Canada Confronts Its Shadows Within
In a country that celebrates cultural diversity, a suspected terrorist plot has shattered the image that many Canadians have of themselves as more secure, more generous and more likable than their U.S. neighbors.
From Muslim shopkeepers in multicultural neighborhoods such as this one to intellectuals debating social policy in Toronto and Ottawa, Canadians have been forced into a disturbing confrontation with the idea that global terrorism may have found fertile soil within their own boundaries.
“I thought this was a very safe country. That’s why we came here from Pakistan,” said Anjun Ahmed, a 54-year-old convenience store owner who moved to this thriving Toronto suburb, the fastest-growing in Canada, nearly two years ago from Rawalpindi. “This is very bad. If they [the suspects] were really going to do these things, people will be afraid and won’t come here.”
The 17 men and youths arrested over the weekend for allegedly plotting to blow up Canadian national landmarks were to be arraigned today on charges including participation in a terrorist group. Three also face weapons-smuggling charges, six have been charged with intent to carry out a bombing on an undisclosed target, and nine stand accused of taking part in a terrorist training course, according to documents filed with the Ontario Court of Justice.
Like the homegrown British extremists who bombed London’s transit system in July, Canada’s alleged perpetrators of immigrant origin were mostly long-settled citizens whose families had fled poverty and oppression in Somalia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean.
Like the Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists who practiced bomb-making and firearms use at secret camps in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, the Canadian suspects allegedly trained at a clandestine base north of here near remote Lake Simcoe, covering their tracks by dismantling the facility after the sessions in November and December.
And like Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, the Canadian suspects allegedly had amassed ammonium nitrate -- three times as much as McVeigh used in the worst act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil.
Though the men, means and methods prompted comparison to past attacks, Canadian analysts and observers were saddened and offended that the accused plotters would want to harm their nation.
“Terrorists always try to target peaceful places because it’s easier to hit a place where people don’t think such things can happen,” said Mohsin Ali, a 20-year-old Ryerson University engineering student who came here with his family two years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.
“My children go to college and school here. They don’t have problems,” said shop owner Ahmed, who invested his life savings in the shop adjacent to the strip-mall mosque where most of the arrested terrorism suspects worshipped. “I’m disappointed.”
The attacks have quickly led to acts of anti-Muslim retaliation.
Thirty windows were smashed by vandals early Sunday at the huge International Muslims Organization of Toronto mosque in the Rexdale neighborhood just north of here, an incident its Guyanese founder, Omar Farouk, said Muslims were “hoping and praying was an isolated incident.”
“The Canadian people are very loving and kind -- equally are the Muslims,” said Farouk, whose mosque is attended by nearly 20,000 people and serves as a gathering place for interfaith community events.
The view of Canada as removed from the immigrant frictions and diplomatic strains suffered by its superpower neighbor may be outdated, said Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor who specializes in immigration, refugee and citizenship affairs.
“There is a desire in Canada to see ourselves as very different from the United States. Whatever we are, we are not the United States,” she said, citing the nation’s more liberal immigration policy and rejection of go-it-alone military actions. Canada has declined to be part of the U.S.-led forces involved in the war in Iraq.
“We’re not a priority target the way the United States is, but that doesn’t mean we are protected,” she said, adding that Canadians “picture themselves as being thought of as nicer than the United States.”
Yet even the best justice system in the world could not eradicate crime, and neither can all acts of extremism be prevented, she said, warning that “no country should be smug enough to think it’s immune.”
Toronto Mayor David Miller gave voice to his country’s collective reluctant realization that vulnerability to extremist violence might be a price paid by an open society unwilling to rein in its rights and freedoms.
“We didn’t, as Canadians, expect this, but obviously it is part of modern reality,” he told CBC Radio.
David Rudd, president of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, said Canada’s liberal immigration policy and generous social spending were laudable. And he brooks no argument from those looking for justification in any disaffection among the alleged would-be bombers, only two of whom are older than 25.
“Certainly the political landscape of this country is very, very amenable to people from foreign countries and non-Anglo-Saxon cultures coming here and living in peace and getting ahead in their lives,” said Rudd, applauding the government’s emphasis on accepting the cultural individualities of newcomers rather than seeking homogenization.
Unlike the suburban ghettos that have sprung up around major European cities, Canada’s nearly 6 million immigrants live scattered throughout the country of 32 million people. They reside primarily in leafy bedroom communities such as Mississauga, a largely immigrant venue but one where Jamaican jerk shops, Arab kebab stands, sushi bars and Indian restaurants stand side by side with burger stands and doughnut shops in suburbs and strip malls.
One school of thought gaining traction in explaining why Canada could become a terrorism target for Muslim extremists is its very liberal, consumer-oriented and socially permissive nature, Rudd said.
“To some people, that situation is offensive or degenerate, that women should be allowed to walk down the street wearing a halter top,” he said.
Some who espouse radical or ultraconservative views on the practice of Islam come to Canada for its generous welfare and professional opportunities, often quietly harboring resentment of their environment but at times acting on what they see as blasphemous, he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a similar explanation to Canadians the day after the country’s largest anti-terrorism sweep since the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Canada’s focus on Muslim extremism intensified after the 1999 arrest of Algerian national Ahmed Ressam as he attempted to cross from British Columbia into Washington state. Ressam was caught with a carload of explosives and convicted of planning to use them to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve. He was identified as a member of a Montreal-based terrorist cell with links to Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Harper, speaking of the new suspected plot, said in a national address: “Their alleged target was Canada, Canadian institutions, the Canadian economy, the Canadian people.
“We are a target because of who we are and how we live, our society, our diversity and our values -- values such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he said. “The values that make Canada great, values that Canadians cherish.”
Special correspondent Jason Chow in Toronto contributed to this report.