Scare headlines about young people becoming "radicalized," going overseas, being transformed into robotic Super Muslims, graduating from Beheading School, and being returned to Canada ready to strike at the heart of our values, freedoms, and traditions have filled the media in the past few months, leading to an upcoming Canadian campaign of bombing Iraq and repressive new legislation to be introduced this week in Parliament.
Given the Fourth Estate's role as stenographer to power, it is unsurprising that the many articles asking "why" young people are attracted to overseas adventures are all playing into the same "blame Islam" game that results in horrible "jihad" headlines, increased fear, and suspicion of anyone who does not look like the CBC's Peter Whitemansbridge.
Like similar moral panics that have framed particular groups as the new internal enemy, young people both idealist and alienated now fit the focus of terror suspect, especially if they are Muslim and plan to travel overseas to visit relatives, learn Arabic, or just backpack around. Yet despite all the hyped-up chatter, no one has produced any evidence to show a threat exists to Canada and Canadians from the small number who have joined up in battling the Assad regime in Syria or worked with ISIS. We are told that some 80-130 individuals have gone overseas to be associated with terrorism, but this is always qualified by telling us not everyone is picking up a gun: some are fundraising, some are doing propaganda, some are just helping out with who knows what, from taking out the trash to helping the elderly cross the street. Regardless of what they are doing, Canada's terrorism laws are so broad that anyone associated in any way with a particular group will be tarred as a national security threat.
CSIS, Canada's spy agency, says it knows who has gone overseas and is monitoring them upon their return. RCMP head Bob Paulson was pretty clear when he told Parliament earlier this month: "It's nothing that I think Canadians need to be alarmed about." Sir Richard Dearlove, former M16 head, said the returning rebel threat was "exaggerated" and former M16 officer Richard Barrett said "the threat of the returning fighter is a small one." Chief Canadian Forces warlord Tom Lawson told the media that there was "no indication of direct threats" to members of his military.
The disconnect between rhetoric and reality creates a void that gets filled by the "radicalization" experts, many of whom contribute to the demonization of young people who may, with the best of idealistic intentions, feel great sadness at seeing war, mass murder, and utter despair, and want to do something about it. This doesn't justify the violent actions some may allegedly take part in, nor the rhetoric of fear they may spout while overseas. But Harper and company have done a good job making them out to be the worst possible incarnations of human flesh imaginable.
Halal foods to blame
The solutions to "radicalization" have long been studied and discussed at a variety of gatherings. In 2009, the Canadian War Department's Adversarial Intent Section held a workshop titled "Radicalization in the National Economic Climate," trying to determine possible links between the global recession and extremist responses. Invited to the Toronto gathering were Canadian spy agency CSIS, the Mounties, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and assorted academics from the terrorism industry who weighed in on the possibilities, but most attendees found no direct link between extremism and the global recession.
However, the University of Toronto's Robert Brym, among others, chimed in that immigrant groups are most likely to radicalize and concluded that one solution was stepped-up monitoring of "groups and places that may pose a threat," including "locations where Halal products are sold." Notably, most national grocery chains now sell Halal products, and one can purchase hummus (which sounds disturbingly like a group the Canadian government has listed as terrorist, Hamas) pretty much everywhere.
Brym also recommended increased surveillance of "friendship groups formed around retail facilities frequented by Muslims" (though the equation between Muslims and immigrants is often a false one, given the faith has been practiced in this country for a century).
In the same way one or more black youth standing on a street corner is viewed as a riot in the making by many police forces, Muslims going shopping (and those "inspired" by Muslims at the retail level) may now pose the greatest threat to Canadians' national security since the CSIS theory that Muslim dreams could provoke radicalization.
Historically, the RCMP Security Service (SS) focused on certain cultural and religious attributes as signs of disloyalty, subversion, and traitorous intent: hence, their long-standing surveillance of groups like the Prairies-based, all-female Ukrainian Mandolin Orchestra. The RCMP SS legacy group, CSIS, frequently begin their national security investigations with such wholly irrelevant details as how often someone prays, if they know women who wear hijab, and what their imam thinks of drone strikes that kill children in Pakistan.
So will Loblaws and Metro stores soon be home to CSIS secret shoppers, monitoring who is picking up Sufra Halal chicken nuggets in the frozen section, or tossing The Queen's Khorasan bread into their recycled grocery bags? (Such bread MAY be suspect since it shares the same name as the non-existent "Khorasan group" that the U.S. created as an excuse to begin its bombing campaign of Syria and Iraq. This correspondent, for one, regularly buys Khorasan and recommends it as a healthy, hearty way to breakfast, despite the possibility it may be viewed, upon heating, as terrorism toast.)
The real ongoing danger
The idiocy of CSIS, the RCMP, and their friends in the press would be laughable if it were not so dangerous: as documented by a number of judicial inquiries and court decisions, their uninformed, lazy, and biased worldview leads to vicious campaigns of racial and religious profiling, community harassment, fear, perpetuation of an informant culture, and complicity in torture, all of which will increase given the current media-hyped scare over "extremist travellers" and "jihadi brides," among other turns of phrase that continue to demonize and put at risk all adherents of Islam.
A conference looking at the decade that has passed since the launch of the inquiry into Canada's role in the torture of Maher Arar (taking place in Ottawa October 29) will no doubt lament not only the lack of human rights progress over this period of time, but the uncertain future that lies ahead. Indeed, the federal government's proposed legislation to provide blanket class privilege to CSIS agents and informers (meaning they would never have to be questioned and cross-examined by lawyers and judges, even in secret hearings) opens the door to legalizing what CSIS has been doing all along: trading information with torturers.
In the same way the Harper government will politely ask the brutal Assad regime for permission to bomb targets in Syria, it is a no-brainer to conclude that CSIS will continue to maintain its similarly cozy relationship with the torturers of Syrian Military Intelligence, in the hopes of producing "actionable intelligence" from some confused Canadian teenager who went overseas with the notion of helping out, fell into the wrong hands, and perhaps got picked up by Syrian authorities. Alternatively, ANY Muslim, particularly of Arabic and/or South Asian heritage, is likely to be suspect if they plan on booking an airline ticket, so whether in the Toronto airport or during a journey to Mecca or dozens of other places in between, the chances of being pulled aside for interrogation or rendered to a place like Syria or Egypt (what is the REAL reason for your travel?) will skyrocket.
And so the same patterns of complicity that led to the torture of Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin, and Abousfian Abdelrazik, among others, is sure-fire guaranteed to continue into the future. Those who trade in torture certainly took great comfort from last week's Supreme Court of Canada decision that shielded Iran from any accountability in the torture-murder of Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi. Iran, the court concluded, should be immune from any court action under the State Immunity Act.
Equally certain is that those picked up by the authorities will have been the targets of a legally sanctioned racial profiling regime that will continue to be standard operating procedure, bolstered in part by last week's Federal Court of Appeal ruling (authored by the recently declined Supreme Court nominee, Judge Marc Nadon) that supported racial profiling. In that case, a 72-year-old Chinese woman was fined $800 for having in her purse two $5 pork roll snacks on a return flight to Canada. The Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal found that she was the victim of racial profiling, since the border officer said he believed Chinese people were more likely to smuggle food into the country. Nadon supported the officer.
The root problem of radicalization
Meanwhile, the "what do we do with the kids who are becoming radicalized" question thus becomes the focus of academic study, anti-terrorism funding, and media misinformation.
Perhaps we can start by stating that young people going overseas are not necessarily radicalized. Most standard dictionaries define radical as "arising from or going to a root or source" of a problem. Suppose some young people are excited about going to join ISIS or fight Assad because they can pick up guns and live out real-life adventures by blowing away the bad guys. Is that not in fact a sign that they are ideologically obedient to the violent society they come from, one that invests $1.3 trillion annually on different ways of killing one another and uses war games like paintball as a means of building company morale? If their goal is to shoot down some enemy, regardless of the cost, are they not aping the work of the masters and power brokers for whom the taking of human life is "collateral damage," an inconvenience on the road to their goals? The morality of the groups they seek to join is no different than that of their own countries' violence-based organizations. Indeed, last week Chief Canadian Forces warlord Tom Lawson conceded that his bombers WILL be killing civilians in Iraq and Syria, just not at an "unreasonable" level. Needless to say, no one asked Lawson what was a "reasonable" level of civilian slaughter.
No, in reflecting the very mainstream ideas of their society, some of these travellers are not radicalized. They have not gotten to the roots of the world's problems; instead, they are exhibiting the very symptoms of what is acceptable behavior. They are in this sense "conservatized." Some of them are indoctrinated in the fun of killing through first-person shooter video games like Call of Duty, the combat simulation sensation that is played around the globe and which seems to show up increasingly on the Facebook pages of those joining the likes of ISIS. One threat management company spokesperson told Maclean's that some recruits are "17-year-old boy[s] whose only experience in this field is from playing Call of Duty on an Xbox." Indeed, the Ottawa Citizen reported the late Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud of Hamilton was "more concerned with video games than world events. He chatted about Call of Duty, a series of first-person shooter games praised for their realistic and intense combat simulation."
What this says is these young recruits are not necessarily interested in ideology or spirituality; rather, they may instead be seeking the thrill and adventure of being in a war zone, a real-life version of what Call of Duty offers them on their basement Xbox.
Firing guns is a blast
In that respect, the conservatized travellers are no different than the child soldiers who are recruited in Canadian high school military co-op programs. In St. Catharines, high school kids can join a day-long co-op program that, in the lingo of the age, is pretty cool shit, including the use of exciting YouTube videos aimed at impressionable young minds (Yes, Virginia, ISIS is not the only group ever to target young people with videos). Indeed, child soldiers in St. Catharines will learn to "use weapons such as rifles, grenades and machine guns; Learn to operate with support elements such as logistics, artillery and armored vehicles; Learn to employ field craft and procedures including camouflage and concealment, internal security, patrol, escape and evasion tactics." In the promo videos encouraging young kids to join up and learn how to use machine guns, we learn from the mouths of babes that it's "a great career choice for anyone who wants to be part of the action. Obviously, firing the gun is a blast, you know, getting to pull that lanyard and feeling that howitzer underneath you, feel the concussion, getting to see the rounds land..." Another exclaims, "It's not everybody who gets to go out and have all this fun in the field.... There's not one of us that would ever give up the opportunity to reload and fire a big triple 7 or an LG1, that's for sure."
And in a statement that perhaps sums up that spirit of camaraderie that young overseas ISIS recruits may be missing at home, the young soldier chimes in:
"Honestly, my best experience so far in the army has been my deployment to Afghanistan. Your existence in the military is to train for war, you know, that's our job, and when you finally get to put everything into play and all your training comes into play there's no better feeling than being over there with everybody that you've worked so hard with."
Nothing about freedom or ideals, or democracy, or helping oppressed women or any of the other propaganda coming from the mouths of those in Ottawa who send the orders but never see the action: just the sense of being part of a team doing stuff together. The fact that things go boom makes it more exciting.
Unsurprisingly, most media have failed to look deeper into the roots of those who are interested in travelling overseas with what would appear at first blush to be the entirely justifiable response to seeing mass murder, torture, and other atrocities committed by the likes of the Assad regime in Syria as well as NATO forces throughout the region: wanting to do something about it. One young Canadian who was killed in Syria actually told his mother "he was in Syria because women and children were being tortured and he wanted to do something productive." They also fail to look at the characteristics of young people wanting to join something that will give them a sense of identity, purpose, and community, something often in short supply in their lives at home.
Unfortunately, it is easier to fall back on the old canards used by the security "specialists." "The signs [of radicalization] could be they're not going to school, they're feeling isolated, their understanding of geopolitics is not what we would say is the standard," says RCMP Sgt. Renu Dash, acting director of the Mounties' "public engagement team." What, exactly, is a standard view of geopolitics, other than Harper's view of the world? In other words, think like we do, or face the consequences.
Ms. Dash says there is no one-size-fits all symptom, and refuses to say what criteria the RCMP actually use, though a British early intervention model called Channel referred young people for intervention if they wore clothes that were deemed too "radical" (and not in the sense of ripped Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd garb; rather, a hijab). It is no a stretch to say the RCMP's worldview must be adhered to in order to avoid scrutiny as a potential radicalization suspect.
This extension of thought control pervades the world of "cross-cultural" roundtables convened by the likes of CSIS and the Mounties: they are set up as a "dialogue" but the real goal is community control and enforcement of a standard geopolitical view, as Ms. Dash asserts. This was made abundantly clear when the Islamic Social Services Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims partnered recently with the RCMP on a "United Against Terrorism" handbook. The Mounties pulled away from the final product, calling it unnecessarily "adversarial" because it had the audacity to advise people of their rights if approached by an RCMP or CSIS member.
Is there a threat?
How much of a threat do these young people pose, especially if they return to Canada?
The Washington Post correctly pointed out that "foreign fighters are often given menial jobs far from the front lines… many have been surprised that when they do fight, the battles are with fellow rebel groups," and not against Assad. M16's Barrett says the kids get trapped, as ISIS will not let them go and the British government will not allow them back. Indeed, London Mayor Boris Johnson has said suspected fighters should be stripped of citizenship and presumed guilty.
And the idea that a lone Canadian shouting into YouTube that "we are coming to destroy you" made the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) go on high alert a few weeks back is another sign of how little people are actually thinking through what is going on. That kid likely has as little capacity to produce destruction in Canada as the drunken hockey fan's ability to propel the Maple Leafs into the playoffs when he proclaims, "This year we are taking the Stanley Cup."
The idea that overseas fighters are brainwashed forever is also given the lie by folks like Hanif Qadir, who runs an "anti-extremist" foundation. As the Washington Post reported:
"Appalled by reports of U.S. airstrikes killing innocent civilians, he travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002. He went with the intention of performing humanitarian work but said he was also attracted to the Taliban's rhetoric of struggle against a foreign occupier and was prepared to fight alongside the insurgent group. Instead, he was repelled by what he found. 'If American soldiers were being hostile toward innocent civilians, so were Al-Qaida and the Taliban…This was hypocrisy.'"
While the CSIS and Mounties have their knickers in a knot about overseas travellers to the Middle East, they are absolutely silent on those who join another organization that commits well-documented war crimes on a regular basis: the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). During the summer of 2014, when Israeli war crimes were perpetrated against the people of Gaza, Canadian Netta Gelb of Richmond Hill was serving with the IDF. Her dad complained to Postmedia, "I just want her to get through this in one piece…There was really not much we could do to stop (her). It's very difficult to explain it to people -- how could she make that decision and go off and do it. At that age, you really can't tell them anything."
There are some 30 Canadian young people in the Israeli army from Ontario alone (part of the larger group of some 5,500 "lone soldiers"). During that summer bombardment, the Ottawa Citizen noted Palestinian children were traumatized by what was described by Al-Aqsa University professor Derdah al-Sha'er as "the violent and bloody scenes of war -- the destruction of homes in airstrikes, body parts and corpses covered in blood and dust being pulled from the rubble, night bombings while there's no electricity." Yet if one were to have gone and fought against the IDF, they would now be a candidate for statelessness, their Canadian citizenship revoked.
Some 30,000 Canadians served in the U.S. military during the war against Vietnam, when U.S. forces committed mass atrocities including beheadings that left heads on sticks at the entrances to many villages. Canadians are now serving with Ukrainian paramilitaries (and associating with neo-Nazis). At the same time, anti-choice protesters cross the border to work with terrorist groups in the U.S. that bomb women's reproductive health centres. But none of these have been cause for parliamentary hearings and scare headlines.
Life is hard on the young
That many young people are alienated and disconnected is unsurprising given they live in a country where, even by the Canadian Senate's own reckoning (as documented in their 2008 report, "Children, The Silenced Citizens"), Canada and its institutions fail children when it comes to guaranteeing their most basic rights. It is clear to young people that our society has little use for them: they are exploited, ill-treated, terrorized, given little hope for the future, stressed out, threatened, bullied, blamed for government decisions because they see no point in voting, and then expected to perform well in school and be model citizens. Services for those with mental health issues are stretched to the max and, when utilized, often useless.
We invest in warfare, not child care. When they react with "bad behaviour," zero tolerance legislation slaps them down and criminalizes them without asking WHY they are acting out. The helicopter-parent generation offers them little independence or association with friends of their own choosing. Hanging out with larger groups is seen as trouble in the making. "No more than three students in the store" signs proliferate throughout the land. Is it any wonder they might be looking for a sense of belonging, a purpose, a place where they feel they will be respected? Perhaps they might get that in drama club, perhaps in a gang, perhaps by taking the ultimate adventure in going overseas and fighting against agents of tyranny. We call them naïve when they do: don't they know about the ideology of ISIS? Don't they understand the politics of the region? Perhaps not, but the same question could equally be asked of their parents and the politicians they vote for.
The Harper government's solution to these "problem kids" is to criminalize them, strip them of their citizenship. Because there is no such thing as a root cause in Harper's world, there is no sense trying to delve into the issue: they are just evil, evil, evil, and the solution to our problems is more thought control and surveillance.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the 2009 radicalization conference in Toronto, plenary participants gathered up their flip-chart notes and shared fragments of ideas arising from workshops, including "maintain relationship with community while monitoring it," and "Need Big brother watch (surveillance and intelligence)." Watch what happens in Parliament this week and see if their Big Brother dreams come true.
In the meantime, we need to reframe the radicalization narrative. The very least we can do when it comes to young people who have sadly gone abroad and met their deaths is refuse to demonize them or spit on their graves, and perhaps ask what we as adults are willing to do to help the lost and searching children of this generation.
This column was completed before the unfortunate event in Quebec that took the life of a Canadian soldier. The driver of the hit-and-run vehicle was killed by police -- he was holding a knife -- and so there will be no trial and no further first-hand information made available from the suspect. While the Prime Minister's Office was quick to jump on the bandwagon, inflaming the situation by calling this a home-grown terrorist act (perfectly timed to help with the passage of new repressive legislation), the Sûreté du Québec spokesman at the scene said it was too early to tell whether the military was specifically targeted. Nevertheless, it is remarkably similar to the case of Pamela Mimnagh, an Arnprior woman killed October 3 by a truck driven by her husband, who has since been charged. Like many women whose lives are taken by men in Canada -- often in calculated, well-planned attacks -- it barely makes a headline, much less gets named for what it is: a home-grown terrorist act.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.
Photo: Scott Barron/flickr