Fear and Mourning in Ottawa

What happened this Wednesday in Ottawa, Canada is, to quote FDR, “a date which will live in infamy.” The shootings on 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 citing terrorism 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 to survey 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.

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    Steven Zhou

    Steven Zhou is a writer and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Read his work at www.zhoujournal.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at @stevenzzhou

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