Omer Aziz is a writer and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University. He is currently a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He tweets @omeraziz12.
Until the events of Oct. 22, it had become something of a national myth, like multiculturalism and Medicare, that Canada was immune to the effects of terrorism. If the killing of two soldiers was not enough, recall that in 2006, 18 members of a cell in Scarborough and Mississauga were arrested for plotting to shoot up Parliament and behead the prime minister. One of the convicts was later killed fighting in Syria. Another admitted watching jihadist lectures and blamed Canadian foreign policy.
Terrorism, defined here as violence inflicted on innocent people for political ends, is not new to Canada, the West, or the world. The Muslim world deals with it on a routine basis. But shouting terrorism in the crowded public theatres of Twitter and Facebook can be counterproductive when the identity and motives of the suspect are unknown. In the case of the Toronto dropouts-turned-jihadists, and the Ottawa shooter, a powerful stew of extremist ideology, personal pathology, and illusive dreams of violent glory, coupled with selective readings of the Qur'an, long preceded the bullets and bombs.
When these attacks happen, it is important to distinguish conservative, Salafist Muslims from individual terrorists, who may or may not share literalist interpretations of Islam. The Islamic world's intransigent conservatives have a corrosive impact on freethinking, critical inquiry, and women's rights in Muslim communities, but they are largely not a threat to security. Neither the Boston bombers nor the Ottawa shooter had done any serious study of Islam before killing innocents, though they did share common traits of drug use, criminal records, and lives lived without purpose that gave symbolic death its own cultish appeal.
In some cases, Salafist or Wahabbist Islam is directly tied to individuals wanting to kill others because the religion becomes – and in some verses, is readily amenable to – a political, anti-imperial program of violent revolution. Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri regularly quoted from the Qur'an; IS's leaders do the same in their sermons, as do local jihadist groups in Pakistan, India, and Indonesia. Where Salafism is state ideology – in Saudi Arabia and the regime run by the Islamic State – beheadings, amputations, and mass torture take place at home, while the mullahs and financiers do their bit to export it abroad.
But in the lone-wolf attack, Islam is often in the background. In the foreground are troubled individuals. Or, as journalist Glenn Greenwald and others would have you believe, it is Western foreign policies that cause murderers to attack citizens. Leave aside for a moment that this dehumanizes the Muslim, makes him an automatic and anonymous respondent to distant violence done against "his people." The argument is as toxic as it is inaccurate.
First, it assumes that the attackers' perception of the government's foreign policy was accurate; otherwise, any state action anywhere, anytime, could "cause" a person to take up arms against his country. Second, the argument's indictment of the victim first is morally bankrupt in the general sense, and factually wrong in the Canadian case. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien flatly refused to go to Iraq. Canada assisted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and later played a consequential role in reconstruction efforts in Kandahar. In the case of Iraq-Syria, Canada is supporting the coalition currently bombing the Islamic State, a group that has inflicted misery on thousands of Iraqis and Syrians.
You won't hear a word from the blame-the-West first types about the plight of Yazidis, Druze, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and Christians; or about Bosnian Muslims saved from fascistic and genocidal militias by NATO – including Canadian – warplanes; or the Afghan girls who can now actually go to school; or the Ahmadi and Shiite Muslims who have seen their children murdered by Taliban thugs for practicing the wrong variant of Islam. Is there a thought to be spared for these and other humans, who are not Westerners but have been maimed, and tortured, and killed by Islamic jihadists at a rate that we would call genocide if it happened in a single country.
This simplistic argument that the Washington and Ottawa's policies are the cause of any homegrown terrorism is exposed for what it is when one looks at other attacks around the world. There was no Western act that caused violent jihadists to bomb a nightclub in Bali in 2002, killing 200 holidaymakers. Nor was there any nefarious plot but the jihadists' own that led them to storm the Indian Parliament in 2001 and kill a dozen people.
Who else but the murderous thugs are to blame for the 2003 attack on UN Headquarters in Iraq that killed the legendary diplomat and peacemaker Sergio Viera de Mello? Or the 2014 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that killed Luis Maria Duarte, a Paraguayan diplomat who was serving as an election observer in Afghanistan? Let me put it another way. To use the blame-the-victim-first logic, when bombs drop in Gaza, Palestinians living there are to blame for electing Hamas. Not so convincing when applied in other contexts.
Of course, none of this excuses Canada for its human rights violations. Our country's servile failure in repatriating Omar Khadr, left rotting in his Guantanamo cell for a decade, was a bipartisan effort. The failure to defend Maher Arar, whom the U.S. deported to Syria where he was tortured, should be a permanent blemish upon the nation's conscience. But the men who commit carnage in the name of religion and ideology are not shouting Khadr and Arar's names. They are conjuring up fantasies, and using religion to articulate grievances.
But this is Canada. The nation deals with threats and failures in a measured manner that adheres to its values and institutions. Focusing on intercommunal relations should be the logical next step rather than even harsher new anti-terrorism laws that will invariably be felt first and longest by people with brown and black skin. Recovering from an incident of terrorism requires looking back to the traditions of pluralistic Canadian democracy, as much as it does looking forward to continuing this project of Peace, Order, and Good Government.