Securitization and the Muslim community in Canada

A closer look at how securitization is constructed is necessary if we are to contextualize how national security policy has specially targeted Canadian Muslims.

Four surveillance cameras pointed in different directions from a post against a blue sky.
Photo by Jürgen Jester on Unsplash.

The recent passage of Bill 21 in Quebec, which effectively bans teachers and other provincial employees from wearing the hijab, continues in the legacy of discriminatory policy that is based on the securitization of Muslims in Canada. Put simply, expressions of Muslim identity are portrayed as a threat to security in Western societies, including Canada. Such Islamophobic overtures have been catapulted into the public discourse in recent years with the mainstreaming of right-wing political ideas that rest on the demonization of Muslims. As political leaders verbalize (unfounded) anxiety around cultural and political assertions by Canadian Muslims, the community continues to experience elevated levels of anti-Muslim hate and violence. The Quebec City mosque shooting is among the deadliest incidences of domestic terrorism in Canada. Hate crime statistics between 2016 and 2017 indicate a 151% increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims

A closer look at how securitization is constructed is necessary if we are to contextualize how national security policy has specially targeted Canadian Muslims. It is argued by some that securitization – or the viewing of broad spheres of society though a security lens – is justified based on the need to keep a nation ‘safe’ from ‘external’ threats. But securitization is hardly an objective reality; instead securitization is a political process that involves a) using political discourse to construct the enemy posing a national security threat; and b) addressing the threat using exceptional institutional measures that require the suspension of democratic processes and public discussion. Most agree that the attacks of 9/11 marked a turning point in the securitization of society. In particular, the events of 9/11 have been used to cast Muslims as collectively guilty and characterize them as potential threats to national security in Canada and elsewhere.

In this article, I elaborate the process of securitization of Muslims in Canada. Ranging from the anti-terrorism legislation to unannounced visits by security agencies to people’s homes and workplaces, I highlight how national security policy and practice has targeted the Muslim community. This anti-Muslim bias in policy reflects anxieties about Muslim cultural, religious and political expression that is fed by political discourse and media rhetoric. Drawing on my own academic research as well as that of other scholars, I provide insights into the Muslim community’s experience of securitization. I conclude this article with a reflection on the expansion of securitization, which I argue is a net negative for Canadian democracy. 

Canada’s security policy and institutional discrimination against Muslims

After 9/11, Canada passed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 to develop the legislative ability to pursue terrorism charges. With the subsequent passing of the Public Safety Act in 2002, additional intelligence gathering and information sharing provisions were adopted as part of national security policy. In addition, a focus on transnational terrorism meant security certificates, a tool of immigration law, were utilized to detain permanent residents and foreign nationals posing a national security threat. Together, the suite of anti-terrorism legislation has been used to racially profile and target Muslims. Examples such as the handing over of Maher Arar and other Muslim Canadians to be tortured at the hands of U.S. authorities, the use of security certificates to detain Muslim individuals based on weak evidence, the No-Fly List that targets innocent Muslim travelers, and the selective application of terrorism charges against Muslim perpertators have eroded the Muslim community’s trust in government institutions. 

Renowned academic, Sherene Razack, astutely notes that the targeting of Muslims is informed by a racialized imagination of the threat where their background “mark[s] them as individuals likely to commit terrorist acts, people whose propensity for violence is indicated by their origins.”  

By the mid to late 2000s, as the security agenda became dominated by concerns of domestic terrorism, it was important for security agencies to earn back community trust so the community would come forward with useful information. Various community-oriented approaches to tackle terrorism were deployed. The RCMP, for instance, adopted the National Security Community Outreach Program to increase dialogue and improve relations with Canadian Muslims. As part of the program, the community voiced concerns about unannounced visits by RCMP and CSIS to people’s homes and workplaces; however, it seems the community feedback had little effect. The practice of unannounced visits continues to this day exemplified by the recent media coverage of RCMP and CSIS visiting various Muslim Student Associations inquiring about student members. 

The passage of Bill C-51 in 2015, which lowered the threshold for terrorism charges and granted more powers to CSIS, was also seen as contradictory to efforts to earn the trust of the Muslim community. Even as several ‘soft’ counter-radicalization initiatives (such as the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence at the federal level or the Quebec co-funded Centre for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal) supplement anti-terrorism legislation today, the suspect category of Muslim communities remains intact. It seems that the state’s focus regarding security is selective: state agencies remain more interested in acts of violence when the suspects are Muslim versus when Canadian Muslims are victims of Islamophobic, right-wing violence. 

Public discourse and lived experiences of securitization

The Canadian Muslim experience of securitization is informed by national security policy (as discussed above) as well as through the propagation of political and media discourse that paints Muslims as national security threats. Political rhetoric of the Muslim threat rears its ugly head particularly during election campaigns. In the 2015 federal election campaign, Stephen Harper stoked fears in the voting public against Canadian Muslims by making the wearing of niqab during citizenship ceremonies and jihadism an electoral issue. More recently, the passage of Quebec’s Bill 21 banning civil servants from wearing religious symbols in the province, largely affecting Muslim women, corresponds to electoral promises that the ruling CAQ party made during the 2018 provincial election. Public discourse is also shaped by media coverage which exceptionalizes Muslim violence. A recent study concluded that high profile incidences of ideological violence received 1.5 times more coverage in print media when perpetrators were Muslim versus non-Muslim. Morever, the perpetrators were identified by religion or race or ethnicity, and the acts were consistently called “terrorism” and framed as an attack on the West. 

Studies that have focused on the lived experiences of Canadian Muslims highlight the strain of securitization on their citizenship. A comprehensive study based on interviews with 50 young Canadian Muslims finds that their lived experiences are mediated through the discourses of othering and practices of security governance. The study shows that Muslims confront unequal citizenship as they encounter excessive surveillance and constant pressures to dispel negative stereotypes. Another study focusing on the securitization of South Asian Muslims in Montreal examines how 20 working class families and 20 middle class adults in Montreal cope with anxieties around profiling related to terrorism and radicalization. Families reported facing suspicion and negative perception from the government and wider society (specially visibly Muslim women and girls) that produced vulnerability, helplessness, and saw them engage in self-policing. 

Muslim civil society perspectives on securtization 

Over the past several months, I have conducted 15 in-depth interviews with members of Canadian Muslim civil society organizations and public servants asking how national security policies have impacted their work and the community. My research extends previous work on the experiences of securitization in the Muslim community and, importantly, offers new insights on the role and experiences of civil society organizations operating under the pressures of national security. Though my research is still ongoing and a full analysis of the interview data is pending as part of my doctoral thesis, my initial assessment adds nuance to challenges of securitization facing the Muslim community. 

My analysis questions the prevalent discourse in security policy that holds the Muslim community collectively responsible for the actions of a few errant individuals and blames the community for not doing enough to combat extremism. A senior leader of a mosque told me that in the rare occasion the community identified cases of extremism, they addressed it with urgency. His comments importantly underscore that the community has the capacity to identify social ills and take community-led action to address it. Additionally, Muslim organizations have cooperated with RCMP and Public Safety Canada in organizing workshops with Muslim communities across Canada. However, such top down workshops do little to earn community trust. My interviews made it apparent that the discussion in these workshops is contained within a security frame, which assumes the problem lies within the community itself and limits how the community can engage and respond. There is also very little acknowledgement of community agency and knowledge.

Muslim civil society has worked to draw the attention of security agencies to right-wing hate and Islamophobia, which consistently emerged in my interviews as issues of security facing Canadian Muslims. Senior bureaucrats at Public Safety Canada whom I spoke with also indicated that the Muslim community expressed worries around anti-Muslim hate during the stakeholder consultations they undertook to develop the 2018 national counter-radicalization strategy. Even though there has been disagreement between CSIS and Public Safety Canada on the extent to which right-wing extremism poses a threat to Canada’s national security, the recent mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand is likely to expand counter-radicalization policies to target right-wing extremism. 

My interviews highlighted community grievances arising from unannounced visits by RCMP and CSIS. The coercive practices of CSIS and its anti-Muslim bias have been well-documented. As my interviews reaffirmed, the mere fact of being visited can be stigmatizing and traumatizing. A mosque leader told me that he asked police and RCMP to contact the board of directors of the mosque and not him as he did not want his credibility in the community to be affected. More significantly, as some interviewees stated, visits by security agencies continue to suggest that the Muslim community remains under surveillance.

Muslim civil society organizations are adapting to these new realities but many conveyed to me that focusing on security is a burden and a distraction that takes them away from issues of community building they are equipped to address such as employment, education, faith, and other socio-economic or cultural matters.

The way forward: moving away from securitization

The securitization of Canadian Muslims through national security policy and public discourse has established their status as a suspect community, causing them to be unfairly targeted by security practices and subjected to othering and anti-Muslim hate crimes. At the minimum, discriminatory national security practices and racist legislative actions like Bill 21 (currently facing a Charter challenge in court) should be repealed to reduce the harm posed to Muslim communities. But, the normalization of security should concern all Canadians as once security governance is institutionalized, it becomes a tool that can be applied broadly. Indeed, policing techniques have been used to suppress Indigenous movements and environmental activists. There are already indications that the national security remit is being expanded to target right-wing extremists. While this would be an important step in addressing the issues of security facing the Muslim community, it begs us to reflect on securitization holistically. 

National security advocates continue to make the case that security is necessary and can be balanced against democratic principles and the rights enshrined in the Charter. Reforms (such as in Bill C-59) focus on oversight of security agencies but do little to check the expansion of security. But, securitization normalizes the “state of exception” emboldening security actors to act outside the law behind closed doors, results in the erosion of civil liberties, and organizes social relations based on risk and fear. Securitization poses a risk to the norms of democratic participation and public dialogue, the fundamental pillars through which civic, political, and social rights are negotiated in a democracy. With increasing securitization, the important question facing Canadians is whether we are comfortable with the fading of public decisions out of the public view. To comprehensively address societal violence, we should be having discussions about state violence and structural issues of violence that encompass wars on foreign soil, colonial history, inequality, racism, and social exclusion. It requires greater investment in community building and civil society. We, as Canadians, should reflect on the harms of securitization as we regard the future of national security policy.

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