Since Stephen Harper proposed Bill C-51 against terrorism, several events have taken place that call into question the establishment of laws and rulings to combat extremism that some fear may be growing in Canada. Officially, Bill C-51 gives Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agents greater power to address “security threats” both at home and abroad. On its website, the Canadian government explains that the bill will “criminalize the advocacy or promotion of terrorism offences,” make it “easier for law enforcement agencies to detain suspected terrorists” before they can harm the population, “enable the effective and responsible sharing of relevant national security information,” and make better use of classified information in order to identify potential threats. This bill has been described as the most far-reaching security law since the aftermath of 9/11. What is most alarming is that Harper has argued that the world is a “dangerous place” and refused to add sunset clauses to the bill, which means that it could remain in place indefinitely.
The day after the proposal of Bill C-51, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre blocked an imam from establishing a community centre in the city, arguing that its establishment could disrupt “public safety and order.” According to Coderre, the imam in question was an “agent of radicalization.” His refusal looked even more dubious in the light of Harper’s recent proposal. No matter how hard Coderre, claimed that “it [had] nothing to do with freedom of speech,” it had been increasingly hard not to see a disturbing link.
The combination of Bill C-51 with the recent events in Montreal gave rise to controversial and heated debates. As McGill Law professor, Victor Muniz-Fraticelli, pointed out, having a debate about the establishment of the community centre on political and philosophical grounds is completely acceptable, but the creation of this institution is not a crime—although considering the federal government’s recent policy, it could become one soon. But, as for now, the local politicians unlawfully put a restriction on freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, in the name of ‘greater security.’
Lumping together policies to promote secularism with laws to fight terrorism further encourages people to see a threat in the Muslim community at large. It will become harder to contain fear and anger when citizens are no longer able to differentiate between a real threat and mere paranoia.
Both of these events are inherently flawed and reactive. None of these decisions address the fundamental questions that people should be asking themselves: Why do people join terrorist movements? Why are social conditions in Western countries pushing some citizens to fill in the ranks of extremist groups?
Bill C-51 is also imposing greater surveillance on all citizens by claiming to protect them. The accumulation of private information is just one issue when considering the restrictions in citizens’ ability to express themselves, religiously or not. Now, more than ever, Canadians need to be careful of such marginalizing political speech and pick the right fights. In the face of a common peril, showing a united front is both good and necessary. However, depriving certain citizens of their rights because of their religious beliefs is unjust. Scapegoating all Muslims by associating them with terrorism will never be the appropriate reaction. One can be extremist without being religious, and religious without being extremist. But it seems that for the federal government and CSIS, Canadians are now under scrutiny and are being forced to keep quiet.