The entire world seems to be convulsing after a mere nine days of the nascent administration of United States President Donald Trump.
Trump’s deep dive into political extremes in a series of increasingly draconian executive orders reached a fevered pitch over the weekend when he made good on a campaign promise to impose a ban on immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority nations.
He targeted seven countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – imposing what the Trump administration called a “temporary” ban. Chaos spread in airports across the world as even people with valid green cards and visas were prevented from entering the U.S. Even Iraqis who fought beside or assisted American troops (including translators who provided critical services to U.S. soldiers on the ground) in the Iraq war were barred.
A new wave of protests erupted across the U.S. A federal judge imposed a freeze on Trump’s ban. Iran appears set to ban all U.S. citizens in retaliation. The White House appeared to take a step back, saying green card holders could still come into the country, although as of this writing, news reports out of the U.S. are still reporting people are being detained or otherwise barred from the U.S.
And, no doubt, somewhere Islamists and jihadists are cheering as Trump becomes their most powerful recruiting tool.
In the midst of the madness other western leaders – including those European nations on the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis – were openly critical of the president. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed Canada’s long-standing policy of being open to immigrants and offering aid to refugees:
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Many Canadians are rightfully proud of their prime minister for offering a counter-narrative to the deeply ignorant and xenophobic policies emerging out of Washington.
Trudeau’s reinforcement of Canada’s basic humanity and compassion, however, should not be taken as a shield protecting the nation from the kind of ugly politics that now dominates in the U.S.
It could happen here.
Although Trump and Trudeau could not be more different in style and approach, they both suffer from a similar substance problem when it comes to terrorism. There is a shared lack of intellectual rigour at work that may undo them both, albeit for drastically different reasons.
To understand why, we need to think about the problem Trump claims he is attempting to combat, namely Islamic terrorism.
Trump makes a lot of noise about his willingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terror,” as if calling a fig a fig and a trough a trough will solve anything. On a surface level, Trump’s bombast about using these three words might make him seem like a tough guy willing to tackle a vicious, global problem, but in truth, he appears to understand it no better than Trudeau does.
Consider a couple of salient facts: There have been no terrorist attacks in the United States from nationals from the countries Trump imposed bans upon. Zero. Although Trump invokes the spectre of 9-11, the ban does not include Saudi Arabia, the nation where most of the hijackers hailed from. The oil theocracy is also a key exporter of a particularly insidious form of Islamic fundamentalism.
(As an aside, no Muslim-majority nations where Trump has business interests were included in his ban. Take that as you will.)
Indeed, every terrorist attack in the United States since 9-11 was perpetrated by a U.S. citizen or legal resident, not by a refugee or green card holder. And yet, Trump appears to believe that Islamic terrorism can be prevented by turning away those Muslims fleeing the death squads of ISIS in Syria.
What Trump and his ilk have failed to recognise is that combating ISIS is as much a war of ideas as it is a battle on the ground in places like Syria. Post-9-11 terror attacks have been committed by radicalised citizens. Some who travelled to ISIS camps, but increasingly they are being radicalised at home by consuming Islamist and jihadist propaganda easily available online.
We have seen this happen in Canada a few times in recent years, most notably in the fatal 2014 shooting in Ottawa. There were also cases of radicalised would-be terrorists from St. Catharines, Ont. and Strathroy, Ont .
Jihadist ideology spreads like a mind virus and, in the digital age, is it impervious to walls and travel bans.
(I wrote extensively about Islamic terrorism in 2016 and was able to sit down with Muslim reformers Maajid Nawaz and Raheel Raza. Their insights into what Raza calls “the war for the soul of Islam,” and the different strata of Muslim belief from jihadists and Islamists to fundamentalists and reformers provides a look into the problem with a depth and clarity that eludes Trump and Trudeau. Understanding these facts is key to understanding the issue. You may find my chat with Nawaz particularly useful as well as Raza’s video “By the numbers.”)
Rather than fighting radicalization at home by offering a clear, counter narrative and courting the assistance of the American Muslim community and Muslim allies abroad, Trump has aimed low with a travel ban that will likely make his base cheer. It isn’t making them any safer, but they may feel safer for the time being.
While Trump is acting out of ignorance, Trudeau hasn’t really engaged with the issue of Islamism and jihadism at all. beyond offering the usual, banal statements that Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with the religion. Just as Trump’s bellicose attitude comfort his supports, Trudeau’s “sunny ways’ narrative makes his supporters feel good. But they do little to solve the problem.
Those running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – and thus Trudeau’s rival in the 2019 federal election – have said little about Trump’s ban. The silence from the two presumed front-runners, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary, is notable, but that silence may be broken in the coming days.
Even so, we have some an idea of where they stand. Leitch, in particular, had adopted a “Trump-lite” approach to her campaign, going so far as saying she would create some manner of “Canadian-values” test for immigrants and refugees.
Indeed, as the debate over Trump’s Muslim ban – for that is what it is – raged, Leitch’s campaign manager doubled down on the Trump-mimicry.
On Twitter – that hopeless limbo where thoughtful discourse goes to die – Nick Kouvalis accused a University of Waterloo professor who objected to the Leitch campaign of “weakening the nation,” and of being a traitor:
@EmmMacfarlane 2/3rds of Canadians want what Kellie is talking about. You’ve weakened a nation today. Live with your treason. Cuck. Serious.
— Nick Kouvalis (@NickKouvalis) January 29, 2017
This can probably be taken of a sign of things to come should Leitch become the Tory party leader and Kouvalis’ influence over national politics rises.
For many Canadians, the Leitch campaign represents the antithesis of what this nation stands for. So Leitch, or someone like her, could never win an election.
Well, a lot of Americans thought that about Trump.
There was a liberal arrogance at play during the presidential election, leaving Democratic campaign of Hillary Clinton blind to the very real concerns and fears of many Americans. As I wrote recently in the Toronto Sun, chief among Clinton campaign’s failures was to not “engage and understand those Americans for whom the Great Recession never ended. Trump, for all his racially divisive, sexist and stupid statements, spoke directly to those voters. His message was, ‘I hear you. I stand with you.’”
Trudeau has long suffered from the same blindness. If he is unable to address the real trepidation many Canadians have about terrorism and Islamism, if he is unable to speak about the issue with clarity, intelligence and a degree of fearlessness – particularly if another terrorist event strikes Canada – the door will be opened for a Trump-lite politician like Leitch.
In place of “sunny days” will be a national narrative of fear, one that keeps the fires of ignorant tribalism burning and insists, in the name of a fictional security, that Canada turn away from the world’s most vulnerable people.
Don’t kid yourself. It can happen here.