Despite the general justification of the preamble, there are no marginal annotations explaining the details of Bill C-51, the government’s proposed anti-terrorism law.
This means that commonsense is required to rein in the anxieties of our imagination if we are to discern the reasons why changes to existing security legislation are warranted. We also need to be aware of why these changes are proposed now, whatever the weight one accords the attacks of last fall.
The five parts of the bill deal respectively with:
(1) information sharing among government agencies;
(2) preventing suspected persons from boarding commercial aircraft – a “no-fly” list – along with appeal procedures available to those barred from flying;
(3) new thresholds and provisions for judicial oversight regarding the arrest of persons suspected of terrorism or of advocating terrorism, including electronic advocacy;
(4) expanding the capabilities of CSIS with warrants from the Federal Court and new reporting requirements; and finally
(5) strengthening the ability of the Minister of Immigration to keep information of admissibility of prospective immigrants and refugees secret.
All these provisions have been criticized, usually by lawyers, by political opponents of the government, or by lawyers who are political opponents of the government. Sometimes one wonders if critics have even read the text.
One distinguished law professor at the University of Toronto, for instance, claimed that C-51 would comprehend “anything ‘undermining’ (whatever that means)” the security of Canada. In fact, C-51 provides a nine-point definition of what “undermining the security of Canada” means.
Most critics combine two questionable arguments. The first ignores the current international political context. C-51 is simply denounced on the grounds of abstract principles detached from political reality. The chief anxiety is that CSIS, which is often mistakenly called a “spy agency” rather than a counter-spy (or security intelligence) outfit, is the thin edge of the wedge leading to a police state, not to say totalitarian domination.
To the commonsensical request for evidence of the nefarious purposes contemplated for a future CSIS, reference is usually made by critics to the secrecy that envelops many of the activities of this organization. This ignores what is almost self-evident: you can’t run a security intelligence operation without secrecy.
Commonsensical reflection indicates we are not looking at Canada’s 1984. Students objecting to tuition increases, artists expressing their various alienations, or columnists writing in support of the government of Ukraine are not in the crosshairs of CSIS. All such examples, however, have been suggested as possibilities by fevered commentators. In fact, C-51 explicitly says that it is not concerned with “lawful advocacy, protest, dissent, and artistic expression.”
So let us state the obvious: Bill C-51 is aimed at violent Islamic jihadi terrorists, and those are the persons against whom its provisions are to be enforced. The reasons are clear enough, provided one makes reference to facts and events of the real world, today.
First, bear in mind the fact that about 1 per cent of Muslims in North America are converts but converts comprise a greatly disproportionate number of persons involved in terrorist plots – by some estimates, 15 per cent. One reason seems to be that the limited understanding of their new religion is coupled with a strong desire to show what enthusiastic converts they are. They are thus uniquely vulnerable to conversion by religious snake-oil salespersons and terrorist-recruiters because they have no way of checking whether what the recruiter says is true.
A second problem is the existence of the Islamic State (IS) and its proclamation that it is a new Caliphate. This act has changed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Unlike Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has the appropriate family or tribal pedigree for a Caliph, namely descent from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quarysh. This is why neither the Taliban nor al-Qaeda ever claimed to do more than create emirates.
The creation of a Caliphate is thus hugely significant as a recruitment tool both among the many disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and equally among lost souls in this country.
A third fact needed to put C-51 in context is that IS has projected an apocalyptic outcome to the current conflict. According to the IS narrative, they are true Muslims called to bring about the end times by carrying out God’s will and slaughtering Jews, Crusaders and apostates, including some 200 million Shia. In short, IS is a messianic state with which diplomacy and prudential compromise is not possible, which is, of course its appeal both here and abroad.
Unlike their critics the authors of Bill C-51 are sensible enough to have recognized the danger.
Barry Cooper is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
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