By Rajan Philips –
Last Wednesday was a day of mayhem in Canada’s parliament that sent political shockwaves throughout the world. The gunfire in Canada’s parliament was next to nothing in scale compared to attacks elsewhere, but that an attack could take place in the Canadian parliament stunned political watchers everywhere. The Canadian government’s recent decision to add its mite to the fight against the upstart Islamic State in Iraq and Syria led to speculation that the IS was targeting Canada in retaliation. World leaders expressed sympathy and solidarity in statements and in tweets as the cable and the social media broke into ‘ball by ball’ reporting and commentating. Sri Lanka’s President tweeted his message of concern, and his Defence Secretary brother tried to stretch through time and space a parallel between Sri Lanka in 1983 and Canada in 2014. In the end it turned out that it was a lone gunman and his mental and drug problems rather than his political religiosity that created the mayhem in the Canadian parliament and shut down the nation’s capital for a good part of one day. By Friday, as Canada was coming to terms with what happened in its parliament in Ottawa, in its characteristically modest and measured way, President Rajapaksa went to his parliament in Kotte, and delivered his pre-election budget speech, entitled rather vainly: “Unstoppable Sri Lanka”.
Regardless of the personal circumstances of the lone gunman, it is the political circumstances of his actions that is defining the narrative of last week’s mayhem. Under the current Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has veered from its long standing tradition of liberal idealism in foreign policy, as opposed to realpolitik, and middle power diplomacy, independent of the United States, that has been nurtured by Liberal Prime Ministers like Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, and followed by their successors including Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Instead, the Harper government has taken Canada on a foreign policy path that is stridently pro-Israel and more consistent with the worldview of US Republicans. Under Prime Minister Chretien, Canada opted to stay out of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Canada’s Leader of the Opposition at that time, Stephen Harper not only opposed the Chretien-government’s decision in parliament but also took centre page in US papers criticizing the Canadian government.
Floral tributes to Cpl.Nathan Cirillo who was killed in the attack sit at the National War Memorial in Ottawa Photo courtesy: Sean Kilpatrick/AP
After Obama’s election as US President, the Harper government has tried to act independent of US foreign policy but for opposite reasons. Jean Chretien, now retired, rejoined Canada’s internal debate over its foreign policy by publicly criticizing the Harper-government’s decision to join the fight against the Islamic State. Instead, Chretien argued, Canada should massively fund and support humanitarian efforts in the Middle East and open its doors generously to Syrian refugees. Unlike any time in the past, the present Canadian government is also accused of shaping the country’s foreign policy to appeal to its core constituency of ideological conservatives. The government’s decision to join the fight against ICIS is also seen as a gamble for the elections due in 2015.
Two days before the Ottawa mayhem, two Canadian soldiers were run down and injured in a shopping mall parking lot in Quebec. One of the soldiers later succumbed to his injuries. The man accused of running them down and subsequently killed during the police chase, has been identified as Martin Courture-Rouleau, a 25 year old French Canadian contractor who converted to Islam about a year ago. Within hours of the Quebec incident, and before any statement by the Provincial Police or the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), the Harper government went public with the allegation that the hit-and-run may have been the act of a terrorist. Mr. Harper himself added to the allegation in his response in parliament to what was seen as a pre-arranged question by a government backbencher. Two days later all hell broke in Ottawa. The lone gunman in Ottawa, now identified as 32 year old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, first shot and killed a Canadian reserve Corporal standing in ceremonial guard with an unloaded gun at the National War Memorial across from Parliament Hill, and then rushed into the parliament building where he was shot and killed during an exchange of gunfire by the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, Kevin Vickers. The routine bearer of the ceremonial mace became the day’s hero. A former police officer, Mr. Vickers averted what could have become a huge tragedy if the gunman had entered one of the meeting rooms as MPs were having their parliamentary group meetings in different rooms.
Pathology and Perversion of Islam
The RCMP has ruled out any connection between the Montreal and Ottawa incidents. No connection has been established either between the incidents in Canada and the Islamic State operations in the Middle East. But the two incidents, occurring of places in Canada, have forced into relief the transnational network of the Islamic State operators in the Middle East and their far flung supporters in Western countries and elsewhere. It is more than a network, for it is a hotchpotch of radicals drawing their radicalism from a perversion of Islam and including in their numbers not just Arabs and Muslims but new converts from other racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. There are Chinese among the Jihadists, and young women from abroad are being lured by a combination of violence and domesticity to go to Iraq or Syria to join the fight or be wives of fighters. It is now reported that former American, Canadian and Western army men are individually joining the Kurdish army to fight the Islamic State fighters. The old Levant has become a new battleground where citizenship and nationality have lost their meaning.
The two Canadian perpetrators exemplify these trends and also illustrate the ingredient of pathology in the mix. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau is the son of a high flying Canadian businessman father of Libyan descent and a French Canadian mother, who is a Deputy Chair in a Federal Immigration Board. They sent their son to a private French Language school known for strict discipline, but after leaving school the boy fell off the wagon. He broke away from his parents and got into drugs and petty crimes. He tried to find solace in Islam and frequented Mosques but did not get along with other Muslim worshippers because he was rude and objected to their inter-faith initiatives with other religions. As for Martin Courture-Rouleau, he was a successful French Canadian owner of a pressure-washing company who became a Muslim convert about a year ago and was known to have been part of a radical network. The RCMP was on his trail and stopped his attempt to travel to Turkey (the gateway to Syria) in July, but did not have sufficient ground to arrest or detain him. On the other hand, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was not on the police radar until he surfaced in Ottawa.
It is known that Canadian security agencies have their sights on about 93 “high risk travelers” to be prevented from going to the Middle East, but none has been arrested. It is also reported that about 30 Canadians are part of the Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq and a further 130 are involved in radical activities elsewhere. Their passports are said to have been revoked. Britain, the US and European countries are facing similar problems. While there are only speculations about the motives and the triggers behind the radicalization of youth schooled and socialized in western societies, there is greater information about their activities once their join a radical network. The reason is that part of their radicalization is their exhibitionism, and their compulsive use of the social media as daily diaries makes the tracking job of security agencies much easier than it used to be. At the same time, it is the internet that facilitates the current process of radicalization. Why non-Muslims are attracted to Islamic radicalization is another puzzle.
Not surprisingly, the Canadian handling of the Ottawa mayhem and its aftermath has not gone unnoticed. What a US media commentator praised as “master class in calm, credible breaking-news reporting”, on the part of the national Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (particularly in comparison to the US media vultures), could be extended to everyone – the City police, the RCMP, parliamentary and civic officials, the Prime Minister, other political leaders, and the society at large – who responded to the crisis swiftly and proportionately. There was no overreaction at the official level, no hysteria in word or deed in the wider society, and there was no targeting of Muslims unlike in Aluthgama. To draw a comparison between what happened in Ottawa and what happened in Sri Lanka in 1983, would be an exercise in military ignorance and not political intelligence. If one is to find a comparison, it should be to the FLQ crisis of the 1970s, when a group of French separatists took to kidnapping and murder to intimidate the Provincial Government in Quebec. And there are plenty of lessons that all Sri Lankans can learn from the way Canada under Prime Minister Trudeau handled that crisis.
The current crisis is a different one and it has nothing to do with Canada’s internal situation unlike the FLQ crisis forty years ago. If the emergence of the Islamic State is the unintended outcome of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is fighting the Islamic State the only answer to that problem? Or, is fighting alone enough to address that problem? As Canada’s Prime Minister in 2003 and as its elder Statesman now, Jean Chretien has been consistent in pointing out that launching new wars in the Middle East will only aggravate the colonial legacy of bitterness and suspicion among the Arab people. While it is necessary to contain and destroy the brutal machinery (all assembled from the leftovers of western armies) of the Islamic State, that alone is not sufficient as a solution to the fundamental and broader problems in the Middle East, either in the short term or in the long term.
Turning to Sri Lanka, given its geography and its history, it can easily avoid being implicated in the turmoil in the Middle East and its extensions elsewhere. Sri Lanka’s implications, if any, are solely the result of externalizing its internal problems to avoid accepting the more inclusive solutions to them. The Tamil question has its own history and regardless of who is right and who is wrong, there are plenty of people and there is plenty of material to keep debating endlessly as to who is right and who is wrong. Picking on the Muslims, on the other hand, is a patented misadventure initiated by the present government. It is plain dumb for anyone in the government to strategize that by alienating the Muslims and befriending Israel, the Sri Lankan government can curry favour with the West and turn the tables on the Tamils in their UNHRC encounters. The Sri Lankan people deserve better than to have government strategists who would think that their flawed foreign policy approach can be validated by events such as the recent incidents in Canada. No one is stopping Sri Lanka from going anywhere for President Rajapaksa to assert that Sri Lanka is unstoppable. The question is whether he thinks that his presidency should be unstoppable for Sri Lanka to be unstoppable.