We can’t fight what we fail to label correctly

If you have never heard the comedy routine ‘The 2,000 year old man” by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, you are really missing something. The original dates back to 1961 but it is still very, very relevant and very, very funny.

In one part, Mel Brooks, playing the 2,000 year-old man, says that WWII lasted longer than it should have and that was all Winston Churchill’s fault. Here’s what Mr. Brooks’ character had to say about that: “‘Ve must conquer da Narjies!’ Now, we were fighting and killing Nazis. We all left and went looking for Narjies!” Or another way to put it is that Churchill extended the war because he told everyone to defeat “the Nar-zis” and the troops stopped fighting the Germans and started looking for Narzis.

Sometimes I wonder if Public Safety Canada would be better run by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (full disclosure: I worked as a senior policy advisor there, on secondment at CSIS, from October 2013 until my retirement from the civil service in April 2015). The department cannot seem to get the annual 2018 Terrorist Threat to Canada public report right. It has been changed at least twice since it came out and I am not so sure that more changes are not forthcoming.

What, then, has changed? Well, nothing more crucial than the way the department has chosen to describe the terrorist threat to Canada. Under pressure from certain groups – first Canadian Sikhs then Canadian Muslims (gee, is an election coming up perhaps?) – the phrases ‘Sikh extremism’, ‘Sunni Islamist extremism’ and ‘Shia extremism’ have been excised and replaced by anodyne phrases that are only partially reflective of the actual threat. In their place are ‘ extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India’ and ‘individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ).’

Why the change? Clearly, in order not to offend Canadian Sikhs and Muslims by lumping them together with the very small number of their fellow co-religionists who have opted to use violence to get what they want, and use religion to justify their actions. What is the harm in that?

A lot as it turns out. These phrases are highly inaccurate both for what they say and what they fail to say. Let’s start with ‘extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India.’ What is wrong with that? To put it bluntly, they are all Sikhs – nary a Jew or a Seventh-Day Adventist among them. So, calling them ‘Sikh extremists’ is correct. Note that by doing so there is no intent, explicit or implicit, that all Sikh Canadians support this use of violence.

What about ‘individuals or groups who are inspired by violent ideologies and terrorist groups, such as Daesh or al-Qaida (AQ)?’ Aside from the ridiculous insistence on ‘Daesh’ rather than Islamic State (Minister Goodale: Daesh is Arabic for ‘Islamic State’ by the way), this phrase is only partially accurate. I know from my days at CSIS that yes some Canadians are inspired by these terrorist groups but there is also a huge swathe that radicalise to violence in the name of greater Sunni Islamist extremist thought (Shia Islamist extremists are a different beast altogether) that has little or nothing to do with AQ or IS or any other terrorist group. Oh and guess what else? They are all Muslims – nary a Buddhist or an animist among them. Again, using the term ‘Sunni Islamist extremism’, which is what we called it when I was at CSIS, does not mean all Canadian Muslims are terrorists.

To my mind this is just political correctness and electioneering gone mad. Just as ‘trigger warnings’ seem to be everywhere these days, it seems that if any group of 3-5 Canadians say they are offended at something the government caves to their demands.

The inability to call a threat what it is makes it harder to identify and neutralise it. I sure hope that my former colleagues at CSIS are not swallowing this political pablum. And I sure hope that Public Safety doesn’t make more changes to the Public Terrorist Threat Report or before you know it we’ll all be chasing neo-Narzis while the real far right neo-Nazis run free.