Before I begin, I’d like to thank Diane for inviting me to participate in this blog. It’s a real honor and I hope that as the weeks and months pass we’ll all learn and grow together. And that we can make a difference in a world that at times seems to have gone mad.
One such madness concerns the unfolding events in Toronto, where seventeen men – fifteen of whom are teenagers or in their early twenties – have been charged with conspiring to carry out terrorist acts in Canada. This news is disturbing for a variety of reasons.
1) It appears that the possibility of a 7/7 type strike on Canadian or American soil is much more likely than many of us had assumed. One of the most disturbing things about the 7/7 train/bus bombing in London was that it was carried out by young men who called Britain home, some of whom were even born in Britain. Similarly, most of the men who were arrested in Canada were second generation.
I cannot quite get my mind around what is happening in my community (the Muslim community) that leads to this kind of violence being seen as acceptable. These men went through public schools. They led decent lives. How did they get to feel so oppressed, or hateful that they deemed a terrorist attack acceptable? How did they get so alienated from their own country that they would deem an attack against their own people/government not only to be ok, but to be necessary? Canada isn't a horrible country, if anything their record of respecting different cultures and embracing them is one of the best in the world.
Has the Muslim community, in our endeavor to keep our children within the fold of Islam, emphasized the beauty of Islam so strongly that our children cannot appreciate anything else? Have we allowed ourselves to devalue other peoples and faiths so much that terrorist strikes that would kill innocents seem ok? Have we over-emphasized their "otherness" (with good intentions) and restricted them from too many cultural activities, so much that it leaves them vulnerable to extremists who are also other, and who also reject that culture? Or is there something completely outside of our parenting that leads to this kind of disaffection?
I know as a parent I teach my children that much is truly wonderful about America (nothing but the truth for my kids!), even though I have grave concerns about the direction the country is headed in terms of the Patriot Act, corporate culture and the invasion of politics by the corporation, and our dismal foreign policy since WWII. We discuss those failings honestly, but we also discuss the strengths of America, and the American people. We have friends of all faiths, as do all my Muslim friends. We discuss religion in a humane and tolerant manner. We participate in American holidays (with joy!) and partake of Western culture. I cannot imagine my children turning out like the 7/7 bombers, but then again, neither did the parents of those bombers.
Even more perplexing, the men and women I grew up with who came from the strictest families have rebelled against the strictures their families imposed, not against the culture their parents were so afraid would corrupt their kids. What happened to those young men who bombed the trains in London? Were their families too strict? Were they too lax? Did they have some profound alienating experience that changed their lives, or was it an insidious, continuous drip of experiences? How can we safeguard our children against the influence of extreme ideologies and the ravages of silent racism?
In the past couple of days, the authorities have alleged that these young men in Canada were radicalized in a relatively short period of time, under the influence of a single, charismatic leader (the lone older person in the group, who, like me, is in his 40s). This is, perhaps, the nightmare of every parent – that their child will end up mesmerized by a cult figure. How can anyone protect against that? You teach critical thinking, and build their self-esteem, but young people are often easily swayed by vehemence and declamations against injustice (real or imagined). And, indeed, we want them to be outraged against injustice so that they’ll take action to make the world a better place, but at the same time we want them to keep their outrage within the bounds of humanity and legality.
It worries me when our government seems to ignore the will of the people (as it seemed to ignore the millions of people who protested against the invasion of Iraq) – when peaceful demonstrations, letter writing, and lobbying fail to produce even acknowledgement, it leaves our communities more open to radicalization.
2) Already there seems to be an assumption of guilt, despite the fact that Canada, like the US, operates on a justice system that presumes innocence, and despite the fact that the three tons of fertilizer were apparently "planted" upon the suspects in a sting operation. I have no idea if the men are innocent or guilty; either way they deserve a fair trial, and not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
I have serious doubts, however, that a fair trial by a jury of their peers is possible. Kind of like OJ. I doubt it would have been possible for him to get a fair trial either. The jury is going to be biased, one way or the other. The mass-media do not help this, as they converge on courtrooms, confer with “expert analysts,” and sensationalize the story (as if it isn’t sensational enough on its own!) because that sort of presentation is good for their bottom line. When fear, ignorance and hatred of Islam is rampant, how fair a trial will a Muslim accused of terrorism get?
3) Whether those men are guilty or innocent, the Muslim community does not deserve to be tarred and feathered for their crimes. Already a mosque in Toronto has been attacked with some 30 windows broken and several cars in the area smashed. I don't know if churches were attacked after Timothy McVeigh's arrest. Maybe they were; and that would have been wrong too. I don't know if windows in Catholic churches were smashed after IRA bombings in London. That, too, would have been wrong.
Muslims in America and in Canada need to feel safe from their neighbors or more youth will become disaffected and vulnerable to extremists. Backlash just pushes more kids over the edge.