Canada Calling – Toronto Arrests Spark Debate About Muslim Extremism
By Faisal Kutty
THE JUNE 2 ARRESTS in Toronto of 17 men and youths on terrorism charges has ignited a series of debates and placed Canada’s growing Muslim community under a microscope. How this plays out in the coming months and years will depend on how the Muslim community, government agencies, the media and Canadians at large perceive the issues and move forward.
Clearly, if mainstream Muslims are not seen to be (and actually are not) part of the team working on a solution, then their alienation will only add to the problem.
The police claim the citywide raids disrupted a major terrorist plot, and the media essentially did their bidding. Suspending its critical and investigative role, it proceeded to try and convict the suspects before even a single one of them appeared for a bail hearing. In fact, some members of the press went further and, reverting to guilt by association, convicted their families and the Muslim community as a whole.
Agenda-driven armchair pundits and self-proclaimed “moderate” Muslims quickly joined the fray, blaming Canadian immigration policies and multiculturalism for incubating this “homegrown” threat. Some have taken it even further by reinforcing baseless assertions such as the claim that extremism is rampant in the Muslim community. Those raising alarms about extremism have failed to define it, however. Instead they have effectively pinned the blame on the Muslim leadership and mainstream Muslim community—apparently forgetting that rebels are not known for following mainstream views or leaders.
Canada’s 750,000-strong Muslim community finds itself in the unenviable position of having to take responsibility for the alleged actions (if proved) of what is essentially a criminal fringe. But as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is reported to have said during a meeting with community leaders, “extremism is not a crime in Canada.” Indeed, even if these individuals are guilty, no one should be able to demand that the community take responsibility for the actions of a criminal fringe. No other community is put in this position. The Italian community is not asked to condemn the actions of the Mafia, nor was the Irish community asked to apologize for the actions of the Irish Republican Army—and rightly so. Muslims cannot and do not ask mainstream Canadian society to take responsibility for the actions of the criminals who vandalized mosques, threatened an imam with a knife or for the dozens of companies that are alleged to have discriminated against Muslim employees in the wake of the Toronto arrests.
Some “moderate” Muslims, Zionists and extreme right-wing activists claim that 80 percent of the mosques in Canada are run by extremists (read, “terrorists”). People appear to lose sight of the fact that these are simply unproven allegations. The accusers should be asked to make public their research methodology and sampling used to draw this conclusion. There is clearly no evidence to suggest that the Muslim community is full of youth waiting to blow up innocent civilians.
Repeating something a thousand times does not make it true—but, sadly, it does help perpetuate stereotypes. Obviously, just like other communities, there are people with extreme ideas and views, but so long as they do not preach or practice violence or active intolerance they have not committed a crime. Canada is still governed by the rule of law, and has constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression, religion and conscience.
Even though there is no indication that terrorism is being instilled in Muslim youth through established institutions, to address the allegation national Muslim groups including CAIR-CAN, the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Association of Canada and the Muslim Students’ Association (National) have called for a national summit to explore this very issue.
It is to state the obvious that Canadian Muslims are concerned about the country’s national security. Major Muslim organizations came out after the arrests and commended law enforcement for breaking up an alleged plot. Even CAIR-CAN, which has been highly critical of law enforcement and intelligence strategies and tactics, called on Muslims to cooperate with authorities as their civic and religious duty. This despite the fact that the relationship between such agencies and the Muslim/ Arab community has been strained over the years due to the following:
- the harassment and intimidation of community members during the first Gulf war;
- “Project Thread,” in which 26 South Asian Muslims on student visas were arrested in highly publicized raids for allegedly plotting to blow up a nuclear reactor. All eventually were deported on minor immigration charges. Not a single one was charged with—let alone convicted of—a terrorist offense. Yet the damage was done to the community, and the lives of the individuals concerned ruined;
- the role of the Canadian government in the extraordinary rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria for interrogation by American authorities. Arar was deported while on a transit stopover in New York. A public inquiry is investigating the role of Canadian officials in facilitating his alleged torture;
- the case of Mohammed Mansour Jabbarah, a 23-year-old Canadian who was repatriated to Canada after his arrest in Oman, then secretly handed over by CSIS or RCMP to waiting Americans at the border, subverting the extradition process; and
- the alleged harassment and intimidation of Muslims and Arabs in the post-9/11 period.
From the above non-exhaustive list, it is easy to understand why the support offered to law enforcement was cautious and not unconditional. Moreover, some people—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—also are raising some pointed questions about the recent arrests. It may be just coincidence, but it is interesting to note that they came just before the anti-terror laws were set to undergo review in Parliament; two weeks before the appeals of three national security certificate cases (in which secret evidence was used) were set to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada; three weeks before the commencement of the Air India Inquiry into the single largest terrorist attack in Canadian history, when Sikh separatists are alleged to have blown up a flight over the Irish Sea (the inquiry is slated to look at whether anti-terror laws are tough enough); growing criticism from U.S. officials about Canada’s supposed slackness in dealing with terror; and a right-wing government in Ottawa moving closer toward American policy.
This context became all the more pertinent after law enforcement officials confirmed that they had effective control over the delivery of nitrate, allegedly ordered in the bomb-making plot. Moreover, intelligence agencies also have confirmed that they were investigating and tracking these individuals for up to two years. This begs the question: why were the arrests made now, and why in such an over-the-top and dramatic manner?
That said, as members of a civil society the Muslim community does owe the mainstream a duty to address the perception—whether real or imagined—that extremism is a major issue in the community. It appears that the community is rising to the challenge.
As members of the same civil society, however, law enforcement, government and the media also must take some responsibility.
The accused must be given their day in court in a fair, open and transparent manner. The trust and confidence that has been asked of the Muslim community must not be squandered by denying the accused fair trials and resorting to the secret hearings and secret evidence provisions of the anti-terrorism legislation. Any attempt to deny due process and the rule of law will only alienate and marginalize the community and make it difficult to get cooperation.
The government must re-examine its foreign policy and try to deal with the root causes fueling extremism. These individuals, if the allegations are true, were not emboldened by multiculturalism and were not allegedly planning an attack against our values, but rather reacting to the plight of Muslims around the world. Indeed, multicultural policies are not to blame for potential terrorist cells in the country, experts concluded following the arrests. At a panel discussion seeking to explain the implications of the arrests on the Canadian cultural mosaic, Melissa Williams, director of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto, which hosted the event, stated: “There is really no evidence in this case…that there is any logical, causal relationship between policies of multiculturalism and the formation of such groups.” Her view was shared by all the other academic experts at the program.
The government also must ensure that it is consulting widely. Officials must be careful not to alienate the community by seeking advice only from those with an agenda against the Muslim community and those who represent the views of a fringe within the community—be it secular or orthodox. It is imperative that officials realize that such people speak for a very small segment of the community, and that by aligning only with such individuals the broader community will feel marginalized and alienated.
Finally, the media must exercise some leadership and wisdom. That means, of course, that news should not be manufactured for the sake of sensationalism alone. The vast majority of Muslims in Canada, who are neither secular nor ultra-orthodox, hold the key to any serious and productive bridge-building. If intelligence and government agencies believe they can win a war by undermining the team’s potential star players, they had better think again about the growing Arab/Muslim alienation, distrust and potential for silence. It’s time to rebuild the team’s sagging morale.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based writer and lawyer with the firm of Kutty, Syed & Mohamed (www.ksmlaw.ca), where he can be reached at faisal[@]ksmlaw.ca. His articles are archived at www.faisalkutty.com.
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