers to this idea when talking about extremism.

Stating that the invasion of Afghanistan or Canada’s diplomatic support for Israeli is fully to blame for Muslim terrorism isn’t totally correct. But saying that such policies have absolutely zero relationship with rage against the West is probably even more misleading. Policies that antagonize the Muslim world are often necessary catalysts for a person to become open to the process of radicalization, but are not sufficient in-and-of-itself to result in acts of political/ideological violence.

In other words, a person needs to be open to the process of radicalization first before he or she can be truly radicalized, and to commit violence. This opening can be prompted by many factors, which is why each individual case is so different, depending on the person’s life circumstances. Anger at Western policy/crimes, social alienation, poverty, and mental illness all seem to play a role at one point or another for these individuals. Once they’re in a condition to be open to radical rhetoric, an encounter with, say, online propaganda or an extremist preacher can have serious effects. This is why study after study, like last years’ publication on radicalization co-produced by The Soufan Group (an international intelligence and risk consultancy) emphasizes the local nature of radicalization. It is a local problem that needs local solutions. This means that the federal government needs to incorporate within its national security strategy local groups that can bring troubled individuals into the communal fold.

The bewildering thing is that the intelligence community in Canada understands this. In a 2010 study of radicalization obtained by the Globe and Mail, CSIS concludes that violent radicals about to enact violence usually operate on the margins of their communities. They can’t be found simply by spying on mosques or by policing mainstream communities. The best way to defang them is to empower local communities to keep an eye on each other and to talk sense into the few troubled men or women among them. Simply giving law enforcement more ways to spy and police certain communities will lead to alienation.

Nonetheless, it’s probably safe to say that partnering with Canadian Muslims (on anything) isn’t high up on Harper’s to-do list. It’s much easier to capitalize off of the fear of Canadians by presenting them with the Muslim or immigrant bogeyman, who will impose his will on Canada (or America, or Europe) unless stopped by national security. This is an old game, and certainly not exclusive to Canadian politics. The politics of division, be it in Canada or the U.S., are useful when nearing an election—especially if done well.

The Harper Tories do it very, very well. Over the past few years, the government has assumed an antagonistic posture toward many of the Muslim community’s most prominent institutions. In a time of economic uncertainty, the best way to galvanize a political base is through fear. The Tories, just like Republicans or hawkish Democrats, are always well positioned to do this. Cultivate a base with fear, and fear can always be used to poke it to life when times are tough.

Of course, none of this politicking is meant to make the citizenry safer. In fact, it may lead to the exact opposite result, as it plays right into the rhetorical narratives peddled by extremists who love to push around the idea that the Christian West will not rest unless it conquers Islam itself, and every Muslim along with it. In other words, antagonism will create more antagonism, and more angry Muslims isn’t a good thing for public safety.

As Canada approaches its next elections, and the United States starts to look forward to its own, domestic radicalization is likely to continue to be trotted out as a political tool to justify expansions and protections of each country’s respective surveillance state and interventionism. That rhetoric and those policies will continue to diverge from the actual best practices for keeping their countries safe.

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/canadas-patriot-act-moment/]

Photo: Steven Blaney and Stephen Harper / CC

Standard
politics

#Toronto Shows #Ferguson Some Love

Last night’s grand jury verdict in Missouri to acquit Ferguson, St. Louis officer Darren Wilson for his killing of 18-yr-old Michael Brown (the prosecutor didn’t even choose to seek an indictment) sent shockwaves throughout the American body politic. Riots broke out on the streets, twinned with police violence that ended up producing imagery reminiscent of the 1992 LA riots.

Brown’s death reignited the political debates around racial profiling, police brutality, and the efficacy of the American justice system, sparking solidarity rallies in cities like LA, NY, Chicago, Toronto, etc. I was at the Toronto protest, organized by a coalition of activist groups who called it the #BlackLivesMatter rally. It was held right in front of the US Consulate near University and Queen street, and several hundred people ended up packing the space tight. Here are some photos.

20141125_175611

Protestors demanded an official acknowledgement from the Harper government of police violence in Toronto, contributing to a toxic atmosphere of mistrust between communities and those who’re supposed to protect and serve. An report by the Ottawa-based Council of Canadian Academies was released this week and concluded that a “one-size-fits-all” policing approach isn’t going to work anymore. Police have to follow the lead of communities in order to partner with them for the creation of safe and just environments.

20141125_182416

20141125_175903

This rally occurred in a Canadian context, as the Conservative government is working on passing new anti-terror and surveillance laws to “protect” Canadians from criminals and terrorists. Meanwhile, the problems of civil liberty violations and government overreach remains unchanged. Ferguson has reignited the debate around who should watch the watchers and police the police.

But it’s been and will continue to be an uphill battle, as Ferguson is just a flash point in a simmering conflict that involves both race and class, where the strong preys on the weak.

Standard
muslims, politics, war on terror

A Great (Political) Neutering

Published on The Islamic Monthly on November 25th, 2014

Every problem that afflicts the Muslim world calls out desperately for enlightened Muslim activism. Yet it can be convincingly argued that Western Muslim communities have become politically castrated in the post-9/11 era. Organizations are afraid to lose their charitable status as governments implement rigorous auditing procedures, while those who want nothing more than normal, decent lives are afraid of ending up on some no-fly list, unable to land that big job at that big firm.

This self-perpetuating quiescence occurs at a time when places like Canada and other “5-Eyes”nations (the other four being the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) are tabling ever more invasive security measures. Fear-mongering politicians use the “Islamic State” and “homegrown terrorism” to get what they want while civic pushback, though not insignificant, is still relatively outmatched.

But the question Muslims should be asking is, “What are all these security measures aiming at?”

Which communities are going to bear the brunt of such surveillance?

There are several candidates, but a blind person can tell that the easiest target these days are Muslims who have no interest in defending themselves politically. Obama may have rhetorically dropped the “War on Terror” title, but his administration has arguably been much more active in rolling back civil liberties than his GOP predecessor.

Canadian politics seem headed down that same road. Extra policing and surveillance will surely be applied to Muslim communities after the Harper administration gets its new anti-terror laws passed by a Tory parliamentary majority.

The problem is that there’s no real evidence to suggest that the Muslim response to these developments will be anything more than tepid.

To be sure, there are some groups who’re picking up the slack, but it’s hard to conclude that they have the material backing of larger community sectors. For all the talk about victimhood, Palestine, the War on Terror, etc., which have all become major themes of discussion in the Muslim world, people don’t want to put their money where their mouth is. The result is a set of deformed communal tendencies that often contradict each other.

Take this latest Tariq Ramadan beef with the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference organizers. It’s created a schism in the Muslim community Canada (and beyond), especially for those who attend the convention regularly and admire Ramadan (who thinks RIS is politically inept for inviting scholars who apparently support the Sisi regime in Egypt). It’s a fair debate with real implications, but the scope of its effects is internal (much like insider-baseball). Internal is about the only kind of political controversy that the community wants to engage with. Anything that defends against real outside threats that affect everyone on a local level is not so exciting, it seems. Why act against Stephen Harper, surveillance, over-policing, and demonization when bickering about whether some conference should/shouldn’t invite some Swiss scholar is so much more fun (and so much easier)?

Therein lies the curious, oxymoronic (a)political behavior of Western Muslims (especially in Canada): gung-ho about its own internal beefs while refusing real engagement with actual political threats from those in power. The former, however substantive, is comfortable and familiar. The latter is hard work and puts people’s reputations on the line. That’s why when it came to the emblematic issue of Omar Khadr’s repatriation, the former child soldier’s Canadian lawyer, Dennis Edney, got on every podium he could to literally yell “Where are you?” to the Muslims. It turns out Khadr’s stronger allies were progressive atheists and Christians.

There’s a lot of talk about sticking together, communalism, and justice when it comes to Western Muslims (who, arguably, are most free to practice their religion). That’s not a bad thing. Frustration and anger should lead to action, but action is the operative term here. For all this talk about who is speaking for (thanks Shaykh bin Affleck!) or against (Bill Maher, etc.) Muslims, the only thing that ever really matters is whether or not Muslims speak out for each other. In which case the Muslims have failed substantially, leading any outside observer to conclude that Islam isn’t much glue when it comes to binding people together for justice. (Though it’d be inspiring to be proven wrong!)

Someone once told me that Islam is the greatest source of human connection God has ever given humanity. I believe him, but only in spite of all the evidence available to me. In other words, I believe him in theory. In practice, failure to consider the shortcomings of human nature results in a rejection of reality. If Western Muslims continue to reject the reality around them in favor of class privilege, we’ll be bringing the temple down on our own heads.

Photo Credit: Hector de Pereda

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/a-great-political-neutering/]

Standard
muslims, politics, war on terror

Is Public Safety Canada for real?

Ian McLeod has a piece in the Ottawa Citizen on the recent testimony given by officials at Public Safety Canada to the Senate national security and defence committee, as the Tory government crafts its updated counter-terrorism strategy.

The assistant deputy minister Gary Robertson said that the government believes in local, community-based prevention, and that local leaders have to be taught how to spot certain attitudes and behaviours. I was actually first alerted to this article by someone working at the United Nations in New York, who ringed me up to get an opinion on these newest developments. (I hadn’t opened my laptop all morning.)

My first reaction was quite positive. Robertson’s point is a correct one. Partnering with local communities to neutralize the threat of radicalization should be a key aspect in a multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy. Policing/spying on mainstream communities won’t get us anywhere by itself, and is likely to alienate potential local allies. So in this sense, Robertson’s statement is encouraging.

What it all comes down to, though, is whether the (still-unveiled) strategy/legislation put forth by the Tories will reflect Robertson’s statement in a satisfactory way.

I wasn’t at the committee hearing, so I don’t know what else the panel had to say. If I were to guess, though, the upcoming legislation will probably include security-heavy provisions first and foremost, geared toward giving law enforcement and spying agencies more legal leeway. I’d be surprised if the fed-local partnership stuff is truly emphasized, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

I don’t come to such a conclusion without good reason: What’s not encouraging at all is the Prime Minister’s track record with the Muslim community.

Take for example the latest incident with the RCMP and the anti-terrorism handbook it helped to put together. The handbook, entitled “United Against Terrorism: A Collaborative Effort Towards a Secure, Inclusive and Just Canada,” is the brainchild of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA). The RCMP was listed as a contributor, and provided input throughout the writing of the handbook.

Then, about a day after the handbook was presented to the public (in Winnipeg, actually) in late September, the RCMP withdrew its support, citing disagreement with the book’s “adversarial tone.” This was a shocking thing to witness, especially given the flimsy excuse. The RCMP’s decision goes against even that of the Justice Minister of Manitoba, who has no problem with it, and in whose province the handbook was first unveiled.

The exact reasons for RCMP withdrawal, other than what can be derived from its highly unconvincing press release, is not known for sure. Nonetheless, it’d be surprising if there was no politicking involved at all, either on the Prime Minister’s end or that of his cabinet.

I-Politics columnist and investigative journalist Andrew Mitrovica says that it’s highly likely that the Prime Minister’s office confronted the RCMP and told them to withdraw. Why? Because NCCM is suing the PMO right now after Harper’s director of communications, Jason MacDondald (formerly a Chief of Staff and Director of Public Relations and Operations at CBC actually) said that the Muslim advocacy group is linked with Hamas. This is very Karl Rovian stuff, and NCCM (unlike much of the Muslim community these days) isn’t taking it sitting down. Thus the RCMP’s sudden change-of-heart.

Now, if the PMO has that kind of influence over the RCMP’s seemingly unproblematic sponsorship of an anti-radicalization handbook, then it’s hard to see why it won’t have a similar effect on Public Safety.

This is where the skepticism comes from and, if proven true, will not bode well for Canadians–especially the Muslim ones.

 

 

 

 

 

Standard