“This threat that we face”: the Senate’s report on terrorism

We cannot try to appease this threat that we face,

says Senator Daniel Lang, Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence. The unappeasable “threat” Senator Lang speaks of is international terrorism, or, more specifically, the threat to the safety and security of Canadians posed by jihadists. In July 2015, the Senate released an interim report entitled “Countering the Terrorist Threat in Canada,” which was the end result of hearings conducted by the Committee “to study and report on security threats” facing the country. The Committee’s findings have an anxious tone, their 25 recommendations rooted in the fear that Canada faces a very real and very present danger from jihadist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda.

The report has also, perhaps inevitably, been met with considerable criticism. Its findings have been accused of partisan bias, prompting suggestions that its recommendations reflect the “views of the committee’s Conservative majority” with Liberal minority members unsupportive of its conclusions. One central premise of the report—that Islamist radicalization is a grave threat to public safety and Canadian values—has been criticized by members of Canada’s Muslim community as “an issue that is sensationalized disproportionately” in light of the extremely small fraction of Canadian Muslims who have actually gone abroad to support terrorist activities (0.013 per cent according to one estimation).

Some of the witnesses called by the Committee have been criticized for their lack of objectivity. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, was invited by the Committee to speak on the threat of religious extremism in the West, despite criticisms of Ali’s lack of experience living in Canada as well as her “anti-Muslim” activism as a former Muslim who has openly written that “Islam is not a religion of peace.” Other witnesses include Montreal-based researcher Marc Lebuis, who has also been accused of an anti-Islamic bias bordering on “McCarthyism” due to contentious accusations Lebuis has laid against Muslim law professor Faisal Kutty of being a spokesperson for two Al-Qaeda-linked organizations.

The report’s recommendation to work with provincial partners and Muslim communities to find “options that are available for the training and certification of imams in Canada,” has been denounced by some Muslims as discriminatory. While Senator Lang has clarified that the Committee did not recommend that Canada establish a “registry” for imams, the report comes to the conclusion that “foreign-trained” imams have been spreading “extremist religious ideology” in Canadian Muslim communities which may contribute to the increased radicalization of community members. According to the report, this extremist ideology supported by foreign imams raises “serious concerns if they continue to go unchecked,” the assumption being such ideological checks may be met through training imams who may better represent “Canadian values” if trained domestically rather than overseas.

The report has its vocal detractors within the Committee itself. Senator Grant Mitchell, the Committee’s Deputy Chair, has criticized the report as being full of “poorly considered ideas” while also being conspicuously empty of any meaningful discussion on the “essential measures” necessary for combatting radicalization. These measures would most likely come in the form of increased research and oversight of the various intelligence and security agencies authorized to combat terrorism—a particularly urgent omission in the report, according to Senator Mitchell, given the strained resources these agencies face.

Senator Mitchell’s opposition to the report speaks to a central flaw of its content: the preponderance of rhetoric in lieu of pragmatic action. Discussions around the need to certify imams provide little real input regarding the proper defence against international and domestic terrorism. To suggest that the federal government should be involved in the training of local imams in an effort to combat extremism presupposes that foreign clerics coming to Canada are intrinsically more supportive of religious extremism than Canadian ones. This assertion has been backed up by some testimony, although more rigorous academic and evidence-based proof is needed to justify government intervention.

The committee’s call to arms against Islamist extremism and their vehement criticism against existing public safety efforts to combat the jihadist threat seem to ignore a challenge that other Western countries have realized: identifying potential “radicals” is extremely difficult. Dealing with potential jihadists and those returning from abroad—including the approximately 145 Canadians fighting for IS—is a challenge that Canada and other nations have had to face, with mixed results. Deradicalization programs adopted by countries such as Denmark may be one option. These programs may work alongside what Senator Mitchell describes as “outreach programs in the ‘pre-criminal space’” to prevent Canadians from adopting extremist ideologies. The report itself suggests that some members of law enforcement have viewed outreach programs favourably, although there are concerns that their effectiveness may still be “unclear and unproven.”

Following closely after Bill C-51 (the “Anti-Terrorism Act”) receiving royal assent, the Committee’s report is part of the federal government’s agenda to prioritize terrorism as a policy concern—a potent political issue in an election year according to some commentators. As Senator Lang suggests, international jihadism is a threat, especially considering IS’ open call for attacks against Canada. The tone of the report, however, leaves much to be desired as far as gaining traction in the very community it needs support from. Both the selection of witnesses with troubling views on Islam and Muslims and suggestions to train local clerics while ignoring a potential backlash from Canadian Muslims do little to serve Canada’s security interests. The end result of these efforts is to further intensify a climate of isolation, marginalization, and mistrust between Muslims in Canada and the federal government, rather than fostering the mutual understanding and support needed to ensure public safety.

Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.

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