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The best enemy of terrorists

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Here's an awkward question: How should the arrest of three suspected terrorists affect Canadians' attitude towards its Muslim community? Indeed, should it affect their attitudes at all?

I might not be asking these questions if it hadn't happened before, but it has.

The first thing to state here is that some of us are Muslims. There is a natural tendency when writing questions like this to make assumptions that lead to a "we" and "they" type of discussion. I am not a Muslim. My character, upbringing and cultural values are not those of a Muslim culture. Whether I like it or not, my cultural and philosophical touchstones all derive from a Christian-based culture.

As immigration, particularly from the Indian sub-continent has increased, those Christian-based cultural values have been added to and, perhaps, been modified, but the way that our laws and politics have been and continue to be formed is based on a British system infused with a largely Christian heritage.

It is a credit to this cultural base that it has been able to adapt and welcome different cultures with different beliefs, practices and traditions. It is a touchstone of Canadian society that you can be a practising Sikh, Muslim or Hindu and still be as Canadian as a Catholic, Protestant or Mennonite.

We have an ideal of multiculturalism that sets Canada apart from the "melting pot" of the United States, and which has been a defining characteristic of Canadian political philosophy.

Terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, shakes that principle to its very core. Canada's multicultural ideal has tolerance at its centre. It says that whoever you are and wherever you come from, you can continue with the traditions and beliefs you brought with you and be as Canadian as the next person. The overwhelming condition for being Canadian is not whether you bow down to Mecca to pray, believe that wafers and wine represent the body and blood of a deity, or that you will be reincarnated, it is that you accept the Canadian system of laws and governance.

The reason that the threat of terrorism shakes our faith in a multicultural Canada is that it raises the question as to whether the beliefs of certain societies tolerate, or even encourage, a total rejection of those laws and governance.

There can be no doubt that within the Canadian Sikh community in 1985, there were people to whom the position of Sikhs in India was more important than their allegiance to Canada. Their actions killed 329 people in the Air India bombing.

There can be no doubt that there were allegiances more important than to Canada that influenced the so-called Toronto 18 who planned terrorist attacks and, if they are found guilty, the same will be true of those recently arrested, who police and security services believe were plotting murder and mayhem.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the actions of a few are in any way representative of their communities as a whole. But that is not necessarily the point.

Police and security services are criticized for intolerance when they "profile" certain groups when investigating criminals. But if terrorism in Canada is arising within identifiable groups, where exactly do we expect the police to look and if "we" are an identifiable member of that group, how do we feel about it?

We are relying on our police to combat terrorism wherever it occurs. Increasingly, though, that may mean targeting specific groups. That, potentially, is an infringement of the liberties we grant to all who become citizens.

If terrorism is increasing in Muslim communities, Canadians' attitude could well be that security forces should pay increasing attention to them. The few that ignore the law damage the freedoms of the many. That is not an argument for intolerance. It is an argument for recognition that the threat of terrorism from within immigrant groups is very damaging to the ideal of an open, highly diverse Canadian society.

The police and security forces have to be very careful in the way they pursue any suspicions they may have. The danger is that they won't be.

Some members of some groups are being radicalized. Those radicals are endangering the pluralistic Canada that makes this country unique.

What do we do about it?

I'm not sure, but I think that the answer to my opening questions is for each of us to ask ourselves how inclusive we are of the many other societies that make up this country.

Do we mix with each other or do we keep ourselves apart: Muslims with Muslims, Sikhs with Sikhs, multi-generational Canadians with other multi-generational Canadians?

If we are to change our attitude, perhaps, whoever "we" are, we should look at whether our societies welcome and are open to the many societies that populate Canada.

The best enemy of terrorism may be simple friendship.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 2, 2010 A11

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