A lot of people in Canada, particularly Muslims and even more narrowly Muslims in Quebec, are frightened today. The massacre at the Islamic Cultural Centre in the provincial capital of la belle province has many worried about their safety and mosques across the country are upping security and receiving special attention from local law enforcement. None of this should be surprising of course and it is totally understandable.
What is less defendable, however, is the hue and cry that Canada is awash with violent right wing extremists that are itching to carry out terrorist attacks against a whole slate of targets: mosques, synagogues, immigrants, anyone who looks different and so on and so on. The problem with this belief is that there is no evidence to support it, The Economist notwithstanding.
What is true is that we have intolerant, racist, xenophobic (including Islamophobic) views in Canada in spite of our pride as an open and welcoming nation. As Quebec premier Philippe Couillard said earlier this week, we have our demons too. We have Web sites that cater to and spread idiocy and discrimination and those that post to these sites must be challenged for their heinous views.
But we have to be sober about all this. The existence of hate does not imply the existence of an organised violent movement. Those that post disgusting views are on the whole pitiful losers who use the Web to vet their pathetic worldviews, often anonymously, and seek out equally pathetic losers with whom to bitch about the state of things. There is nothing, that I am aware of, to suggest that this group of outcasts is intent on acting violently. Should such indications come to the surface, authorities have a right and an obligation to investigate. I will be surprised, however, if the number of rightwing extremists, or perhaps more accurately wannabe extremists, who pose real threats ever amounts to more than you can count on the fingers of two hands.
Nor is there a straight line between online vitriol and real world violence. We have learned from the world of Islamist extremism that despite the millions of social media messages, videos, statements and other modes of communication crafted by terrorists trying to stir ordinary Muslims to join up and kill, the vast, vast majority of the planet’s Muslims want nothing to do with these animals and in fact vocally denounce them. If the Islamist extremists have failed miserably, why would we expect the rightwing nutjobs to be any more successful?
I agree with former CSIS director and National Security Adviser Richard Fadden that the current most significant threat to Canada comes from Islamist extremism (the Norwegian PST just came out with the same conclusion). The facts support that and that is why CSIS and the RCMP dedicate the bulk of their resources to it. Should we look into the possible violent intentions of the far right? Absolutely, but to do so means taking men and women off the #1 problem and I do not think that the RW threat warrants that. If the government were to give CSIS and the RCMP more money and personnel then by all means look more at the far right. But in the absence of that, we cannot afford to take our eye off the jihadist ball.
We do have an issue with rightwing extremism in this country. There are too many reports of graffiti (and worse) at places of worship, citizens harassed for how they dress or what their skin colour is, and a worrying mainstreaming of what some are calling “Canadian values”. All of this has to be argued against, not banned. After all, the best antidote for darkness and hate is light – the light of debate. In a battle of wits, the far right is unarmed.
So it is irresponsible to claim that what happened on Sunday evening during Isha prayers in Quebec is the tip of the iceberg or a harbinger of more to come. It was a tragic and senseless killing but it does not represent a larger polity or society in general (on the contrary: the outpouring of love and support across Canada is far more representative of what we stand for).
Let us not make this massacre to be more than it was: an isolated incident by a young man whose motives remain largely opaque. And let us allow the appropriate authorities time to find out more before we jump to – perhaps erroneous – conclusions.