Last week’s international summit on terrorism at the White House showed how much the issue has become a central concern around the world. Evidently, the fear of a homegrown attack has understandably pushed many nations to enact more stringent laws and preventive measures. The recent spread of terrorist attacks in Western Europe and Canada has only heightened the urgency.
In Canada, the governing Conservative government has introduced legislation aimed at giving more powers to its intelligence gathering agency (CSIS) in order to diminish a repeat of the lone-wolf attacks of last autumn in Ottawa and St. Jean, Québec. The proposed legislation has received overwhelming support in a recent poll (according to a poll by IPSOS Reid, over 60 percent of respondents support it). The highest level of support actually comes from my own home province of Québec, usually more reluctant to enhance existing security measures.
The debate in the House of Commons in Ottawa is a foregone conclusion. The Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper have the majority in the House, and the third party Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has indicated his support, along with demands for greater parliamentary accountability and oversight. Official Opposition leader Tom Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP) has led the charge against the bill, arguing that increased powers for the spy agency warrant serious concerns regarding the possibility that increased powers may violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite this, the bill will likely pass the House of Commons within in a few days.
In Québec, the debate is regrettably not just about security. Resistance to and downright opposition to the opening of new mosques has surfaced. An opposition party leader, François Legault, has actually called for a “Québec values police” and an investigation of any request for the opening of a Muslim mosque. Some media accounts report about confusion regarding so-called Québec values and universal values, attack politics, fear-mongering, and in some cases, not-so-veiled Islamophobia. Hopefully, cooler heads will eventually prevail.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has decided to appeal a lower federal court ruling which allowed, based on the federal Charter of Rights, a prospective citizen to take her citizenship oath wearing a niqab (a veil that covers the head and part of the face). While the ruling appears to be on solid ground, it is clearly at odds with the mood of the Canadian population, if one judges by social media and the voices of some prominent politicians. Some media commentators appear to favor both stronger security measures (even at the detriment of Charter rights) and appealing the ruling to prevent prospective citizens from taking the oath of citizenship in a niqab. This being a national election year in Canada, we should not expect much change in the public debate.
Fortunately, U.S. President Barack Obama chose to offer a wider perspective of the issues involved at the terrorism summit. He steadfastly defended his refusal to use the term “Islamic extremism.” Obama says the use of such a term only legitimizes ISIS and Al Qaeda with some segment of the world’s Muslim population. After all, if we assess the proportion of ISIS fighters (30,000), and the world’s Muslim population (1.6 billion), ISIS represents only 0.0019 percent. He emphasized that the world is not at war with Islam. So the Obama strategy seems to narrow the range of who is the “real enemy”— those who pervert Islam.
It was refreshing to hear the U.S. president strike such a thoughtful tone. The spread of terrorist acts across the planet only shows that more stringent laws have limited impact. In fighting terrorism, we must not sacrifice our way of life and our belief in freedom, as we will only forfeit the battle to the terrorists. Terrorism is not a quest for freedom and a better life—it is aimed at destruction, creating chaos, and legitimizing violence as a means and an end, to win and exercise power over perceived enemies.
The war against the threat of terrorism, or as some prefer, “Islamic extremism,” has no end in sight. The White House summit, however, did offer a more holistic approach which aims at using education, strategic counter-messaging, improved integration of Muslim youth into civil society, and the retention of young people within the school system for as long as possible. It was the basic message Obama left with the participants.
Efforts by American Muslims such as those of Imam Mohamed Magid, who is actively countering ISIS recruitment efforts, were noted. Different Muslim forums and community centers are beginning to emerge in both Canada and the U.S. aimed at integrating young people into civil society and giving them a purpose in life to reduce the attraction of terrorist recruitment. It may not be enough, but it is a step in the right direction.
None of this may dramatically change the harsh reality that ISIS and Al Qaeda represent in the short term. But a holistic approach to fighting terrorism has a greater chance of success. At the end of the day, exploiting fear may bring political gain in the short term, but it is not a policy. Freedom and security must never be a zero-sum game in a democracy.