Could feds’ anti-terror rhetoric hurt counter-terror strategies?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper makes an announcement in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

People who try to prevent radicalization of youth in Muslim communities say rhetoric around the federal Conservatives’ new anti-terror bill, and the way the Prime Minister presented it, makes their job harder.

“There is a way to have solutions to this problem, but some of what’s being proposed is what’s working at cross-purposes,” said Toronto lawyer Naseer Syed, who works to link investigators and law-enforcement with Toronto’s Muslim community.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has characterized “homegrown” terror and recruitment of Canadians to fight with terror groups abroad as an urgent threat necessitating the sweeping anti-terror bill introduced last Friday.

Perhaps ironically, Harper’s campaign-style unveiling of the federal Conservatives’ new anti-terror bill displaced hundreds of Muslims who planned to pray in that Richmond Hill community centre just as they have every week for years.

When the Prime Minister’s Office booked space in Richmond Hill’s Bayview Hill Community Centre, organizers’ understanding was that he and his retinue would be out by 1 p.m., said the city’s communications director Meeta Gandhi.

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“It was simply a scheduling problem,” Gandhi said. “They ended up needing it until 3. It was nothing we had anticipated or expected.”

So staff worked with the group to find space at a nearby facility instead, she said, adding that she believes Harper’s staff knew about the other group that was originally going to use the space that afternoon.

“This is not our normal practice; we certainly would not want to move around a permit-holder for any reason. But in this case it was unavoidable.”

The Muslim group has no complaints against the city. Everything worked out, said one organizer who asked not to be named. But “it was kind of inconvenient, especially for seniors.”

“Prime Minister Harper was proud to join Canadians of various faith and ethnic communities to announce new anti-terrorism measures that will protect all Canadians against jihadi terrorists who seek to destroy our values and undermine our security,” spokesperson Stephen Lecce said in an email.

“That is also why Canada is not sitting on the sidelines – as some would have us do – and is instead joining our Allies in supporting the international coalition in the fight against ISIL.”

Syed,  who wasn’t among those displaced from the Richmond Hill event, calls the optically awkward eviction “a bit of a double whammy” when combined with the Prime Minister’s speech that day, which some think unfairly targeted Muslims.

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READ MORE: Are you already violating the feds’ anti-terror bill? 

Another comment by Harper that day — “It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else” — prompted some high-profile Muslim organizations, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, to ask the prime minister to apologize for characterizing mosques as places of violent radicalization.

“It doesn’t matter what the age of the person is, or whether they’re in a basement, or whether they’re in a mosque or somewhere else,” he said. Ziyaad Mia, with the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, invited Harper to visit his mosque to see for himself. “We’re not cleaning kalashnikovs.”

“It’s important for our elected officials to be judicious in describing the threats that we together face. They need to be accurate,” said the council’s executive director Ihsaan Gardee. “And when rhetoric like that is used, in the mind of the average person, they don’t necessarily make the distinction between extremists and the average, law-abiding, mainstream Muslim.”

Gardee worries Harper’s tone recycles “myths and stereotypes” about Muslim-Canadians being inherently violent, unwilling to integrate, presenting “some kind of a fifth column.” (Paradoxically, Gardee added, the message that Muslims aren’t as Canadian as everyone else, or should be viewed with additional scrutiny, makes it less likely Muslim communities will integrate.)

READ MORE: The tenuous human bridges in Canada’s fight against homegrown terror

And some worry the bill itself and the language with which it’s been sold could make law-enforcement’s job of building bridges and trust in Muslim communities that much harder – and contribute to the very kind of radicalization to violence Harper says his law is trying to quash.

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Neither Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney nor the RCMP responded to requests for comment Monday morning.* (Global News didn’t publish this story earlier because we were waiting for comment from government, and received PMO comment Thursday.)

“Theres two different things happening,” Syed said. “There’s what police and security services are doing, trying to build a relationship and trying to build trust.

But unfortunately the government, and especially the prime minister, haven’t been making the same efforts. And the language they’ve been using has been angering the mainstream Muslim community.”

“That’s made the security agency’s job tougher.”

Syed himself has spent years working to bridge relations between Muslims, police and intelligence officers — giving each someone to go to if they have concerns.

READ MORE: Meet the lawyer linking police with Toronto’s Muslim community

Syed worries his government is alienating the very people whose hearts and minds police and investigators have spent years trying to win over. If young people feel there’s no safe, peaceful way for them to voice dissent or make themselves heard, “that’s where the greatest danger is for radicalizing,” Syed said.

“People think, what are they doing here? What’s the point, it’s a hypocritical society. And if you don’t give them hope, then that’s the greatest danger. …

“It makes our job more difficult, because what tools do we use? What arguments do we have in our toolkit?”

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Gardee said he’d appreciate more backing from the government for initiatives such as the “United Against Terror” handbook his group put out last year in concert with the Islamic Social Services Association and the RCMP (the latter pulled out of the handbook’s launch at the last minute because of apparent problems with contents it had helped develop).

“We hope the PM and his party would not politicize national security for the sake of an election,” Gardee said.

“I can understand this desire to do something. but it’s important to make a distinction between being seen to do something and actually doing something that’s going to effectively tackle this.”

*Update: Public Safety responded to our query at 8 a.m. Friday in an email, the text of which is below:

“The Government of Canada remains steadfast in its resolve to combat terrorism and violent extremism at home and abroad.  Communities have a responsibility for addressing extremism within their midst. This includes creating constructive programs messaging to counter violent or abhorrent narratives. The government includes community views in its approach to addressing extremism. Groups like the Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security are key in bringing together leading figures from Canada’s diverse communities in order to assist and advise the government in how to better support countering violent extremism.

The Government of Canada is reaching out to all communities to foster dialogue on national security and public safety matters, and help community members understand the role of Canadian national security departments and agencies. The sessions also help to build trust, and establish relationships.  Our conversations cover a number of topics, including how communities can prevent radicalization to violence.

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In conjunction with partners, Public Safety Canada has deepened its dialogue with communities about radicalization to violence, followed by a facilitated discussion of extremism indicators and points of intervention.”

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