In the past decade, Canada has tried to use new tools to counter various security threats. The impact of the ongoing war in Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis highlight both the urgency of having such tools and the complexity of their design.
A growing number of Canadians joining different armed groups in Syria further complicates the situation and introduces a new fear, and a new challenge: a fear of the dangers returnees might pose, and the challenge of de-radicalizing Canadian youth.
For the most part, Canada has borrowed tools to combat radicalization from the 2011 British-made counter-extremism program known as PREVENT, as well as an older counter-terrorism strategy from 2003 dubbed CONTEST. That is where the danger lies.
Canada’s current de-radicalization efforts should be measured carefully.
Many experts have criticized the effectiveness of counter-radicalization as a set of security practices, and suggested that the only outcome has been the further isolation of Muslim communities in Great Britain and some Western European countries.
Critics argue that both PREVENT and CONTEST reflect a discourse that denounces multiculturalism as a way of managing diversity. They describe it as failure. Yet British Prime Minister David Cameron embraced the views of both policies when in February 2011 he spoke of a society with “different cultures living separate lives apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.”
Very quickly, the language of counter-terrorism appropriated that notion, with the idea that homegrown terrorism was somehow the product of multiculturalism. Radicalization, it has been argued, is a particular social problem and has to be addressed differentially as if it was primarily a Muslim problem.
In this view, the Muslim community represents a reified, monolithic and cohesive group which is collectively responsible for the violence emerging from its midst. It is also perceived to be collectively responsible for addressing the issue. In the meantime, states are debating how to govern Muslim communities in a way that does not create a terrorist problem, and deliberating on what kind of welfare should be provided to communities in need.
To remedy the problem, some argue the need to promote moderate voices within Islam and reform the governance of mosques. In Europe, and in Great Britain especially, this became a particular way of managing diversity.
In Canada, similar ideas floated around but produced results of marginal significance because the causes of radicalization have been viewed in simple terms as an inevitable set of steps. People are first attracted to religion — either by going back to their traditional faith or converting — and are put in touch with preachers who bring them to a more fervent way of practising their faith. There are a few more steps and then basically they commit an act of terror. Muslim youth are seen as being at risk, while those radicalized are viewed as victims. Individual choices and trajectories, free will and the notion that one is indeed a political actor are not part of this explanation.
When it comes to managing various expressions of diversity in the post-Charlie Hebdo world and countering extremism and radicalization, there is the increasing belief that law enforcement and policing should be predictive rather than reactive. This is a very dangerous shift from earlier models, one that occurred in Canada as well.
Multiculturalism is still alive and well in Canada when compared to Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands and France — Bill C-51 and the idea of a phone line to report so-called ‘barbaric cultural practices’ notwithstanding. It should remain so.
Our government should refrain from adopting models created by others in its struggle against radicalism. Community and non-governmental organizations should also reject misguided views of the radicalization process and play no part in applying models created by “security professionals.”
Canada should promote even more forcefully the idea of respecting and recognizing a community with all of its richness and shades of grey because that is the way multicultural society should be organized. We also should have a frank conversation about which model of citizenship we want to have in contemporary society.
Srdja Pavlovic teaches modern European and Balkan history at the University of Alberta.