politics

The Canada Revenue Agency’s political inquisitions

Published by CBC News on April 16th, 2015

If a democratic system thrives on participation from a civil society free to express itself without state intervention, then Canadian democracy could use some help these days.

Citizens who band together into groups that push politicians to engage a problem should, in theory, be a vital aspect of democratic decision-making. Yet the Harper administration, in its infinite political wisdom, has devoted millions of taxpayer dollars via Canada Revenue Agency, formerly Revenue Canada, to, in effect, target groups that are critical of federal policies.

The CRA launched a series of 60 audits in 2012, and, tellingly, the targeted organizations all seem to espouse views that don’t fit so well with the Harper agenda.

Canadian NGOs with charitable status can devote up to 10 per cent of their resources to political activities, or risk losing their status as a charity under the law. Since 2012, $13 million has been earmarked by the Harper administration to audit organizations that, in the eyes of the CRA, may have devoted too much to political activities.

These ‘political-activity audits’ have primarily targeted environmental groups, human rights organizations, and labour-backed think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Meanwhile, more conservative-minded groups like the Manning Foundation or the Fraser Institute have not faced such aggression from the CRA. Many of them have also, like their leftist counterparts, participated in ‘political activities.’

“Right-wing” groups don’t get same attention

Though a CRA spokesperson will come out once in a while to proclaim that the executive branch has no influence over which groups the agency targets, right-wing civil society organizations have yet to receive much attention from the tax agency. Rather, the latest charity to be targeted in a significant way is the United Steelworkers’ Humanity Fund, a labour-backed organization that has supported food banks and disaster relief initiatives for over 30 years.

It has donated about two per cent of its annual revenue to the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), an umbrella organization that advocates for more accountability in the Canadian mining sector, among other things.

This support for the CNCA, an organization that hasn’t shied away from its political purposes, is apparently what the CRA is zeroing in on. The fund has often butted heads with the Harper administration over labour issues, and wants more oversight of Canadian mining practices abroad, which, according to its president Ken Neumann, is primarily why the CRA began auditing the group’s finances last year.

Such audits can certainly disrupt an organization’s day-to-day operations significantly, but this kind of trouble isn’t the main reason why these intrusions are bad for Canadian democracy in the long run. Targeted organizations that are forced to go through the lengthy auditing process can, whether the government intends it or not, become examples of what not to say or do in the Harper era.

Groups practice self-censorship

One can hardly blame other charities if they decide to interpret the current inquisitorial atmosphere as being politically motivated. This means that if they want to keep their charitable status, practicing a degree of self-censorship may end up being totally rational. This is an anti-democratic development almost by definition, and it hardly matters whether a particular agenda is behind it all, though the available evidence suggests that Revenue Canada’s choices aren’t exactly politically neutral.

Earlier this year, Dying with Dignity Canada lost its charitable status after being audited for about three years. It’s a non-profit that advocates for terminally ill patients to have a choice when it comes to euthanasia – not exactly a ‘pro-life’ stance according to contemporary political standards.

The CRA says that it made a mistake back in 1982 and 2011 when it confirmed charitable status for Dying with Dignity. It remains a mystery as to how more conservatively minded charities have managed to follow the rules so well as to not even attract the attention of the agency, which has certainly found a new kind of zeal for revoking charitable status.

Equally mysterious is why there hasn’t been more uproar when it comes to the government’s auditing targets. The list of charities being investigated and audited by the CRA looks increasingly like Stephen Harper’s enemy list. The numbers are so lopsided as to be almost comical, yet no significant amount of public scrutiny coalesced to call for a re-evaluation of the agency’s methods.

Photo: the Canada Revenue Agency headquarters in Ottawa./CC

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/the-canada-revenue-agency-s-political-inquisitions-1.3036361]

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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

Conservatives resort to McCarthyism as criticism of Bill C-51 escalates

Published on March 21st, 2015 by Ricochet Media

Those who pay attention to what politicians say are familiar with the ambiguous way many of them prefer to speak on certain issues. That might be why it’s almost refreshing to hear the unrestrained racism coming out of the Harper Conservatives these days, most of which is directed at Canada’s Muslim population.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has always been part of the Conservatives’ strategy to galvanize their political base, and they’ve recently taken it up a notch in anticipation of this year’s elections. The current administration also has a vested interested in demonizing Muslims since curbing “Islamic extremism” is cited as a top reason for Bill C-51 (the Anti-terrorism Act), perhaps the Conservatives’ worst national security proposal since 9/11.

Muslim groups speaking out against the bill and a large chorus of critics, including Canada’s Harper-appointed privacy commissioner, have been met with open slander that conjures up memories of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s.

When Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, gave expert testimony in Ottawa last week on C-51, he probably didn’t expect veteran Tory MP Diane Ablonczy of Calgary–Nose Hill to ask him to address “a continuing series of allegations” that the Council supports terrorism. But she did, by echoing a load of spurious allegations against the Council that originated last year from Harper’s spokesperson Jason MacDonald. Gardee pushed back, having to defend his group’s reputation at a hearing to which he was invited to speak on the bill. The Council is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Harper and MacDonald.

Yet the Conservatives seem to want to make a real habit out of this kind of politicking, and Muslims aren’t their only targets. Just ask Greenpeace Canada, whose executive director, Joanne Kerr, had to endure the followingquery from Conservative MP Lavar Payne. “The purpose of the act is sharing for national security threats, so it makes me wonder if your organization is a national security threat?” In other words, The bill is meant to stop terrorists, so are you opposing it because you’re a terrorist?

Payne’s questions ran out the clock on the allotted question-and-response time, leaving Kerr no time to answer. Even if she had responded, she would have had to take the time to address the insinuation that Greenpeace Canada opposes the bill because they’re a threat to national security. The BC Civil Liberties Association experienced a similar exchange with Tory MP Rick Norlock, who essentially asked the association’s senior counsel Carmen Cheung if her organization is “fundamentally opposed” to fighting terrorism, since Cheung had the gall to criticize the bill’s lack of checks and balances.

The skillful tagging of Bill C-51’s critics with unfounded and unfair accusations is the Harper Conservatives’ political bread and butter. It’s also the very definition of 21st-century McCarthyism, exercised in a way that deflects the conversation away from the matter at hand or plummeting public support for the bill. Tory MPs used the tactic to such an extent during last week’s hearings that opposition MP Megan Leslie of the NDP got up in Parliament last Friday to ask Ablonczy to apologize for her “disgraceful behaviour.” Of course, Leslie was promptly ignored.

It’s what Canadians should come to expect from the current administration, who have made it quite clear by now that political expediency trumps all else. Heading into last week’s expert testimony sessions, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney referred to those testifying against some of the bill’s provisions as “so-called experts.” These “so-called experts” just so happen to be joined in their opposition to C-51 by former officials of CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, whose powers will be expanded if the bill is passed. Also in opposition are four former prime ministers: Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin, and John Turner. All fear that the bill will open doors to abuse.

The most thorough analysis of the bill, conducted by University of Toronto scholar Kent Roach and his colleague Craig Forcese at the University of Ottawa, echo these concerns. The two have put together several backgroundersthat dissect the bill, concluding that many provisions are essentially anti-privacy and threaten to trample all over the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill will allow authorities to arrest people more easily, CSIS to morph into a secret police force (in the words of the Globe and Mail editorial board), and at least 17 federal agencies to share private citizen information with each other in unprecedented ways, all at a time when heavy-handed security laws have not been proven by anyone to prevent terrorism in a substantial way.

The Conservatives are rushing C-51 through the legislative process with little critical evaluation. Of course, this is by design. The bill’s proponents, including the Liberal Party, have already expanded a bloated security apparatus by passing bills C-13 and C-44, but C-51 may be the worst yet. The post-9/11 era has always been an era of fear — but it’s fear of overzealous governments that truly stands out.

Photo credit: Rally protesting Harper’s C-51 anti-terrorist legislation in Toronto, City Hall, March 14, 2015/CC

[https://ricochet.media/en/357/conservatives-resort-to-mccarthyism-as-criticism-of-bill-c-51-escalates]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Racism in Stephen Harper’s Canada

Published by Jacobin on December 18th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Stephen Harper/CC

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

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Fire with Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 
___

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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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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middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Fear and Mourning in Ottawa

Published by The Islamic Monthly on October 26th, 2014

What happened this Wednesday in Ottawa, Canada is, to quote FDR, “a date which will live in infamy.” The shootingson Parliament Hill and near the National War Memorial by lunatic Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is Canada’s most prominent episode of domestic terrorism since the FLQ Crisis of 1970. The Prime Minister was whisked into a broom closet as the gunman barged into Parliament with a double barrel .30-30 calibre Winchester rifle, and was eventually gunned down after dozens of shots were fired.

One person died, a reservist named Nathan Cirillo from Hamilton, Ontario whose guarding of the War Memorial was prompted by previous cases of vandalism. I wonder what the miscreant creeps are thinking now. Cirillo stood guard, in uniform, with a ceremonial weapon (that is, unloaded), and was gunned down before anyone could make out what was happening. A cartoon from Halifax’s The Chronicle Herald shows the fallen Cirillo, dead for doing his duty, being tended to by the veterans depicted in the War Memorial statues, who come to life for one of their own. I suggest you take a look.

Once the smoke clears, though, and Parliament has decided that it has shown enough crisis-induced cross-partisan solidarity, the hard questions will be asked. In fact, even as the “asking” and debating have yet to commence, Prime Minister Harper has announced that legislation to increase powers/resources for Canadian intelligence and law enforcement will be tabled in the coming days. Canada’s efforts to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria will probably be bolstered, and mass surveillance and policing will certainly be given more legal leeway in the coming months. All this points to the construction of a Canadian security state that is the response to a homegrown terrorist threat that has killed only a handful of people since 9/11—far less Canadians than, say, car crashes or peanut allergies.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadian Minister of Public Safety Steven Blaney from citingterrorism as Canada’s “leading threat.” Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), has put radicalization and homegrown terrorism near or at the top of its list of priorities for the past few years, as shown in its annual reports. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a 2011 interview with the CBC, has listed “Islamicism” as Canada’s top national security concern. If this is indeed the case, then Canada must have the best intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the Western world. Why, then, such hastiness to pass (speed up, even) laws to give such agencies increased power to police, interrogate, and survey?

If you ask those paying attention, the right wing administration of Stephen Harper, which has been in power enough years to make our Prime Minister one of the most consequential politicians in Canadian history, has presided over an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years. A 2013 Angus Reid poll shows that 54% of Canadians dislike Islam, excluding Quebec, where the rate is just under 70%. Anti-Muslim feeling is rising, and will probably continue to rise after what happened this week in Quebec (a Muslim convert ran over soldiers with his car) and in Ottawa. I’m also not naïve enough to think that the bolstered aspects of the Canadian security state aren’t aimed particularly (though not exclusively) at the Muslim community.

The former Canadian interim Privacy Commissioner revealed earlier this year that several anonymous government agencies have asked nine Canadian telecoms to give up private user data a total of 1.2 million times in 2011 alone. Nothing indicates that this kind of surveillance will simmer down, even as the current Commissioner is investigating RCMP practices. Combined with increased policing and likely infringement on individual, civil liberties, the state risks alienating the Muslim community, which should instead be a partner in the fight against extremism. In a secret study from CSIS that looks at the process of radicalization, it’s clear that the agency knows that individuals planning the next explosion in Canada reside outside of the purview of the mainstream Muslim community, its mosques, and places of gathering. If this reality is not included into the calculus of dealing with and the foiling of terrorism plots, then our response to terrorism will risk further alienation of a community that has the best chance of helping prevent some of its own members from radicalizing.

Much has also been made about how Western crimes/policies throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world cause radicalization. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a risk free foreign policy, especially if that policy is actively interventionist and jingoistic vis-a-vis a particular area of the world. Canada, since the Jean Chretien years, has played its part in the US-led “War on Terror,” which has been extended (and exacerbated, depending on who you ask) by President Obama, despite his renunciation of Bush-era terminology. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t all Muslim youth in the West who are angry at their governments buying up ammonium nitrate and guns to inflict harm on their respective polities?

The truth is that Western policies are a primer for the radicalization process. It provides the anger necessary for a “cognitive opening” to occur in an individual who, somewhere down the line, may or may not be exposed to radical rhetoric. If an individual who has been “primed” does encounter extremist discourse, then, depending on how impressionable that person is, such rhetoric may or may not be able to sway him/her into radical and violent responses. Certainly, a primed individual has a higher chance of being radicalized than someone who has channeled his/her anger in a nonviolent direction. This is a point made by noted American political scientist Robert Pape, who has led the University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) for years. The initiative has collected decade’s worth of data on suicide bombing, and has seriously influenced those who study Muslims and extremism for a living. The concept of the “cognitive opening” has also been used by Dalia Mogahed, who led Gallup’s 2011 effort tosurvey the Muslim world (after which she sat on an advisory panel reporting to President Obama).

Such nuanced discourse is not likely to make it into the Canadian debate on homegrown terrorism bound to unfold in the next few months. Harper seems bent on forwarding bulk legislation to bolster law enforcement in a way that allows the state to extend its security measures further into the public and private spheres. This, combined with anti-Muslim sentiment that has only risen in the past several years, will provide the Canadian Muslim community with serious challenges. The real question is what our community is going to do about it.

Which brings us back to the age-old question of how to lift our communities out of apathy. For a community that constantly talks so much about Palestine and Muslim victimhood, we’re awfully good at following up such fiery rhetoric with political ineptness.

So let this be a challenge to the Muslims in Canada.

We may have it pretty good here as compared to, say, Western Europe, but we’re wrong to think that we live on neutral ground. Canada hasn’t been politically neutral since even before 9/11 or the Toronto-18 incident, and will not be in the post-Ottawa shooting era. Muslims who come on Stephen Harper’s turf thinking that they can simply live here, assume political quiescence, and ignore their collective interests,have a fundamentally distorted view of how democratic societies work. In dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, you get what Big Brother thinks you deserve. In more fluid, democratic societies, you get what you have the leverage to negotiate for. The former is a game of navigating the politics of obedience; the latter is a matter of playing the game of public opinion. Because of our social and political passivity, our leverage right now is worth jack s**t.

Pushing the state to do what you know is in your community’s best interest is a part of democratic practice. If you don’t do it, then the machine won’t care what you want, and someone else will fill the gap you leave—usually someone who doesn’t like you and who would rather you be taken advantage of. Thank God we have leaders in the community who get this, and who have acted publicly, wrestling the permission to narrate away from centres of influence and into our own hands. This effort needs to be complimented and supported by a broad-based effort to weigh in on the upcoming debates on Canadian national security. If we falter and remain passive, then we do so at our own detriment.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/fear-and-mourning-in-ottawa/]

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics

Justin Trudeau and the Reality of Political Impotence

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 27th, 2014

When Justin Trudeau, the popular leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, entered Missisauga’s Verdi Hospitality Centre on the night of August 11th, several dozen protestors holding Palestinian flags had already gathered near the parking lot outside.

A tenuous ceasefire between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, seemed to halt, for the moment, Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, otherwise known as Operation Protective Edge. Over 1,800 Palestinians hadperished (among thousands injured) since the beginning of the operation, and Gaza continues to be subjected to an illegal Israeli blockade.

“We’re here to challenge and protest against Canada’s stance on the situation in Gaza,” said Raed Ayad, a protestor who also sits on the board of Palestine House, a local NGO representing the Palestinian-Canadian community.

Unfortunately for Trudeau, initial plans of celebrating Eid-al-fitr with the Muslims of Mississauga under more light-hearted circumstances had to change. Circumstances seemed to dictate a more politically charged event, and Trudeau was under some pressure to deliver.

Still, part of it was due to the Liberal Party’s own doing. About a week or so after Protective Edge took off last month, when dozens of Palestinian corpses (most of them civilians) were already piling up, Trudeau publicized his official view on the matter in a short press release:

The Liberal Party of Canada strongly condemns Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and its rocket attacks on civilians.

“Israel should be commended for having accepted the ceasefire proposal, and demonstrating its commitment to peace. The Liberal Party of Canada, and many in the international community including the United States, the U.N. Security Council, and the Palestinian Authority, had urged a ceasefire that could have ended the tragic civilian loss of life in Gaza and the suffering of Israelis under terrorist attack.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”

There is no mention of Israel’s disproportionate use of violence, or the unlawful siege. The fact that a massive raid into the West Bank, which killed five Palestinians, prompted the initial rocket fire by Hamas also went unspecified. The statement seemed to place the fault of the entire invasion squarely on the shoulders of Hamas, which refused to agree to a ceasefire at the time, given Israel’s unwillingness to lift the blockade (among other circumstances).

“Trudeau hasn’t condemned any of Israel’s war crimes and it’s a shame on the Muslim community to celebrate Eid with him when ten kids were killed on the day of Eid,” Ayad said.

It’s safe to say that, like Ayad, a large segment of the Muslim community wanted an explanation from Trudeau. One Liberal organizer even said, with regret (though in confidence), that he’d “rather have no statement been made at all” than live with the short blurb that Trudeau’s people posted on his website.

In other words, tension was in the air. Trudeau’s dinner was going to have to be more than just a generic meet-and-greet. At the very least, his speech had to address the situation in Gaza—and perhaps his one-sided statement as well, if people asked.

“We want a clear-cut condemnation of Israel’s conduct from the political opposition in Canada,” said Joan MacNeil, Toronto coordinator for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a Montreal-based NGO. “There’s been a lot of hand-wringing from the Liberals and all the candidates should know that people will be looking back on this issue when it’s time to vote next year.”

MacNeil was one of about 800 guests inside Verdi hall that night and works on Middle East policy for a living, so it can’t be said that she represents the average attendee, who probably isn’t as savvy on the Palestinian issue as she is.

Nonetheless, the average person observing the Muslim community could be forgiven for predicting that a crowd of concerned (perhaps even adversarial) Muslim attendees would show up to face down Trudeau and his hardcore supporters. The stage seemed set for a serious exchange to take place.

Trudeau is a central figure in Canadian politics at the moment, and, according to the polls, his party is gaining serious momentum in lieu of next year’s general election. If all goes wrong for the reigning Conservative Party (and for the New Democrats), the 42-year-old Trudeau may end up being Prime Minister in less than a year. This was a rare, golden opportunity for Muslims who attended the event to let him in on their woes and demands. Such a chance isn’t going to present itself again for some time.

That’s precisely why Trudeau’s night at Verdi deserves to be called a real embarrassment for the Muslim community.

To be completely clear, it wasn’t an embarrassment for Trudeau and the Liberals, who did what they had to do. They had put together a lavish setting, brought out a sizeable crowd, and set up an interactive encounter with “Justin.” Numerous Liberal candidates showed up, and, along with a general layout of the party’s agenda, were presented to the crowd.

The organizers even had Trudeau walk to each table to (in theory, anyway) speak to every attendee. But, alas, therein lay the rub.

Instead of taking the chance to field some tough questions, those in attendance transformed a relatively democratic setting into something quite comical.

Right after Trudeau’s speech, in which he specified the importance of a “Palestinian state” vis a vis Israel’s security, among other niceties, the audience decided to make a total fool of itself.

As Trudeau began to make his way to the first of many tables, a crowd of about two-dozen people instantly surrounded him. Many of them already had their smartphones on camera mode and were placing their faces next to Trudeau’s. That set the tone for all that followed. This human vortex around Trudeau soon grew into a mini mob. It eventually became impossible for anyone to try and penetrate these layers of human fencing around Trudeau, as this author tried to on three occasions, foolishly. When those who had had their fill finally took a seat, new well-wishers immediately rose up to take their place.

But, in keeping with the laws of physics, the number of people around Trudeau was inversely proportional to the length of each individual encounter. No prolonged question-answer period could have taken place amidst this truly chaotic spectacle. Anyone placed in the wrong spot at the wrong time could easily have been victimized between numerous tables and chairs. Even those sitting down and enjoying their meals weren’t safe from unguarded body parts doing battle for Trudeau “selfies;” buttocks were constantly hitting the heads of those trying to eat their food.

One lady shouted “Where’s the security?” as several bearded men almost got into it with one another as each jockeyed to shake Trudeau’s hand. Those responsible for the Liberal leader’s safety (and, presumably, the safety of everyone else), could only keep calm and mutter “don’t touch him” between elbows, body-checks, and other fanfare. In retrospect, how the night unfolded without half-a-dozen more fisticuffs/brawls is quite mysterious.

“It was unfortunate that many people didn’t remain in their seats as per the organizers instructions,” said Omar Alghabra, a former Liberal MP who’s running for the Mississauga Centre seat in next year’s election. “He [Trudeau] was supposed to visit all tables to engage in conversations with guests, but so many were impatient and didn’t allow others to have any form of meaningful conversations.”

And so it went on for several hours until Trudeau (Elvis?) shook his last hand and left the building. No doubt the entire event could be perceived as a giant commercial for the Liberal Party. Whatever lengthy, meaningful dialogue seemed to have taken place with other Liberal candidates and organizers after Trudeau left. As to the handful of folks who were lucky enough to get a word in with Trudeau himself, they were just that: a handful. It was a golden opportunity and, as far as the bulk of the attendees were concerned, the largely Muslim crowd let it slip through their fingers.

A serious democracy implies a public that’s genuinely interested in shaping public opinion and policy. This interest and awareness should, in theory, increase for whichever community if its people come to realize that they lack the ability to influence power and to improve their own interests.

The Muslims of Canada constitute one such community in the post-9/11 era. Those in power, including Trudeau, will only take the grievances and needs of certain groups seriously if prompted to do so. If Muslims trip over themselves to please politicians, they only guarantee their own political irrelevance.

Given what has happened to the Muslim community under Stephen Harper, in addition to the wreckage that is the Middle East, there’s no good reason why those who attended the dinner didn’t seize the opportunity to truly question Trudeau. Instead, their presence and conduct amounted to one of the more hilarious, and sad, showings of political servitude in recent memory.

This can’t be what the community needs. Muslims in Canada must place the worthiest of candidates in the seats of power, and to influence their political direction. There’s no way for that to happen if they don’t take their civic duties seriously.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/justin-trudeau-and-the-reality-of-political-impotence/]

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

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, By Graeme Smith: A Review

Published by Muftah.org on August 1st, 2014

It can be tough to wrap one’s head around the fact that the war in Afghanistan is the longest the United States has ever fought. Indeed, the conflict has lasted longer than World Wars I and II, longer than the Vietnam War, and longer even than the Iraq war. That thought itself begs the obvious question of “why,” or, to put it another way: “what were the invaders doing and what took them so long?”

Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now is a Canadian war memoir that examines this question from multiple angles. Smith was the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in southern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. He is a person who has lived in the country, been shot at, and had “the charred flesh of suicide bombers” stuck to his shoes. His memoir is a series of dispatches that details his findings and view of the mission there.

Although he admits to lacking the same in-depth experience throughout the whole of Afghanistan, Smith notes that the south “serves as a useful case study.” Indeed, it was in the South “where the war became most intense” and where the international coalition’s “policy most obviously went wrong.”

Smith’s book is not—and does not aim to be—a geopolitical analysis of what happened or may happen in Afghanistan (Smith notes that one cannot expect to form an accurate picture of Afghanistan by thinking “on the level of theory”). It is his hope the reader will come away with a more informed view of the conflict by the time he reaches the last page.

At the end of the book, Smith concludes that the international community should not exit Afghanistan hastily and without a sense of responsibility. With parts of the country unattended, “anarchy” or “civil war” may end up filling the vacuum. Whether or not one agrees with these final assessments, Smith’s brave reporting on a number of important issues stands on its own merits. His willingness to acknowledge his initial naiveté, contributes to an honest picture of Afghanistan’s current state, from his point of view.

An Evolving Understanding of Western Failures

Smith’s voice is weary, but sharp and collected. He started his correspondence for theGlobe as a 26-year-old with high hopes the West was going to bring “the whole basket of civilization” to Afghanistan, a country that desperately needed it. But Smith also starts his book by acknowledging the international coalition’s objectives were not reached, and that assumptions policy makers made about Afghan society seriously hindered efforts to remake the country.

By the time the “world’s great armies” had gathered in Southern Afghanistan, in the beginning of 2002, the Al-Qaeda camps had long disappeared and the Taliban were no longer in power. The mission evolved from chasing global jihadists to a much grander plan: to remake the country in the West’s image and to establish a peaceful, democratic state. It is quite obvious by now that the international community failed at this. Smith notes that no international force has ever managed to control all of Afghanistan without controlling the South’s biggest city: Kandahar. Coalition troops routed the Taliban in that region again and again (with Canadians often leading the way), but the fighting never seemed to reach a rational end-point.

As time went on, Smith began to recognize the deep flaws in the methodology adopted by Western forces. Major military operations against the southern insurgency failed to win hearts and minds. Coalition forces wanted to use the presence and threat of the Taliban to justify their own invasion. They wanted to recast themselves as fighters against the “real invaders:” the Taliban. After witnessing the Battle of Panjwai in 2006, an offensive that saw the Taliban routed once again by coalition troops, Smith realized the residents of Southern Afghanistan were a tough crowd when it came to the “Taliban vs. good foreigners” narrative.

Afghans were not always cooperative with the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF) efforts to root out the Taliban. In fact, Afghans with loose ties to the Taliban became the enemies of many Western troops on the ground. These Afghans joined the insurgency to repel what they thought was a foreign invasion led by international powers to control their country’s future.

An Out-of-Touch Approach

Smith notes how the Western mission in Afghanistan failed to predict how strong this anti-invasion sentiment would be. This “out-of-touch” attitude is itself one of the more revealing, if not startling, aspects of Smith’s observations, which call for a reassessment of NATO’s interventionist strategies. As Smith notes in the introduction, such self-reflection “is not likely to happen” because “NATO claims victory.”

The book includes a section detailing findings from discussions Smith and his Afghan researcher had with dozens of Afghan insurgents —an  endeavor which was made into an Emmy Award-winning video series called “Talking to the Taliban.” Because his Afghan researcher was able to conduct interviews in areas off-limits to foreigners, Smith is able to offer rare, first-hand insight into the worldview of Taliban insurgents. The 42 interviews also provide a good sense of the complexities beneath the official, often jingoistic, assertions coming out of NATO and its member states.

To begin with, it is quite obvious that, at least in Southern Afghanistan, ISAF has been dragged into a conflict that contains complex tribal dynamics, which it has yet to fully grasp and engage with effectively. Hamid Karzai and his weak administration are made up of a few tribes, which are exclusively responsible for governing the country. This has antagonized other tribes throughout Afghanistan. This kind of tribal rivalry has fueled the insurgency. The Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which includes Karzai’s Popalzai tribe, dominates the Afghan government. The insurgents surveyed were all ethnic Pashtuns who were part of tribes that inhabited the South. When it comes to building Afghanistan’s future, these tribes feel excluded by Karzai’s inner circle.

NATO’s use of airstrikes has further compounded the problem by causing “collateral damage” among the civilian population.  According to Human Rights Watch, in 2007, civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes “almost tripled” compared to 2006.

Smith also outlines another Western strategy that backfired:  the destruction of poppy fields in order to cut off funding to the Taliban. Again, Western forces found themselves caught up in a complex dynamic they did not appreciate quickly enough. The logic seemed simple: poppies fuel the opium trade, which is used to fund the insurgents. Fewer poppies must mean less insurgents. Unfortunately, the destruction of poppies also meant the eradication of many Afghanis’ livelihoods. In a country with a crippled economy and limited industry, growing poppies was a means of survival for many Afghan farmers. Angry farmers who had their soil destroyed by airstrikes, or who had their fields burned by foreign occupiers naturally saw the invaders in the worst possible light. This helped fuel the insurgency.

Smith provides superb (and brave) reporting on how corrupt and powerful Afghan officials have themselves been involved in drug trafficking. Near the end of the book, Smith recalls a memorable episode involving a drug trafficker caught by Afghanistan’s Counter-narcotics Police, who carried a letter of protection signed by Mohammed Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior responsible for counter-narcotics. Daud was Afghanistan’s most powerful anti-drug czar before being killed in 2011.

The Torture of Detainees

Among ISAF’s many errors, the detainee torture scandal has received perhaps the most attention. The hand over of prisoners by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security(NDS) resulted in detainees being systematically tortured.

Investigations into the matter, as well as information from whistle-blowing diplomats, seem to suggest CF knew torture was happening and refused to act. A subsequent investigation into the matter by the Military Police Complaints Commission concluded CF brass actively kept its investigators in the dark about the detainees’ situations. The watchdog noted that Canada’s Harper administration actively stonewalled its investigation, threatening the commission’s independence while insisting it ought to have final say over information disclosed to the public.

Leaving Afghanistan

Sadly, this gap between government policy and reality has remained consistent throughout the Afghan war. Smith hopes the international community will change course and find new ways to serve Afghans. Yet the mystery here is how, after fighting a prolonged war with such a stubbornly flawed mindset, the United States and the rest of NATO can find it within them to radically change course.

The United States and its allies want to exit Afghanistan without losing face. That means focusing on repeating successes while glossing over errors and failures. Though the West has been able to improve certain aspects of Afghan life, such as decreasing the rate of infant mortality, the country, known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” is a more violent place now than before the invasion.

Smith leaves his audience with more questions than solutions. But the points he raises are necessary to consider for policy makers and those who care about Afghanistan. Only by acknowledging failure can Afghanistan’s future be accurately assessed. Perhaps that is why the international community’s relationship with Afghanistan has been, and is likely to remain, a rather depressing one.

[http://muftah.org/book-review-dogs-eating-now-graeme-smith/]

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