Stephen Harper, David Cameron and the political uses of Islamophobia

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On Thursday, Stephen Harper joins an exclusive list of world leaders and heads of state to address the UK Parliament. Harper is the first Canadian Prime Minister to have this honour in nearly 70 years, and it is a prestige he no doubt hopes will gain him respect and recognition among the Tory parliamentarians whose policies and manner he has come to mimic so markedly.

Since 2010, Harper has sought to strengthen ties and relations with David Cameron, celebrating the "similar values" they share. His speech comes at an opportune time -- when politically motivated attacks have mobilized a new kind of rhetoric and reaction among politicians, touching on Islamophobia and calling for stricter policies and measures to counter terrorist threats.

This mindset frames Harper's own brand of 'counterterrorism.' Significantly, the language evoked by his Conservative government on previous occasions is in line with his British counterparts' words and actions in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder of May 22. 

The Woolwich attack and its aftermath 

The Woolwich attack was a brutal reminder of the extremes of violence and ideology, rendered drastically intimate and immediate by a cellphone video that went viral. Two men wielding meat cleavers attacked British soldier Lee Rigby in a southeast London neighbourhood, leaving his body hacked and bloodied. One of the men, with blood-soaked hands, publicly declared on camera, "We will never stop fighting until you leave us alone." Yes, religion was evoked in his words, but his justifications allude to the many operations the British government and its allies have been responsible for abroad and at home in the name of the War on Terror. However, these are not the justifications the politicians publicly address.

Troublingly, mobilizing support for rushed but severe policies in the immediate aftermath of such events seems to be a recurring strategy of Western governments. And it is often done through creating a streamlined, fear-evoking narrative.

On June 1, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed, in an op-ed, that the core ideology leading to the brutal murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich is a "problem" that exists "within Islam."

Blair's words point to a dark shift on the part of the British ruling elite to remove "political correctness" from their language and insert a vocal fear about a "reactionary worldview" deemed exclusive to Islam.

In the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attack, David Cameron insisted that the Woolwich killing was "an attack on the British way of life," and London mayor Boris Johnson echoed that, arguing that no rational link exists between the attack and British foreign policy, nor in "what Britons do in operations abroad."

Reinforced by a media reaction that aims to similarly scapegoat Muslims and "spin" British involvement in war, or torture and detention of terrorist suspects abroad, Blair's comments in particular represent a more extreme turn of the formulaic statements issued by politicians in attacks post-9/11.

In an effort to gain insight on the reactions to Islamophobia on the ground, I contacted John Rees of the Stop the War UK coalition. Rees told rabble.ca that Blair has effectively said what "Cameron wants to say ... So a current Tory Prime Minister is more tame on this than a former Labour head."

In so explicitly condemning Muslim communities, Blair frames a narrative that villainizes all Muslims for the violence of a few, absolves the involvement of the state in the role played in motivating the attack and promotes an infringing and dogmatic political agenda. Fittingly, his remarks were printed hours after an emergency first meeting of the Prime Minister's Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Task Force (TERFOR) -- made up of senior Ministers, MI5, police and religious leaders intoning that Muslim communities must do more to integrate.

Home Secretary Theresa May proposed new legislation to clamp down on the radicalization of Muslims through introducing new measures and monitoring communications, as part of the controversial "snooper’s charter." There is a push to reinvigorate the government's "Prevent Strategy," full of ambiguous language that aims to "engage Muslim communities" in preventing radicalization, which translates into recruiting informants, spies and monitoring online activity more forcefully, according to Rees. And we are still uncovering how PRISM enables the NSA to access the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services, and how it impacts those outside of the United States. All of these events are not unrelated.

Rising tide of Islamophobia 

Blair's remarks also occur in a climate of rising Islamophobia and violent retaliation against Muslims. In the days since the Woolwich murder, over 250 attacks occurred against Muslims, with a dozen attacks on mosques, as recorded by British Charities Faith Matters and the Tell Mama Project. There is little official public denunciation of the violence perpetrated by the fascist English Defense League (EDL). And there is virtually no mention made of Britain's continued complicity in detention and torture, nor its collusion in the War on Terror and spying on its citizens.

Due to the live, cellphone footage, the violent knifing of Lee Rigby has become "possibly the most visible murder ever reported on the news," according to Rees, causing reactions of immediate fear and outrage. But the disproportionate attention on one violent act speaks more broadly to the selective condemnation of politically motivated murders in the country. Three weeks prior to this attack, a British Muslim elder was knived "so violently the spear went straight through his chest," says Rees. "In both cases there was an equal loss of life, but David Cameron did not fly back from abroad to publicly condemn the latter murder, nor was there an emergency convening of COBRA."

The rabid Islamophobia of the EDL-variety left unchecked by political leaders -- and the consistent message that "Muslims must do more," including, in some cases, by spying on their own neighbours -- adds to the isolation and marginalization felt by so many. In particular, British Muslims feel an increased pressure at having to take responsibility or a collective blame for actions that are not their own. And when more young men were recruited to the extremist fringes of battles overseas -- whether in Yemen, Syria or Somalia -- the government blames the communities that reared these boys rather than question its own delegitimization through perpetuating state violence. Instead of dealing with the ways in which this individual violence and smaller, more intimate street-level attacks are a response to increased militarization abroad, politicians have chosen the indirect means of isolating and scolding communities for letting their boys down -- teaching them to vehemently hate.

As these politicians continue to use rhetoric to divert attention from a more pressing debate on the influence of Britain and the allied forces' foreign policy in Muslim and Arab lands, we have less understanding of the actual motivations behind the attack.

Indeed, rhetoric is only a single part of the collusion in operations and activities that could have led to the brutal turning of Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebolajo and dozens of other young Muslim men. Within a few days of the attack, it was revealed that the British security service knew of Adebolajo and his affiliation with Al-Mahirijoun for years. He was also one of seven youth arrested by Kenyan police in 2010 after a trip to Somalia. Despite this knowledge, "MI5 did not act earlier because they were trying to recruit him," says Rees. Adebolajo's family has speculated that alleged torture, sexual assault and increased "pressure to become an informant may have pushed him over the edge."

Rees also points to the separate case of at least 16 suspects stripped of their citizenship while traveling abroad and attempts at recruiting them as informants. Excluding them from British protection allows them to more easily be deemed as "enemy combatants" and, in some cases, to be designated as targets by Special Forces operations and drone attacks. These realities show the extent of Britain's involvement in a more covert War on Terror.

'Anti-terror' laws

While the British Public may be silently coaxed into accepting arbitrary 'anti-terrorism' laws, there are important reasons to remember the legacy of the War on Terror, the imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo and the torture of countless other suspects around the world. The fate awaiting hundreds of these men is a result of brazen policies.

Prominent British human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce reminds of the ways in which an unjust internment process can often strip even innocent suspects of their rights and protections. She has spent decades working on cases, first with Irish prisoners, and now Muslim terror suspects -- the "new suspect community," as she's stated in her book Dispatches from the Dark Side. These recurrent acts of torture and targeting of suspects, as well as the vehement refusal to acknowledge it, demonstrate just how little has changed since the days of Britain's conflict with Northern Ireland.

She compares the alienation of Irish prisoners with the current indefinite imprisonment of foreign nationals. "Central to the anger and despair that fuelled the conflict was the realisation that the British courts would offer neither protection nor justice," she writes. "This should be always in our minds as we analyze the experiences of our new suspect community."

Harper and counterterrorism

The most concerning of these trends for Canadians is the tendency of Harper to emulate his British counterparts. With less direct involvement in the "War on Terror," the climate in Canada might be markedly different than in the UK and the U.S., but the country is not unfamiliar with its own brand of rhetoric and measures in the name of "counterterrorism."

Most telling were Harper's comments in the wake of the alleged terrorist plot to attack a Via Rail train in April. Harper's exact quote, as reported by CBC news, was: "I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression ... These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values our society stands for."

Harper's insistence on turning away from dissecting root causes and focusing directly on "agendas of violence" led to the hasty approval of Bill S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act that heavily draws on similar legislation in the UK, U.S. and Australia. The Act allows for police to preventively arrest people without a warrant.

The Via Rail arrests came the same week as the House of Commons debated Bill S-7, giving authorities sweeping powers and potentially infringing on civil liberties.

Deportations, detainment and torture are not distant relics unbeknownst to Canadians. The Afghan detainee torture scandal is set to resurface, serving as a reminder of Canada's long-term complicity in illegal detainee torture.

Last June, the UN Committee Against Torture (UN CAT) reviewed Canada's compliance with the Geneva Convention, which prohibits detainee torture and found it to be complicit in the practice. Harper publicly criticized and condemned the widely respected Committee's findings. Furthermore, Canada's role in extraordinary rendition has also been documented in earlier reports. This mockery of monitoring mechanisms to ensure fundamental human rights shows just how much the Harper government is willing to cast aside Canada's reputation and bury its obligations and accountability.  

Harper will use his invitation to address the Houses of Parliament to evoke common struggles and "shared values," aiming to resurrect his reputation while whitewashing crimes committed by both governments. He may seek to be a disciple of the British example, but, in fact, it might be British MPs who are impressed with Harper's expert tactics of diversion.

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