by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 5, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1427)
Muslims in Canada were startled by the arrest on June 3 of 15 individuals, all of them Muslims, on charges related to terrorism. Two other alleged suspects were already in jail for gun-smuggling. Five of the 17 are under 18 years of age, so their names cannot be divulged, but that has not prevented the police or intelligence agencies from leaking damaging information about them. They are accused only of planning—they have not done anything—but the allegations are so serious and projected in such a manner as to make a fair trial virtually impossible. This also means more trouble for the already traumatized Muslim community of 750,000 in Canada. The police have turned the episode into high drama by bringing the suspects to court in handcuffs and leg irons, thereby exaggerating the seriousness of the situation even more. Police sharpshooters took up positions above the court building and helicopters circled overhead; it was as if the Taliban were expected to invade the courthouse in Brampton, a suburb northwest of Toronto.
Some observers were appalled by these theatrics and the manner in which the police and other law-enforcement agencies, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), dramatized the case; the media loved it. Their overt racism, barely suppressed under normal circumstances, oozed onto television screens and newspaper columns. Their constant refrain was that there is a peril of “homegrown terrorists”, in the manner of the London bombers of last July. A tiny but vocal minority of Muslim opportunists, always eager to get into the limelight, also proclaimed their “moderation” and condemned “radical fundamentalists”. Racism and Islamophobia became respectable as a strong assault was launched on the rule of law and due process.
Two mosques, one in Toronto and the other in Calgary, were attacked; an imam in Montreal barely managed to escape from a man wielding a butcher's knife, after the arrests. For several months officials from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) have been hinting darkly about “homegrown terrorists”. Jack Cooper, operations director for CSIS, told the Canadian senate on May 29 that a terrorist attack was more than likely. Others wrote columns in newspapers warning about what might be coming.
Immediately after the arrests, the government started to deliver contradictory messages to diverse audiences. The first was directed at the US government, which must be assured thatCanada is vigilant in the fight against terrorism. Aware that the Americans are capable of every imaginable stupidity, especially at the highest levels of government, the Canadian government repeatedly emphasized that the alleged terrorists planned only to attack targets in Canada. The intended message to the Americans is: do not worry; you were not the intended target. The Canadian public, on the other hand, had to be sufficiently frightened about the threat of “homegrown terrorists” to submit to any curtailment of civil liberties, but also assured by a massive show of force that law-enforcement agencies have the situation under control. This was the reason for the massive police presence and display of heavy weapons.
Whatever the truth about these allegations—and it will be for the courts to decide, if the defendants can get a fair trial—it was the blatant racism that was most evident in the treatment of the suspects. Even their parents were humiliated, abused and handcuffed. Their homes were raided and taken over for three days for searches, while their families were forced out. For more than 10 days, government officials and the media conducted a public trial in the courthouse “parking lot”, as one defence lawyer, Rocco Galati, put it before the court slapped a ban on reporting. Galati was furious and on June 12 demanded that there should be a televised trial so that Canadians can see their judicial system in action. Other lawyers asked what the court wanted to protect, when all the allegations against their clients had already been published globally. Lawyers were not permitted to meet their clients in private: masked armed guards stood behind each as he talked to his lawyer through a tapped phone line. This is a clear breach of client-lawyer confidentiality. Some of the defendants complained that they had been tortured in detention.
Even Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper could not resist commenting on the case, despite its having gone to court. He said on June 3 that the “terrorists hate our freedoms”. This is language straight out of the mouth of US president George Bush. When reminded that no court had convicted the accused yet, the media pundits duly admitted this but then proceeded to go on talking as if they had already been convicted. They repeated the mantra about “homegrown terrorists” and what could be done to prevent such incidents in the future. Some launched a tirade against the mosques for “preaching hatred”; others blamed al-Qa‘ida and the internet for “poisoning young minds”. Completely lost in this debate is the fact that these individuals have not done anything; they are accused only of planning to carry out certain acts.
The RCMP have admitted that they carried out a “sting” operation to get these individuals. There is more to the sting than has been admitted so far. A Muslim informant penetrated the group of young Muslims and provoked them to act and say certain things that incriminated them. It was this plant who took a gun to a camp last November and urged others to pose with it while he videotaped them. He also urged them to do physical exercises while videotaping them, and then presented this footage as evidence of “military training”. This is almost exactly the role played by Imad Salem, the Egyptian military officer who infiltrated the circle around Shaikh Umar Abdul-Rahman and then implicated them in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February 1993. In the Toronto case, the police claim that they have found a door with bullet-marks in it at the home of one of the defendants; the door was allegedly used for target practice at the camp. Crescent International has learned that this door was lying in the backyard of the house long before the man in question moved there in April, and the camp visit had occurred six months earlier, in November 2005.
The police claim that the defendants planned to blow up the Toronto Stock Exchange, take over the CBC building in Toronto and the Parliament building in Ottawa; one individual is accused of wanting to cut off the head of the prime minister; “provided he can find it”, as Thomas Walkom, a columnist on the Toronto Star, put it. This was supposedly to be done by acquiring three tonnes of ammonium nitrate and mixing it with fuel to make explosives. Aware that this is what was going on, or that a police plant was guiding these people in that direction, the ammonium nitrate was replaced with a harmless substance. The RCMP has admitted as much. If so, then the fantastic stories that, had the plan succeeded there would have been three times as much damage as was caused to the Alfred Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh in April 1995, because McVeigh used only one tonne of ammonium nitrate, are pure fiction.
As stated already, five of the accused are underage teenagers; two of them became Muslim at school, much to the annoyance of their parents. All five are in a state of shock. The most serious allegation against them is that they went camping with the others last November and were dressed in army fatigues: in other words they are held to be guilty by association. Of the other accused, three are supposed to be ringleaders: Fahim Ahmed, 21, Zakaria Amara, 20 and Qayyum Abdul Jamal, 43. It appears that Qayyum Abdul Jamal is the one accused of making statements like “Canadian troops are raping Muslim women in Afghanistan” and that Muslims should not participate in the political system. One of the most bizarre aspects of this case is that most of the accused were aware that they were under police/CSIS surveillance; despite this they continued with their life as if there were nothing amiss. They exchanged views on the internet, some of it typical youth chat about work and studies. One could interpret such exchanges in more than one way, depending on one's inclination: those inclined to conspiracy theories interpret them as plans by hardened terrorists; others see them as the idle chatter of a bunch of naïve youths.
For the police, the security agencies and racist media commentators, these are hardened terrorists, all “brown-skinned” men whose “first name is Muhammad, middle name is Muhammad and last name is Muhammad”, as Christie Blachford, of the Globe and Mail put it. Other writers in the Globe, the Toronto Star and the National Post—this last a zionist mouthpiece—have targeted Muslim women in hijab and burqa, calling them alien to Canadian society. Such racism would not be tolerated against anyone else, but since September 2001 Canada, like the USand Europe, has become quite tolerant of bigotry and prejudice directed against Muslims. The implication is that Muslims are not permitted even to disagree with government policy onAfghanistan, nor to criticise US brutalities in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. A new definition is being given to freedom: Muslims are free to support prevailing policy; they must not oppose anything any government does, no matter how wrong or unwise; or else...
Despite tall claims about “homegrown terrorists”, Canadian intelligence agencies do not have a very good track record. Soon after the attacks on the Pentagon and WTC, Nabil al-Marabh, a Syrian refugee, was accused of being one of the hijackers. When his uncle in Toronto learned about this, he contacted the RCMP and assured them of full cooperation. Despite this, heavily-armed RCMP officers raided his print-shop with television-cameras in tow to record the raid; both his business and his reputation were ruined. Al-Marabh was arrested in the US a few days later but, after spending 13 months in jail, the only charge against him was illegal entry into the US, in common with 11 million other people in the US today. Nobody ever apologized to his uncle, paid any compensation or admitted that they had been completely wrong to make such allegations. Then there was the case of Maher Arar, who was arrested in New York in August 2002 and shipped to Syria, where he was tortured for a year because of his alleged links to terrorists and his having received military training in Afghanistan; all the allegations against him turned out to be false. Under pressure, the Canadian government opened an inquiry into his case that ended months ago; yet its findings have not been released. There was also the case of 23 Pakistani students who were arrested in August 2003 in Toronto and accused of terrorism; their only crime was overstaying their visa. All of them were expelled with their reputations sullied, while none of the allegations was proved.
Despite their poor record, the intelligence agencies have not given up making fantastic allegations. A number of commentators have questioned the timing of the arrests: within days, the Supreme Court was to hear the appeal of five individuals detained under security certificates, meaning that neither they nor their lawyers can see the evidence against them (or see that there isn't any). The arrests are bound to affect the appeal of the Security-5, as they have come to be called. Also, the Canadian parliament is about to start hearings into Bill C-36 to consider whether certain clauses should be scrapped. The bill was rushed through parliament in the wake of September 2001 amid concerns that some of its provisions would seriously undermine civil liberties. In this atmosphere of xenophobia, which parliamentarian will now have the courage to oppose the extension of the bill? The government has also announced plans to make it easier for the police to press charges without having to prove political, religious or ideological motives, as is the case of the 17 at present.
Not everyone, however, is taken in by government and media propaganda. A number of academics have come out strongly against the witch-hunt of Muslims. One organisation, CitizensAgainst a Rush to Judgment, comprised of Canadian academics and political activists, has accused the government of declaring the accused guilty even before their trial. At another panel discussing multiculturalism at the University of Toronto on June 12, Rinaldo Walcott, the Canada Research Chair of Social Justice and Cultural Studies at the university, accused the panelists of racism. He objected to the university providing a platform for Margaret Wente, a columnist at the Globe and Mail, whom he accused of inciting to hatred. He walked out saying he did not wish to confer respectability on a panel by sharing a platform with racists and bigots.
Such voices of solidarity are welcome, but Muslims need to pull their own act together: there is no single voice or organization that represents them at this most critical hour. It is in effect the Muslim community in Canada that is on trial, not just the 17 accused. How they respond to ensure that the accused get a fair trial and that their families are not abandoned may determine their future in Canada.