A tip-off from a prominent Toronto imam more than a year ago appears to be at the heart of arrests at the end of April in the alleged VIA Rail terror plot in Canada. In fact, counter-terrorism police began their press briefing by thanking Muslim leaders.
Even in the Boston marathon tragedy, national and local Muslim organizations have condemned the bombings. The largest Muslim civil rights group in the country, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, even asked Muslims to offer authorities any leads that they may have. Moreover, in an interesting twist, mosques refused to arrange Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s janaza (Islamic funeral prayers). In fact, a number of fatwas (religious opinions) have been issued recommending that prominent individuals and imams not lead his janaza. Imam Suhaib Webb, a nationally recognized cleric from Boston, said “I don’t think I could ethically lead a prayer for him, but I would not stop people from praying upon him.” The intent behind this is to send a clear message to potential terrorists.
Despite such proactive measures, some self-proclaimed experts continue to pin collective blame on Muslims, citing the “radicalization” of the community. In fact, some Islamophobes who have the ear of governments on both sides of the border, have had the audacity to claim that 80 per cent of the mosques are controlled by radical imams and serve as incubators of “homegrown” terrorists.
There is no credible evidence to support such bald assertions. On the contrary, the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University released a study in February titled “Muslim-American Terrorism: Declining Further,” [PDF] which concluded that Muslim terrorism was not a significant threat. It had claimed 33 lives since September 11, 2001, compared with 200 victims of far-right terrorists and 180,000 murders. The Center has also documented the active role of Muslims in combating terror in the US. The same can be said for Canada.
Moreover, as national security reporter, Spencer Ackerman, notes, “In just the past year, the mass shootings that have captivated America’s attention killed 66 Americans.” This is twice the number from Muslim-American terrorism in the 11 years after 9/11 leading up to the Boston tragedy.
Muslims must not be held collectively responsible for the alleged actions of criminals among them. No other community is put in such an unenviable position. Italians are not asked to condemn the actions of the Mafia, nor were the Irish asked to apologize for the actions of the Irish Republican Army. The general public is not expected to take responsibility for the actions of the criminals who vandalized mosques and discriminated against or attacked Muslims since the tragic events of September 11. In fact, the FBI has documented a dramatic spike in anti-Muslim hate and this cannot be pinned on the average American.
The vast majority of Muslims condemn terrorism because even classical Islamic law explicitly classifies hirabah (terrorism) as a serious sin. In fact, indiscriminate killing and attacks are prohibited. Indeed, the Qur’an (6:151) proclaims: “Anyone who kills a person (except pursuant to law) it is as if he has killed the whole of humanity.”
Moreover, the Prophet Mohammed’s strict rules of engagement even in times of hostility were blunt: “Do not kill women or children or non-combatants.” Such nuances are lost on those with limited knowledge of their religion. Indeed, a 2010 United States Institute for Peace study [PDF] titled “Why Youth Join al-Qaeda” of more than 2,000 people who were attracted to terrorism confirms this. Colonel John Matt Venhaus, the author of the report, found that most of these youth “have an inadequate understanding of their own religion, which makes them vulnerable to misinterpretations of the religious doctrine.”
Muslims wonder why they must keep distancing themselves from something so antithetical to their world view. Even when they disown such conduct, it is under-reported or dismissed as a PR exercise. That said, as part of a democratic civil society the Muslim community has a duty to the mainstream to address the perception, real or imagined, about the extremists within.
To its credit, the community has risen to the challenge. Many imams and scholars openly challenge jihadist ideology. From my legal and activism experience on both sides of the border over the years, numerous individuals and institutions have organized anti-radicalization events and even worked with counter-terrorism officials in the interest of our collective security.
As part of the same civil society, our governments also must do their part.
First, we must re-examine our foreign policy and its consequences. It is high time to acknowledge that all innocent lives lost, whether to terrorists or to the “war on terror,” are equally deplorable. Victims do not appreciate the difference between a pressure-cooker bomb and a drone strike. Disagree with their tactics as you may, it is undeniable that there are many in the world who have legitimate grievances against our foreign policy, some of whom may allow anger to overshadow religious rules of engagement.
Moreover, Washington’s drone policy has only contributed to greater distrust in both the global and domestic arena. As Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni writer, testified [PDF] about a drone strike against his village just before the April 23rd Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearings into the issue, “the drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine.” He described the blowback from such attacks.
Second, at the domestic level, both of our governments have been on an undeclared and possibly unintended witch hunt. Muslim charities are unfairly targeted, Islam and its symbols are unnecessarily made into an issue and intelligence harassment is rampant. Terrorist profiling often is based simply on guilt by association, which just adds to the vicious cycle of marginalization, distrust and blowback.
In the US, between 2010 and 2012, lawmakers in 32 states introduced bills to ban Islamic law, and seven states—Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, Idaho, and Tennessee—enacted such bills into law. As many commentators have documented, these bills are essentially a solution looking for a problem. In fact, these laws may have even created additional challenges for some women who sought to advance their rights. Department of Justice (DOJ) figures also suggest [PDF] that anti-Muslim “zoning bias,” where towns refuse to grant building permits for mosques, is a growing problem.
In the Canadian context, some have questioned the timing of the arrests (especially given that there was no imminent threat), which appears planned to push through The Combating Terrorism Act that would revive some provisions of Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act which had “sunsetted” after a five-year period. The bill, passed two days after the arrests, revived two draconian provisions that had expired: preventive detention for three days without charges and “investigative hearings” under which a suspect who refuses to testify before a judge could be imprisoned for up to a year, as well as new restrictions on travel.
Third, government officials must be careful not to alienate the community by seeking advice only from those with an anti-Muslim agenda. Too many hawks and Islamophobes have the ear of both administrations.
Fourth, the accused must be given their day in court in a fair, open and transparent manner. The trust and confidence asked of the community must not be squandered by resorting to the secret hearings and secret evidence provisions of the anti-terror legislation. Any attempt to deny due process and the rule of law will certainly have an impact on co-operation.
Finally, it must be understood that the majority of Muslims, who are neither secular nor ultra-orthodox, hold the key to any serious and productive bridge-building. If government agencies believe they can win the “war on terror” by undermining front-line soldiers, they had better think again.