Over the last decade, counter-radicalization has emerged as a priority for governments in North America and Europe seeking to prevent “terrorism” before it occurs. The United Kingdom launched its Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (also known as “Prevent”) in 2003, and in 2015 imposed a statutory duty on doctors, teachers, and other service providers to refer at-risk individuals to a police-led counter-radicalization program. The United States has been developing similar projects, drawing inspiration from the UK’s Prevent. In Canada, the most recent federal budget dedicates $35-million for the development of an office of counter-radicalization, and city-level programs have been operating for the last few years in Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal.
Counter-radicalization/countering violent extremism (CVE) is frequently presented as a softer, gentler alternative to the criminal justice system for addressing the problem of violent terrorism, since it claims to involve prevention rather than punishment. However, as academics, lawyers, and civil liberties organizations have warned, counter-radicalization poses serious risks to important rights and freedoms – particularly freedom of expression and non-discrimination.
On Sunday November 27, ISNA Canada hosted a symposium to critically examine counter-radicalization/CVE, and to consider what lessons we might learn from experiences in the UK and US as Canada implements its own initiatives. The event featured a keynote by Dr. Arun Kundnani, Adjunct Professor at New York University, author of The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, and a foremost scholar of counter-radicalization practices in the UK and US.
Following the keynote, a panel of experts – Carmen Cheung (Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto), Dr. Barbara Perry (Professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology), and Shaykh Abdalla Idris Ali (scholar and former President of ISNA) – discussed emerging issues with counter-radicalization in Canada.
According to Dr. Kundnani, governments’ concern with “radicalization” and “extremism” as the asserted cause of terrorism is fairly recent: it emerged after the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, as a way of attributing responsibility for terrorist violence to extreme religious ideology rather than political grievances. After 9/11, “[r]adicalization became the chief lens through which governments viewed the Muslim populations in Europe.”
Programs to counter radicalization as a means of preventing violence, however, are constructed on a deeply flawed foundation: “radicalization” is an ambiguous, ill-defined term, and there is no real correlation between “radical” ideology and participation in violence. (Not everyone who engages in violent terrorism is radical, and not everyone who is radical engages in violence.) By fixating on the extremist ideologies of individuals, the framework of counter-radicalization erases the connection between the violence of non-state actors, and the violence of the state in the “war on terror.” “If you want a full analysis of why [terrorist] violence exists,” Dr. Kundnani argued, “you also need to talk about the radicalization of Western governments, that are now using violence in more and more places than they were in the past . . . We fail to see that we’re actually in a cycle of violence.”
Unlike the UK, Canada does not (at the moment) have a national counter-radicalization strategy. However, as Carmen Cheung noted, the Canadian government’s National Security Green Paper identifies “radicalization” as a precursor to violence, suggesting that the state needs to “monitor, discern, and ultimately counter what is considered to be radical thought.” Counter-radicalization appears to employ a “softer” and less intrusive touch than the harder tools of criminal law (such as imprisonment). But as Professor Cheung reminded us, “even the softest touch can create expressive chill, lead individuals to self-censor, to modify their religious practices in ways they shouldn’t have to in a free and democratic society.”
This supposedly soft touch will likely hold some communities more tightly in its grasp than others, given the biases built in to counter-terrorism post-9/11– biases which are very apparent in popular discourses on terrorism. According to Dr. Perry’s research, there have been 120 incidents connected with right-wing and White supremacist “extremism” in Canada since 1980 (including arsons and fire-bombings), while there have been seven incidents linked to Muslim “extremism” over the same period. But right-wing and White-supremacist violence, unlike Muslim violence, does not generally attract the label of “terrorism.” For example, while Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (who killed one Canadian soldier) was called a “Canadian-bred Muslim extremist” and “self-radicalized Muslim terrorist,” Justin Bourque (who killed three RCMP officers and injured two) was described as someone who may have “terrorized, but he wasn’t a terrorist.”
Shaykh Abdalla Idris Ali remarked that people use words like “terrorism,” “radicalization,” and “extremism” without defining what they mean, casting suspicion on all Muslims. He recalled hearing someone say that “the radicals are the ones who kill people, and the moderates are the ones who give the radicals money.” In fact, large groups of Muslims scholars have repeatedly condemned terrorist violence – but we should also recognize that the root cause for violence is injustice.
Counter-radicalization erodes the space where critiques of such injustices can be articulated and acted upon non-violently. Instead of pathologizing radicalization, we need to preserve the ability to radically transform society’s injustices without resort to violent tactics. “The problem is not that there is too much radicalization,” as Dr. Kundnani argued. “It is that there is not enough radicalization of the genuine kind: the kind that says it’s possible to make the world a better place, that we can dream of another world.”
Azeezah Kanji is a legal analyst and writer based in Toronto. She moderated the symposium.