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muslims, politics, war on terror

Racism in Stephen Harper’s Canada

Published by Jacobin on December 18th, 2014

Politicians seeking reelection have long adapted their stances to fit the political climate and tailored their rhetoric to galvanize their base. In the post-9/11 climate, shot through with hysteria and xenophobia, fear has been the choice propeller for rightists. And aside from that of George W. Bush, no governing administration has more adeptly harnessed fear for its own ends than Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Simultaneously pushing austerity, Harper has used economic uncertainty to make that fear even more potent.

Just a few months ago, Harper’s chances of reelection in next October’s general election looked slim. Currently in his second term, Harper’s Conservative Party has shoved the country’s domestic and foreign policy far to the right. Polling in September showed the party’s support at 31 percent, eclipsed by the seemingly resurgent Liberals.

But in October, two acts of political violence disrupted the status quo. First a man ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing one; a few days later, another shot up Parliament Hill, slaying an additional soldier along the way. Just like that, the fear of “homegrown terrorism” and “radicalization” were revived in Canada, and it was time for Harper to do what he does best: exploit the moment. The prime minister immediately announced that his party, still possessing a parliamentary majority, would propose new security laws to expand the powers of Canadian spying and law enforcement agencies.

Unlike the Australian government of Tony Abbott, which, however reactionary, actually reached out to the Muslim community after this week’s Sydney café siege, Harper made no such gesture until much later. Isolating one’s opponents, of course, is a common political strategy. But with Harper’s Tories, it’s a modus operandi that hardly bothers veiling its racism. Often coming out of a conservative Christian tradition, many in the Conservative Party didn’t get to where they are today by being nice to Muslims.

The Conservatives have gone after many Muslim and Arab groups that have publicly challenged the party’s hawkish foreign policy stances. These crackdowns have laid the groundwork for further repression and histrionics when the Tories need a boost in the polls.

The Harper’s administration’s new “anti-terror” legislation is coming even after the passage of laws that its own watchdogs deemed excessive.These laws will degrade civil liberties and further antagonize targeted groups. One example is Bill C-44, which expands the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s ability to spy on Canadians abroad, thus extending the agency’s largely domestic mandate. Informants and sources who provide secret information to the agency will also enjoy better protection of their identity under the new bill, making it harder for the accused to face their accusers.

What’s more, it’s patently apparent that Tories are hardly concerned with ensuring domestic tranquility. Right after two prominent Muslim groups unveiled a handbook on political violence that they put together with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties decided to pull its support for the project, citing “rhetoric” that they found troubling. (The prime minister’s office had some influence over this decision as one of the co-producers of the handbook, and the National Council on Canadian Muslims (NCCM), is suing the office for defamation.)

The Harper administration has always been very good at playing into the so-called “jihadi­-narrative,” which likes to frame a civilizational showdown between Islam and a Western world hellbent on destroying Muslims’ way of life. The latest video from “Islamic State” member John McGuire, who was a university student from Ottawa, is a good indication of this nearly cyclical dynamic. His rhetoric clearly builds on the assumption that the Harper government, in conjunction with the US and other allies, have violently antagonized Muslims around the world.

But Harper’s cabinet isn’t just good at exploiting fears of homegrown terrorism within Canadian borders. It’s also gone out of its way to show how vigilant the Tories are at policing those borders. One development is the tabling of the hilariously named “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” by Citizenship Canada’s Chris Alexander, who’s helping his party play the “foreign barbarian” card.

The law bans polygamy, child marriages, and honor killings, as if the Canadian criminal code doesn’t already ban all of these practices. Alexander has said specifically that the target of his law are immigrants — who, as it turns out, don’t have an established tradition of polygamy like the Mormons of Bountiful, British Columbia. The bill is so obviously pandering to bigoted fears that it’s hard to tell if the government is even trying anymore.

If there’s any doubts about whether Harper’s party is really as racist as it seems, their recent handling of the country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis provides more than enough confirmation. After dragging its heels, Harper’s reply to the United Nations’ appeal to resettle ten thousand refugees in the next two years has been to cherry-pick “persecuted religious minorities” (Christians, Yazidis, etc.) before considering Sunni Muslims, who’ve borne the brunt of their country’s civil war. Of no concern to the Harper administration are the recommendations of the UN High Commission for Refugees about who’s most in need of help. It’s content to go ahead and determine that for itself.

These developments and strategies have been talked about in the Canadian media in an isolated fashion, as if each event has unfolded outside of a historical, economic, and political reality. The truth is that they’re each part of a larger scheme, one that has animated a good portion of Canadian politics for the past decade or so. It is a strategy to galvanize a political base (in a time of austerity and economic uncertainty) through fear, thereby dividing the citizenry along racial and religious lines to create the kind of political playing field most advantageous to the Tories.

Canada is experiencing around seven percent unemployment and wage stagnation, with high joblessness projected in the future. Focusing on immigration and homegrown terrorism is a short cut to jolting their political base into outrage and action. It’s an old story, and should effect an equally collective response from groups who’re most afflicted by it. Though some organizations like NCCM have pushed back, many minority communities in Canada are still building their own capacities, and are too politically nascent to respond in an effective way.

Fear is a powerful tool. It’s why the Bush cabinet (namely John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld) pressured former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to raise the “terror alert levels” before the 2004 US elections. Unfortunately, the Canadian polity is susceptible to the same kinds of manipulations. The onus is now on the broader Canadian left to organize a concerted antiracist response, or state repression will only expand.

Photo: Stephen Harper/CC

[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/racism-in-stephen-harpers-canada/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Fire with Fire

The cries of Sony following the hacking of their online systems, though justified to a large degree, ring rather hollow (the company is referring to the hack as an “act of war”) after the Taliban killed over 140 people in Peshawar and a lunatic held over a dozen people hostage with a rifle in Sydney, Australia earlier this week.

Man Haron Monis, a deranged, violent man who was out on bail after being slapped with dozens of sexual assault charges, took visitors inside a Lindt Cafe in central Sydney hostage for 16 hours earlier this week, and ended up getting shot dead by Australian police. Two hostages, a barrister and a manager at the cafe, also died. Unlike Stephen Harper’s administration, which never bothered reaching out to the Muslims community during the Parliament shooting in October, Tony Abbott, by no means a left-winger, actually took some time to reassure Australian Muslims that an isolated lunatic like Monis wouldn’t be used to paint an entire population black. The event caught the world’s attention as Monis, who took with him a black flag with the shahadeh painted on it in white, asked for an ISIS flag instead–along with a conversation with Abbott himself and for his diatribes to be broadcast live. None of these requests were granted.

Equally tragic, if not more so, is the mass execution of scores of children in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), a loose collections of “jihadi” groups formed in 2007 that wants to overthrow the government in favour their own version of the shariah. Due to a prolonged, cherry-picking policy that divides these groups into sections of “useful” and “un-useful” (depending on the moment) for political purposes, the Pakistani establishment–especially its influential armed forces–has exacerbated a threat that’s existed since the last days of the Soviet Union. The Afghan Taliban and their allies are given safe haven on the Pakistani side of the border (and Pakistani intelligence has shielded extremists in North Waziristan from attacks) since many Pakistanis travelled to Afghanistan back in the day to fight the Soviet occupation. This history has resulted in the kind of pick-and-choose engagement that has to stop, say most experts on the issue. Other observers have also criticized the large invasion of the TTP-strongholds in Waziristan which commenced this summer, and have pointed out that the Pakistani army’s scorched-earth strategies are being pursued while the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, are probably still in contact with the Afghan Taliban. Nevertheless, this latest attack is probably of a weakening TTP that has seen around 2000 members of its loose-knit cohort perish at the hands of the incursion.

There’s much talk about how the Taliban, a bunch of lunatic Muslims who misappropriate the religion in the most baseless and violent of ways, are impervious to reason and negotiations. This is a reasonable argument given that peace talks with them have gotten nowhere thus far (some point out that neither side displayed much good faith, and that the US drone strikes disrupted the talks). But, and I say this as a novice when it comes to Pakistan’s situation, I’ve not witnessed a single instance when an entrenched insurgency, hiding out in the mountains where the terrain is hardly navigable, has been exterminated/uprooted by a conventional/counter-insurgency effort from the state. That kind of muscling just doesn’t seem to work out very well. The war is a war of attrition, and it seems that the government, afflicted by age-old corruption and systemic dysfunction, will have to reform itself and invest in everyday infrastructure to strengthen their society to be more resilient to the TTP–and to undercut the “jihadi” narrative.

It’s easy to forget, when one tragedy follows the next, that each episode in our recent history is embedded in a larger historical and political narrative. The post-9/11 era and the “war on terror” are not quaint labels from the beginning of this century, but ones that still apply to the forces that produce much of today’s violence. Whatever the response to these heinous acts of political violence, it’s important that we do not ignore history, which shows that an overbearing, indiscriminate response to terrorist attacks only seem to make the situation worse.

It’s not a secret by now that dysfunctional societies (or the more dysfunctional aspects of some societies) produce reactions in the body politic that reflect the polity’s sickness. Governments that invest in the right aspects of their societies–education, health, social services, etc.–tend to have less of a problem with these issues. (The Pakistanis have nuclear bombs but can’t eradicate polio, for example.) The same goes for governments that don’t kill innocent people in developing countries in search of “terrorists.”

The solutions are much more complicated than “go over there and kill them all.”

Photo: A journalist paces the Peshawar school where the TTP massacre happened this Tuesday/CC

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

United States, Tortura Rex

The CIA Torture report released by the US Senate Intelligence Committee is horrifying in its detail (read it here). Interested observers can read for themselves the kinds of techniques used to extract information from those whom the CIA captured. The methods are grisly enough to shock despite everybody already knowing that the Bush-43 administration tortured its detainees. Reading the 500+ page executive summary (redacted) and experiencing the imagery that the words elicit is a harrowing experience in and of itself. One can only imagine what it was like for the detainees, regardless of what they’ve done.

Though President Barack Obama essentially put an end to the bulk of CIA torturing (closing down the international network of secret “black site” prisons) when he came into office, he hasn’t been open to the prospect of prosecuting those who presided over the CIA torture regime which, if one is serious, committed serious war crimes. The “war on terror” has been a bloody one, and if one takes international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention seriously, then the CIA torture techniques amount to war crimes. But much of the corporate media refused to use the term “torture” in describing this officially sanctioned, world-wide regime, and many continue their complicity to this day. In fact, even the report itself doesn’t use the term “torture,” which is truly an absurdity.

The slogan “Look forward, not back” has been used by the Obama administration when it comes to torture in the George W. Bush era following 9/11. In other words, Obama says that this issue, though difficult and probably illegal, are better left in the dustbin of history. No need to look at them anymore. Time to move on. The logic may seem somewhat harmless on a superficial level, but its implications are grave.

By saying “look forward, not back,” the Obama administration is essentially leaving torture on the table as a viable policy option for future regimes. It’s setting a precedent by which torture (the most systemic and invasive kind) can be authorized and implemented with impunity as far as the US government is concerned. That’s one hell of a precedent to set, and Obama is setting it.

The 6000-page report, which has caused a tremendous amount of friction between the Senate and the CIA (the White House isn’t “taking sides“), cost about $40 million and several years to put together. It was an open question at one point whether the mammoth document would even be made public (the Obama White House held up the publication of the report for months). After much haranguing, the Senate Intel Committee decided to publicize a redacted version of the executive summary. It concludes that torture doesn’t work, but doesn’t make a judgement as to whether the “enhanced interrogation techniques” are legal. It also states that the CIA lied about much of what it was doing, and that torture had no real role in the tracking down and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Among other revelations, the CIA routinely covered up its crimes, excused cruel interrogators, presided over at least a couple of torture-induced fatalities, detained an “intellectually challenged” man for leverage against his family, engaged in “rectal rehydration” (use your imagination), routinely detained/tortured innocent people, tortured its own informants by accident, and so on and so forth. (See here.)

Moreover, the CIA tried to cultivate the press by feeding it false information in an effort to control public opinion on the issue of torture, and competed with the FBI when it came to how much credit would be given in public for certain “accomplishments.” The scandalousness is almost endless, and reveals the incestuous nature of bureaucratic politics when one considers the fact that the Department of Justice routinely okayed many of the techniques used, even though the CIA went on to implement several unauthorized techniques. And let’s not forget the importance of the psychologists involved, namely the Spokane, Washington-based firm Mitchell Jessen and Associates, which got paid around $81 million to devise the techniques used by the CIA. The “war on terror,” if nothing else, is the gift that keeps on giving.

It has given rise to what the New York Times journalist James Risen calls the “national security-industrial-complex,” where government and private organization alike profit off of the opportunity work counter-terrorism, regardless of the efficacy of their methods. This is the era we live in; a society that pays any price for the illusion of absolute security. The US has invaded countries abroad and militarized its police at home to disastrous results. It has birthed an international surveillance system that essentially aims to know everything about everybody at all times, thereby displacing privacy as a modern human condition.

The problem is that, in addition to destroying important aspects of hard-won civil liberties, none of this has made the world any safer–not even those living inside the US and its allies. Though the spectre of terrorism is usually just a spectre, the heavy-handed surveillance and policing policies implemented by the US and its allies will antagonize much of the world and segments of its own citizenry. This is not a recipe for peace, but its very opposite.

Photo Credit: Members of Witness Against Torture blockade a major entrance to the CIA in Langley, Virginia./CC

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