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.
Steven Zhou is a writer and analyst based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Embassy Magazine, and Al Jazeera English, among other publications.