Canada should look into its own backyard before preaching to others
Twenty years have passed since Al-Qaeda murdered its way onto the global stage. In the West, except for a reasonably tight circle of policy and security specialists, the group’s emergence caught everyone completely by surprise.
How complacent we were. And indeed, still are today. As damning evidence unearthed by Arab News’s Preachers of Hate series demonstrates, the West can still be a depressingly weak link in the global campaign against extremism.
Despite everything that has happened, and the hundreds of thousands killed and maimed, Canada allows Tariq Abdelhaleem — someone the respected writer and researcher on Al-Qaeda, Thomas Jocelyn, calls “an Al-Qaeda-linked religious figure” — to operate openly within its borders.
After 9/11 there were supposed to be no safe spaces for terrorists. During the 1990s parts of the UK, mainly in London, were havens for Islamists and jihadis to fundraise, network and build their organisations in. Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir said they wanted to build a caliphate and overthrow leaders throughout the Middle East.
The Al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Qatada operated openly, just like Abdelhaleem does today. London policymakers mostly shrugged or ignored the hate preachers and their associates.
But 9/11, and then the 7/7 bombings in London, changed the rules of the game. However, the damage was already done. A network was up and running. People like Anjem Choudary continued to preach radical ideology. The caliphate of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s dreams became a reality. And hundreds of British men and women made the journey east to join it.
By allowing Tariq Abelhaleem to freely contribute to jihadi ideology, Canada is being deeply irresponsible
Western countries generally deal with terrorist cells and networks reasonably effectively through intelligence and security responses.
Our weak spot is countering the ideologues and disrupting the thinking that helps inspire the violence. We have little concept or understanding of the ideology that underpins the violence of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. And we have few ideas about how to stop it.
To a mostly secular West, we struggle to think that a twisted interpretation of Islam could provide the religious justification for the most inhumane acts. In fact, it is perfectly logical. Daesh recruits may have been found with “Islam for Dummies” in their luggage as they journeyed to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq, but the ideologues who drew them there were experts in using their extreme religious creed to justify slaughter, including the slaughter of other Muslims.
Of course, some jihadists are deranged psychopaths. But for most, hate has to be learnt. And Al-Qaeda and Daesh rely on religious justification to teach it.
Security efforts are not a solution in isolation. More drone strikes on terrorists remove those pulling the trigger. But no missile or bullet can kill an idea. And radicalised recruits simply take their place.
Others wallow in a sense of shame believing that all of this has come about due to Western interference in Muslim lands. Of course there have been Western foreign policy mistakes — although the West is as much condemned for not interfering in Syria as it was condemned for its intervention in Afghanistan. But Spain is a target for ISIS because of the overthrow of Islamic rule over 500 years ago.
How can Spain respond to that? Perhaps we should realise that extremists will use cases of Western foreign policy misadventure for propaganda purposes — to recruit, and create the conflict zones to wage war. But even if no Western wars exist, they find other narratives to recruit. How else do they get people to attack German and Belgian citizens?
As the Abdelhaleem case demonstrates, despite occasional jihadist attacks, Canada clearly has not reconciled itself to dealing with those preachers of hate who use the freedom of the West to inspire terrorism.
This is not straightforward for Western societies, but it does require us to understand the ideologue’s misuse of religion and subtle call to violence, and bring in laws that make it illegal to act in this way.
This inevitably and rightly comes up against freedom of speech and human rights concerns. But most Western countries would have no problem stopping political movements that inspire violent acts. So why not religious ones?
Policy developers should be able to come up with a legal framework that prevents hate preachers inspiring violence through religious justification on and offline. Citing human rights concerns is not an adequate response. And lecturing on human rights is easy when it is not your citizens being murdered by the ideology you shelter. By allowing Abelhaleem to freely contribute to jihadi ideology, Canada is being deeply irresponsible.
• William Neal is an international communications consultant and political advisor based in London.