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Terror and Tolerance

Jonathan Kay can be reached via email at

National Post, Jun. 6, 2006

Photo: Loss of Faith

Friday's arrest of 17 terror suspects may well transform Canada's muddled attitude to militant Islam: Terrorist bombs, like the proverbial hangman's noose, tend to focus the mind.

This is the third time in two decades that Canada's multicultural pieties have conflicted with our need to thwart global terrorism. And until now, multiculturalism has gotten the upper hand.

In the early 1980s, as a violent Sikh subculture was gathering strength in British Columbia, our politicians averted their gaze. As Vancouver Sun reporter Kim Bolan wrote in her recently published book, Loss of Faith, no one wanted to be accused of ethnic profiling. Even after the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985, those who spoke candidly about Sikh radicalism were denounced as insensitive.

The same phenomenon played out more recently in Canada's Tamil community. For years, Tamil Tiger fundraisers have preyed on their fellow immigrants, sending money back to Sri Lanka to wage a terrorist war. The shakedown operation was common knowledge, but the Liberals did nothing for fear of alienating Toronto-area Tamil voters. In 2000, the Liberals even denounced as 'racist' those opposition politicians who questioned the presence of Paul Martin at a fundraising event held by an organization identified by the U.S. State Department as a Tiger front.

Only when Stephen Harper's Conservatives came to power this year were the Tigers finally outlawed. In the meantime, no one knows how many Sri Lankans were killed by weapons paid for with Canadian donations.

Our politicians got away with ignoring the threat from radical Tamils and Sikhs because these terrorist campaigns were linked to distant, obscure conflicts. Until Friday, we could pretend the threat from jihadis fell into that same category. But a movement that spurs young Canadian Muslims to blow up Toronto because of what's happening in Gaza, Baghdad or Kabul is a breed apart. Unlike earlier ethno-religious terrorist movements, which had narrow territorial claims, Islamists claim what lawyers might call 'universal jurisdiction:' No matter where they live, infidels and their liberal, secular governments represent an affront to the Islamist creed, and so are fair game for extermination.

Over the past five years, Canada's contribution to the fight against terrorism has been continually hamstrung by our self-conscious dedication to the ideals of multiculturalism and tolerance. But as Friday's arrests show, the tension between the two has always been a phony one: It hardly empowers minority communities if we ignore the violent subcultures embedded within. Such neglect just allows the militants to co-opt the community as a whole - which is exactly what Tiger supporters did with Toronto's Tamils, and what radical Sikhs did in B.C.

The spectre of homegrown Canadian Muslims plotting to attack targets inside their own country has hit a nerve. If the charges are proven in court, this is very different from cases like that of Ahmed Said Khadr or Ahmed Ressam - Canadian jihadis who traipsed off to Afghanistan or the United States to wage their jihads. And smart Muslim leaders recognize this. Canadian Islamic Congress president Mohamed Elmasry, a man best known for endorsing terrorist attacks against Israelis during a 2004 televised debate, released a surprisingly rational press release on Saturday. (Yesterday, he sought to further prop up his moderate bona fides by announcing the creation of the 'Nichola Goddard Scholarship In Peace And Conflict Studies.') And the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement 'expressing relief that a potential terrorist attack in Toronto has been averted, and applaud[ing] the efforts by Canadian security forces to combat terrorism.'

It is significant that this sort of thing is coming from players jockeying for influence within the Islamic community. Sincere or not, it shows they now know which way the wind is blowing.

That's good news, because neither C.S.I.S. nor local police can sniff out terror plots without Muslim informants coming forward. Canadian Muslims will also need to exhibit understanding of the disproportionate scrutiny their communities now face. The well-known mantra that the vast majority of Canadian Muslims are peaceable is, of course, true. But this fact is arithmetically compatible with a second proposition - that most potential terrorists are now Muslims.

This may change in coming years. For all I know, the big terror threat of 2016 will come from Bahais or Jews. But in the meantime, we have to put political correctness to one side and deal candidly with the threat as it now exists.

That applies to the media as well. On Sunday, the Toronto Star published a lengthy article on the Friday arrests. Not once did the authors mention the obvious fact that all 17 of the arrestees share the same religion - a religion that also happens to comprise their alleged criminal motivation.

Instead, the authors referred vaguely to the group's alleged 'extremism' and 'radicalized' outlook. No doubt the Star editors congratulated themselves for their sensitivity. But from a reader's perspective, it just looked as if they were too scared to identify the real threat.

Such self-censorship has had its day. Friday's arrests were part of an ongoing battle within Canada's Muslim community between a peaceable majority and a jihadist minority. We shouldn't be afraid to call this battle by name. As the Sikh and Tamil examples show, the wages of self-deception are high.