Countering Terrorism: The Power of Community Outreach

By Misha Munim, J.D./M.A. Candidate in Intelligence & National Security, UOttawa Faculty of Law and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Canada is undoubtedly one of the most ethnically diverse nations across the globe. Sometimes, in large cities, however, we see the existence of what I like to call “ethnic enclaves” – groups of certain races or religious groups living in the confines of a small geographic area. What we end up seeing in these enclaves is repeated interaction with the same individuals within that particular community. ‘Ethnically’ tailored grocery stores selling goods to meet the needs of that community. Multiple religious structures and places of worship built within those geographic confines, to cater to that community. This setup fosters stronger ties amongst members of such communities and builds solidarity. But there is one major setback. Because people – usually first or second generation immigrants – living in these communities have found a comfort zone (a home away from home) they have little incentive to interact with the world outside of it. This leads to community isolation. It eliminates the need for newcomers to this community to speak anything other than their native tongue, or meet with members of different ethnic or religious communities. As a first-generation immigrant having lived in one such community, I can speak to this experience personally.

As a society, we want to avoid seeing communities become too isolated. Here is one of the reasons why. According to Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy, radicalization towards violence is one of the biggest threats to Canadian national security. The RCMP defines radicalization as a ‘process by which individuals, usually young people, are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views’. The perception here is that the isolation of communities, regardless of race or religion, poses a threat for potential radicalization of individuals within these communities. Moreover, if an individual from one such group is suspected or charged with a crime, it taints perceptions of the entire community. As a society, we want to avoid this. We want to avoid pointing fingers at an entire community, because of the actions of a few individuals. A prime example of this is the negative stigma the Muslim community faced after the Toronto 18 were arrested in the largely Muslim-populated community of Mississauga, Ontario.

Public Safety Canada emphasizes that building government-community partnerships is central to combating terrorism. Initiatives on this front include The Cross-Cultural Roundtable for National Security is one such example, which hosts discussions amongst prominent members of various ethnic/religious communities. Also, the RCMP welcomes invitations to meet with community groups to discuss its role in national security through the National Security Community Outreach Program. Through these programs, government and law enforcement have fostered fruitful dialogue with members of various communities.

But the fight against terrorism is not simply a top-down solution. Citizens have a responsibility to work with the government and law enforcement, and a responsibility to build strong and supportive local communities. Members of communities that are increasingly becoming more isolated must generate awareness of this phenomenon and make an effort to engage with broader Canadian society as a whole. I am not suggesting that individuals leave the communities they identify with, but rather, broaden networks and relationships that extend beyond that community.

So what can be done? Fostering dialogue. Bridging community gaps. Encouraging inter-communal relations. This means engaging in dialogue with other community members, attending which promote inter-faith, inter-cultural discussion. It means encouraging youth to meet with members of other communities. It means incentivizing youth from these communities to engage in civil society. It means empowering youth in these communities to become educated, and seek positions in government, policy-making, law, and beyond. So that these communities no longer need to be isolated, and feel that their communal space is the only space where their voices will be heard, their views respected, and their language understood.

Law enforcement and government officials want to build stronger partnerships with communities. They want to avoid further isolation and marginalization of communities on the basis of ethnic/cultural/religious lines. When I attended my first TSAS conference last year, I was amazed by the two-way dialogue that was being promoted. It wasn’t just law enforcement or policy makers talking to an audience. Rather, the audience was talking to them. ‘Them’ included lawyers, members of Public Safety, RCMP officers, professors, journalists, and other government representatives. ‘They’ want to give you a voice. Let them hear it.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Photo by  Jamie In Bytown 

Categories: Counterradicalization

1 reply

  1. Misha – this is a great piece. Community engagement and outreach has proven to be an effective counter-terrorist measure in the UK, and it is encouraging to see growing support for this in Canada as well.

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