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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Terrorism and Citizenship

I had been spending a lot of time over the past two weeks talking to my students about terrorism. In the wake of the Boston Bombings there has been ample discussion about violence, ideology, and religion. Where they all intersect is interesting because it reveals the extent to which our society has some very strong opinions about who can and should citizens. This post will explore the implications of terrorism and citizenship.

I'll start by explaining that there has been a draft of a post about terrorism and citizenship sitting here for some time. I was going to write about the press concerning the terrorist attack in Bulgaria last summer which killed five Israeli tourists. Canadian citizens have been linked to bombings, and this has prompted some potential changes at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. This conversation, however, has been entirely overshadowed by the events that occurred in the United States. That conversation has, in turn, been cast aside by the arrests of two non-citizens who are accused of planning an attack on VIA passenger train.

The attack in Boston was a horrific event. I certainly do not endorse or condone the use of such violence against innocent civilians, but I do believe that it shouldn't be immediately condemned as incomprehensible and cowardly.

The reasons for such actions are complicated, but they are quite understandable. The two men behind the attacks, the Tsarnaev brothers, were from Chechnya, a region that has long been struggling to gain independence from Russia. The conflict is largely unknown in the West. The United States has kept relative neutrality, angering both the Chechen nationalists and the Russians who have been attacked in absolutely astonishing terror attacks. It is patently unclear why the Tsarnaev brothers, permanent residents of the United States, chose to strike in Boston, but the underpinnings are rather easy to imagine.

The second element regards the notion of cowardice. While I won't state that the assailants were valourous, I will state that our notions of cowardice are misguided. It is the average North American who is truly a coward, removed from the world of conflict and oppression. Systems of political, social, and economic hierarchy have produced an unbelievable amount of suffering around the world for westerners it is out of sight and thus out of mind.

I've written about citizenship before, and it's no secret that while I hold great disdain for Stephen Harper, the Conservative for whom I have the greatest frustration is Jason Kenny. His work at Citizenship and Immigration Canada has given him a significant profile. He's frequently in the media talking about foreign workers, the condemnation of international marriages, and of course Islam and terror.

The xenophobic attitudes of many in Canada aren't arbitrary; they are based on a perceived world where all the violence in the modern world is centred around conflict between religions. We live in a world where nationalist and political conflicts are supposedly over. The cause of violent conflict, we are often reminded, is religion. This is manifested in asymmetrical wars like Afghanistan and through acts of incredible terror such as the London bombings.

Citizenship is an often misunderstood concept. It's an abstract idea that someone can belong, in a legal sense, to a community at the state level. Unlike nationalism where inclusion and exclusion can be a significantly contentious and grey matter, citizenship is more matter of fact. Being a "Canadian" in a social sense can involve feeling a connection to the land, the people, the culture, or the institutions. However, citizenship is a legal-political concept that is supposedly black and white. Someone is a citizen of only one or two states and thus is bound by their laws and simultaneously protected as one. Discussions like "if only we had deported them sooner" are quite sad to see.

However, making changes to rules around citizenship that allow people to suddenly lose it defeats the purpose of having citizenship in the first place. It is designed as a special protection that cannot be arbitrarily revoked. The terrorist attack in Bulgaria exposed the xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes of the Canadian government. It is frankly no surprise given that Jason Kenny has spoken out about other items connected to various others: Muslims, Arabs, and immigrants. The idea is relatively simple, everyone who comes to Canada has to assimilate. Even if they do this well, they will continue to be inferior to "normal" Canadians and will continue to attract the suspicion of the government as well as individual members of society.

This is symptomatic of the way in which racial profiling has destroyed lives, most famously with Maher Arrar. What's worse is that our ideas of crime in Canada are becoming more strict, with punishments doled out in place of working to understand and rehabilitate those who have "offended". The Boston Bombings are no exception. When newly elected Liberal leader Justin Trudeau mentioned that we should try to understand the root causes of such an act, Harper replied by stating that we should "condemn it categorically, and to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators you deal with them as harshly as possible. And that's what this government would do if ever faced with such actions".

Ultimately, I'm not convinced that an act of terror should result the loss of one's citizenship. That's a really outrageous penalty considering there will be numerous others that these people will face. These people could become stateless, they can be charged by any manner or organisations or states, and they could be handed over to be tortured. This is simply unacceptable.

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