One of the many beauties of living in a liberal, secular democratic society is the freedom to disagree and debate. There are always many sides to an issue and we have the liberty to express our opinions without the fear of being arrested. Many citizens in many countries do not have this right.
But what if there are those who disagree fundamentally with the very nature of our system of government? Must we tolerate those who seek to overthrow the democratically-elected order?
There is, of course, nothing magical about democracy. In the words of UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Parliament in 1947 “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time .” Even so, it is pretty good in my eyes. It is, of course, a work in progress as is evident through the multiple changes over time. For instance, as women were not given universal suffrage in Canada until 1918 (1940 in Quebec) it would be hard to argue that our democratic system was ‘perfect’ in 1867.
How far can critics go however? Is it ok to advocate a complete overhaul of our democratic system, much more than going from first-past-the-post to proportional representation? What if there are those maintaining that democracy is incompatible with certain religions? What if those advocating such change are ok with achieving their goals through violent means?
A recent report in Dutch media has brought this issue to the fore. The Netherlands’ education minister has threatened to withdraw state funding from an Amsterdam Islamic secondary school accused of having terrorist links and added that “the children’s safe and democratic development cannot be guaranteed because the school is operating in parallel to society.” In other words, there are those at the school who are probably teaching the kids that democracy is irreconcilable with Islam.
We in Canada are not immune from this wonky belief. During his terrorism trial, VIA Rail plotter Chiheb Esseghaier stated often that he did not think highly of democracy and demanded in his leave for appeal that he should have been judged based on the Quran and not on the tenets of the Canadian Criminal Code. Islamist extremists reject democracy since that system of government allows humans to make and amend laws: they believe that only God has that right and will kill to make sure it happens.
I hope we are on the same page on this one. Warts and all, our democratic systems are the best we can do and must be safeguarded. We certainly cannot stand by as extremists and terrorists seek to undermine our societies under the aberrant conviction that we have it all wrong and they are going to show us how it should be done.
Interestingly, the AIVD – the Netherlands’ equivalent to CSIS – as early as 2004 wrote convincingly of the ‘threat to the democratic legal order’ from both violent and non-violent Islamist extremists. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had many exchanges with my Dutch counterparts in the mid-2000s and have them to thank for much of my own thinking on the dangers of violent and non-violent Islamist extremism to our country.
Just like in the Netherlands, this kind of threat is exactly what we have CSIS for. It states quite clearly in Section 2d) of the CSIS Act that threats to the security of Canada include “activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of, the constitutionally established system of government in Canada”. We have had our fair share of Islamist terrorist plots over the past few decades and it is thanks to CSIS and its partners that most were foiled.
There is, however, a bigger picture here. Are there some among us who are ok with having their children taught that democracy is evil and must be cast aside? Should this not be a line that must not be crossed? If so, are parents who become aware of the influence of extremist ideologues – either in schools or in religious institutions – brave enough to denounce these efforts and seek outside assistance where necessary? I do hope so.
To my knowledge this is not a huge problem in Canada and I do not want to leave the impression that there is a ‘fifth column’ of anti-democratic terrorists poised to strike. No, the threat is not zero but neither is there evidence I am aware of that it is significant or on a national scale.
At the same time we need to call out those who want to take down our democracy. For better or worse it is our system of government and it warrants protection.
Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former strategic analyst at CSIS.