Brian Lee Crowley

Commentary: “Islam vs. Islamism: Confronting the terrorist threat while preserving the free society”

How can free, western-liberal-democracies protect themselves against violent terror attacks such as we have seen recently in Boston and the streets of London, while still preserving our essential freedoms and founding values?  At what point should the beliefs individuals hold themselves be subject to the laws of the nation?  These are difficult questions to answer since our desire to remain free must be balanced against our need for security.  Here is my latest Commentary “Islam vs. Islamism: Confronting the terrorist threat while preserving the free society” where I try to establish the lines of demarcation between the freedom to hold personal beliefs, an the freedom to act upon them in society.

Recently, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute co-sponsored a discussion event with renown Middle East expert Daniel Pipes titled “Islam vs. Islamism: an evening with Daniel Pipes” where Pipes gave an impassioned talk on what we mean when we talk about the difference between Islam – one of the world’s great religions – and “Islamism”, the ideology behind so many terror attacks.

Following the talk by Mr. Pipes, there was a panel discussion with Salim Mansour and myself where we explored this issue further.  This event was the impetus for a column I wrote for Postmedia which you can read here.  But I felt that more needed to be said than the confines of a 750 word column would allow so I have expanded on that column with the following full length Commentary posted at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s website.

Column in the Ottawa Citizen: Anti-Islam prejudice is no way to defend freedom

Please read my latest column below, published in Postmedia outlets including the Ottawa Citizen where I write that the greatest protection Western nations have against terror is to steadfastly punish culprits who cause or call others to cause violence, while simultaneously safeguarding and defending the freedoms and liberties that protect us all.

Anti-Islam prejudice is no way to defend freedom


As the outrages of militant radical Islamists become ever more horrific, the temptation in western societies to give in to anti-Islam prejudice becomes ever stronger. When the Toronto 18 were arrested, several mosques were vandalized in the Toronto area. Post 9/11 in the U.S. and post 7/7 in the UK, movements have emerged to oppose the building of mosques.

Expressions of hostility to Muslim immigration or dress are never far from the surface, and every beheading of a soldier in the streets of London, or mass shooting by a madman shouting “God is great” gives extra cover to people who cannot distinguish between radical Islam and ordinary law-abiding Muslims.

Yet being able to make this distinction — to punish wrongdoers while defending the freedoms of everyone who obeys the law, including Muslims — is the bedrock condition of being both free and safe.

Because the free society is not a mutual suicide pact, we have developed ways of protecting our freedoms from those hostile to them, while protecting everyone who respects our core values.

Central to this is drawing a clear distinction between belief and action. We may believe whatever we want; our minds are private and not the province of legislators or police. But we are not entitled to act on beliefs or ideas that impinge on the protected sphere of rights and personal security that we promise to all other members of society. I cannot insist on this too strongly: it is not illegal, nor should it be illegal, to be a radical Islamist, to believe that infidels are a disgrace in the eyes of God, or to believe that the Quran supersedes human-made law. What is illegal is to act on these beliefs when doing so infringes on the rights and freedoms of others.

In the free society we are not entitled to use each other as things to be used to satisfy our desires. People are not things. They are individuals with rights. This means that we are forbidden to use any kind of coercive means to impose our views on others, up to and including murdering people who disagree with us as a means of intimidating members of our society and of undermining our institutions.

Robbing or defrauding or assaulting someone is to use them for your own ends without their consent. And so, too, is blowing them up with suicide bombs, derailing trains in which they are passengers, or releasing anthrax in the air.

The thing all these acts have in common that makes them morally reprehensible is that it takes human beings who are entitled to rights, respect, and autonomy and treats them as playthings, as objects to be bent to your will, or casually destroyed.

We do not allow this, and we punish severely those who do not follow this most basic rule of civilized behaviour in liberal democratic society. This is the foundation stone of such societies.

Only the weak-minded cannot — or fear to — distinguish between religious freedom and promotion of terrorism.

Such promotion includes conspiracies to incite people to break the law. Doing so under the cover of religion cannot be an excuse for us failing to recognize the corrosive and destructive nature of such acts, which by their nature deprive themselves of the protection of religious freedom.

Those who counsel criminal acts within the mosque or the madrassa, for example, cannot expect to enjoy the protection of freedom of religion for their words.
They are illegal and unacceptable and no genuinely liberal-democratic society can or should tolerate them.

If we allow our legitimate fear of radical Islamism to outweigh our commitment to religious freedom, including for Muslims, tenants of one of the world’s great religions, we become intolerant authoritarians.

If on the other hand we kid ourselves that radical or militant Islamism is not a serious threat to public order and public safety, we risk a serious decline in public trust, as fearful citizens lose confidence in the safety of their society and bullies have their way with us. Either way, freedom is deeply endangered.

The right balance requires that occasionally we must act in ways that make us uncomfortable. We must ensure that our houses of worship, schools, prisons and other institutions are not being used to promote illegal acts, no matter what thin veneer of religious respectability their proponents may fashion for them. We must do this for the same reasons we take vigorous steps to ensure anti-Muslim extremists cannot act on their beliefs.

If we are serious about freedom we must police the frontier between thought and act without fear or apology. Not to do so is to prove ourselves unworthy of the heritage of freedom we enjoy and for which so much has been sacrificed.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

Canada’s homegrown terrorists: Tough sentencing AND intelligent imprisonment needed

Writing in the January 6th National Post, Megan O’Toole reports that, “Convicted terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem has provided the courts with no indication of remorse and little hope he will reform, the Crown asserted Wednesday at a hearing for the final Toronto 18 bomb plotter awaiting sentence.”

It may have been 5 years since police took down the terrorist cell, but  Abdelhaleem remains unrepentant and therefore a significant danger to Canadians. That’s why the prosecution has called for a life sentence. And given the recent increases in sentences on appeal for convicted bomb plotters Mohammad Momin Khawaja, Saad Gaya and Saad Khalid, and the life sentences already handed out to Montrealer Said Namouh and the Toronto 18 ringleader, Zakaria Amara, the chances are good that Amara’s second in command will get the same treatment. The appeal court sent absolutely the right signal, stating: “Terrorism must not be allowed to take root in Canada. When it is detected, it must be dealt with in the severest of terms.”

But what nobody in the courts or the corrections system is yet facing up to is the fact that such convictions are only the beginning of another, equally serious, problem. As detailed by MLI Fellow, Alex Wilner, an expert in anti-terrorism policy, getting Islamic extremist terrorists into jail does not end the challenge that they represent to western values and safety.

On the contrary, many of the Islamic terrorists who have achieved such notoriety in recent years for attacks on western targets, were in fact recruited to the extremist cause while serving sentences in prison for unrelated criminal offences.

In his paper for MLI, “From Recruitment to Rehabilitation”, Wilner lays out a series of policy steps necessary to keep our prisons from becoming fertile recruiting soil for homegrown terrorism, including segregation from other prisoners, frequently shuffling of radical prisoners from one facility to another, controlling access to radical Islamic recruiting literature and ensuring that representatives of radical Islam, including radicalized clergy, have no access to prisoners.

Wilner’s arguments are gaining traction — he recently appeared by video-link before the Senate’s Special Committee on Anti-Terrorism — and his op-eds on the topic have appeared across the land. But we need to see a sense of urgency among policy makers on this issue. The Toronto 18 are not the first, and certainly won’t be the last Islamic terrorist plotters captured and convicted in Canada. If we are not prepared to create the right conditions to handle the convicted prisoners that will result, our own justice and corrections system will simply become a happy hunting ground for the very terrorists our police and judges are trying to stamp out.

Brian Lee Crowley
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