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What Afghans Can Teach Canadians About Terrorism Response

11/02/2014 10:15 EST | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 EST
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It was strange to receive the news in a country where terror is an every day occurrence, that a deranged jihadist had shed blood on Canadian soil, rampaging through our normally peaceful capital, on the heels of another attack days earlier in Montreal.

Thousands of miles away, I felt even more acutely the sense of solidarity for one's homeland under assault, and that instinctive defensiveness over the loss of those who serve and protect my countrymen and women, and whom I'd also witnessed serving and protecting people here, too. I knew, too, that the people of Afghanistan would have sound advice to offer Canadians in the wake of a threat of sustained violence from Islamic fundamentalists: hunker down, don't give in, and carry on.

There would be the usual excuse-making for the perpetrators: mental illness, disenfranchisement, the immigration system, discrimination, and so on. And there would be the utterly offensive claim that Canada had brought this upon herself, falling swiftly into that tired trope of our fabled "peacekeeping" reputation gone awry. If only we kept our heads down, obedient isolationists minding our own business, as Islamo-fascists armed to the teeth address their grievances by beheading innocents, selling women into sexual slavery, and slaughtering children. If we only kept our distance from the imperialist Americans, and stayed politely culturally relativist when it comes to that unitidiness in the Middle East. As Paul Berman explains:

"We moderns, though--we look upon evil as a problem in social science. We assume that if someone has gone on a barbarous rampage, or if popular political movements have set out to annihilate entire populations for fantastical reasons, the horrors can be rationally explained. We ask the economists, sociologists, political scientists, and geographers to investigate the origins, and the scholars duly speak to us about poverty, social dislocations, aridification, the psychological costs of national humiliation, and so forth. The explanations conform to what, in the modern age, counts as common sense. And yet, if you look closely at the social-science explanations, they boil down to a single thought, which can be expressed with a pointed finger. It is the idea that, if people in some part of the world have fallen into a deranged and murderous rage, somebody else must ultimately be to blame. This is the meaning of 'root causes.'"

There would also be the properly solemn and noble responses, fleeting moments where citizens of disparate political leanings could, briefly, acknowledge that there had been a tragedy, families were in mourning, and there was no good reason for it. These are the moments we can be proud of, and which we should harness in creating the right atmosphere in which to move forward, one where we don't cower, where we don't self-deprecate, where we avoid the lazy apologism and useful idiocy found in the privileged, ironically often western sourced, relativist discourse that terrorists near and far thrive off. This is where we take a page from the book of Afghans, in holding our ground, trudging forth resolutely, and in relinquishing nothing.

Afghans are no more hardened to terrorism than Canadians. Every bomb that rips through city streets is as terrifying there as it would be in Canada. Throughout October, hardly a day passed in Kabul without the echoes of a blast heard or the shudder of tremors in the ground felt somewhere in the city. But like they have been doing throughout a 13-year long insurgency, Afghans carried on with their business. They went to work and school, shopped, hosted dinners, patronized restaurants, strolled through parks, went on picnics, celebrated their holidays. Film festivals, conferences, and parties went ahead as planned, despite a higher than usual risk of kidnapping, and rockets landing indiscriminately throughout the city. As a friend and I placed our order in a new restaurant in Kabul's posh Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, a rocket landed 100 meters away. We heard the blast and braced to run, and the waiter looked at us confused, and said, "do you need a few more minutes?" It was classic Afghan stoicism.

Despite former President Karzai's occasional pleading with his "Taliban brothers" and a High Peace Council charged with negotiating with the armed opposition, such efforts are more symbolic than anything else. So far, Afghans have traded away nothing to the Taliban: not their progressive Constitution, not girls' education, not women's new political presence, not power-sharing, not their newfound freedom of expression, not their fragile, cherished rights. They have doggedly dug in their heels, braced for a prolonged onslaught to protect these hard gained freedoms.

Over time, the accumulated effect of this day-to-day perseverance is that a society is steadily being rebuilt. A free media thrives, businesses of all sizes flourish, the displaced are returning in droves to an astoundingly cosmopolitan capital, and a healthy civil society is taking firm root. Girls swarm the streets in their black-and-white school uniforms, by now a routine sight yet still a glorious phenomenon too large and unconstrained now to shove back into the darkness the Taliban have set aside for them.

Some of those who stepped into a classroom for the first time in their lives in 2002 are now in university, having come of age in a time where Facebook has more pull than jihad. Too many years have now passed, that women are rather accustomed to being out and about, to partaking in public life, to speaking their minds. In campuses and compounds around Afghan cities, freethinkers debate their views of governance, rights, the role of religion in politics. In its reconstruction and evolution, Afghan society is being fortified against the terrorism biting at its heels, vaccinated from ever succumbing completely to the dystopian vision of the Taliban and their friends in ISIS. The genie is out of the bottle.

Of course people are tired of living with fear, they are fed up with poor governance and corruption at every turn in their government. They were betrayed by their not-very-Independent Election Commission in a badly marred election this year, and their patience has endured heavy, unreasonable demands. And international and Afghan military continue to fight the Taliban, in a war that steals lives daily. There is nothing to romanticize. On the fringes there remain the unhinged and disenfranchised, or whatever their excuse is, who see a glittering mirage in the black flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in the notion of martyrdom and virgins in Paradise, or unimaginable wealth for their families after they detonate themselves on a bustling street, or any number of other apocryphally alluring reasons. But those fringes steadily shrink as the business of institution building and nation building presses on, even with blasts overhead. Eventually that process will squeeze out the last of the Taliban coterie to the farthest margins of obscurity.

We in Canada ought to do the same to our homegrown and imported Islamo-fascists. Confine them to exile from the kind of culture where citizens band together in the face of violence and threats to all that is good about our way of life, and we must build, build, build. David Brooks, reviewing Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, wrote, "Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She's called on to exercise all her strength."

We should strengthen our absolve to defend, advance and fortify the fabric of secularism, free thought, democracy and liberalism, and to resist the excuse making and "root causes" for the terrorists in our midst. We should carry on, confident in our opposition to what Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, ISIS and the Taliban represent, not embarrassed to articulate what Canada and Canadians ought to stand for: a world where those who advocate extremism and act on their murderous, intolerant beliefs will find no empathy, no sanctuary, and no excuses.

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