The Canadian “Terror Plot”: Same Scripts, Different Heroes (well, sort of)


by Matt Sheedy

News broke this past Monday about a “terror plot” that was foiled by Canadian law enforcement and security units, where two men with alleged links to al Qaeda in Iran planned to blow up a passenger train between Toronto and New York. Unlike the Boston Marathon bombings, this affair did not end in violence, though the social effects in its aftermath have followed a familiar script.

As Donovan Schaefer observes in his post on the Boston Marathon bombings from this past Monday, the Tsarnaev brothers–as white, foreign, Americanized and Muslim–did not fit the standard media scripts regarding perpetrators of this kind of violence. He continues,

This twisting of the scripts by which the media filters and processes acts of “terrorism” is important.  It sidesteps the ruthlessly simple logic of American anti-Muslim racism by reminding American media consumers that Islam is not so easily racially coded, subtly unraveling the very thick equation, in the American media imaginary, of Islam with brown/Other bodies.

The accused in this case, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, who were living in Montreal and Toronto, do in fact fit the standard media scripts–they are brown, foreign (from Tunisia and the UAE, with the latter being of Palestinian origin), young, male and Muslim. One has even been been described as “heavily bearded.”

While the range of popular discourses about Islam in Canada is similar (if less heated) to that in the United States, one interesting twist in this particular case is the involvement of the “Muslim community” in helping to foil the plot.

As reported in Al Jazeera English,

Superintendent Doug Best said authorities were tipped off by members of the community of one of the suspects.

“It was sort of a thank you moment,” Hamdani said.

“This tip, this lead, came from the Muslim community. But for the Muslim community we would not be talking about an arrest today.

“This is evidence and proof that the Canadian Muslim community, rather than a community that should be seen as suspect, is in fact partners for peace and here is the proof of it.”

Within the Canadian press media scripts ranged from the more muted tones of the national public broadcaster, the CBC, as illustrated with the headline “Via Terror Plot Suspects Deny Allegations,” to the more incendiary, as with National Post’s, “Two ‘religiously strict’ men behind foiled al-Qaeda-supported plot to derail VIA train.”

What I have found most interesting in the aftermath of this affair is how the involvement of the so-called “Muslim community” in helping to foil the plot reveals an interesting “twisting of scripts,” as Schaefer puts it, which serves to complicate the neat media narrative that is often coded with a subtle “us versus them” coloring. Despite the capital gained by the “Muslim community” in this affair, however, representatives were still forced on the defensive.

In a press conference in Ottawa, for example, a spokesperson for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) condemned those “who distort and pervert our faith,” while noting that Muslims “emphasize the sacredness of life, reject any express statement or tacit insinuation that anyone should harm innocent people, and our message to anyone who espouses this ideology of violence is this—you have nothing to do with our faith.”

In a more reactionary tone, Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, appeared on the conservative Sun News television network to denounce Muslim leaders who expressed concern with the potential for an Islamophobic backlash, and stressed that they should instead be thanking security forces for protecting our “freedoms,” while noting that “the point is that we have a problem, there is a global jihad, you have to connect the dots with what has happened in Boston, what has happened in London… in Spain and this.”

In the first example, we find a familiar dynamic where community leaders are forced to denounce the actions of a small group of people against the suspicion that they represent “Islam” as a whole, while emphasizing the essence of the faith as one of peace and not of violence.

In the second example, the guest, Raheel Raza, is empowered as an insider in this affair because she has adopted a narrative that places blame solely on Islam, however much it is framed as “radical” or “deviant” from the norm.

Here I couldn’t help but recall a parallel with Juliane Hammer’s essay from the Bulletin’s February 2013 issue, “(Muslim) Women’s Bodies, Islamophobia, and American Politics,” where she notes how one the effects of Islamophobic discourse about women is that it denies them “any agency unless they are willing to denounce their religion and their communities and societies.”

While Raza does not denounce her religion as a whole, both she and the representative of CAIR-CAN are forced, consciously or not, into the familiar good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy, where it is apparently self-evident that these actors have been motivated by “Islam.” As a consequence, they, and indeed the entire “Muslim community,” are lead to adopt a narrative that seeks to defend a certain version of the “faith,” and one, in the case of Raza, that is more palatable to a conservative western script.

While it is not surprising that self-identified Muslims would want to protect their communities against very real threats that often arise in the aftermath of such events, nowhere in these media scripts do we find any analysis of the broader social field that may have motivated the alleged plotters, including, for example, what formative and on-going political reasons might have led to such actions or how their experiences as racialized immigrants may have contributed to social marginalization?

Likewise, Canada’s long-standing role in the war in Afghanistan, its more recent vehement support for the policies of the state of Israel, its severing of diplomatic ties with Iran in September of 2012, and its creation of the controversial Office of Religious Freedom, which critics argue is a ploy to appease favored domestic religious groups, among many other socio-political variables, may provide some further clues in this affair.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere and he is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy Movement, which includes fieldwork at Occupy Winnipeg.

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