The Unspoken Truth: Canada in the Age of Terror

Categories: Letters From Leadership

There is a famous aphorism attributed to Elias R. Beadle: ?Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not.? In the aftermath of the London transit system bombings, the Canadian media coverage of this horrific event has exemplified Beadle?s dictum. From editorials in newspapers based in western Canada to commentaries on national television stations based in Toronto, one suggestion by both pundits and politicians has emerged in the wake of these bombings: It is not ?if? terrorism in the name of Islam reaches Canada, but ?when.? Perhaps the person who has most inculcated this belief into public consciousness is Anne McLellan, the Public Security Minister. The media has followed Ms. McLellan?s lead and interviewed a wave of ?terrorism experts? to endorse this perception. However, in this cacophony of speculative journalism that seems to be doing such a good job at selling newspapers and keeping TV viewers tuned in, the media has obscured any understanding of what this form of terrorism represents by not asking two related questions: first, what are the terrorists? goals; second, who are their targets. Contrary to what the Public Security Minister would like Canadians to believe, it is not a question of either ?if? or ?when? Islamic terrorism comes to Canada. The reality that materializes after asking those two important questions is the unspoken truth that this form of terrorism is already present.

One barrier that must be removed in order to appreciate this unspoken truth is the ambiguity and misrepresentation of the terrorist group known as Al-Qaeda and other likeminded factions. Although it will take a much more learned and respected expert to properly define this organization, what seems clear is that Al-Qaeda and this new form of Islamic terrorism is less of an organization and more of a movement that is directed by ideas and information. It is no wonder why contemporary academics are so interested in this group. Al-Qaeda represents both the result and the Achilles? heal of a wired, interconnected ?global village.? New media such as the Internet and satellites have made information and mentalities that were was once only available and cultivated in places such as Pakistan or Afghanistan to spread throughout the world?including Canada.

The Internet is the ultimate double-edge sword. On the one hand, although the Internet has promoted further understanding across cultures and nations, it has also been fertile ground for the proliferation of hate and animosity in direct opposition to cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. On the other hand, although the Internet has democratized information in a manner that outstrips the efforts of any of the world?s great libraries, it has done so in such an indiscriminate manner that information for how to construct weapons of mass destruction that was once only available to a select few is now available to any user. Getting back to the definition, Al-Qaeda is not a structured, hierarchical organization but a movement of loosely connected individuals that thrive on hate and make use of deadly information. Osama Bin-Laden is less of a leader and more of a brand name or icon that acts as a Google search phrase that connects those who share his hate and require lethal information. This is apparent in the names that some of these likeminded terrorists use to label their organizations. For example, responsibility for the recent bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh was claimed by the Abdallah Azzam Brigades. The group took their moniker from the name of the late Palestinian who is said to have helped formulate the religious ideology of Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda?s concept of Jihad.

With an appreciation of this new form of terrorism, it is now necessary to survey the recent global attacks in relation to events that have taken place in Canada. The focal point of this examination is the related questions of what were the terrorists? goals and who were their targets. Although each attack is unique and may have more than one goal or target, a generalized goal and common target seems to emerge whether the attack took place in Egypt, England, Turkey or Canada. The primary goal is to derail social coexistence especially between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The primary targets fit into two headings: first, places of coexistence where members of diverse religions, races and ethnicities interact on a daily basis such as transit systems, urban neighbourhoods, and vacation destinations; second, religious institutions especially Jewish schools and synagogues that balance the preservation of their tradition with the need to connect to modern society.

Recently in London and over a year ago in Madrid, groups either directly affiliated or inspired by Al-Qaeda have targeted those cities? mass transit systems. The ostensible goal of both attacks was to focus attention on England and Spain?s involvement in the Iraq war. This suggested goal is a red herring. One only needs to look at the nationalities of those who perpetrate these attacks to notice that while they may say they are fighting for Iraq, they are not Iraqi nationals. The real goal emerges when you examine the target. Attacking civilians who have different ethnicities, races, religions and economic statuses at the same location is an existential attack on the type of democratic society that creates a transit system that is intended to be used by everyone. It is not a coincidence that one of the locations of the recent London bombings was Aldgate Underground station, which is located close to one of Europe?s largest mosques. According to Ahmed Sheikh, President of the Muslim Association of Britain, this specific bombing pointed to the fact that ?the person who did this was targeting along with wider British society the Muslim community, ruining the good relationship we have.? Again, the primary goal of this attack did not concern any conflict beyond England?s borders; rather, the primary goal was to disrupt coexistence and promote an atmosphere of fear and hate, which are both inimical to social and political coexistence.

Luckily in Canada there has yet to be a substantial attack on any of the country?s major mass transit systems or urban centres. In the aftermath of the London bombings, the media has highlighted the fact that Canada may be relatively immune from terrorism because its lack of direct involvement in the Iraq war. Again, this connection between Iraq and terrorist attacks is a red herring. Given the country?s reputation as a multicultural and pluralistic society that has welcomed immigration as a core facet of the country political and economic stability, Canada represents a clear opposition to Al-Qaeda?s worldview. It comes as no surprise that Canada was specifically mentioned by Osama Bin-Laden as a potential target. However, although Al-Qaeda the terrorist organization may not see Canada as a priority considering the attention of on an attack on London or New York would far outweigh an attack on Toronto or Ottawa, the very fact that Canada was mentioned may inspire people who share Al-Qaeda?s worldview. In fact, before Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber, was captured en route to his attack on Los Angeles? airport, he had consulted with other Algerian immigrants to Canada over the possibility of bombing a major Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal. Fortunately for the citizens of Montreal and Canada, LAX was deemed a more lucrative target. Nonetheless, if the terrorists went through with their plan of using a gasoline truck to unleash carnage on an orthodox-Jewish neighbourhood, the result would have been detrimental to the stability of social cohesion in one of Canada?s most multicultural cities.

Although the fact that Ressam?s plan never materialized makes it understandable for Anne McClellan to suggest it is not ?if? but ?when? Canada is attacked by Al-Qaeda, she is ignoring one event of terrorism that may not be as dramatic but is as real as any other bombing in the world. This event was the firebombing of the United Talmud Torah?s school library in Montreal. Thankfully, the attack by a single individual, Sleiman El-Merhebi, took place at night when no one was in the building. Nonetheless, if you examine El-Merhebi?s goal and target while understanding that Al-Qaeda may not be a centralized group, it is clear that this attack that took place in May of 2004 is not that different to an attack attributed to Al-Qaeda terrorists in November of 2003 on two synagogues in Istanbul. Of course, one cannot compare the magnitude of the Istanbul bombings to the attack in Montreal, but the terrorists? intentions and goals as unequivocally stated in their own statements are quite similar: attacking Jewish institutions in the Diaspora as an indirect means of attacking Israel and disrupting the social cohesion between the Jewish community and the larger social body.

The question that remains is why would a Canadian politician or the media want to obscure the reality that acts of terrorism have already taken place? As previously suggested, one reason is the misinterpretation of Al-Qaeda. However, there may be an intentional reason for politicians and the media to ?make things appear as they are not.? It is commonly believed that what makes Canada such a dynamic, peaceful and multicultural country is the absence of fear. The lack of fear has created an environment that has been conducive to dialogue, coexistence and the rational interchange of ideas.

There is no real consensus for why Canadians lack fear?despite Michael Moore?s exposé in Bowling for Columbine. One suggestion is that due to various reasons?the most substantial is geography and being removed from global conflict?Canada does not face the amount of internal and external violence that is experienced on a daily basis in other parts of the world. With this in mind, it is understandable for politicians and the media to continue to perpetuate the belief that Canada has not and will therefore not succumb to violence committed by Al-Qaeda and its disciples. Contrary to the myths circulated by progressive individuals in the United States and the rest of the world that Canada is some sort of utopia that is impervious to fear, the reality is that Canadians react as fearfully as anyone else when faced with a surge of violence. History demonstrates how strongly Canada reacts to the fear that results from violent or potentially violent acts: the RCMP?s crushing defeat of the 1869-1870 Red River Rebellion; the Internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two; Prime Minister Trudeau?s use of the War Measures Act in response to the FLQ?s 1970 terror campaign to achieve a sovereign Quebec state; the Canadian military?s show of force during the 1990 Oka Crisis over a Mohawk land claim.

Considering this strong connection between violence, fear, and the vitality of the Canadian state, it is conceivable that the truth regarding Islamic terrorism in Canada will remain unspoken. For now, it is better to deem events such as the United Talmud Torah firebombing as a random act of vandalism perpetrated against Canadian Jews and not part of a wave of global terrorism. However, if Canada is ever attacked to the degree witnessed in New York, Istanbul and London, Canadians will certainly react with fear. At that point, Canadians will look back and wonder why their politicians and media were unable to understand this new form of terrorism or even chose to consciously ignore the situation.

About Howard Fremeth

Howard Fremeth has always had a close affinity with Israel. He has visited Israel on three separate occasions. In the summer of 1997, he had the opportunity to live the Canadian-Zionist dream by playing hockey in Metulla's Mercaz Canada. From 1998-2001, he worked at Habonim Dror's Machaneh Gesher in Ontario where he learnt about and was inspired by labour Zionism. Howard has just completed a MA in Communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. His thesis focused on the formation of communication satellite policy in Canada. While at Simon Fraser University, Howard was heavily involved in raising Israel issues on campus through his work with the Israel Advocacy Club and writing for the campus newspaper. Howard will soon be starting his PhD in Mass Communications at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He is generally interested in Canadian broadcasting and telecommunication policy. In particular, how the federal government has regulated communications to achieve social objectives and how these policies have recently been challenged by new technologies, consumer demands and legal decisions. He believes his work has relevance to Canada's Jewish community as the policy regime that once curbed hate speech and regulated foreign satellite broadcasts is now under disrepute.
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