I hate the word “terrorist.” It is hard for me to pronounce; it brings back painful flashbacks of the wrongful arrest and consequent imprisonment and torture of my husband Maher Arar. It brings back years when the mere pronouncing of this word signified mobilization for human rights, activism against security certificates, pushback against Bill C-51, and the physical and emotional drain these campaigns meant for me and many activists. When you have been labelled a terrorist, you are usually a Muslim man — and by all legal standards it is one of the worst accusations, if not the worst, to have made against you.
It doesn’t matter much if your name has been cleared (a very rare occurrence, anyway). Once labelled a terrorist, you will be one forever. That is the power of stigmatization. That is the power of some words.
Since 2002, I have written many columns and spoken to audiences across the country denouncing successive anti-terror legislation adopted by Canada and by countries around the world. I still stand up today to denounce these laws. They unfairly target Muslim communities; they rely on racial and religious profiling. I consider them unconstitutional and our struggle should continue to denounce them.
Guantanamo — a whole island in the middle of the ocean — was used by the United States 19 years ago to indefinitely imprison Muslim men. Without due process, they were branded terrorists. They were waterboarded, tortured, forcefully fed, scared by dogs, and mentally and physically abused by guards.
All of this is still accepted by much of the public in the name of fighting terrorism.
Canada isn’t any different in all of this. It kept Omar Khadr in that shameful prison since he was 15 years old. Successive governments refused to repatriate him. Political parties played partisanship games to use Khadr as an example of vigour and rigour in fighting terrorism.
To this day, Mohamed Harkat, a refugee from Algeria, cannot get his permanent resident status, despite living in Canada for over 20 years, only because he was arrested under a security certificate accusing him of being a “sleeper cell” or terrorist.
In the aftermath of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by hordes affiliated with white-supremacy — who illegally entered the building, breaking, destroying offices and terrorizing elected officials with weapons — Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal New Democratic Party, started a petition to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “to immediately ban and designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization.”
The Proud Boys are a group of men who pursue “anti-white guilt” and “anti-political correctness” agendas.
A few days ago, the federal government revealed that it was examining information about the Proud Boys and seriously looking into the possibility of declaring the group a terrorist organization.
My initial reaction was against such labelling. I strongly disagreed with the whole idea of creating different, specific sections of the Criminal Code to deal with politically and ideologically motivated violence. Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation is rotten at its core. So how can we make it more legitimate by making cosmetic changes or enlarging its scope to other groups, in this case non-Muslim groups?
Does a correct move change an initial wrong move into a correct one? No, absolutely not.
Anti-terrorism will remain a politically motivated tool that governments around the world use to silence dissent, create division within their own populations, and give the public a false sense of security at the expense of vulnerable (Muslim, racialized, Indigenous) groups.
Nevertheless, today I think that we should label the Proud Boys a terrorist group. Not because I like the labelling, but because it is a matter of simple coherence. Up to now, white-supremacy violence was hidden and protected by mainstream institutions — until it exploded in the world’s face in front of the U.S. Capitol.
For the sake of legal coherence in Western democracies, Proud Boys and other white-supremacist groups should be labelled terrorists. Their monetary and financial channels should be tracked down; their social media should be scrutinized; their members should be imprisoned.
Alexandre Bissonnette, the 27-year-old Canadian who killed six Muslim men and injured 19 others in the Quebec City mosque attack, was never charged under anti-terrorism legislation. I thought he should have been. I even remember some racialized activists insisting that we couldn’t be against terrorism legislation while at the same time calling for terrorism charges against him. It was a serious mistake.
Not only did he recieve less harsh sentences than what he would have under Canada’s terrorism law, but when the time came to challenge his consecutive sentencing a few months ago, Bissonnette successfully appealed.
The same dilemma came to haunt Muslim activists: should we call for consecutive sentences, knowing that our own people would be the majority suffering under this harsh punishment? Or should we adopt a more “civilized” approach and accept the fact that a killer will be able to apply for parole in 25 years?
In both cases, Bissonnette won because to start with, he was never charged under terrorism legislation.
White supremacists should feel the pain of racialized groups. They should navigate the unfair legal system; they should understand what it feels like to be labelled a terrorist.
I have no sympathy for the Proud Boys nor for the Three Percenters, deemed to be the most dangerous group in Canada, nor for all the other white-supremacist Islamophobic groups roaming freely across Canada, recruiting former or current police and military officers.
They should face the consequences of their actions — even if it means that one day we fight together against the same system that, at its origin, has created this oppressive, racist, Islamophobic legislation.
Years ago, Audre Lorde, the black feminist, writer, and civil right activist, wonderfully framed this crucial situation: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She was a brilliant visionary.
Anti-terrorism legislation is the wrong tool. It overwhelmingly targets racialized people, Muslims in particular. We will forever call for its abolishment. But in the meantime, and while it remains in place, can we use it to eliminate violence done by white supremacists against marginalized groups? Yes, I totally think we should. It is a matter of survival. Until the “master’s house” is dismantled, until that day, I see no other choice than to use the “master’s tools” to protect ourselves and our communities from white-supremacist violence.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog.
Image credit: Geoff Livingston/Flickr