international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

ISIS: Prime Minister Harper’s top political bogeyman of the day

Published by the CBC on April 7th, 2015

Canada is ready to extend its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) into Syria, carrying on a war that’ll cost about half-a-billion taxpayer dollars by early next year. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is following up on his promise that Canada won’t “stand on the sidelines” when it comes to the fight against Muslim extremism.

This kind of rhetoric has helped make ISIS into Canada’s top political bogeyman as the Tory administration insists on adopting tough security measures at home as Canadian Forces fight the bad guys abroad.

The public language in support of this two-front “war on terror” has given rise to a new kind of militarism in Canada. It’s characterized by a political rhetoric that galvanizes support for itself not only by pointing to a foreign enemy, but also by emphasizing the need to root out the enemy’s ideological supporters on Canadian soil.

This latter emphasis has, at the hands of the Tories, become a way to depict dissent against government policy as support for Muslim terrorism.

Support for terrorism

Take the debate around Bill C-51 (the “Anti-terrorism Act”), the Conservative’s proposal on how to fight domestic terrorism. The bill is making its way through the legislative process with limited debate and examination, despite containing provisions that will, according to a chorus of critics, forever change the landscape of Canadian national security. Its supporters emphasize the imminent nature of an ill-defined terrorism threat, keeping in mind that security issues will likely occupy the minds of voters in the upcoming fall election.

This process is now essentially an exploitation of the current climate of fear engendered primarily by images of ISIS’s bloody exploits, combined with memories of recent, high-profile incidents of violent extremism in cities like OttawaSydney, and Paris. It is a convergence of the foreign and domestic policy agendas in a way that casts “Muslim terror” as the enemy, often without bothering to differentiate between Islam’s peaceful followers and those who have been radicalized.

This monolithic representation is calculated to yield political results. A recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute shows that 44 per cent of participating Canadians hold a “negative” view of Muslims. This kind of public opinion should give confidence to those who want to use unsubstantiated accusations and assertions to malign Muslims for political gain.

No niqab

Harper’s hardline stance against allowing Muslim women to wear the face-veil (niqab) during citizenship ceremonies is just one case-in-point. Without acknowledging that the niqab isn’t even a universally accepted concept within Islam, the prime minister said in the House of Commons last month that the practice is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

He didn’t bother to clarify which culture he had in mind, leaving it up to the public imagination to decide what he was implying. Days later, Tory MP Larry Miller had to publicly apologize after he told women who wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from” on a radio show.

Still more ridiculous is Defence Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to use International Women’s Day to tweet what he claimed are photographs of women being led off in chains by ISIS.

It was later revealed that the photos had nothing to do with ISIS, and were actually depictions of Shia Muslims commemorating the death of the Prophet’s family in a ceremony.

 Muddying the Waters

This kind of political messaging and decision-making helps to confuse the already-unclear public representation of Canadian Muslims and their beliefs. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of confusion that allows those within the Muslim community who question the government’s security policies to be easily antagonized.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) got a taste of this during last month’s borderline-farcical parliamentary hearings on Bill C-51, when executive director Ihsaan Gardee had to reply to Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s question of whether his group supports terrorism.

Ablonczy was referring to an unsubstantiated rumour, but she succeeded in turning the nature and focus of the discussion away from Bill C-51’s more problematic provisions. Instead, Muslims like Gardee are forced to defend against a process that seeks to represent their community in a way that places them within the ideological orbit of groups like ISIS.

Political language that demonizes an entire segment of the domestic population is helping to reinforce the Tories’ pro-war rhetoric against ISIS, and vice-versa. These parallel narratives have increasingly given rise to the most recent form of Canadian militarism, a jingoistic aggression that uses racial bullying at home to bolster support for questionable foreign interventions.

Photo credit: The niqab has become a political wedge issue in Canada/CC

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/isis-prime-minister-harper-s-top-political-bogeyman-of-the-day-1.3023753]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Definitions of Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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