The Drumbeat of War in an Election Year Misses the Point

A case can be made for Canada expanding its current mission in Iraq and joining the US in air strikes against the psychopathic ISIL in Syria. It hasn’t been made, and certainly not in regards to protecting our national interest as PM Harper is rather keen to reiterate. The logic of chasing ISIL is filled with holes.

The claim has been made that ISIL declared war on Canada, but we haven’t looked at what this actually means. How much damage can a group of thousands of miles away inflict? What is their strategy, their tactics to do us harm? We are expanding a mission, not because of the consequences to Iraq and the region, or some greater moral good, but because they have threatened to attack us.

Well, excuse me, they can’t launch an (expletive) attack from Syria. Maybe they can fly in some renegades, but this is why we fund security agencies. Their best option is to radicalize Muslim youth in Canada.

Let’s be blunt, youth are and have always been susceptible to alienation no matter what their background, and we do an absolute crap job of addressing this problem. It’s why youth in my lifetime have always turned away in droves from voting in elections. We’re banking on people to go through this phase, and hope by the end of their 20’s they have a decent job or have settled down with their focus now on the more mundane aspects of living, you know, like getting on with life.

Nice idea, but increasingly difficult to do as our cities become too expensive to live in as we build condos for international investors, not Canadians.

Another significant change in society is access to confirmation bias through the Internet, a problem for everyone, not just youth. In this process we substitute connecting directly in person with connecting online.

To some degree we’ve always gravitated to those who share similar views, our tribe, where we feel safe, but in the process of discovery and even within our group we can be challenged to contemplate other perspectives.

The Internet provides a hotline to circumvent this process. It’s an efficient way to eliminate other viewpoints. When we do encounter them our response tends to be reactionary. Message boards, blogs (including this one), twitter etc. appear no more than a propaganda war for pre-existing views. We’re missing the human aspect. If we don’t engage with our neighbours (of which I’m guilty) then they are easily objectified.

An argument used by radicals to lure young Muslims is that the West is killing Muslims or doing nothing to stop the killing. Five minutes online and they can find images to back that narrative. They don't need radical websites.

Walk the streets, and we appear oblivious to their plight. This feeds into a loop that our culture is anti-Muslim. The recruiter has the attention of their prey. The aim of these confidence tricksters is to break the bonds of trust between their recruit and the society they live in, and importantly those closest to them. It depends on fostering the alienation.

And in Canada, what are we doing, knowing the bleeding obvious?

Increasing the alienation of course.

Our Prime Minister recently criticized the niqab as from a culture that is anti-woman. He can do that because most Canadians would agree, and so, in an election year, he can score brownie points. What he doesn’t factor is any affect it may have on susceptible young Muslims.

Shouldn’t he be allowed to speak his mind?

Indeed, but he rarely ventures from predetermined messaging. The latest being “it’s in our national interest”.

Bear in mind he and his party have ramped up the spectre of a (home grown) terrorist threat so he can force far-reaching laws upon Canadians. If he and his party’s concerns are terror threats from inside the Canadian community, inflammatory remarks irking those most likely to carry out this threat would seem at best unwise, and at worst, wholly irresponsible and counter to Canadian values of tolerance. It begs the question just how serious that terror threat is—perhaps not what it seems.

It is, however, a great political play. Introduce laws to protect Canadians with enough elements to draw fire from the opposition and you make them appear negligent or not serious about running the country. It screams, Hey, these guys don’t care about your security. Crack the whip of fear, throw in some disparaging remarks to be added to the cumulative effect of anti-Muslim sentiment, and presto, you’ve activated your base and attracted the soft Conservative vote that was drifting away. It’s small, but significant percentages.

The niqab took centre stage because a Muslim woman was thrown out of a Canadian citizenship ceremony for refusing to identify herself. Actually, that’s a complete fabrication. Nothing of the sort happened but if you’re only catching sound bites of news and headlines, at least the refusing to identify herself part, like movies based on true stories, it's an easily reached conclusion. Most Canadians, including yours truly, would think it absolutely ridiculous not to identify yourself when you’re about to become a Canadian citizen, so you can see the sentiment the PM was playing on. Double score brownie points.

If you weren’t paying attention to the details, which is frankly 90% of the population, you wouldn’t be aware it was the woman’s constitutional right to wear the niqab and was challenging a ban of the niqab introduced in 2011 which prevented her from wearing it during a citizenship ceremony. Crucially you would have missed that she is willing to identify herself (in a private room) beforehand.

It took weeks before I found out that last critical piece of information through casual observance rather than research (as in reading a newspaper). It left me thinking, as much as I don’t like the niqab, because we express so much with our face and covering it up reduces authentic communication, if a woman wants to wear it during the swearing of an oath after formally identifying herself, it is her right to do so under Canadian law.

If I wanted to dress up as a clown with my face painted to celebrate becoming a Canadian I should be allowed to, in fact lets be allowed to take our oath naked. In this context, the woman (Zunera Ishaq) is simply saying, this is who I am.

Instead the narrative allowed her to be portrayed as anti-Canadian and people of her ilk not having Canadian values. Now imagine a young, susceptible Muslim, who then hears racist comments from elected members of parliament hot on the heels of (and before) the PM’s comment and who just happen to be in the Prime Minister’s party?

This brand of Conservatives really knows how to divide a society. What on earth are we doing?  What on earth are they doing? Does our government actually know what it’s doing?

Add this to fears of terrorism and the barbaric images we’ve witnessed (or heard about) over the last several months and you create a hyperreality allowing public opinion to support an expansion of activities in the Middle East.  An action sure to back the radicals message, the sort of message I thought we were trying to undermine.

A result of this hyperreality is a society losing trust with one another. Isn’t that the terrorist’s strategy too? Isn’t this what they want? Create a division they can exploit? Has our government just fallen into the most obvious trap?

You see, we might physically defeat ISIL (unlikely without ground troops) but the ideology remains. A defeated ISIL will result in a mutation of groups with millions of dollars (could we stop money flowing into their coffers please) and will be able to reach many disaffected youth because we are missing a third piece to this strategy to defeat terror, the defusing of domestic tension. And it should have been the first one.

Instead we have a proposal for poorly conceived laws intended to catch a group before they carry out an attack, or before an individual is completely radicalized. We are watching a pot of water come to a slow boil but are doing nothing to mitigate the water being poured into the pot.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on these laws and military operations, and nothing will be spent on fostering goodwill in our communities. We don’t need a roundtable on why young people become radicalized; we need to do something about it.

Every action this government takes does the reverse. We need to find ways for people to connect in person so we can see each other’s humanity. This is the challenge of the early 21st century. It’s literally one person at a time, and while it has to be grassroots it also requires leadership. We’re not all going to like or agree on the same matters, but there’s far less chance that we’re going to want to kill one another.

We have to bang heads together and see the bleeding obvious. Assimilation of immigrants is a slow generational process. The speed of change in the world, the one that ironically may slow down change and allow us to ignore our neighbours far outstrips this traditional process.

We want people to be free to practise their religion and tell others far away, our values as a country, as a society is the way forward. We want unity under an umbrella of diversity. It should be so strong no kid would ever contemplate supporting ISIL or any other religious fundamentalist terror group. We make a natural assumption this should happen especially when events such as the persecution of Yezidis hit headlines last year, but the world has changed in the way we communicate, and in opportunity and affordable living, and this complacency means our great society needs work and investment, not rhetoric.

I fear though, we have a Prime Minister who wants to have his moment in history — at least in a Canadian context. He wants a bit of Churchill but comes off hollow, a poor carbon copy of George W. Bush, although he is getting better at delivering a joke. His thinking is traditional, from the history books, the men of war, and it’s strictly inside the box.

He doesn’t want to be on the sidelines in the Global War on Terror, itself a nebulous, ongoing, no-end in sight mission much like the War on Drugs. But how can fostering unity and harmony at home be considered the sidelines? In terms of national interest for any leader, surely this has to be the priority. What we’ve witnessed is a Prime Minister and his party sowing seeds of discord.

As an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, PM Stephen Harper would be aware of what a little war does in difficult economic times. His plan of turning Canada into an energy superpower has spluttered into a super whimper. On a petty note, I’ve had a couple of humorous tweets ready to go for weeks on the matter, but there’s been nary a whisper on the economy. Instead, I hear hollow words from a bygone age.

All this nonsense is about an election to hold onto power. Talking about security scores well in the polls. Drum up Nationalist fervour. Insert your favourite catchphrase (or not so catchy phrase). The consequences don’t matter. If it’s necessary there can always be more war and increased draconian powers, and media will continue to be used to create a hyperreality in which to sell them.

There is a case for military intervention and it’s on humanitarian grounds, not because it serves the national interest and the threat of a terror attack. It would require achievable targets, explanation, and discussion, all clearly communicated to Canadians. If the government were truly interested in acting upon humanitarian grounds it would have done so last summer when Yazidis were hounded up a mountain in northern Iraq. They waited until October.

Canadians have always struck me as having a great deal of common sense, and now we have a government who seem intent on reducing us to little sense. It’s sad because it doesn’t have to be this way.


Small notes

Bill C-51 does make an attempt to censure radical opinion on terrorism. The Walrus article outlines why that might not be a good idea. I have my own views on this. Those groups will modify their behaviour, or how they would appear to their potential victims. We shouldn't assume those who are screaming from the rooftops (or the pulpits) are a deciding factor. In fact, it may be better to leave their websites untouched, not because they'll be driven underground (a valid point), but because they appear unhinged. A grounded youth should be able to see right through psychopathic propaganda and question them. Confirmation bias doesn't necessarily come from a terror group. 

During the writing of the piece, a couple of amendments have been made to Bill C-51. A protestor, say someone taking action on climate change, will not be subject to anti-terrorism laws. Amazing they would include such a loose clause in the first place. Still, they won't amend the lack of oversight in the proposals, the main criticism of the Bill.

The cumulative effect narrative: Muslims and niqab, different, don't trust them, look like terrorists, we must do something about terror attacks, their culture is anti-woman, their culture is anti-Canadian, threat from Muslims inside Canada, horrific images of barbaric acts carried out by ISIL who are Muslims, who are here, who could turn against us, they've declared war against us. Let me know if you think that isn't divisive. I'll send a couple of men in white coats.

The terms strategy and tactics have become commonplace for politicians and pundits alike since the release of the documentary The Gatekeepers. I couldn't resist.