U of T news

Canada Next: Munk panels on terrorism, ISIS and the global refugee crisis

“If we show that we react we will start to get played like a violin,” Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science, told the packed room (above photo and middle photo by Johnny Guatto/ bottom photo courtesy Tina Park)

The University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs held two sessions about terrorism on Nov. 20, with one over-arching theme emerging:

To suggest that Canada and other countries stop accepting Syrian refugees in the wake of the ISIS attacks in Paris is both ludicrous and immoral.

The first event, organized by the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, brought together alumnae and faculty to discuss understanding the ISIL and confronting non-state terrorism.

The second event, held just a few hours later, brought panelists from U of T, Waterloo and Carleton to debate the ISIS attacks and their meaning for immigration, security and refugees.

U of T professor Randall Hansen told the later session that “the attack on Paris constituted, as Francois Hollande said, an act of war. ISIS has launched an attack on a NATO member state.”

Hansen said, “our overriding goal after Paris, after Beirut, after untold atrocities committed against Muslims, our goal should be the destruction of ISIS. The only question is how.”

He also said “the events in Paris have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with refugees. Despite earlier reports, none of the terrorists was a refugee, and the overwhelming number of refugees coming  to Europe now are fleeing war, poverty and state breakdown. They are running from, not with, ISIS.” Hansen is director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the Munk school.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had commited to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 but the federal government announced on Nov. 24 that it is altering the timeframe, with the deadline now Feb. 29, 2016 instead of the end of 2015. 

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Nov. 19 to tighten controls on Syrian and Iraqi refugees and 31 Governors say they will not accept them into their states. 

Stephen Toope, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and the moderator of the late afternoon session, said the vote in the U.S. Congress is “absolutely illegal under law and absolutely immoral.”

He said the Syrians are legitimate refugees with a “well-founded fear of persecution” and countries “have a duty to protect, and a duty not to expel them from your borders.” 

Assistant Professor Aisha Ahmad, a specialist in international security at the Munk School, said Canada should not alter its commitment to accepting Syrian refugees. “We should not react because it [the Paris attacks that killed 130 people] was intended to force a reaction. Staying firm on the course on refugees is critical,” she said.

“If we show that we react we will start to get played like a violin. It is not safe, it is not appropriate that we behave reactively to attacks like this,” Ahmad said. Canadian government policy should be “based on evidence, reason and maximizing our security interests while staying true to our Canadian values.”

Toope posed a question to the panelists written by an audience member: “What would success look like in the fight against ISIS?”

Ahmad said “a key priority is to undercut their financing.” She had noted earlier that ISIS is the richest terrorist organization in history, bringing in billions of dollars from oil wells in captured areas; the selling of seized antiquities on the black market and taxing both citizens and businesses in Syria and Iraq. ISIS even has its own currency, she said. 

“If you push them out of their territorial strongholds and they no longer get to behave like the imaginary state that they think they are, they start to act like all the other crappy jihadist terrorist organizations around the world and they’re not as sexy anymore …you will start to see their appeal decline.”

photo of Munk panel and audience

Lorne Dawson, a professor in the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, said “we have to de-legitimize the movement, strip away what sociologists would call the structural plausibility of this group – that is about degrading them, about cutting off the supply of foreign fighters and perhaps decapitating the leadership.”

Dawson said ISIS “is an organization [that] by its internal structure and rationale for existence [shows that] as it is cornered, it will be absolutely vicious in its capacity to lash out, and they do have those foreign fighters. We have to steel ourselves to paying a real price” in attacking ISIS. “There will be terrorist attacks in the west; there will be more Parises…we have to steel ourselves in blood to accomplish the greater purpose.” 

ISIS, Ahmad said, is in an “ideological battle” with the west and its members are firmly convinced that non-believers are “apostates and sinners, and must be killed, and that includes refugees.” 

To have western countries accept refugees “is a tremendous blow to the ISIS narrative that it, and only it, can protect them.” Ahmad noted that Canada is taking in women, mothers and their children, and ISIS hardly sees them as possible insurgents strapping bombs to their bodies.

The earlier session, sponsored by the Canadian Centre to Protect, based at the Munk School, heard from Arne Kislenko, an adjunct professor in the international relations program at the Munk School for International Studies. 

Kislenko, who worked for Canada Immigration at Pearson airport, said he has interviewed terrorists and he is quite nervous about politicians connecting the Paris attacks to accepting or rejecting refugees.

“Saying things like ‘we have to rope it in to make sure that our national security is honoured’ is ludicrous,” Kislenko said. “It’s ludicrous. To the best of my knowledge none of the perpetrators was actually linked in any way, shape or form” to Syria.

“And frankly even if they were, I say very bluntly, we are a civil society” and should accept refugees, Kislenko added. 

Kathleen Davis, who is completing her doctorate in international law at U of T, said it is important to not react harshly to the terrorist attacks by blocking refugees.

“I think the natural inclination as we have seen on social media (with people saying no to accepting refugees) and in other forums is to allow fear and anger to be our guide. But fear and anger are never good advisers.”

photo of Canadian Centre for Responsibility to Protect conference