Okay, just what the hell is Islamicism? It's Stephen Harper's word, invoked on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, to describe the biggest security threat Canada faces. But it appears in no dictionary.
It's baffling even his supporters. A generally praiseworthy editorial in the National Post noted that the Prime Minister "flubbed" when he used the term Islamicism and added rather archly: "Presumably, he meant the extremist doctrine of Islamism. The word 'Islamicism' has no fixed meaning, and the word is not in common usage."
Others were not so kind. A letter writer in the Calgary Herald said: "By coining such undefined terms when discussing terrorism threats in Canada, Harper is demonstrating his ignorance of Islam at best and contributing to Islamophobia in Canada at worst." The writer added: "Would Harper define the Norwegian terrorist attack as Christianism? ... Of course not."
Unfortunately, the media in this country seem to be letting him off the hook. No one has yet critically examined Harper's use of the word, asked where he might have found it, or examined what it means. The few editorials written after the Prime Minister's wide-ranging interview with CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge repeat the word and take it at face value, like this one in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, which begins: "Stephen Harper is correct — if not politically correct."
Harper could have said radical Islam, or political Islamism, or anti-West religious terrorism, but he did not. Instead, he chose a term that most people would say refers to anyone who worships the Prophet Mohammed. Read the full CBC interview here.
And in what sense did he inflate the threat to an "ism"? What kind of "ism" are we dealing with? Are we to equate it to an action (like baptism), or a system, principle or ideological movement (like Conservatism), or a quality (like barbarism), a peculiarity in language (like Americanism), a pathological condition (like alcoholism), or is it instead a basis for prejudice or discrimination (like racism)?
If Islamicism is indeed the new nomenclature adopted by Canadian security officials -- and Harper said they are occupied "most regularly" with it -- then perhaps the question of its appropriateness should be directed at the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service. After all, Harper promised during the CBC interview that his government would beef up anti-terrorism legislation to allow them more power to hold people without laying charges.
He also said this: "I think it is a case that we will have to be perpetually vigilant and we'll have to have appropriate security apparatus and intelligence apparatus that is trying to identify plots or terror events before they happen. And I just think that's going to be an ongoing reality, and that's, you know, that's just ... that's just life going forward I think in the 21st century, unfortunately."
If the media were doing their job, columnists and editorialists would be demanding that the Prime Minister justify his call for tougher legislation and a "perpetually vigilant" intelligence apparatus directed against Islamicism and homegrown terrorism.
Ask how many actual cases of homegrown terrorism have been actually carried out in this country. Answer: Aside from Air India disaster in 1978, none that have been proven in court.
Ask how many people have been arrested and convicted of terrorist acts in the name of Islam in Canada. Answer: A small handful, almost all rounded up in the so-called Toronto 18 plot. All charges were dropped against seven of the 18, and those convicted lacked the materials to carry out their plots.
Ask what evidence convinced Harper that we need to resurrect two anti-terrorism clauses that were abandoned in 2007 amid heated political debate.
• One allowed police to arrest suspects without a warrant and detain them for three days without charges if police believed a terrorist act may have been committed.
• The other allowed a judge to compel a witness to testify in secret about past associations or perhaps pending acts under penalty of going to jail if the witness didn't comply.
Harper said both measures "are necessary.We think they've been useful. And as you know … they're applied rarely, but there are times where they're needed." In fact, neither clause was used by police or prosecutors in the five years before they expired. Why do we need them now?
I am concerned because this is not the first time Harper has kindled fear of Islam for his own political purposes. It happened during the Toronto 18 arrests. My study of media coverage of that case found that reporters relied overwhelmingly on unnamed security officials for information, and those security officials were carefully briefed by the Privy Council Office on what to say. The government's message was clear: Canada is tough on terrorism, there's a threat to our way of life, and the terrorists could be your neighbours. The message was never challenged or put to the test. There was little about the case to justify an extreme moral panic approach, but the media repeated it uncritically, and it fueled some of the most extreme commentary, including some that was undoubtedly Islamophobic.
Newspapers then didn't make the government justify its actions. It's time they did their job right today. Whatever Harper thinks the threat is, we have a right to know more.
This added on Sept. 12: One of the few columnists to take on Harper on this issue was Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star. Read it here.