How 9/11 (temporarily) reshaped Canadian politics

September 15th, 2011 (Ottawa): The President of the National Council on Canada Arab Relations (NCCAR) David Comerford, recently published an Op-Ed article analyzing the impact the events of September 11th had on Canada’s domestic and international public policies. The article was published in the September 7th issue of Embassy Magazine.  The article is posted below:

By David Comerford

Published September 7, 2011

On Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the dramatic and tragic terrorist attacks in the United States, the left-leaning French daily Le Monde ran an editorial entitled Nous Sommes Tous Américains. The editorial might well have been written in Canada, as it summed up well the feeling of shock and dismay that most Canadians felt in the wake of the murderous attack on the twin towers.

Stunned Canadians across the country opened their doors to stranded airline passengers. In Ottawa, thousands assembled silently on Parliament Hill to show their sympathy for the victims and their families.

The events of 2001 precipitated a broad change in Canadian attitudes toward a more conservative and security-oriented agenda domestically, linked with a more aggressive Canadian military stance internationally.

While the fear of terrorism in Canada never reached the near hysterical levels it hit in the US, many Canadians felt for the first time that extremists of some sort might cause harm here in this country. Troubled, if not fearful, some initial polls showed that Canadians began to think more about security and less about the human rights of people accused of terrorism.

In this atmosphere, with support from other political parties, the then-Liberal government passed the Anti-terrorism Act in 2001, which took away some civil liberties of accused persons, and undertook a reorganization to beef up Canada’s security apparatus.

The treatment of Arab Canadians like Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, and Muayyed Nureddin, to mention only these four, did not get the attention they deserved for a long time because they were accused of links to ‘terrorism.’ They all turned out to be innocent, but the traditional Canadian sensitivity to human rights and the rule of law had been trumped by our collective sense of fear.

Arguably, this sense of insecurity also fostered a broader crime agenda in Canada, which favoured a stronger police, military and security apparatus. This mood was effectively captured by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, who defeated then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin in 2006.

At the same time, Canadian attitudes hardened with respect to Arabs and Muslims in the initial years following 9/11, as shown in some Environics polls.

However, over the past few years, attitudes have shifted toward more acceptance and understanding of these communities. Even Muslim Canadians have consistently shown in polls their relative satisfaction with life in Canada compared to Muslim communities in Europe.

Not all Arabs are Muslim, of course. There are Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Arab Jews and even Arab atheists. And most Muslims are not Arabs at all, coming from countries like Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. Furthermore, there are many strands of the Muslim religion that vary in the extent to which they are ‘liberal’ or ‘fundamentalist,’ as is the case with Christianity or Judaism.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many Canadians, the terms Muslim, Arab and fundamentalist quickly came to be blurred into one collective (and seemingly dangerous) category.

After 9/11, many Canadians of Arab origin became acutely aware of the fact that they were now looked on differently by their fellow Canadians. Some responded by playing down their differentness, while the reaction of others was to proudly display their identify—as in, for example, young Muslim women wearing the headscarf.

Internationally, 9/11 led Canada to adopt a more aggressive attitude. Our Canadian military, long known for its peacekeeping activities, moved aggressively into war mode alongside its US allies. Spending on military salaries, equipment and training rapidly expanded, and after taking a pass in Iraq, Canada took a front-line role in Afghanistan.

But 10 years after 9/11, there are new signs that winds are beginning to blow in the opposite direction.

The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa from Bahrain to Tunisia surprised many Canadians. Instead of demanding that Egypt become a fundamentalist religious caliphate, the demonstrators were calling for democracy, and doing it peacefully. In fact, Canadians saw for the first time that it was the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, which Canada had supported for 30 years, that was using force to repress its civilian population.

On the Israel and Palestine issue, many foreign policy experts are now pointing to the imprudence of our one-sided position of uncritical support for Israel, regardless of whether its policies and practices are right or wrong. They note that we are more and more isolated in the international community, as demonstrated by our loss of the UN Security Council seat last year. Our isolation will likely be on view for all to see during the upcoming UN vote on the recognition of Palestine.

While still wary of terrorism, most Canadians now recognize that the threat of terrorism is far overblown. In the 10 years after 9/11, only a handful of people have been hurt in terrorist incidents in North America. In fact, according to statistics gathered by the US Department of Homeland Security, aspirin and related drugs kill far more people in the US and Canada every year than terrorism kills in the entire world, including the Middle East.

But as time moves on, Canadians are gradually re-evaluating the real level of danger and readjusting appropriately. Human rights are again becoming an important concern for Canadians who will balance them against the need for security. Canadians, of all backgrounds and political stripes, seem less willing to allow civil liberties to be constantly eroded. This bodes well for all Canadians and particularly for Canadians of Arab and Muslim background who will continue their significant contributions to Canadian society, as they have for the past 130 years.

Canadians and the people of the Arab world will continue to develop an appreciation of the fact that they have common values and aspirations: genuine justice, human rights, democracy, equality and freedom. That appreciation will greatly enhance the development of improved relations between us on cultural, social, educational and economic levels.

David Comerford is the president of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.

© 2011 The Hill Times Publishing Inc.