muslims, politics, war on terror

Death and Reporting for Chapel Hill

Published by The Islamic Monthly on February 11th, 2015

That The Independent of Britain had a long article on what happened last night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before any major U.S. outlet made mention of the incident is a good reflection of how the “mainstream” media works these days. Their subsequent framing of what happened is perhaps more indicative of how prevailing assumptions and orthodoxies influence the way such events are talked about in the post-9/11 era.

The cold-blooded murder of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was announced by local police in a statement that revealed their names a few hours after the initial pronouncement. In that time, several local media outlets (WRAL, etc.) were already on the case, and the crux of what happened was relatively clear before the sun rose this morning.

A 46-year-old neighbor of the deceased by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks turned himself in last night to local authorities, confessing to shooting all three victims in the head. The dead were all university students at the University of North Carolina, and a Facebook page called “Our Three Winners” has since been made, presumably by family members, to honor their memory. The first post seems to have been made not so long after midnight last night. Thousands of people already “liked” the page (it now has over 53,000 “likes”) before “breaking news” outlets even tweeted about the murders this morning. For example, the Twitter account for CNN Breaking (@cnnbrk) tweeted about the incident at around 5:30am this morning. That hardly counts as “breaking.”

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Murders like this happen in the United States all the time, and I’ve had several discussions with reporters and observers alike on social media, who note that it takes time for local news like this to catch on, and for national media to decide on whether such an incident is worthy of coverage. There’s no doubt in my mind, having worked in the world mainstream news, that systemic constraints are present within major media outlets to filter out the newsworthy from the negligible. Nonetheless, that the #ChapelHillShooting was worthy of serious scrutiny by the media was made abundantly clear relatively early. The national media would have done well to pay attention to how the Western Muslim communities were reacting to what happened. Social media was abuzz with comments on the murders, while criticisms of mainstream neglect were expressed, among other ways, in cartoon form before the national media seemed to have caught on. In short, I think it’s fair to say that major broadcasters and papers could’ve been a bit faster on this one, and one wonders how their news-sense would’ve buzzed had the perpetrators been Muslims, and the victims been, say, a white family.

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Hicks is a self-identifying atheist, and is being held on three counts of first-degree murder without bond. Here’s one of his online posts, which has been shared widely on the Internet: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” That’s about as suspicious and ideologically-charged a statement I can think of (and it’s not the only one). I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who wants to view the incident in light of such a comment. In fact, the police are doing the same thing as they consider the “possibility that this was hate-motivated.”

Still, notice the framing here. Consider the fact that the police and several major outlets have led with their description of the murders as having possibly been motivated by a “dispute over parking.” The police say that this is one of the possible factors influencing a crime that may also include a hate bias. Fair enough, but nowhere in the national, public sphere does one notice any inclination from agenda-setting outlets to report or portray Hicks’ alleged crime as motivated first-and-foremost by ideology or the extremist versions of atheism. No one’s reporting any protests being planned in front of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins’ homes. The public is much more cautious to mention the possibility of a parking dispute, or perhaps to note that we shouldn’t rule out factors like mental health, etc.

Now contrast this prevailing approach to the way much of the “mainstream” media reports on Muslim extremism in the post-9/11 era. There’s hardly any caution or nuance when it comes to contextualizing the perpetrators’ actions with anything more than oxymoronic labels like “Islamic terrorism.” The implicit (and sometime explicit, depending on who you read), assumption is that violence and Muslims go together like two peas in a pod, that the latter is a natural generator of the former since Islam is intrinsically violent. If a Muslim gunman broke into a white family’s home and shot three of them dead, I imagine no one would fixate much on the parking spat.

These are all signs of the times we live in. Here in Toronto, Canada, I flip through the photos uploaded online of the deceased, and find it hard not to see their faces among the Muslims I know. Their presence could’ve been lifted from any Muslim community in the West, trying to keep themselves cogent in a post-9/11 atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstanding, and misinformation. The way that their deaths have been discussed and portrayed should serve to remind us that Muslims today don’t live in neutral times. Perhaps we can take note of their tragedy, and remind ourselves to look out for one another in these dark hours.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/death-and-reporting-for-chapel-hill/]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

The utter inefficacy of overbearing security laws

Published by the Middle East Eye on February 4th, 2015

Several attacks by Muslim extremists over the past few months in Canada, Australia, and France have re-emphasised the place of “home-grown terrorism” in the political language of the Western world. From Ottawa to Paris, new legislative and financial investments are being made by governments to build up policing and security systems, marketed enthusiastically by their proponents as being vital to public safety. The official rationale given for this ramp-up in policing and surveillance is that such a strategy will mitigate terrorism and radicalisation. Yet, a closer look at the nature of these issues suggests that such overhanded security policies will eventually backfire.

The new anti-terrorism legislation introduced last month in Canada by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is a case in point.  The “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” (or Bill C-51, as it’s now known) is the most sweeping set of laws proposed by a post-9/11 Canadian administration dealing with terrorism. It coincides with Canada’s involvement in the bombing campaign against the “Islamic State” (six Canadian fighter jets and two surveillance jets are flying out of Kuwaiti airbases), which has been buttressed by a consistent post-9/11 rhetoric of fear. One way this narrative manifests itself within domestic Canadian politics is through how the threat of radicalisation and home-grown terrorism are being addressed by the government.

Bill C-51 is just the latest example. The proposed bill will, among other things, further expand the powers and mandate of the country’s spying agency, CSIS, while also seeking to criminalise “any materials that promote or encourage acts of terrorism against Canadians in general, or the commission of a specific attack against Canadians”. These laws are being tabled at a time when Canada has already constructed an overweight security apparatus that lacks civilian oversight.

Yasin Dwyer, who worked as a Muslim chaplain with the Canadian Correctional Services for 12 years (and with several terrorism offenders) has noted that the security-heavy approach is tough on crime, but not on the causes of crime. It doesn’t emphasise the need to get to the root of these problems, which, in his opinion, has much less to do with religious belief than with personal grievances and frustrations. Instead, governments are building massive structures to regulate the symptom instead of treating the disease.

Canada is already part of the infamous “5-Eyes” surveillance alliance along with the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and has taken huge steps to enhance the powers of policing and intelligence agencies within its borders. A section of the Snowden archive shows, for example, that the Communications Security Establishment (CSE, formerly CSEC) has been monitoring millions of Internet downloads with a program code-named LEVITATION.

This is just one aspect of what is essentially Canada’s own global surveillance apparatus, which will continue to grow if Bill C-51 becomes law. Documents unearthed by security and legal scholar, Michael Geist, show that Canadian telecommunications companies are disturbingly compliant when talking to the federal government about having to install surveillance and interception systems within their networks, and to divulge user data to the state when asked. Moreover, watchdogs from both inside and outside of government have warned that Canada’s anti-terror laws are endangering basic civil liberties.

The animating idea behind anti-terrorism right now is that more policing/surveillance equals more opportunities to foil terrorism plots before they’re carried out. A window opened in Canada after what happened last October (and after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris) for many politicians in the West to return to a rhetoric of fear in order to climb up the polls. France has invested a large amount of resources into the country’s intelligence apparatus. Canada is doing the same thing. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest that radicalisation and the threat of terrorism is on the rise in Canada.

What’s being ignored is the huge pile of evidence against the idea that heavy state security equals a safer public. One of the more thorough studies was done by the New America Foundation, which looked at 225 plots within the US since 9/11 that ended in successful convictions, kills or otherwise. It concluded that only four out of the hundreds of cases had anything substantive to do with the NSA’s massive collection of private metadata. Moreover, studies from security and intelligence organisations such as the Soufan Group have emphasised that the most important way to mitigate radicalisation is to partner with grassroots groups that have a hand on the pulse of the community of interest.

Stephane Pressault, for example, is a Project Coordinator for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW) who has worked with a large number of youth throughout Canada. He notes that the process of radicalisation is only truly noticeable by those close to the affected, and that such people should be incorporated into the solution – that security officials should be liaising a lot more with community members who have a sincere interest in public safety.

It is the only recognised way to understand the specific dynamics at work behind the very individualised and multi-dimensional trajectory of radicalisation; it’s impossible to get a handle on if the state is purposefully or inadvertently antagonising such communities monolithically.

And yet this is what’s happening right now between Muslim communities across the Western world and the governments they live under. A direct, though implicit connection is made between foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East and the domestic strategy to mitigate home-grown terrorism. The political narrative underpinning both spheres of policy is one of externalising all evil onto a particular group. In this case, the values that animate Muslim communities living in North America and Europe are being perceived like the ideologies that underpin the “Islamic State.”

This kind of paranoia and antagonism will breed further paranoia and antagonism within these communities, because such a narrative plays right into the hands of Muslims extremists who also promote a “West versus Islam” worldview. It’s exactly this type of mentality that must be avoided, and yet many governments are pushing policies that will only enhance its appeal.

Photo credit: Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper/CC

[http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/utter-inefficacy-overbearing-security-laws-1302351023]

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