Several weeks ago, Mubin Shaikh announced on national television that he was the informer who had been paid by the RCMP to infiltrate an alleged terrorist group in Toronto with the express purpose of sharing information about the group with the police.
While the matter remains before the courts, in the mainstream media, 30-year old Shaikh has been lauded as a hero on the Canadian Muslim front. Here is a man, self-described as a ‘devout Muslim’, ready to defend his nation and uphold the law of the land against the oppressors within his midst – even though the oppressors might be of his own. Moreover, in seeking to prevent a terrorist attack, he ultimately served his community in a meaningful way. Indeed Shaikh claimed that more than anything else, he participated to protect the image of Islam. “My interests were about Islam and Muslims, even and above Canada,” he said.
Within the Muslim community, however, much speculation has arisen about Shaikh’s motives, particularly in light of his own admission that he was promised enormous sums of money for his work. Discussion has also centred on questions of entrapment. Shaikh studied Islam for many years and was a well-known Muslim spokesperson on the introduction of ‘shariah’ courts in Canada. Instead of using his inside view and his knowledge to counsel the young men and warn them against terroristic actions, he engaged in discussions with the group about jihad and led the very ‘training camps’ that garnered much media attention several weeks ago. His very active participation in the group raises concerns about the extent to which he could have influenced the accused individuals to engage in terrorist acts they might not have committed on their own. In fact, many leaders in the Muslim community were not surprised at news that Shaikh was the informant; apparently he had aroused suspicion well before he publicly revealed his role in the arrests.
In any case, the crucial question raised is not about Shaikh himself, but rather about whether or not Muslims should spy on members of their community. Here I might surprise those reading by admitting that I do not think they should. In fact, I think there is something slightly unscrupulous about choosing such an action.
I am not against the act of informing altogether. All citizens have an obligation to report a terrorist plot to the police should they find out about it. In fact, they have a duty to do so. So a Muslim should report an individual if it appears that the threat is real or an attack is imminent. But this type of informing is different from the kind whereby one actually seeks out suspicious members of the community, wins their confidence, infiltrates the group, appears to be in on the game, and then betrays the trust of those individuals and the wider community in the process. When one spies on another individual, there is ultimately a very complicated game of deception in play. Moreover, there is an element of pretence and acting that is reprehensible.
Individuals cannot credibly spy on their own community in the manner described above while remaining a member of it. One may want to argue, however, that terrorist groups are fringe elements and not part of the mainstream Muslim community. Sadly, there isn’t a clear-cut distinction between extremists and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. The alleged terrorists were individuals who frequented the local mosques. In fact, there are many mosque-goers who have alarming ideas and opinions about the world, and yet they would never think to commit violence against others. One might never be sure if an individual was simply extremist in viewpoint or if he or she would go the extra step and plan or execute a terrorist act of some sort. Of course, this means that in the process of spying, an individual would have to lie to countless other innocent individuals within the community – in essence, he or she would be living a lie.
It becomes particularly problematic when a prominent member of a community spies on other individuals within the community. Shaikh wasn’t just an average Muslim. He had extensive knowledge of Islam, and he held a prominent position within an Islamic organization. It wasn’t right for someone of his stature to infiltrate himself within a group of youths with the intention of spying on them and secretly reporting their activities and ideas to the police, particularly since his position of authority might have led such individuals to place greater trust in him and to believe that his presence validated their mode of action.
Our community is fragile enough as is, and our leaders are our moral anchors. The duty that imams, activists and community leaders have is to report any suspicious activity and to counsel members against terrorism and violence of any sort – nothing more. And frankly, our leaders have failed the Muslim community in the sense that they haven’t provided the sort or moral guidance that is necessary in order to educate the youth and uplift them from their very incoherent understandings and ramblings about Islam. However, when leaders resort to the sort of spying that Shaikh is familiar with, not only do they go beyond their obligations as citizens, but they also lose the trust of members of the community and they ultimately alienate those who look to them for guidance. We cannot have communities wherein individuals are paranoid of each other and turned against one another. There needs to be a sense of communal belonging and trust nurtured amongst individuals. This means that individuals cannot be actively spying on each other or on the lookout for suspicious individuals. That remains the job of the police, who incidentally still have a great deal of work to do to soothe the ruptures between the Muslim community and the institutions of enforcement in this country.
However, there are certain things that citizens allow the state to do that they themselves do not (or should not) due to necessity or for security purposes. For example, we know that the state has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. We as citizens tacitly allow the state to use force to enforce order. We have as a result abdicated that power to the state: a citizen can no longer use force on other citizens, even to enforce public order, for that power now rests capably in the hands of the state.
The point, then, is that we allow the government to spy on us to some extent. We accept that there will be wiretapping and sting operations and undercover police and whatnot. Organizations such as CSIS and the RCMP, as security apparati of the state, have a responsibility to the collective citizenry to enforce public order and ensure the protection of all.
Difficulty arises when that responsibility is downloaded to regular citizens. This to me demonstrates a failure of these organizations to fulfill their mandate. If CSIS wants to conduct such operations, it should hire capable individuals to assist. This doesn’t mean it has to rely on white middle-aged men – clearly they would not fit in. Security organizations can and should hire Arabs, Pakistanis, even Muslims, but they should take care to not muddy the distinction between conducting a state action, which is perfectly legitimate, and paying private citizens to do the job for them.
If one is working for CSIS in the realm of undercover operations, it should be clear that one is fulfilling the mandate of the state. That may or may not coincide with the best interests of one’s own community. There is a difference between doing what one is assigned to do as a CSIS employee, and serving as a private citizen paid to inform on members of one’s own community because of one’s ability to infiltrate the group involved. The latter is troubling because it means that the individual is not just deceiving the community in a significant way, but he or she is ultimately to blame for the breakdown of the implicit trust that is necessary among citizens and within communities. Spying then is blameworthy among private citizens, but justified in some circumstances by those responsible for enforcing the law. Informants then shouldn’t attempt to wear both hats and shouldn’t be claiming to work on behalf of the community while being paid by CSIS to do their intelligence work.
If the police feel the need for spies to infiltrate the Muslim community, let them bring in paid informers from without to spy on Muslims. It’s already widely known that there are spies working within the community, sitting amongst the people in mosques and other religious institutions. But let none of our leaders agree to spy on other individuals, for that sort of activity only leads to the disintegration of the already tenuous bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood in the Muslim community.
Safiyyah Ally, a first-year Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, is the host of “Let the Quran Speak,” a television show that airs Saturdays at 4:00 pm on VISION-TV.