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. 
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Surveillance, Fear, and the State

My new op-ed (“Canada’s Islamophobia Problem”), published by Canada’s crowd-funded, independent outlet, Ricochet, takes issue with the Harper administration’s security rhetoric and proposed legislation after the Ottawa Shooting in October. It reads, in part:

‘The bulk of the announced security measures have yet to be introduced, but critics inside and outside of government have stated that Canada’s present laws are more than enough to do the job. Though many Conservatives love to say that Muslim terrorism and radicalization poses the greatest threat to Canadians, the number of people killed in Canada by such attacks has been small since 9/11. In other words, if “Islamicism” is indeed this country’s top concern, then our security apparatus must be pretty darn good; there’s no reason to “bolster” what already works then. Moreover, reports from North Carolina’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security show that homegrown terrorism remains minimal. So, if anything, a restriction of invasive security tactics should follow, but that isn’t about to happen any time soon.’

No doubt the administration will exploit the moment in order to boost its poll numbers, first by pushing through security-heavy laws while they still have a Parliamentary majority, secondly by antagonizing minority interests/communities that lack the resources to fight back. This isn’t just exclusive to Muslim Canadians, who are under-organized and misrepresented. Numeorus progressive NGOs have been under intense scrutiny by the CRA (as Gerald Caplan pointed out in an op-ed at the Globe), while politically active, but conservative think tanks have been left alone.

Canada’s surveillance regime is going to receive a boost from the Conservatives at a time when homegrown terrorism has killed less people after 9/11 than drunk driving and other, more prosaic dangers. But the West, led by the United States, is engaged in a pro-surveillance era that’s lasted for over a decade. Much of which remains in the dark despite best efforts from whistleblowers, journalists and activists.

The Wall Street Journal just revealed that US Marshals have a fleet of planes at their disposal that carry “dirtboxes,” devices that mimic cellphone towers, in order to eavesdrop on people’s cellphone conversations. The same devices, according to documents unearthed by the ACLU’s Dave Maass, are used along the US border with Mexico. The LAPD have apparently also gotten in on the act. Of course, this is all just the latest episode in a long-running melodrama that overplays the important of surveillance in the protection of civilians from domestic/foreign terrorists.

There’s no reason to think that Canada, under this government, won’t also go down that path. It’s going to be tough to peel back legislation, passed omnibus-style and with no debate, that gives spies and police more power–another reason why Harper and his boys/girls are profoundly anti-democratic.

 

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middle east, muslims, politics

Canada’s foreign policy: Business before human rights

Published on March 18th, 2014 by Al Jazeera English

The latest arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia exposes the ideological hypocrisy that underpins the Canadian Conservative Party’s present foreign and trade policy.

The Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems (a subsidiary of the Virginia-based aerospace and defence company, General Dynamics) outbid Germany and France to win a US$10m deal to export military hardware to Saudi Arabia, with a poor human rights record.

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The deal is the largest of its kind in Canadian history, and was announced by Trade Minister Ed Fast this past February. Fast portrayed the deal as a triumph of effective diplomacy that will generate thousands of jobs for Canadians. The agreement is also meant to fulfil Canada’s “Global Markets Action Plan,” which aims to extract commercial and economic benefits from Canada’s international relationships. Concerns with respect to Saudi Arabia’s human rights have largely gone unaddressed by Canadian Tory officials.

Toronto Star editorial from February notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government “rarely shrinks from bemoaning the state of the world”. This is especially accurate with regards to the administration’s stances vis-a-vis the Middle East. Yet when it comes to doing business, Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird, among others, have time and time again demonstrated a willingness to suspend their artificial affinity to principle.

Money comes first

As Canadian writer and journalist Derrick O’Keefe notes, for all the Conservatives’ talk about free market ideology, “the Saudi deal confirms that the Conservatives […] do believe in industrial strategy and government intervention in the economy – at least when military hardware and arms, or bitumen, are involved.”

Both the Canadians and the Saudis refuse to reveal the specifics of the deal, but GLDS is famous for manufacturing the LAV III armoured vehicles used by Canada in Afghanistan, as well as the Stryker armoured vehicles used by the United States. US$10m can buy hundreds of such vehicles.

The deal was announced shortly after Postmedia News, a prominent Canadian wire service, reported that the Tories have planned to help the Canadian arms industry through “hard times” by looking for more international buyers of Canadian military equipment.

It’s long been revealed that Saudi Arabia’s forces have previously used military hardware from General Dynamics to crush dissent in the Gulf region. In March 2011, Saudi forces rolled into Bahrain with armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics to help suppress a growing protest movement. Inspired by the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the mostly peaceful protests were violently crushed.

The Harper government didn’t say much, and maintained its silence even when it was revealed that a Canadian citizen, Naser al-Raas, was tortured for over 30 days for taking part in the protests. Raas was finally assisted by Canadian consular services and released, but still seeks justice for the inhumane treatment he received.

When FM Baird visited Bahrain around two years later in April 2013, he made sure not to publically denounce what happened in 2011. So for all of the Harper regime’s rhetoric on its clear and principled stance regarding international human rights, the record shows that for Canada, business and money come first.

The exercise of silence

Of course, the Harper administration’s human rights hypocrisy doesn’t start or end with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Similar to Human Rights Watch’s recent (though in keeping with a long and unfortunate tradition) denunciation of Saudi Arabia in its 2014 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has reportedEgypt as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to report from/in.

A military regime, the current Egyptian government has essentially put freedom of the press on trial. The primary manifestation of this chilling development is the arrest and detention of 20 Al Jazeera journalists who have been branded enemies of the Egyptian state. According to state prosecutors, the journalistsattempted “to weaken the state’s status, harming the national interest of the country, disturbing public security, instilling fear among the people, causing damage to the public interest.”

Among the detained and charged is Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, who, along with his colleagues, was captured late last December. Since then, he has suffered through solitary confinement and was only recently dumped into a lower security prison. Of course, Fahmy and his colleagues have pleaded not guilty to the Egyptian state’s charges.

So what does Harper and his party colleagues have to say about all this? On his first trip to Israel, Harper congratulated Egypt’s “return to stability” under the auspices of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has become de facto ruler of Egypt.

Editorials and op-eds from across the political spectrum in Canada have called for more action on the part of Harper’s government. The Australian government has advocated for the release of its citizen, Peter Greste (though some saynot enough), also an Al Jazeera journalist. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for the “prompt release” of all those captured.

Even President Barack Obama has put out a statementcondemning Egypt’s abysmal devolution into journalist purgatory. And yet, so far, the Harper administration has shown itself capable only of mere platitudes regarding “consular services.”

Lecturing the world

It’s important to note, then, that just like every other governing political party or administration, Harper and his Conservatives operate with an ideological agenda in mind when it comes to foreign policy. This means that their selective condemnation of human rights abuses around the world is done on a strategic basis (or so they seem to think).

Sure, Baird had no problem condemning the blasts that killed four people in Beirut this past January. Harper also had no trouble expressing his disapproval of the bombings in Iraq that killed 37 people last Christmas. All this is well and good, but observers inside and outside of Canada would do well to treat the Harper administration’s self-proclaimed commitment to clear-cut and “principled foreign policy” with a substantial dose of scepticism.

There’s truly no shortage of speechifying by high-level Tory officials when it comes to proclaiming how principled the Conservative administration is with regards to human rights issues. Baird has, by now, lectured the rest of the world on the matter several times.

But his speeches, in front of the United Nations to “defend” the state of Israel, provide the best window for those who care to look, beyond the rhetoric, at Canada’s true stance on human rights.

It’s not a secret that numerous human rights organisations have condemned Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, both inside and outside of Israel. But for reasons of ideology and politics, Harper and his Conservatives, much like those who came before them, don’t really care.

 

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Canada’s Muslims: From detoxing radicalisation to citizenship

Published on Al Jazeera English on February 3rd, 2014
[http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/canada-muslimsfrom-detoxing-radi-20141309549990632.html]

On January 14, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) issued an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The letter urges the prime minister to disinvite Rabbi Daniel Korobkin as a member of the delegation accompanying him on his first trip to Israel.

NCCM’s Executive Director Ihsaan Ghardee pointed out that Korobkin introduced and praised Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer last September at a lecture sponsored by the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Both Geller and Spencer are part of Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA), a hate-group according to the Anti Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response to NCCM, the Harper’s Director of Communications Jason MacDdonald recently brushed aside the group’s recommendation with the following statement made on behalf of the Prime Minister’s Office: “We will not take seriously criticism from an organisation with documented ties to a terrorist organisation such as Hamas.”

NCCM is now suing Harper for libel.

This exchange is just the latest episode in a battle that Canadian Muslims have fought since 9/11 – the battle to shape Canadian public opinion on issues related to Muslims and Islam.

The public opinion of fear

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 has induced an urge among many people in the West to ask questions about the ethical beliefs of Muslims. This urgent curiosity has created a vacuum within Western nations, waiting to be filled with answers. Canada is one such society, and Canadian Muslims have a vested interest in answering these questions correctly. Groups like NCCM have tried to ensure that the right answers fill these vacuums.

Unfortunately, it can be argued that the loudest and most prominent answers in Canada have not come from individuals or groups that represent the bulk of Canadian Muslims. This, according to numerous polls, has resulted in widespread Islamophobia.

Statistics Canada estimated in 2011 that around a million Muslims live within Canadian borders. The Muslim community’s relative youth, and therefore lack of cohesion, make it difficult, from a media and public relations standpoint, to project their voice – especially with regard to issues like terrorism, perhaps the biggest hot-button issue, post-9/11. After all, there are many other voices to contend with.

A primary example of this predicament is manifested by the Canadian public’s reaction to the so-called phenomena of radicalisation – the rather vague process through which well-functioning individuals become violent extremists. One incident aptly illustrates this kind of perception.

In 2006, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested 18 individuals in Mississauga, Ontario who were suspected of plotting bomb attacks on Parliament Hill and downtown Toronto. Only a handful ended up being convicted and imprisoned.

Subsequent to this event, a narrative of radicalisation and fear was strengthened in Canada, and continues to impact the Muslim community today. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) actual expenditures for fiscal year 2005-2006 was $356 million, which was $71 million more than the previous years. Prior to that, increases in CSIS’s budget since 9/11 hovered around $10 million.

One interesting piece of evidence of this prevailing narrative can be found in the rather short-lived fame of certain “de-radicalisation” or “detox” centres set up in the GTA since the 2006 arrests. Groups like the Al Sunnah Foundation offer to “detoxify” Muslims who are exhibiting signs of extremism. A 12-step “theological detoxification” programme is then applied to wash away the patients’ deadly ideologies.

Exactly what these signs of “radicalisation” are is still anyone’s guess, and the Al Sunnah Foundation, led by Ahmed Amiruddin, along with other like-minded groups have failed to secure government funding. Nevertheless, Amiruddin and figures like him, knowingly or unknowingly, have gained media attention and notoriety for their work, and have, in some ways, become unofficial spokespersons for the community.

Their talk of “deradicalisation”, along with Canadian law enforcement’s magnified focus on catching radicalised Muslims, have dominated the public sphere’s concerns about the Muslim community. The reality is that such a representation of Muslims in Canada is mediated by fear and bears little resemblance to reality.

Actual radicalisation occurs at a miniscule level within the community, and though an important concern, still poses a relatively small threat to the wider society. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted last year that there is no “mass phenomenon” of radicalisation in Canada.

Meanwhile, a truly representative voice within the Muslim community remains absent, and the public narrative about them continue to be influenced by those on the outside.

Omar Khadr and his fellow Canadians

Perhaps the most illustrative example of Canadian Muslims’ failure to shape public opinion is the tragic case of Omar Khadr.

Rightly described by Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire (one of the few Canadian voices to advocate for Khadr) as “the only child soldier prosecuted for war crimes”, Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was only 15 when he killed US combat medic Sgt First Class Christopher Speer with a grenade in 2002. He was then captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay almost immediately, and would have remained there indefinitely had he not signed a plea deal in 2010 that saw him plead guilty to five war crimes. He was eventually repatriatedback to Canada in September 2012, where he serves the rest of his sentence.

A nation-wide survey conducted in 2012 by Abacus Data, a polling and market research firm based in Ottawa, showed that 53 percent of Canadians saw Khadr as a security threat and shouldn’t be allowed back in Canada.

A large section of Canadian society viewed Khadr and his family as the worst example of Muslim extremism in the post-9/11 era, and chose to overlook the fact that by any standard, Khadr should be seen as a child soldier. In fact, Canada played a leading role in developing the international Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child in the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which came into effect in 2002.

It is important to note that this public relations debacle exists today partly because of the Muslim community’s own inaction. For instance, one of the few Canadian civil society groups that regularly advocated on behalf of Khadr was the Coalition for the Repatriation of Omar Khadr, a broad-based effort made up of mostly non-Muslim individuals.

Many Muslim activists were involved, but the bulk of Canadian Muslim community failed to project a loud enough voice with regard to this issue. Further evidence of this can be seen in the frustration from Khadr’s crusading Canadian lawyer at the time, Dennis Edney. “I have never met someone like Omar who has been so abused and so abandoned by those who should know better,” said Edney in a 2008 lecture held at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. “I keep looking for that Muslim voice, I’m tired of Muslims hiding.”

In the end, the repatriation of Omar Khadr was a result of the plea bargain Khadr took, combined with sustained international condemnation by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as limited domestic Canadian pressure.

A future of fear

The great Muslim Canadian public relations debacle has not gotten better in the era of Stephen Harper and his right-wing Conservative Party who rule the House of Commons.

As long as the Canadian Muslim community fails to influence and shape public opinion on the defining issues of the post-9/11 age, the narrative of fear and suspicion will continue to dominate their relationship with the rest of Canada.

Politicians like those from the Parti Quebecois (FR) will continue to exploit this climate by using the politics of fear, best exemplified by the Parti’s proposed “Quebec Charter of Values” bill, which seeks to forbid government employees from donning religious garb while working.

Groups like NCCM are trying to change the tide, but if larger organisations like the Islamic Society of North America-Canada (ISNA-Canada) don’t follow suit, the vast majority of Canadians will continue to ignore the problem.

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middle east, politics

On Robert Fisk

Published on: Embassy Magazine, January 24th, 2013
[http://www.embassynews.ca/opinion/2013/01/24/foreign-correspondent-fisk-talks-harpers-foreign-policy-and-the-arab-awakening/43154]

Veteran British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk criticized the Harper government’s policy on the Middle East at a public lecture Jan. 22 in Ottawa.

“I regard Mr. Harper as your personal problem, not mine,” said Fisk, who spoke to a packed auditorium of about 500 people at Carleton University. He was in Ottawa as part of a Canadian lecture tour hosted by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Having spent more than 30 years covering the Middle East for The Times and The Independent newspapers of Britain, Fisk’s knowledge of the region commands respect. Although many across the political spectrum may take issue with some of his political views, few doubt the breadth of Fisk’s experience.

This, of course, makes his harsh words toward the Harper government even more powerful. Aside from characterizing the current government’s approach to foreign policy as something “straight out of the Bible,” Fisk also pointed out that the Canadian government lacks imagination and vision when it comes to the Middle East.

“You will find that Western nations in general, their leadership, continue to follow Washington,” he said, “and as long as Washington does whatever Israel wants, which it largely does, there isn’t going to be any change.”

Fisk was of course alluding to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, a problem that continues to plague the region, driving many of the afflicted toward anger and violence. To Fisk, this is the tragic, but prevalent nature of the relationship between the Western world and what it knows as the Middle East.

“The problem is that most of the dictatorships over the years in the region have been supported by us democrats,” he said. Because of this, when Western politicians like George Bush or even Barack Obama speak of “freedom” and “liberation,” the Arabs of Iraq and Palestine, among other places, have a very different perception of those terms than the rest of us.

Their vision of the “West” is an entity that delivers its form of “democracy,” no matter how principled and cogent in theory, through bullets and bombs. For Fisk, it is a bloody way to illustrate what is to him, and many others, an elemental truism: any form of democratic governance in the Arab world must arise indigenously.

The Arab Awakening

So among a largely tragic and self-admittedly “pessimistic” interpretation of events in the Middle East, Fisk views the Arab Awakening (his preferred term) as a “positive development.”

“The term Arab Awakening was the title of George Antonius’ great 1938 book,” Fisk said.

He pointed out that the book was written at a time when Palestine was crumbling out of Arab hands, largely thanks to British policy, or, as Fisk would have it, “British deception.” Britain’s inability to deliver on the promise of Arab sovereignty in return for Arab opposition to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century reminds one that current trends in the Middle East are not without historical precedence.

Fisk noted that the Arab Awakening has less to do with technology and social media than anger and education.

“When I went to Egypt in the past three or four years, as I often have done over the past 36 years, I find a population that knows more about the outside world,” he said. “Not just through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, but because they’ve travelled.”

Fisk also said that the conditions of higher education in places like Egypt, even under dictatorship, improved drastically. This, combined with a better sense of the outside world, he noted, created an inevitable cosmopolitanism that made it easier for those in the Arab world to have a collective vision. In other words, they began to realize that things did not have to be the way they were.

Though current developments in Egypt, Syria, and other post-revolt nations have not been encouraging, the relatively cynical Fisk said that Arabs still see the Arab Awakening as a generally happy signal. He’s not the only one with this mindset. But for someone who has witnessed large-scale carnage, from the Lebanese civil war to present-day Syria, hope for a brighter future is not easy to come by.

“I lost my crystal ball a long time ago,” he lamented.

Fisk’s criticisms of the Syrian opposition have drawn anger from those who would otherwise agree with him on most other things. He has been quick to stress the “jihadi” elements in the Syrian opposition, along with its chronic corruption and use of violence, while also pointing out that Bashar al-Assad may not fall as inevitably as most would expect. His writings on the matter have elicited accusations that he has fallen for the “conspiracy theories” promoted by pro-Assad circles: a charge that Fisk flatly denies.

Having been in Hama during Hafez al-Assad’s great bloodletting in February 1982, no one can deny that Fisk knows what the tyrannical dynasty of Syria is capable of. But in typical Fisk fashion, he reminded the audience that while Western powers support the at least partially “jihadi” opposition in Syria, France is leading an offensive against similar groups in Mali.

If nothing else, one can draw from Fisk’s vast experience and knowledge the tiring (but worthwhile) reminder that foreign policy has always had more to do with circumstance and convenience than with conviction.

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politics

Justin Trudeau, Palestine and the politics of right-wing smear campaigns

Published on: Rabble.ca, January 7th, 2012
[http://rabble.ca/news/2013/01/justin-trudeau-islamophobia-and-politics-right-wing-smear-campaigns]

Much was made last month about Justin Trudeau’s keynote appearance at one of North America’s largest Muslim conferences. The conference has been accused mostly by sectors of the Canadian right-wing of being an “Islamist” venture.

The Toronto-based Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference ended up accepting the withdrawal of one of its major sponsors, the International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy Canada (IRFAN Canada), because the Canadian Revenue Agency concluded last April that the Mississauga-based organization funded “Hamas-linked” groups. IRFAN then had its charitable status stripped. The CRA’s allegations and conclusions are being challenged in court.

Of course, this is not the first time a bureaucracy under the Harper regime has sought to cripple an organization concerned with Palestinian human rights. The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) and the ecumenical group KAIROS have all had parts of their operations hollowed out because of a willingness to highlight Palestinian suffering.

It’s all part of the Harper administration’s larger strategic plan to bring Canadian policy, both foreign and domestic, in sync with its Messianic and insular worldview, especially when it comes to the Middle East. But Muslims and Palestinians are not the only ones affected by this sprawling political arrangement.

Over 400 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is in the fourth week of her defiant hunger strike. She’s protesting the Harper administration’s approach to ‘dealing with’ the worsening conditions on her reserve, and the concerted attack by the government on First Nations sovereignty, as embodied in official legislation (especially the omnibus Bill C-45).

Chief Spence’s protest can certainly be seen as a flashpoint within the broader Idle No More movement, perhaps one of the most promising and exciting national grassroots initiatives in the past ten years.

Indeed, the contemptuous attitude that the Harper administration displays toward the disenfranchised and underprivileged sectors of Canadian society has elicited much grassroots response from Canadian civil society. Idle No More can be seen as a major component of a series of grassroots reactions to the reactionary orientation of the Harper regime (from its handling of the G8/G20 protests to its slashing of refugee medical care).

One of the ways the government has struck back is by withdrawing federal money from NGOs that they don’t see eye-to-eye with. Groups that don’t receive large amounts of federal funding, like IRFAN Canada, are then put through the great smear machine of the Canadian right-wing, an informal but still somewhat coherent group of personalities.

Allegations that IRFAN Canada funded organizations under the control of Hamas are tenuous at best, especially when one looks closely at the Agency’s own documentation on the matter. The Harper government, of course, has trouble tagging what Israel does to the Gaza Strip with the same “terrorist” moniker they so enthusiastically give to Hamas.

Furthermore, the CRA’s actual proof for linking IRFAN Canada with Hamas is a case of very tenuous guilt-by-association. Of the 15 groups the humanitarian organization has given money to, each was designated as “terrorist” because (1) Israel finds it to be “unlawful,” (2) because it has personnel involved with Hamas as legislators, (3) because it’s a Hamas-governed bureaucracy, (4) because it publically “supports families of martyrs, resisters, and detainees” in the Territories, or (5) because it posted pro-Hamas videos online.

That’s the crux of the Agency’s beef with IRFAN Canada. Reasonable people can arrive at their own conclusions of whether these are good enough reasons to hollow out an organization that sponsors orphans in the embattled Gaza Strip, which has been under anillegal Israeli blockade since 2007.

Commentators like Tarek Fatah of Sun Media and others, viewed with a substantial dose of skepticism (if not downright contempt) by the larger Muslim community, have been largely successful in determining the borders of public debate when it come to issues concerning Muslim and Palestinian Canadians.

Almost the exact same script was followed when Citizenship and Immigration Canada, led by Jason Kenney, defunded CAF. Kenney’s main charge was CAF’s “anti-Semitism,” apparently a result of its willingness to point out the same Israeli crimes documented by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. KAIROS was no different, and involved former Minister of International Co-operations Bev Oda’s decision to “veto” the collective opinion of her entire bureaucracy to fund the ecumenical group.

One can say what one wants about the intellectual integrity of the anti-Muslim right-wing, but the fact that they have a substantial amount financial and infrastructural support for their “work” (shoddy as it may be) is unquestionable. Post-9/11, their agenda and ideological convictions have meshed well with the Harper worldview. Many Canadians have felt their venom, including the Muslim and Indigenous populations, whose public images are currently shaped in many ways by the myths and stereotypes perpetuated by the right.

At times, it’s better to ignore the smear tactics in order to move on. However, it’s important to recognize the extent of the disruption caused by the Canadian right. Time and again, they’ve shown their ability to smear serious organizations doing good work.

Given this reality, Canadian Palestinians and Muslims could use their own Idle No More moment.

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