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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muslims, politics, war on terror

Harper’s new ‘anti-terror’ laws threaten basic freedoms

Published by Ricochet on January 27th, 2015

As Parliament resumes this week, the Conservative government will be introducing yet another set of anti-terrorism provisions.

The CBC has learned from federal sources that the legislation will “provide national security agencies with explicit authority to obtain and share information that is now subject to privacy limits.” These are the laws being prepared by Public Safety Canada.

The laws were in the works even prior to last October’s shooting at Parliament. After that infamous day in Ottawa, preceded days earlier by an incident in Quebec, the Harper government emphasized the case for Bill C-44 (“Protection of Canada from Terrorists’ Act”), aimed at expanding CSIS’s mandate globally, among other things.

Then, just last month, Bill C-13 — otherwise known as the “Cyberbullying Bill” — received royal assent. Other than a few provisions addressing the issue in its name, Bill C-13 is mostly designed to give law enforcement more investigative powers. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, along with a host of civil liberty groups, have criticized these new pro-security developments. There’s not enough oversight to “watch the watchers,” so to speak.

The Harper administration hasn’t responded with much substance to these warnings. The House of Commons Public Safety and National Security committee has given Bill C-44 a few hours of consideration, and Therrien hasn’t been asked to testify in regards to the bill’s shortcomings.

The advent of online technology and the post-9/11 culture of fear have mixed to create a truly frightening global security apparatus with the power to eliminate much of human privacy. Surveillance has become a centerpiece of the “War on Terror,” which has killed far more civilians than “Islamic terrorists.” The West’s counterproductive post-9/11 policies continue to act as a recruiting tool for Muslim extremists around the world.

Canada, a part of the “5-Eyes” international security and intelligence alliance, seems to be going through a period of security and surveillance enhancements that, according to numerous watchdogs, lack overall accountability. It’s within this kind of climate that the Harper administration is tabling and passing more and more pro-security laws before the next federal election — all without extensive debate.

These companies, amazingly, have told the government that actual legislation isn’t really needed to compel them to add surveillance or interception systems for the monitoring of private users.

This kind of atmosphere isn’t just affecting the state itself, but also private telecommunication companies that Canadians use on a daily basis. The issue of lawful access to private communication metadata by state authorities is a hugely important topic that should be discussed thoroughly, given that it affects the very fabric of a democratic society. Yet it took an Access to Information and Privacy request from Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa, to show that the government has been trying to figure out a way to have telecoms install interception and surveillance apparatuses into their systems.

When former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled Bill C-30, or the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” in early 2012, public outrage at its provisions caused the government to eventually withdraw the bill in February 2013. One highly criticized component of the dead bill was the mandating of Canadian service providers or telecom companies to install total surveillance systems and report their findings to the state when asked. A memo obtained by Geist shows that despite the bill’s failure to become law, the government is still talking to telecoms about installing interception systems to collect user communication, which would be disclosed to state authorities, who will be able to lawfully access such information without warrants.

Yet perhaps the most telling component of the document obtained by Geist is the telecom companies’ apparent nonchalance when it comes to the privacy of their clients. The memo notes that these companies, amazingly, have told the government that actual legislation isn’t really needed to compel them to add surveillance or interception systems for the monitoring of private users. That’s because, according to the memo, prepared for Public Safety Canada, “the telecommunications market will soon shift to a point where interception capability will simply become a standard component of available equipment, and that technical changes in the way communications actually travel on communications networks will make it even easier to intercept communications.”

In other words, don’t bother passing those laws because, soon enough, all ISPs will be procuring surveillance and interception systems from manufacturers by default. It’s hard not to be at least a bit shocked by how overly compliant these companies are when it comes to such matters. There’s been a substantial amount of publicity given to the fact that tech giants like Google and Facebook are giving their customers more encryption options in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks — much to the displeasure of government “spy masters.” Yet, on the flip side, Canadian telecom companies are basically telling the government that in the future they’ll be working to make state surveillance much easier. Despite all the work done by brave whistleblowers around the world (of various political stripes), it’s still apparently easier to base politics on fear rather than on courage.

It’s easier to relegate these security and privacy developments into a mental corner and treat such matters as purely technical than to situate them in their broader, “War on Terror” context. These are not just cold, meaningless developments in technology that occur outside the world of human interaction. A state apparatus that can pry into the lives of its atomized citizenry is indicative of totalitarian tendencies, threatening not just the quality of democratic practice, but, given the proliferation and importance of electronic communication, liberty itself.

It’s within this overall context that mass spying and policing powers will be expanded in Canada, in addition to many other countries, who have also, subsequent to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, fallen prey to the politics of fear.

Canadian telecom companies received a huge number of requests — about 1.2 million in 2011 alone — from federal agencies for private user information. There are no signs that such a pattern of surveillance will reduce itself over the coming years. It’s now in the hands of civil society to build off of the work done by whistle-blowers and to sway public opinion in favour of privacy, liberty, and freedom.

Photo Credit: Surveillance camera/CC

[https://ricochet.media/en/313/harpers-new-anti-terror-laws-threaten-basic-freedoms]

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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/]

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