Canada’s multiculturalism a threat or grace?

It has been almost a month since the Canadian city of Toronto woke up to the news that 17 suspects had been arrested in an anti-terror operation. 

The suspects had been caught in a police sting after they tried to buy a suspiciously large quantity of fertiliser that could be used for bomb-making.


Canada, the country north of America considered synonymous with the word peaceful by some or boring by others, suddenly hummed with debate on issues such as multiculturalism, the radicalisation of young people, and most importantly, the effects that global politics and world events have on Canadian society.   


The initial response to the arrests was, of course, caution.  The speculative character of unsubstantiated media allegations that seem destined to follow all terror-related arrests makes it vital that the case is properly judged on its merits in a court of law. No one is interested in a sham trial conducted by the evening news and an unscrupulous press.


The urge not to prejudge the outcome of the case, however, has not stopped Canadians from engaging in critical self-reflection. 

Canadians like to think of themselves as reasonably tolerant people, accepting of difference in most circumstances. The public generally views immigration and cultural diversity as positive indicators of a healthy 21st-century society.


Canadians stereotypically shun the American ideal of the “melting pot” society – often referred to by critics as the “boiling pot” because of the way social tensions seem to bubble up at certain times.


Instead of demanding assimilation, Canada has encouraged immigrants to retain and express their identities and values while attempting to find their place in Canadian society. 


In fact, some might say that it is precisely the values that set Canada as a country apart from America that Canadians cherish most. 


Blaming extremism on social policies such as multiculturalism rather than on realities of war and occupation may be comforting for some Americans.

And it was precisely those values that were the target of an American diplomatic and media-led assault. In the days after the announcement about the arrests in Canada, US politicians and journalists wasted little time in sharpening their claws. 


First came the attack on Canada’s immigration policy, seen as lax by many American policy makers. Peter King, the Republican senator for New York, was quoted as saying that the arrests illustrate how easy it was for extremists to operate in Canada. He said that there were “a disproportionate number of al-Qaeda in Canada because of their very liberal immigration laws, because of how political asylum is granted so easily”.


US talk shows and internet sites seemed to lean towards the view that Canada’s good-natured but ultimately misguided immigration policy has turned the country into a hotbed of terrorist fanatics, all biding their time until they can attack their next target – and all paid for by the generous Canadian welfare state, no doubt.


The reason that this explanation was not more compelling and was not accepted by more people is probably becasue it is completely wrong. None of those arrested is a recent immigrant; all were either born in Canada or have been long-term residents. 


If these arrests are really an indication that Canada is under threat, then it is clear that the problem is home-grown, not imported.

Speeches from uninformed politicians about increased security at airports and tightening up immigration regulations may win votes in America, but it serves only to distract people from addressing the issues that really do matter.


Issues such as alienation and radicalisation of young people need to be dealt with in the community, in pool halls and youth clubs, with the support of social workers, teachers and parents, not on television talk shows or political soapboxes.  


But the sharpest criticism came from Americans who see Canada’s policy of multiculturalism and acceptance of diversity as the root of the problem.

This outlook was summed up in an article printed in the LA Times recently under the headline: “The price of ‘nice’ for Canada.” The sub-heading read: “Our northern neighbour thinks that being all multicultural and sucking up to the United Nations will keep the terrorists away. Think again.”


The basic premise was that Canada’s policy of respecting diversity in our society encourages “Islamic radicalism”, and that Canada is deluded if it thinks that being “nice” will appease terrorists and Islamists.


My fear is that the crucial issues have now been manipulated to such an extent that people may actually begin to believe that the values on which ostensibly liberal democratic societies are constructed are the real catalyst for extremism. 

Though the article provided no guidance for how the author would reconfigure Canadian society, his portrayal of Canada’s system as an abject failure seemed to imply that Canada needed to “get tough on terror”, like the United States. At least that is the conclusion that the author hoped his readers would draw.  


There is, of course, an alternative viewpoint, one that the author seemed unwilling to consider: that it is precisely the “get-tough” approach employed by the US that is fostering extremism worldwide. In other words, the prevalence of war, violence and death as a result of American actions, and not domestic social policies, are fuelling radicalisation worldwide.   


After all, if we follow the author’s reasoning, it seems puzzling why a country such as Canada, which has been promoting multiculturalism for decades, experienced no problems with “Islamic radicalism” before the US started its so-called war on terror. If the response from the critics is that there was previously nothing for these “Islamic radicals” to get excited about, this makes the case stronger.


Now, blaming extremism on social policies such as multiculturalism rather than on realities of war and occupation may be comforting for some Americans. The “liberal critique” of the fight against terror has been done and is probably growing stale, currently unmarketable to desensitised consumers.


It may be that readers of the LA Times have little patience to reflect on how their government’s policies might be contributing to the resentment and frustration among people outside their borders – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – and prefer novel, catchy arguments that sell American policies by pointing out how “even Canada, the “nice” country, has terrorists”.


This seductive message thus serves as a public distraction disguised as a vindication for occupation abroad and assaults on civil liberties at home. 


No one is interested in a sham trial conducted by the evening news and an unscrupulous press.

The proposition that extremism is encouraged because of the attempt by multicultural states to accommodate diversity, rather than viewed as a reaction to the grim realities of war and occupation, takes the entire discourse to an even higher level of absurdity than the flimsy excuses used to justify linking the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq.


But here we must be careful. That something is initially laughable does not make it any less potentially dangerous.


At least the tactical lies about weapons of mass destruction, once proven false, could be quickly disowned and buried by an American administration when they ceased to serve any useful purpose.


My fear is that the crucial issues have now been manipulated to such an extent that people may actually begin to believe that the values on which ostensibly liberal democratic societies are constructed – the acceptance of diversity and openness to alternative conceptions of citizenship and community – are the real catalyst for extremism. 


The risks of allowing this mentality to flourish are too obvious to ignore.


Especially at this critical time, Canada needs to stand up for the values that set it apart from America.  Multiculturalism and the acceptance of diversity is not the problem. But unless Canadians defend their social policies by living them out every day, in direct defiance of people who blame multiculturalism for the current problems, there may soon be nothing left to champion.

[Joshua Hergesheimer is a Canadian freelance columnist based in the UK. His writing focuses on the implications of political violence in contemporary society.]

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera

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