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Terrorizing Dissent: Harper's approach to defining terrorism is shamelessly bald

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"When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it's rapidly losing its moral authority to govern." -- Stephen Harper, 2005 (as Leader of the Opposition)

If dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems determined to render Canada anaemic.

The backdrop for Harper's latest assault was his recent visit to the Middle East. The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) criticized the inclusion of a supporter of anti-Muslim demagogues Pamela Gellar and Robert Spencer in Harper's Israel-bound entourage.

Instead of addressing NCCM's concern, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications Jason MacDonald peremptorily dismissed it with a vicious smear:"We will not take seriously criticism from an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas," MacDonald said.

This is a very serious claim, with potential criminal implications: Hamas is officially listed as a terrorist organization in Canada. To level such an accusation without a shred of competent evidence is quite likely libellous. Presumably, if there actually were any documents backing the assertion of "documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas," the government would have produced them and charged NCCM in a court of law -- rather than resorting to indictment in the court of public opinion.

Since the inception of the "war on terror," insinuations of terroristic connections have been used to vilify Canadian Muslims as "not really Canadian" and disloyal, treasonous, unentitled to the rights and benefits of belonging to Canada. Canadian Muslims erroneously branded as "terrorist threats" have been extraordinarily rendered (Maher Arar), incarcerated in foreign prisons and tortured (Maher Arar, Ahmed El-Maati, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin), stranded abroad and actively prevented from returning home (Abousfian Abdelrazik) and harassed at airports and borders (too many to name).

For Muslims in Canada, being falsely accused of terrorism is quite literally terror-producing. And the damage isn't cured by formal exoneration: as Justice Dennis O'Connor observed in his report on the Arar case, "Labels, even unfair and inaccurate ones, have a tendency to stick."

Labels are especially sticky, and leave a particularly indelible residue, when they conform to widely held prejudices. And the current environment is one in which the Prime Minister can glibly declare that "the major threat is still Islamicism [sic]" (again without providing any evidence; American statistics indicate that Muslims are far from the most significant or fatal source of violence in that country).

How casually destructive -- to exploit popular fears about a vulnerable minority to delegitimize its participation in public discourse. That a government would reflexively sling such toxic mud at its own citizens should be shocking.

But unfortunately, such grubby, dissent-suppressing tactics are by now a familiar mainstay of the Harper Conservative playbook. For instance, organizations (most famously KAIROS Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives) failing to toe the government's "with-Israel-through-fire-and-water" line have been defunded and denigrated as anti-Semitic.

Indeed, the anti-terrorism net has been expanded to catch green prey as well as brown: the Canadian government's official counter-terrorism strategy identifies the "promotion of various causes such as ... environmentalism" (lumped together with "white supremacy") as a threat to national security. According to Jeffrey Monaghan of Queen's University's Surveillance Studies Center, state monitoring of environmentalists is the "new normal."

Monaghan's study of CSIS and RCMP documents disturbingly revealed that "[s]ecurity and police agencies have been increasingly conflating terrorism and extremism with peaceful citizens exercising their democratic rights to organise petitions, protest and question government policies." Animal rights advocates, anti-capitalists and aboriginal activists have also been tarred with the terrorist threat brush.     

While "terrorism" is an inescapably political concept, Harper's approach to defining terrorism is shamelessly bald in its political motivations. Groups considered "extremist" by the Harper government are not militant outliers on the fringe of Canadian democracy, but all-too-frequently mainstream organizations fighting to preserve Canada as a state that cares about justice, human rights, equality and sustainability.

Haroon Siddiqui's dismal conclusion seems irrefutable: "What matters most to Harper is not human rights and democracy but rather their exact opposite: keeping authoritarian control, both at home and abroad."  

Our serenade-happy Prime Minister can belt out Beatles' tunes as loud as he likes -- but he cannot drown out the unmistakable, unignorable hiss of a government rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.

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Azeezah Kanji is a recent graduate of University of Toronto's Faculty of Law.

Photo: flickr/ell brown

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