Good intentions, but…

Do you remember when former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an interview with the CBC, said that “Islamicism” was the greatest threat to national security?  I think we all knew what he meant – Islamist extremism – but his use of “Islamicism” was roundly criticised and led to accusations that the Conservative government viewed Islam, and not just a bunch of extremists who saw violence as divinely mandated, as the problem.  Trust me, it did cause problems in the government’s relations with Canadian Muslim communities.

I suppose that the cardinal rule of government should be primum non nocere – first do no harm.  Governments are capable of doing much that is beneficial to society and usually carry out programmes that are indeed helpful.  The current government of Mr. Trudeau is no different and has already taken decisions – such as the restoration of the long census and the unmuzzling of scientists – that are brilliant.

When it comes to national security policy, however, there are those who claim the new government has none.  Campaign promises to end the airstrikes in Iraq have been unfulfilled to date.  Some are asking just what the government intends to do.

I have argued in this blog that rushing to make policy on national security is a bad idea.  The administration needs to take its time to make wise decisions.  Better to delay than to make matters worse.

So the latest news that the government plans to alter the language it uses to describe Islamic State strikes me as ill-considered.  According to the CBC, there is now a school that thinks that IS is “a criminal organization with a religious veneer on it.” (see article here)

This is fundamentally and critically wrong.

Yes, IS has a criminal aspect as do many terrorist groups.  The Taliban has its opium trade, AQ in the Islamic Maghreb its smuggling revenue and IS its trade in antiquities.  But they are essentially terrorist groups, not criminal organisations.

The crux of this comes down to why terrorists do what they do.  They are not seeking profit or temporary gain.  They are seeking political and social change for ideological purposes.  IS created the Caliphate to change history, not to make a buck.  Failing to understand the very essence of terrorism makes it harder to confront and defeat.

I get, I think, why this change in language and approach is being proposed.  Someone in the government must think that the current nomenclature – Islamist extremism – is inaccurate and insulting to Islam (it isn’t but that doesn’t mean we should use the phrase).  Better to use terms that do not alienate those with whom you need to work to thwart extremism.  And I bet there is a desire to put some distance between the former and current governments.

I have always argued that language is important and that good choices have to be made to achieve results. And I argued that some in the former government did say things that were very counterproductive.  But this move strikes me as overkill.  Yes, use appropriate language, but do not throw the baby out with the bath water.

When I worked with Citizen Engagement at Public Safety Canada we successfully developed a programme that resonated with Canadian Muslims.  We used the term “Al Qaeda-inspired” terrorism in our encounters instead of “Islamist extremism”, but we did not shy away from talking about religion.  Because we had to address it.  It is impossible not to delve into faith issues when dealing with AQ and IS for the simple reason that both groups envelop themselves in the mantle of religion.  Is it mainstream religion?  No, but it is religion nonetheless.  And it is critical to their existence.

Talking about jihad and martyrdom and takfir (calling someone a non-Muslim), if done carefully by using the very words of the extremists, can help elucidate their ideology and provide avenues to deal with it.  Pretending that IS has nothing to do with Islam is a mistake.

The government also noted that terrorist groups take advantage of “small grievances and alienation to wield control and power”.  I’ll leave that to another blog.

I hope that people with a solid understanding of this brand of terrorism can convince the government not to go down the road it appears to have chosen.  For we all know which road good intentions lead to.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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