New Canadian Media
Monday, 23 October 2017 17:35

We Ignore Islamism at our Own Peril

Commentary by: Fred Maroun in Ottawa

Quebec recently passed a law banning face coverings for people delivering or receiving public services, which has re-ignited the debate across Canada on banning the burqa and niqab. 

Some people, such as Idil Issa, have accused Quebec’s politicians of going after Muslims because they are a minority and an easy target. Knowledge of Quebec history and culture, however, contradicts that accusation.

Quebec’s strong liberal values

Quebec is by far the most progressive province in Canada. Its two main parties are centrist (the Liberal Party of Quebec) and centre left (the Bloc Quebecois) whereas all other provinces have strong conservative parties. Quebec’s support for same-sex marriage is at 78%, possibly a world record. Quebec is a striving multicultural and diverse society.

Quebec was the only Canadian province to undergo a revolution (albeit a non-violent one, aptly named the Quiet Revolution) against religious and political conservatism.

There is a problem when women live in a society as liberal as Quebec and yet feel the need to comply with some of the most conservative and patriarchal religious rules ever invented. The fact that many Quebecers recognize this as a problem is not a symptom of intolerance.

Islamism

When Quebec’s new law is discussed, the discussion invariably drifts towards the face covering of some Muslim women due to a version of Islam that is highly sexist and regressive, commonly referred to as Islamism. The concern of citizens is clearly not face coverings in the abstract but the religious radicalism that it implies.

I grew up in Lebanon at a time when Muslims were already the majority, and yet I never saw a woman with her face covered in public, even in Muslim neighborhoods. Several members of my family grew up in Egypt and make the same observation. With the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the niqab and the burqa are now often seen in the streets of Cairo.

Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, wrote, “[I] never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. […] But in the 25 years I have called Canada home, I have seen a steady rise of Muslim women being strangled in the pernicious black tent that is passed off to naïve and guilt-ridden white, mainstream Canadians as an essential Islamic practice”.

Islamism is the opposite of social liberalism. Whereas liberalism aims to achieve for women equal rights and opportunities, Islamism considers women inferior and expects them to be subservient. The infiltration of Islamist values into Canadian society can only send chills into the backs of liberals.

A political hot potato

There are however no easy answers to fighting Islamism in Canada since we also value freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and personal choice. A ban on face coverings can be seen as a patriarchal imposition on women who may in theory choose to cover their faces. And if a husband prevents his wife from leaving the house with her face uncovered, a ban may transform her house into a jail.

Politicians try to avoid complex issues, and the growth of Islamism in liberal societies is undoubtedly a complex issue. Quebec politicians deserve credit for at least trying. Federal politicians refuse to even talk about it.

During the Conservative leadership campaign, Kellie Leitch attempted to bring forward a proposal to defend Canadian values by asking some tough questions of potential immigrants, but she faced strong opposition even within her party. After Andrew Scheer won the leadership, he left Leitch out of his shadow cabinet and gave another former candidate, Lisa Raitt, the position of deputy leader even though Leitch received almost twice as many votes as Raitt on the first ballot.

The federal Liberal Party and the NDP stay even farther away than their conservative counterparts from fighting Islamism. Almost all Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs), all NDP MPs, and a small number of Conservative MPs passed a vague motion condemning “Islamophobia” without defining its meaning, which could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle legitimate criticism of Islamism.

Demagogues could fill the void

While I never saw burqas and niqabs in Lebanon, I see them now in Ottawa, far too often. Such occurrences are frequent reminders to Canadians that the issue of Islamism is not a faraway problem but a local one.

Canada has no leading politician resembling Donald Trump at the moment, but neither did the U.S. until two years ago. Then Trump barged into the political scene and raised issues that Americans were concerned about, such as Islamic terrorism, issues that other politicians were afraid to discuss.

There are likely more significant reasons why Trump was elected, but his willingness to be politically incorrect was undoubtedly one of the attributes that attracted voters to him. We see such a phenomenon occurring in parts of Europe as well, such as Germany where the extreme right has significantly weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominance. 

Politicians must find the courage to ask the politically incorrect questions, even when they do not have all the answers, so that intelligent solutions can emerge. If competent politicians ignore the challenge, demagogues may take advantage of the vacuum and propose ill-conceived populist ideas, which is the last thing we need.


Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for The Times of Israel.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 12 October 2017 08:03

Jagmeet Singh and the Media's Race Problem

Commentary by: Paul Adams in Ottawa

Jagmeet Singh does not yet have a seat in the House of Commons. So when the new NDP leader comes to visit, he’ll have to sit up in the Leader of the Opposition’s Gallery and gaze down on the body he wishes someday to join. 

If all the MPs are there that day, Singh may notice that there are already five turbaned Sikh men with seats. In 2015, 47 so-called “visible minority” MPs were elected along with 10 Indigenous people, very nearly mirroring their relative shares of the Canadian population.

If Singh then swings his eyes to the north end of the Commons chamber to the gallery above the Speaker’s Chair — to the Press Gallery, that is — he may notice something different. So far as I am aware, there has never been a turbaned man working as a reporter for a major news organization, so he won’t see any of those.

No one keeps racial statistics on the Press Gallery the way they do for the House of Commons, but when I looked through the membership list the other day, I was able to identify only one visible minority reporter working for one of the big legacy media outlets – a reporter at CTV. None at the Globe, none at the Star, none at CBC-TV. And no Indigenous people either.

This may overstate the case a little bit. Since I was a reporter on the Hill in the 1990s, there has been an influx of young reporters of colour. They tend to be concentrated in online and specialist publications such as HuffPost Canada, the Hill Times, the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN) and some ethnic and foreign news outlets. The so-called Mainstream Media — not so much.

The House of Commons is today much more representative of the face of modern Canada than is the Press Gallery. Most of us can name a few visible minority and Indigenous politicians. Try coming up with more than one or two political journalists of colour.

When Singh was chosen as NDP leader, there were two streams of news coverage, both echoing (in a small way) the reaction to Barack Obama’s breakthrough in 2008. The first was a self-congratulatory celebration of the nation’s inclusivity. The second involved an obsessive concern with the man’s race and ethnicity.

One interview that got a lot of attention was Terry Milewski’s welcome-to-Ottawa interview with Singh on CBC’s Power and Politics. Milewski has never suffered fools gladly and operates on the premise that all politicians are fools until proven otherwise. (Stephen Harper was never able to establish this to Milewski’s satisfaction, so far as I could see.)

Apparently Singh, or his office, had — with stunning naiveté — asked to see the questions in advance. Milewski delightedly tweeted out that fact before Singh backed down. Advantage: Milewski.

A lot of the reaction to Milewski’s interview turned around a “gotcha” section at the end of the interview in which Milewski doggedly asked Singh to denounce posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, which appear in some Sikh-Canadian institutions. Parmar was a Sikh nationalist who was — it has been well-established — the mastermind behind the Air India bombing in which 329 people were killed, most of them Canadian, many of them of Indian extraction.

Except for Milewski’s first question — which was about how Singh would manage without a Commons seat — every single query directly or indirectly invoked race, religion or ethnicity.

For many viewers not steeped in the issue, it must have been a baffling exchange. But few reporters in Canada have covered the Air India bombing and its aftermath more thoroughly than Milewski — and Jagmeet Singh has been deeply engaged in Sikh politics. It may have been a ‘gotcha’ question, but it got Singh, who dodged and weaved but would not be caught denouncing Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer.

Singh is really going to have to do better than this if he wants to lead a national party with any success.

What concerned me about the Milewski interview was not this exchange, but what came before it. Except for the first question — which was about how Singh would manage without a Commons seat — every single query directly or indirectly invoked race, religion or ethnicity.

There were questions about refugees, religious symbols, Singh’s “acceptability” in Quebec — all coming before the Parmar exchange. Nothing on Singh’s interesting views on addressing precarious work among the young. Nothing on his controversial views on decriminalizing possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin. No “open-ended” questions that would allow Singh to lay out his own agenda.

Earlier that same day, another CBC journalist had posted a tweet that appeared to confuse Singh with another turbaned Sikh — federal economic development minister Navdeep Bains. If I were among the one-in-five people living in Canada who are visible minority, I might be tempted to wonder whether journalists who see a politician of colour see anything but the colour.

When we look south of the border — or across the Atlantic — it’s easy for Canadians to think of racism as a foreign problem. And I agree that we seem (for the moment) unusually blessed.

But take a look at some of the just-released data from Canadian Press’s important “Populism Project” – a survey from EKOS research. According to EKOS’ massive survey, 37 per cent of Canadians think too many immigrants are visible minority. Among respondents who are themselves visible minority, 43 per cent said they had “personally seen or experienced a clear incident of racism” over the past month. Remarkably, 26 per cent of other Canadians said the same.

While a plurality of Canadians don’t think there been much change in the level of racism in Canada, 33 per cent think racism is becoming more common, compared with 20 per cent who think it is becoming less common.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Sikh politicians should only be interviewed by Sikh journalists, or that Indigenous politicians (like the Manitoba NDP’s new leader Wab Kinew) should only be interviewed by Indigenous journalists. It’s a fundamental tenet of journalism that good reporters strive to understand the world around them, and strive particularly hard to understand those most different from them.

But a more diverse press corps would have two effects: one for journalists, the other for consumers of journalism.

For journalists, having people of various backgrounds in the newsrooms means being exposed to different sensibilities and story ideas in editorial meetings, over coffee, and in the thousands of chats that occur among colleagues in newsrooms every day as they try to figure out their angles. They also get to know individuals different from themselves in their full complexity — without reducing them to their most visible characteristics.

In the late 1980s, I did a story related to HIV/AIDS for the CBC. I had lived in New York at the height of the crisis a few years earlier and thought I was reasonably well informed. But after my story aired, a young producer — who was gay — came and spoke to me about some of the language I had used. He made me a better journalist by helping me see some things I had overlooked.

We are all limited to some degree by our backgrounds. Journalism is a lifelong process of educating ourselves away from those limitations. 

For news consumers, diverse newsrooms are both a substantive and a symbolic indication that the news business is serious about exploring our world, which includes people like ourselves and people who are quite different. It’s not just about comforting visible minorities through representation. It’s also about the rest of us not just seeing them, but trying to understand them.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. This piece was republished under arrangement with iPolitics

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 21:29

Saudi Arabia, Modernity and Counter Terrorism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Three cheers for Saudi Arabia!  The conservative Kingdom has ruled that women can now drive and no longer need to be accompanied by a mahram (essentially a male guardian) when they are in a car. Many are celebrating this decision although some conservative killjoys have accused the government of ‘bending the rules of Sharia’.  Some have joked that the country has finally joined the 20th century. 

That quip is actually more accurate than might appear at first reading. In many ways – socially, religiously, ideologically – Saudi is stuck not in the 20th century but in the 18th century, and, truth be told, in the seventh century.  The 18th century is a reference to the pact made between the up and coming Al Saud family and a bunch of ultra-conservative clerics headed by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab whereby the Al Sauds took care of people’s economic and political well-being while the ‘Wahhabis’ looked after their souls. 

By that, I mean, they imposed an austere, joyless interpretation of Islam that they claimed was void of what they saw as all the alterations and aberrations that had entered into the faith since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the early to mid-600’s.  Wahhabi Islam is rejected by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims and would have remained an insignificant blip on the international stage had it not been for the 1970's oil crisis and the gazillions of dollars that flowed into Saudi coffers, only to be redirected worldwide in the spread – through mosques and schools – of this hateful and intolerant version of Islam.  

There really is no other way to look at Saudi Islam and it is undeniable that the vitriol inherent in Wahhabism is directly responsible for a huge part of the ideology that became Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

So what are the Saudis doing about all this? After all, the Kingdom has suffered from jihadi attacks itself and one would think that the regime does not want or like to be tainted with any association with a violent bunch of terrorists. It is an open debate, though, whether Saudi Arabia really cares what outsiders think in light of its massive wealth and still rather closed society.  Here the news is both good and bad.

On the good side, the government has been cracking down on ‘preachers of hate’ and dismantling their ability to spread their message.  Many have also been arrested and Saudi security forces have successfully foiled many terrorist plots.  The ‘reform’ programme – and I use the term loosely – of King Salman and, probably more importantly, his son and second-in-line for the throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ambitious in scope and must be seen as a move in the right direction. Whether it actually achieves much and how the Wahhabi clerics react to it will bear watching.

The decision to allow women to drive should be seen through this prism.

On the other hand, Wahhabi influence is still growing in places like South Asia and Southeast Asia, as clerics continue to influence the locals, including children in madrassas and pesantren (what they call madrassas in Indonesia).  Saudi economic weight is clearly playing a role here as the Kingdom can offer education and religious instruction to countries where there simply isn’t enough room in the budget to do so.

Saudi Arabia is also incontrovertibly involved in massive human rights violations in Yemen, where it has been mired for years in a civil war that it tries to paint as a necessary struggle to prevent Iranian (read: Shia) infiltration into the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf kingdom is trying to quash attempts to have independent, neutral observers carry out investigations in Yemen to determine the scale of suffering and point fingers at those responsible for it. 

Speaking of the Shia, Saudi police and the military continue to mount ‘counter terrorism’ operations in the country’s Shia-dominant eastern provinces. While there certainly are violent extremists in the region, a lot of the violence is state-imposed and driven by the Wahhabi belief that the only good Shiite is a dead one.

It is thus a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to Saudi Arabia and terrorism. The Kingdom talks the talk and is involved in some worthwhile national, regional (not Yemen) and international counter-terrorism initiatives. But, as long as Wahhabi Islam is the dominant form of Islam practised in the country and spread through Saudi ‘benevolence’ worldwide, that nation must be seen as both part of the solution and a big part of the problem.

What then do we in the West do?  The unfortunate answer, for the time being, is ‘not much’.  We cannot ignore Saudi Arabia, we cannot tell it what to do, we cannot isolate it and we cannot pretend that it is not behind the contagion of hateful Islamic teachings. In other words, we are damned if we do nothing and damned if we do something (if anyone has a better idea please e-mail me).

Last week, I was a guest lecturer in a graduate course on terrorism offered by my friend Thomas Juneau at the University of Ottawa. The class was discussing the nature of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the consensus seemed to be that Washington has no choice but to guarantee the Kingdom’s existence and remain a close ally because all the alternatives are worse (if Saudi Arabia decides to move closer to Russia or China, going in an even more radical direction, etc.). 

That is what has been termed Sophie’s Choice – where either decision is unbearable.  And that is seldom a good place to find oneself. 


Phil Gurski has worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available online and in bookstores. 

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 09:30

When the Fear of Terrorism Trumps Reason

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

There is no question that fear sells. The latest Stephen King film about an evil clown – It –  grossed over $120 million in its first three days after all.

We are odd in that we both fear fear and we are entertained by it – go figure.

But fear is not always helpful, unless you are running away from a grizzly or swimming away from a shark.  It is particularly counter-productive when it leads you to stop doing things you normally do. Things like going to a restaurant or to a movie (perhaps to see It) or on a vacation.  And the one thing that seems to be causing many people to alter their normal lives is the fear of terrorism.

In some ways this is, of course, understandable since there is not a day that goes by where we do not see or read about some act of violent extremism somewhere in the world.  These acts seem to resonate even more when they take place in ‘our world’ – i.e. Western Europe, North America or Australia – than when they occur in Africa, the Middle East or Asia (fact: the vast majority of attacks and casualties occur in the latter three rather than the former). 

The images of bloody corpses and mangled limbs sends shivers to those who witness them, in person or via social media.  We become afraid of terrorists and terrorism and we begin to believe that we will become the next victims unless we stay away from where the terrorists are.

This is problematic as terrorism can occur ANYWHERE.  A very short list of recent attacks underscores the ubiquity of terrorism: an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, a pedestrian mall in Barcelona, a London Tube train on a busy morning commute, in front of Notre Dame in Paris, a market stall in Kabul.  And I could go on. 

Yet, paradoxically, the chance of an act of terrorism in any one place at any given time is infinitely small (it is obviously higher in Baghdad and Mogadishu than in New York or Melbourne, but even then it is rare-ish).

What is unhelpful is to panic and cancel EVERYTHING because you are convinced you will die in a suicide bombing if you stay the course.  A few examples are illustrative of an irrational succumbing to the fear of terrorism:

  • diners in a Toronto restaurant last weekend that was the scene of a targeted killing of a real estate magnate told the media they thought they were going to die in what they believed to be a terrorist incident
  • the Israeli government issued a travel advisory for ‘Western and Northern Europe’ during the Jewish High Holy Days
  • US President Trump has been very irresponsible in raising the fear level with his characterisation of Muslims as terrorists

How is any of this a good thing?  Why in the world would a school board in Edmonton cancel a trip to Paris after the November 2015 attacks when Paris the day after was probably the safest city on the planet in large part due to the increased presence of armed soldiers?  Fear and ignorance, that’s why (and probably parents’ demands, which were born out of fear).

Giving in so easily to fear does many things.  It rewards terrorist groups that aim to make us afraid and over-inflates their pathetic importance.  It has serious implications for many parts of the economy both at home and abroad.  And it undoubtedly makes us more jittery the next time a terrorist attack occurs which makes us react with fear more quickly.

I am not advocating rushing off to Kandahar on vacation tomorrow, but if we value our societies and our freedoms we need to live.  Living means going out, seeing friends, visiting exotic lands and learning from each others’ cultures and histories.  And we cannot do that by barricading ourselves in our duct-taped basements.

I think the right reaction is that of the Brits. They are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’, a way of sneering at danger and uncertainty and forging ahead. That is exactly what a lot of people did in the wake of last Friday’s Tube attack (quote of the day: “I won’t stop taking the Tube because of some idiot”).  They also didn’t waver during the decades of IRA bombings.  I believe there is a lesson in that for all of us.


Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.  His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available for purchase.

Published in Commentary

By: Amanda Connolly in Ottawa

Immigration lawyers in Canada are warning about risks caused by the spread of misinformation as the Trump administration rolls back a U.S. government program that shielded illegal immigrants brought to the United States as minors from deportation.

U.S. President Donald Trump formally announced on Tuesday the end of an Obama-era program that protected almost a million young people brought illegally into the country by their parents and granted them renewable two-year work permits, which will now begin to expire in early 2018.

While immigration lawyers said many clients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — widely known as “dreamers” — could be prime candidates for legal immigration to Canada, the challenge will be in making sure those looking to move are not getting faulty information about Canada’s immigration rules from unscrupulous immigration advisers or false reports. That’s what happened with thousands of Haitians earlier this summer when Trump threatened to rescind a program that lets those displaced by the earthquake in Haiti seven years ago live temporarily in the United States.

“These people are North American trained or brought up, so they have the skills to quickly adapt to the Canadian labour market or integrate into the post-secondary schooling system so there may in fact be some options for them,” said Betsy Kane, one of Canada’s top immigration lawyers and a partner at Capelle Kane.

“The only issue is if they are going to get misinformation from people trying to capitalize on their vulnerability and get sucked into a situation like the Haitians did, relying on potentially false information that would lure them into coming to make the wrong type of application to Canada.”

Roughly 7,000 asylum seekers, most of them Haitians from the U.S., have crossed into Canada since July. Some critics have accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of not doing enough to prevent the surge; some have even accused him of being partly to blame for it.

A January tweet in which critics said the prime minister implied that Canada would welcome just about anyone — legal migrant or not — has increasingly come under fire, prompting the government into damage control mode in recent months.

Two weeks ago, Trudeau walked that welcome back in a series of tweets cautioning that while Canada is an open and diverse society, it also has immigration laws that must be obeyed.

Liberal MP and Whip Pablo Rodriguez also announced Wednesday he is heading to Los Angeles on Friday on a mission similar to that of MP Emmanuel Dubourg last month.

Following a surge of illegal Haitian migrants over the summer, the government sent Dubourg — who is himself of Haitian origin — to Miami to speak with Haitian community leaders and try to counter the flow of misinformation about how Canada’s immigration system works.

The government’s goal was to get a message across loud and clear: Not every refugee claim in Canada succeeds.

Now, Rodriguez is set to carry that same message to the other side of the country in a bid to stem a new wave of Mexican and Central American asylum seekers who are expected to be next to try and make the move north. Those people are in limbo now because of the possible end of temporary protected status for nearly 350,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans in the U.S. — a change that is unrelated to the rescinding of the DACA program but is similar in terms of how those affected might be influenced by misinformation.

Kane said the effort so far to counter the spread of bad information has been committed and social-media focused, which is exactly where it needs to be.

“I think it might be a more sophisticated group that’s not going to rely on WhatsApp or an internal rumours or community rumours as opposed to doing their research,” she said. “These are young people, they’re internet-savvy, and perhaps they’re going to spend a little more time getting the correct information, especially with all the social media that’s out there, because they’re all on social media. They’re young people, so that’s where they’re looking for information and CIC has been targeting social media.”

Many of those living in the U.S. under the DACA program are highly-educated and have skills that would make them prime applicants for the Express Entry system, Canada’s immigration scheme for skilled workers.

The question is whether those who want to use that route, or other legal options like applying for international student visas, will even be able to do so given the system overload caused by the influx of Haitians.

“The system is now overwhelmed,” said Julie Taub, an Ottawa immigration lawyer and former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. “It’s having an impact on the other applications and it’s creating a lot of resentment for those who are immigrating to Canada legitimately through the proper channels and for those who are legitimate refugee claimants.”

For now, Taub said, those Americans who may face deportation without DACA will be looking for the best way to wait for a reinstatement of the protection — and she expects Trump’s move to rescind the program eventually will be overturned.

“It’s beyond reason that he has taken this measure,” she said. “It’s ludicrous and I think it will be overturned.” 


By arrangement with ipolitics.ca. 

Published in Top Stories
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 13:03

Myanmar may be the Next Jihadi Battleground

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Before this piece goes any further I need to spell out that I am not a big fan of the use of force unless absolutely necessary (and when necessary it is best to use it wisely, while still protecting the lives of the force wielders). Clearly it is required in some situations, but if public perception is that it is being applied too quickly or too harshly things go awry. 

That is why police officers are often (rightly or wrongly) convicted in the court of public opinion when some amateur video suggests they have overstepped their authority and shot someone. It is also probably why the anti-fascist/extreme RW/neo-Nazi Antifa may be losing its clear advantage over repugnant skinheads: it seems to resort to the same violence it is protesting against.

In some situations it is easy to understand why a group decides to use violence even if it is hard to provide outright ‘support’.

A case where this appears to be true is unfolding in Myanmar (Burma), a southeast nation still emerging from decades of military rule under what everyone thought would be the wise leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Well, things have turned out a little differently.

Not only has Ms. Suu Kyi been described as autocratic, she has not decried a clear human rights violation in her own country – the army’s campaign of rape, killing and destruction in the northwest corner (Rakhine state), an area where the Rohingya live.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people who probably arrived in Myanmar from neighbouring Bangladesh centuries ago. The state, however, sees them as usurpers and johnny-come-latelys and wants them to return to Bangladesh. It refuses to recognize the Rohingya as an official ethnic group which seriously undermines their representation and rights.

To make things worse, a Buddhist monk some have called Myanmar’s Osama bin Laden, Ashin Wirathu, leads an Islamophobic group called Ma Ba Tha and has inspired Burmese (the dominant ethnic group) attacks on unarmed villagers. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have tried to flee both west to Bangladesh (more recently) or southwards on flimsy boats where they have landed (if they don’t drown) in Thailand and Malaysia, only to be enslaved at times.

In response to the one-sided violence, a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has arisen and has carried out attacks against Myanmar soldiers. Ms. Suu Kyi has called them ‘terrorists’ and there are allegations that foreign jihadis have joined the group (perhaps because they also call themselves Harakah al-Yaqin – Arabic for ‘the Faith Movement’, which is a little odd since no one in Rakhine speaks Arabic that I know of).

This development was eminently predictable since no outside body, including the UN, seemed capable of doing anything to lessen the violence against the Rohingya. What is very worrying is the possibility that the conflict will draw in foreign jihadis (if it hasn’t already), perhaps some leaving the Islamic State in Iraq/Syria. We saw an outflow from Afghanistan post Soviet withdrawal to Bosnia in the early 1990s and could witness similar movements in a host of wars including Myanmar.

The possibility that Myanmar may become a new jihadi battleground, as well as two dozen other cases, is covered in my soon to be released third book The Lesser Jihads.

Is the ARSA a terrorist group as Myanmar claims? I have no idea and I am the last person to support terrorism. The problem is that we have no idea about the ‘ideology’ the ARSA espouses and, to date, they have only targeted the military. The militants say they just want the killing to stop and self-determination for the Rohingya. We will wait and see how this pans out. 

So while I would prefer a peaceful resolution to the situation in Rakhine, the violent surge by the ARSA is easily comprehended. The Rohingya do not stand a chance against the army and extremist Buddhists (should this not be an oxymoron?).

If Myanmar does not change its approach or the international community does not step up, we will see more killing, perhaps worse. The time for another kind of ‘action’ is now.


Phil Gurski has worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His latest book The Lesser Jihads is available now for pre-order on Amazon.

Published in Commentary

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 20 July 2017 08:27

Suffer the Children of Islamic State

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion.  As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or those that they could not care for at state institutions.  These institutions were understaffed and underfunded. 

When the wall fell  (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking.  Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that spoke of a lack of human contact.  Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent.  A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up okay, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.

We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast.  Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks.  Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died.  And then there are the children.

One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society.Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state.  Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’.  Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’.  Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’). 

Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings.  There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between 8 - 10, holding a severed head.  Truly disturbing.

To me all of this is a no-brainer.  These children deserve our help.

Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children?  We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality.  In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things. 

There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.

To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and persuaded to assist in this regard.  It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania, some children will be scarred for life.

We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life.  If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it. 

Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 06 July 2017 09:42

Let’s Shout these Far-right Losers Down

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

As I have stated on many occasions, the threat to Canada from Islamist extremist groups represents by far the single greatest priority for our security services – CSIS, the RCMP and provincial and municipal police forces. 

We have seen around a dozen plots, both foiled and successful, since 9/11, the most recent one being the attack at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough on June 3.  Thankfully, even in the cases where people subscribing to hateful and loathsome interpretations of Islam were able to set in motion their terrorist intent, few have died. 

To date, only Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent (October 20, 2014) and Warrant Officer Nathan Cirillo (October 22, 2014) – RIP gentlemen – have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. Three terrorists have also been killed by law enforcement so far in Canada (Martin Couture-Rouleau, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Aaron Driver).

At the same time we cannot ignore other manifestations of the terrorist threat.  For instance, we have been witnessing a worrying spike in demonstrations and antagonism by self-styled ‘patriot’ groups (is it just me or does this sound very American?).  A few examples will help illustrate my point:

On July 1, a group of people belonging to the Quebec groups La Meute (French for ‘the pack’) and Storm Alliance showed up at the Vermont-Quebec border to protest the entry of asylum seekers into Canada.

Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has warned that the ‘Sons of Odin’ are not afraid to use violence and may engage in ‘anti-immigrant vigilantism‘.

Five serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces participated in a Proud Boys crashing of a First Nations protest at the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax. Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance is not impressed.

And these are just three samples of late. In addition a Vice.com article recently provided a useful overview of anti-Islamic groups in this country.  The reading is not comforting.  So what’s up?

Ignorance and hate, that’s what’s up. 

These groups hide behind some self-styled notions of patriotism and nationalism in their claims that they are protecting Canada from a litany of ills: Muslims, illegal immigrants, uppity First Nations… They often shroud themselves in our flag as if they are somehow the only ones that ‘get’ what it means to be Canadian. 

They usually show up wearing black, looking all fascist-like and give off strong signs that they are willing to resort to violence to make whatever point they are trying to make. Some appear to be channeling some inner Norse god fetish (Sons of Odin).

What level of threat they truly pose is unclear. La Meute claims on its Facebook page that it has more than 8,000 members: the ‘World Coalition Against Islam (WCAI)’ claims 12,000.  While these numbers are astonishing it is unclear what a ‘member’ means. 

I am not saying that we should ignore these people, but I am not sure what effort needs to be leveraged to monitor them to keep their potentially violent acts in check. We need more data and more analysis on what this is all about.

In any event I suspect that neither CSIS nor the RCMP have spare resources to adequately carry out national security investigations against these people to determine just how dangerous they are. The Islamist extremist threat is still using up the lion’s share of officers as it should. Maybe both agencies need a boost in personnel to deal with this new menace.

One thing is certain: we Canadians have a role to play. We need to shout these losers down.

Just as the vast, vast majority of Canadian Muslims regularly denounce acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, so must all Canadians say loudly and unreservedly that these folk do not represent anything but hate. They are not devoted to our ‘protection’. Their activities are neither welcome nor tolerated. We must express our rejection of their bile, as counter demonstrators did in Calgary.

Hate is hate, irrespective of motive, and we have a duty to say we will not stand by and allow it to fester.

Phil Gurski spent more than 30 years in the Canadian intelligence community.  His latest book "The Lesser Jihads" is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 27 June 2017 08:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
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