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Should white supremacist organizations be designated as terrorist organizations?

Hasan Alam interviewed by Harsha Walia

The white nationalist insurrection at the Capitol in the US on January 6, 2021,  prompted the Canadian government to, first, unanimously pass an unofficial motion at the House of Commons and, subsequently, officially designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity. Twelve other organizations were also added at the same time.

In Canada, there are hundreds of active far-right extremist and white supremacist groups. The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is strongly committed to confronting and ending white supremacy and all forms of hate that harm Indigenous, Black, Muslim, Jewish, and racialized communities. Violent hate threatens democratic and equality rights for all of us. In 2020, we joined 25 human rights and civil liberties groups in calling on the federal government to establish a national action plan to dismantle white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

But is part of the solution to designate white supremacist organizations as terrorist organizations?

In the US, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stated that law enforcement agencies already have the powers needed to dismantle far-right groups and, according to Manar Waheed, ACLU’s senior advocacy counsel: “We cannot find our solutions in systems that ultimately harm us, particularly Black and Brown people.” As Aly Panjwani and Lea Kayali write, “Calling white supremacists terrorists will not change the epistemological realities of the terrorism label — it will only further fuel the militarized practices of the War on Terror apparatus.”

Hasan Alam, BCCLA Board member, lawyer, and community liaison for the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline

For the past twenty years, the BCCLA has been raising the alarm about Canada’s post 9/11 national security legislation that, generally speaking, subverts minimal standards of presumption of innocence, violates the right to due process, authorizes arrest and detention without charge or arrest simply by association, and often relies on secret evidence. We have challenged Canada’s No Fly list, joined detainees in challenging the constitutionality of security certificates at the Supreme Court of Canada, called for increased oversight and accountability of national security agencies, pushed for and participated in the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, and advocated against countless bills like C-51, S-7, C-59, and C-23.

I spoke with Hasan Alam, a BCCLA board member, lawyer, and community liaison for the Islamophobia Legal Assistance Hotline, to discuss the thorny issue of whether or not white supremacist organizations in Canada should be designated as terrorist organizations.

– Harsha Walia

Harsha: To start us off, can you please describe what being listed as a terrorist organization actually means?

Hasan: It is not technically a crime to be listed as a terrorist organization and the Anti-Terrorism Act provides measures for the Government of Canada to create the list of entities based on:  

  • having knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity
  • or knowingly acted on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with an entity that has knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity

The process to add a group to the Terrorist Entities List is a provision under the Criminal Code: Section 83.05. The Minister of Public Safety, based on advice from Canada’s security agencies or CSIS, makes a recommendation to the Governor in Council, who then approves the listing. Terrorism, under Canadian law, is any act that is politically, religiously or ideologically motivated, which aims to intimidate or compel an action, and which intentionally causes death, serious bodily harm, endangers a person’s life, causes substantial property damage or disrupts essential systems.

Groups who are added to this list are not informed in advance, nor are they given the chance to speak to or respond to allegations against them. While the decision must meet the standard of “reasonable grounds to believe” that a listed group will engage in terrorism, the decision is based on secret information, including information that would otherwise be inadmissible in court. For example, it may include anonymous intelligence that could be inaccurate or obtained through mistreatment and/or torture, as well as hearsay evidence.

Only once a group is added does the listing become public, and the listed entity is in a position to challenge it. Even then, though, they are not granted access to all the information used against them and information can be withheld, including on purported national security grounds. This makes it incredibly difficult to mount a defense. The allowance of secret evidence is the norm and not the exception, flying in the face of the expectation that one faced with such a serious accusation would be able to know the entire case against them and be able to fully challenge it.

This is, therefore, a process shrouded in secrecy, based on suspicion, and relies largely on the assumption that CSIS will act in good faith and provide honest intelligence to the Minister of Public Safety. But CSIS’s track record is one of misleading our public institutions, including the courts. For example, the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal both recently held that CSIS had breached its duty of good candour and good faith to the Court and had obtained a warrant on the basis of evidence that was deliberately “crafted” to mislead and “keep the Court in the dark.”

If the government has evidence that indicates listed organizations pose a threat to someone’s safety, they should make that evidence public and prosecute these organizations through our court system and the open court principle. It should not be shrouded in secrecy or be at the whim and discretion of the government. It is a huge concern that national security legislation sanctions the government to act in almost total secrecy and not reveal the evidence upon which it relies upon to go after perceived terrorist threats. CSIS is also allowed to carry out investigations in complete secrecy, with little to no oversight. Even when such issues go to court, much of the evidence relied upon is heard before the courts in secrecy. 

One of the most troubling features of Canada’s national security laws are security certificates, under which permanent residents and refugees have been detained unlawfully without any charge and potentially indefinitely, had their rights violated, and face deportation from Canada to face torture and prosecution – all based on evidence that they might never see and which could otherwise be inadmissible in a court of law. By contrast, the government, who is the opposing party, is never excluded and has access to all the evidence. In 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously voted 9-0 that the security certificate system was unconstitutional. The BCCLA intervened in this important case. A new bill was passed in early 2008 but this system still remains fundamentally flawed and in violation of the right to due process.  

Other draconian examples of Canada’s national security regime is Bill C-51, which made significant changes to national security, anti-terrorism, and privacy law, and the No Fly List, which has placed thousands of innocent people, including children, on a list just because they had a Muslim names that matched someone else’s. At the end of the day, we do not even have evidence that Canada’s anti-terror and national security laws are effective and actually prevent terrorism. Yet we do have clear evidence of how detrimental it can be with respect to our civil liberties and how it can lead to wrongful detention, deportation and torture.

Harsha: Thank you for detailing how the process works and the affects it has on civil liberties and human rights. Can you describe what some of the impacts have been on Muslim communities?

Hasan: I was in my 20’s in the aftermath of 9/11 and, in the years that followed, Canada’s anti-terrorism laws expanded and were embedded in Islamophobia. Even more recently, ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper justified the passage of Bill C-51 by equating mosques with terrorist breeding grounds. For the Muslim community, the post 9/11 era has meant the fear of constantly being surveilled, put into indefinite detention, or deported to a foreign country to face torture.

These are not irrational fears; these fears are grounded in reality. We have witnessed Muslim men being detained indefinitely without being charged or knowing the evidence against them. Individuals such as Adil Charkaoui, Mohammad Mahjoub, Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohamed Harkat, and Hasan Almrei who were detained indefinitely without charge on security certificates. Maher Arar, a Canadian, was deported to Syria to be tortured, with the help of CSIS agents. These all became household names in the Muslim community and examples of what could happen to us if we acted too Muslim, or looked too Muslim, or spoke too Muslim. Due to the expanded and unchecked powers of Canada’s national security laws, we were fearful of attending mosques or gatherings because we knew that CSIS informants were being placed within our mosques.

For the Muslim community, the post 9/11 era has meant the fear of constantly being surveilled, put into indefinite detention, or deported to a foreign country to face torture.

I remember my own parents begging me with tears in their eyes for me to not get involved in student politics, to not get involved in my local mosque or Muslim Student Association, and to not speak out against the War on Terror. They were afraid CSIS would come knocking, which was happening all across the country. When I was the president of the SFU Muslim Students Association, a CSIS agent did come knocking. This CSIS agent sat across from me and asked me questions about the members of that club, if anyone had traveled to the Middle East or Pakistan recently, if anyone had started praying or going to mosque more regularly. Everyone in that group met that criteria! I was terrified after that encounter, not only because it drove home to me that I was probably being watched, but also the vague criteria that CSIS was using to identify people who they deemed to be suspicious. This had a chilling effect and we all became scared to become more politically vocal. The worst part was that many people within the community started to became suspicious of each other.

Harsha: That is a chilling overview of the national security regime, Hasan. In light of this broader context, what are your concerns with the recent unanimous motion in the House of Commons to list the white supremacist organization Proud Boys as a terrorist organization?

Hasan: My comments are situated within my lived experience as a Muslim and the experiences I have described. My concerns with using the term “terrorist” or invoking Canada’s national security legal infrastructure stems from my community’s experience with this label of “terrorist” and the state powers that accompany it. The Muslim community has been treated as suspicious or suspect and been harassed, surveilled, vilified, and detained from as early as I can remember.

It would be easy for me to say “See, you got it wrong. It’s white supremacists that you should have been calling terrorists all this time – not us.” But such rhetoric translates into real life consequences and the use of a terrorism framework further empowers the state to use counter terrorism measures. It is this very legal system of national security and counter terrorism that has historically and contemporarily targeted and criminalized Indigenous, Brown, Black and leftist communities – the very same marginalized communities that white supremacists target for hate.

We cannot forget that the first community that the Canadian state labeled as a threat to the Canadian state was the Indigenous community, and land defenders continue to be labeled and perceived as a threat to the state. More recently and especially since 9/11, the overwhelming majority of individuals and organizations labeled as terrorists or have been the targets of Canada’s national security laws have been Muslim. The build up of Canada’s security regime over the past two decades has been fueled by a rhetoric of Islamophobia. Muslim bodies have literally been the testing grounds for these laws, even when their very constitutionality has been questioned in the highest courts of this country.

I am fraught with fear when the term “terrorist” is invoked, even if it is against a white supremacist organization, because the normalization of this regime means continuing to uphold and give tacit approval for its ongoing use against the Black and brown Muslim community, Arab community, Sikh community, and other racialized communities. In an era where the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum, who is to say that Black activists won’t also be targeted? A one-off designation of a white supremacist group as a terrorist organization does not somehow fix the gross misbalance of the use of these national security regimes against racialized communities and political dissenters.

Labelling these white supremacist groups as terrorist organizations is not the solution. Even if the Proud Boys are designated as a terrorist group and even if the group dissolves, the members who ascribe to the white supremacist ideology will continue to be present within our society and will re-group. The terrorist designation doesn’t change the members’ ideas or the ideology that they subscribe to. The Proud boys of today are the neo-Nazis or the KKK of yesterday.

Harsha: You have made a clear case that strengthening national security laws will ultimately be more harmful for racialized communities than for white supremacists, and also that national security is an ineffective framework for tackling white supremacist organizations. What are more effective ways and tools to dismantle these organizations and end white supremacy?

Hasan: Yes, I do not believe that labeling white supremacist organizations as terrorist organizations is the way in which we will go about dismantling these organizations or white supremacy.

First, designating these organizations makes it seem as if these groups are a few bad apples in a system and society otherwise free of white supremacy. We can’t fit the elements of these organizations neatly and squarely within the confines of the term “Terrorist,” and ignore the fact they are simply a symptom of the larger systemic problem of white supremacy within Canada.

If we want to dismantle white supremacist organizations at their core, we need to first dismantle the culture and system of white supremacy that exists within our communities and institutions. The membership of organizations such as the Proud Boys come from all segments of society: students, teachers, lawyers, military officers, law enforcement officers. Designating some white supremacist groups as terrorist detracts from the other larger problem and also sends this false signal that the problem has been dealt with.

But also, to quote you, Harsha, and others who have made this point, why don’t we just designate white supremacist groups as white supremacist groups? And doesn’t that really get at the heart of the problem here – people are not motivated to act against white supremacy but are motivated by the already-racialized framework of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

“If we want to dismantle white supremacist organizations at their core, we need to first dismantle the culture and system of white supremacy that exists within our communities and institutions.”

For years, authorities have ignored or downplayed the threat that violent white nationalists pose, even though Canada’s own intelligence agencies have been pointing out that these organizations, not jihadi organizations, pose the largest domestic threat. And despite this fact, our government and the public as a whole hasn’t mobilized to combat this threat. The Canadian government has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to programs that are aimed at de-radicalizing Muslims. Programs like this have included RCMP and CSIS agents speaking at mosques, Muslim youth groups, and putting out pamphlets and guides on how to spot radicalized Muslim in our communities. Where are the hundreds of millions of dollars being dedicated to de-radicalizing and de-Nazify young white men? Also, there are already laws in Canada’s Criminal Code that can be used to address the threat of white supremacist groups, without having to resort to anti-terrorism laws that undermine due process and violate our rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We do not lack the tools, we have lacked the political will.