How woke and cancel culture undermine CT understanding

Hey Canada! Resorting to generic, meaningless terminology to describe terrorism is inaccurate, unhelpful and deters from broader understanding.

Are you a Harry Potter fan? I know I am! I have watched the movies umpteen times and use the references in those films, and the underlying books, constantly. J. K. Rowling really hit one out of the park when she wrote those novels!

I cannot imagine that anyone does not know that the main bad dude in the Harry Potter novels is called Lord Voldemort. He is indeed nasty and has cast such a dark shadow on the wizarding world that everyone is too afraid to even utter his name. Harry is admonished on several occasions, including by Mr. Weasley, “Don’t say his name!”

While I don’t know why that is – I am sure I can find a reason on a Harry Potter fandom site however – this speaks to an interesting phenomenon among us humans. There are things and concepts that, for one purpose or another, cannot be given a title. So we resort to euphemisms (replacements) or other odd solutions (for example, among the early Hebrews it was forbidden to name God – Yahweh – unless you were a priest in the High Temple).

We also use go-arounds for phenomena we are squeamish about, such as bodily functions (defecation), parts (sexual organs) and acts (coitus). While there is in truth also an aspect of not referring to some of these in polite company or in front of the ‘delicate minds’ of children, it is nevertheless also true that not being as accurate as possible takes away from our deeper understanding about such phenomena.

Which brings me to my government’s recent changes in how it refers to terrorism.

In the good old days we called things as we saw them: Sikh terrorism; right wing terrorism; environmental terrorism; Islamist terrorism. No more. The Trudeau government has decided on our behalf that these terms, albeit long used and exquisitely accurate, are somehow offensive. In their place we now have a triumvirate of government speak that goes by:

  • Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism (IMVE)
  • Politically Motivated Violent Extremism (PMVE)
  • Religiously Motivated Violent Extremism (RMVE)

In typical bureaucratic fashion never hesitate to create a new acronym!

I would surmise that the bean counters in Ottawa concluded that the earlier terms, which served us well for decades, no longer reflected reality (false) or were somehow offensive. Hence the change. In the government’s favour, the terrorism part of the Canadian Criminal Code (Section 83.01) does refer to acts of serious violence committed for “a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.” So at least they got that part right.

RELATED: Borealis talks about the use of IMVE in Canadian terminology.

And yet in its efforts to please everyone it has erred badly on several fronts.

Firstly, it is so broad as to be meaningless. What is an ‘ideology‘? What is a ‘political objective‘? Is there any agreement on any of this?

Secondly, what do we do with terrorist groups that hit all three underlying drivers? Take Islamic State (ISIS) for example. It is simultaneously religious, political AND ideological. So, what bucket do we put it in?

Thirdly, by using overly generic terminology we fail to get at the specifics of what is happening. What exactly is it about ISIS that differentiates it from, say, a neo-Nazi group? What are the similarities?

Which box do these guys fit in…and, more importantly, why do they still exist (Photo: John Kittelsrud on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fourthly, by saying RMVE are we implying that ANY religion can lead someone to violence? In theory yes, perhaps, but when was the last time you read about an Amish terrorist attack (NB a recent attack on Muslims at a funeral in Ethiopia was described, precisely, as ‘Christian terrorism‘, not ‘RMVE‘)?

Joke of the day: Q: What goes clip clop clip clop clip clop BOOM? A: An Amish (Mennonite) suicide bomber! I bet you haven’t come across many of those recently.

I cannot help but think that this change was occasioned, at least in part, by woke/cancel culture. We in Canada are knee deep in apologies for just about everything these days: the treatment of First Nations, gender issues, etc., all of which are indeed important issues that need address and redress. But I sense a lot of Canadians are getting fed up with all this, including demands to remove the name of Sir John A. Macdonald from every street, school and sign (because of his role in the residential school system). Didn’t I once read somewhere that those who forget (or delete) their history are destined to repeat it? Besides, wasn’t Sir John A also a great leader? Should he be remembered ONLY for the negative stuff (hands up anyone who has never made a mistake…(sound of crickets))?


Adding to this culture is a sense that Islamophobia is rampant in Canada: this is absolutely a disgusting belief that has no place in a liberal, secular, democratic society. However, using the term ‘Islamist’ terrorism has nothing to do with Islamophobia! It is a well-established nomenclature in academe and in security intelligence and law enforcement realms and has been for a very long time.

Islamist is not the same as ‘Islamic’ even if the two look and sound similar. The inability of some to distinguish between them, however, is not reason enough to ban the former (NB in the early 2000s we at CSIS – the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – used the phrase ‘Sunni Islamic Terrorism‘, in part to differentiate it from Shia Islamic terrorism, but we changed to Islamist soon after 9/11).

At the same time, the move to RMVE feeds the notion, again false, that Islamist terrorism has NOTHING to do with Islam. I beg to differ. It has EVERYTHING to do with Islam (as well as with ideology), albeit a non-normative and aberrant interpretation of the faith. If you still think there is no link have a look at any ISIS propaganda statement and convince me that the terrorist group does NOT use excerpts from the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

RELATED: Borealis discusses how the American terminology for terrorism is also problematic.

In a contradictory fashion, resorting to terms such as RMVE actually make matters worse! If the Canadian government and others are trying to say that ISIS terrorism has nothing to do with Islam/religion then why on Earth call it ‘religious‘?? Or am I missing something here (NB I have to thank a participant from the UK at a recent counter-terrorism (CT) gathering I attended in the Cotswolds for this observation)?

Luckily, I think, this new nomenclature should not have any effect on those tasked with investigating terrorism (or at least I hope not: I left CT operations in 2013 so I cannot say with any confidence that the change has been neutral). CSIS and the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) will do their jobs in accordance with their mandates regardless of what the mandarins decide to call things (I say with fingers crossed!). If this were to interfere with these agencies’ ability to do so that would be bad, very bad.

Some might say I am splitting hairs here or trying to raise a tempest in a teapot. Maybe. In any event, I will NEVER use terms like IMVE or RMVE when I write or speak: of that you can be guaranteed. I will call things what they are, not what some pundit wants me to. I strive for accuracy, not political correctness (I never have have and I hope I never will). Besides, we cannot effectively fight what we cannot name.

PS In the end Professor Mcgonagall boldly stated “His name is Voldemort!” Even she eventually got that playing the politically correct card would not save Hogwarts!

PPS A recent example of the panic over Islamophobia in Canada involved what was immediately labeled a hate crime near a mosque in Surry, BC. On April 27 someone in a moving vehicle had thrown water at three pedestrians and minutes later the automobile veered off the road and almost struck one of the people walking. The BC Muslim Association immediately concluded it was a hate crime, yet another example of ‘rampant Islamophobia‘, and demanded a hate crime investigation. Well, the RCMP in Surrey did investigate and discovered that it was not a racially motivated hate crime, arresting 2 suspects who happen to be teenagers who belong to the Muslim community. Lesson learned? NEVER to jump to conclusions before facts are in!!

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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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