New Senate committee report rehashes old myths about terrorism

| July 20, 2015
Photo: flickr/ Tony Webster

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On July 8, the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence released its interim report on Countering the Terrorist Threat in Canada: the result of a nine-month-long investigation into the problem of radicalization and violent extremism in Canada.

However, instead of producing new insights, the report simply reproduces old and discredited stereotypes. This is unsurprising, given its reliance on a cast of notorious anti-Muslim activists, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Marc Lebuis (director of the blog Point de Bascule, or "Tipping Point), as "expert" witnesses: not exactly the brain trust of "foremost experts on terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism" the committee claimed to have assembled.

Disappointingly and disturbingly, the Senate Committee's report exemplifies the problems with the Conservative Party's ideological -- as opposed to empirical -- approach to counterterrorism.         

The committee's fixation on Islam and Muslims is bewildering, considering that the most fatal incident of post-9/11 terrorist violence cited in the report -- Anders Breivik's shooting spree, which killed 77 Norwegian citizens in July 2011 -- was the product of right-wing, racist, anti-Muslim ideology: not radical Islam.

Moreover, Lieutenant Sylvain Guertin, Chief of the Sûreté du Québec's Division of Investigations on Extremist Threats, was quoted in the report as stating that "the majority of the service's active files deal with the extreme right": again, not radical Islam.

Lieutenant Guertin's testimony accords with data compiled by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, which shows that 59 per cent of so-called lone wolf attacks in the last 15 years were inspired by white-supremacist ideology.

In the United States, a study released recently by the New America Foundation found that "white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists" have killed twice as many people as "radical Muslims" have since 9/11.

And according to Professors Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer's survey of over 300 American law enforcement agencies, "the main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists."

But despite the compelling evidence to the contrary, the Senate committee maintains that the "Islamist fundamentalist menace" is the most pressing threat to the security of Canadians, and proffers several recommendations directly targeting Muslim communities: state training and certification of imams, propagation of narratives "denouncing the ideology of Islamist fundamentalism." No other group is singled out for such special, stigmatizing attention in the report.

As Liberal senator Grant Mitchell (who, along with the two other Liberal senators on the Committee, dissented from the report) put it: "We were told that 75 per cent of the terrorism in Canada comes from right-wing racist ideologies and yet this report seems to implicitly, or even explicitly, single out a specific group."

Several of the report's recommendations are premised on myths about terrorism that have been seriously questioned or completely debunked by academic studies.

For example, the insinuation that radicalization frequently occurs in North American mosques is contradicted by research on Muslim communities in the U.S., such as a 2011 Gallup poll, which found that frequent mosque attendance is correlated with higher levels of civic engagement and lower levels of anger.

Other recommendations are supported by little more than conjecture and assertion. The alarmism regarding violent radicalization in Canadian prisons, schools, and universities, for instance, is backed by nothing more than the contested testimony of one volunteer prison psychologist regarding 25 inmates (hardly a dispositive sample size).

The key assumption underlying the committee's analysis is that Islamic conservatism and radicalization is intimately, if not inextricably and inevitably, linked to violent extremism -- justifying the attempt to patrol Canadians' opinions and speech.

But this assumption is increasingly challenged by scholarly studies.

John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, notes that "the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research."

As Olivier Roy, a widely respected authority on European Muslims, comments: "the process of violent radicalization has little to do with religious practice, while radical theology, as Salafism, does not necessarily lead to violence." And according to a 2008 MI5 briefing note: "Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly ... There is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization."

As academics and public figures wrote in a letter last week opposing the UK government's PREVENT program, "Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology."

Since the committee's threat assessment is clearly not based on attention to research, facts, or data (including facts and data collected in the course of its own investigation), it is apparently driven by some other motivation. Indeed, it is difficult to interpret the report as anything another than cynical manipulation of racist stereotypes to rationalize expansion of the national security state.

The report's suggested alterations to Canadian counterterrorism law to effect this expansion are alarming. The committee advocates criminalization of membership in a "terrorist group," and "glorification of terrorists, terrorist acts and terrorist symbols connected to extremism." This would extend the reach of the already draconian 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act (Bill C-51), to attack an even greater but poorly defined array of non-violent activities.

At the same time, the report exhorts enactment of legislation to protect "people ... discussing in frank terms, terrorist and other threats to security" from "vexatious litigation." In other words, the Senate committee wants to make it easier to criminalize people as terrorists, but make it more difficult for those smeared as terrorists to access legal recourse.

This is particularly troubling in light of Jeffrey Monaghan's recent study of RCMP and CSIS documents, which revealed that "[s]ecurity and police agencies have been increasingly conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens exercising their democratic rights to organize petitions, protest and question government policies."

The Senate committee's blatantly ideological approach to counterterrorism undermines its avowed goal of producing a Canadian public "informed about the terrorism threat facing Canada, and in a position to make knowledgeable judgments and choices about the direction of security policy- and decision-making."

A report which fosters racist stereotypes, social divisions, and erosion of civil rights and liberties is hardly the sober and thoughtful analysis Canadians are entitled to expect from our house of "sober second thought."

 

Azeezah Kanji is a graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, and a Masters of Law candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Photo: flickr/ Tony Webster

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