The terrifying accusations of an alleged plot by Canadian Muslim extremists to blow up targets in Ontario, and perhaps even to storm parliament and behead the prime minister, have Canadians wondering what Western Europeans have long been wondering: Have efforts to integrate citizens been insufficient? If youngsters, even those Canadian born and raised, can be so alienated and extreme, is Canada doing something wrong?
Canada has long prized itself on being a model of acceptance and welcoming tolerance. One in five of all Canadians is foreign born, and Toronto, where the plot was hatched, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. It is said that 100,000 newcomers arrive in Toronto every year.
Canadians have told me that their model for immigration is more of a quilt rather than a melting pot, meaning that cultural identities are recognized and honored, rather than asking everyone to assimilate. But if a patch on the Canadian quilt could possibly contemplate the kind of terrorism that has been alleged in Ontario, what to do?
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“This is a question for any liberal democracy, including the United States,” professor Randall Hansen, a researcher on immigration at Toronto University told National Public Radio. “How do we assure that there is a common framework, a common set of rules that applies to all those groups? We really have to think about making very clear that those are not subject to compromise.” Or, as Mark Kelly of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. wondered, “Maybe multiculturalism is just a nice idea for people who haven’t been bombed yet.”
I spent the better part of the winter in Europe hearing the same kind of bewilderment from Europeans who, like Canadians today, are horrified that some of their citizens apparently do not accept the values of a liberal democracy. Britons, for example, couldn’t believe that young Muslim youths, born and educated in Britain, could possibly play soccer one day and go off and bomb the London Underground the next.
“The conventional wisdom among Canadians has been that fundamentalist attitudes will soften, over time, and for many Muslims that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio .
But according to Olivier Roy, a noted French specialist on Islam in Europe, that may be a fallacy. Just because European Christians have become more and more secular over time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Muslims will become more secular just because they have adopted the outward trappings of Western society, Roy says. Indeed, being caught between cultures may make the young more religious as a defense mechanism.
There has arisen in recent years a phenomenon of home-grown youths in Western countries, who, susceptible to the seductive beat of the militant, Islamic drum, are finding romance and adventure in the jihadi cause.
Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics, who analyzes terrorism, talks of a new generation of alienated, transnational youths, all connected to the Internet, who listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, and, in some cases, get pulled into the same terrorist chat rooms. Muslim youths, who perceive injustices and humiliations in the Muslim world, are won over to extremism, similar to how idealistic youths were recruited into the Communist Party. “They want to change the world,” Halliday said, and they are attracted to the secrecy and the cult-like training camps that terrorists provide — not unlike the militia groups of white racists in the United States.
Seduction by Internet has been around since the ’90s, says Jessica Stern, a terrorism specialist at Harvard University. The neo-Nazi, William Pierce, used to say he got a higher quality of recruit online than elsewhere. “Instead of hanging out on street corners,” says Stern, much of today’s youth hangs out on the Internet. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi perfected communicating terrorism via the Internet, according to Stern. He used videos, including beheadings, “to great effect,” with young people even mimicking the beheadings.
The whole jihadi culture has become fad-like, sexy, and cool, Stern says, “a virulent idea, but a very attractive, bad idea, and some are very vulnerable to infection.” To many impressionable youths, Osama bin Laden is the new Che Guevara. It might be laughable if it didn’t have such deadly implications.
It is a phenomenon that is not going to stay north of the border, and, unless these impressionable youths can be inoculated from jihadi seduction, the fire next time may come from the boys next door.
H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.