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Blog February 27, 2023

Demonizing Detainees: A Case Study in Canadian Media Islamophobia

As thousands continue to suffer extrajudicial, indefinite detention under torturous conditions in Western government-supported “death camps” in northeast Syria, Canadian media outlets elected to foment outrage instead about the Federal Court of Canada decision ordering the government to uphold the fundamental rights of Canadian detainees and finally request their repatriation.

Shamefully and irresponsibly, in a series of recent items across various CBC platforms, the horrific plight of the Yazidis is used to perpetuate harmful misrepresentations about the detainees: many of whom are in fact victims of ISIS and human trafficking themselves; more than 60% of whom are children; and all of whom have experienced extreme rights violations, as widely documented by UN ExpertsHuman Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalSave the ChildrenUNICEFDoctors Without Borders, amongst other prominent human rights organizations.

These pieces of CBC coverage (“Yazidis ‘heartbroken’ over pending repatriation of suspected ISIS members,” “Yazidis plead with Canada not to repatriate alleged ISIS members,” “Yazidi refugees fear return of suspected ISIS members to Canada”) provide an excellent case study of how Islamophobic media tropes operate to distort reality, drum up moral panics, and depict the unconscionable as not merely defensible but desirable.

1. Wrongful “Terrorist” Labelling:  The repeatedsweeping references to the detainees as “alleged/suspected ISIS members” and the camps as “ISIS detainee camps” by the CBC and other media outlets demonstrates, yet again, the utility of the “terrorist” label for portraying the targets of oppressive violence as the perpetrators. In actuality, the Canadian detainees include children like 9-year-old Yusuf, who “has severe autism, is non-verbal, and still wears diapers while limping from a shrapnel wound in his leg […] Yusuf urgently requires brain surgery to address his carotid artery stenosis […] The Canadian government has long been fully aware of the life-threatening medical challenges facing Yusuf, but has refused to assist him,” as detailed by human rights advocate Matthew Behrens.

2. Presumption of Guilt: In several instances, the description of imputed ISIS links as “alleged” or “suspected” is dispensed with altogether, and the detainees are explicitly referred to – despite the acknowledged absence of any supporting evidence – as “ISIS families,” “the perpetrators of these crimes of genocide,” and “the very people who raped and tortured on a daily basis.” Omitted is the Federal Court’s affirmation that “the Respondents [the government] do not allege any of the Applicants [the detainees] engaged in or assisted in terrorist activities.”

3. The Impossibility of Innocence: The presumption of guilt is so firmly entrenched that it not only persists but, perversely, is strengthened by the dearth of legal corroboration: a sign that it functions as an irrational “unfalsifiable hypothesis,” irresponsive to empirical evaluation. For instance, one CBC Radio interviewee – a former paid CSIS informant and current public safety professor – decried that only 1-in-10 British returnees from Syria were prosecuted, supposed proof of the inability of Western courts to adequately punish ISIS terrorism. Never mind that, according to the UK’s Conservative then-Home Secretary, the returnees were “all investigated […] and the majority [were] assessed to pose no or a low security risk” – even under the UK’s alarmingly capacious anti-terrorism laws; and that many “returned from that area in the early days who had almost certainly done nothing other than humanitarian aid work […] The very fact of going is not an offence,” as London’s Metropolitan Police commissioner at the time pointed out.

4. Collective Racial Punishment: In the CBC pieces, the fact that some detainees may even just “semi-resemble one of the ISIS members” is cited as a legitimate reason for opposing their return; as throughout the “war on terror,” Muslims have been exposed to abuses such as extraordinary renditionsecret detentiontortureextrajudicial killingpre-emptive policing, and no-fly listing due to characteristics such as their names, countries of origin, mosque attendance, choice of clothing, and growth of a beard. The justification of harms on the basis of superficial criteria such as “semi-resemblance” is not only the very definition of racial profiling, but also, insofar as it constitutes a form of collective punishment, a serious violation of international law.

5. Invisiblization/Minimization of Violations: While the atrocities inflicted by ISIS on the Yazidis are described in the CBC segments in depth – despite the lack of any demonstrated connection to the Canadian detainees – the atrocious conditions imposed on the detainees themselves are erased; as again, throughout the “war on terror,” the massive scale of devastation has been immunized by the failure to report on or even bother to keep official track of basic details like precisely how many hundreds of thousands have been killed. Excluded from the CBC excoriation of the repatriation decision is the Federal Court’s description of the “dire” situation in the detention camps: “These individuals live in crowded and unsanitary conditions. They are held without charge or trial, and lack adequate food and medical attention [...] Children have reportedly died from malnutrition, dehydration, and other medical issues.” Human Rights Watch reports that children have also died from drowning in open sewage pits, while according to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, boy children have been “cull[ed], separat[ed] and warehous[ed] from their mothers” in “detention facilities [where they] endure untreated war injuries, missing limbs, and severe trauma.” HRWUN Experts, and other rights organizations concur that camp conditions are tantamount to torture, and that, in the words of the Special Rapporteur condemning Canada’s failure to follow the practice of other states in repatriating their citizens, “the urgent, voluntary and human rights compliant repatriation of all citizens" is “the only international law-compliant response.”

6. Projection of Responsibility: Yet instead of holding Canada to account for abdicating its international legal obligations, analysts on the CBC pinned the culpability on the detainees for “doing this to themselves” by “choosing” to travel there. Forget not only that many of the detainees have in fact been trafficked (approximately two-thirds of British women in the camps, according to British human rights NGO Reprieve, and likely significant proportions of other nationalities); but also that under international law there is no possible justification for a state’s dereliction of foundational “peremptory” norms such as the prohibitions against torture and arbitrary detention. This tactic of projecting the blame for gross rights abuses onto the abused – accusing them of having “done this to themselves” – is a timeworn trick. For instance, in the case of Black Muslim man Abousfian Abdelrazik, imprisoned for six years without charge and tortured with Canadian complicity, Canadian government lawyers compounded the racism of his persecution by attempting to dismiss his torture scars as self-inflicted wounds from “tribal” African practices.

7. “Equalization” of Demonization: As a purported “corrective” to the “war on terror’s” discriminatory singling out of Muslim men as threats, the pall of presumptive guilt once primarily reserved for the men is now expanded to cover women (and children) as well. In his piece on the repatriation decision, for example, CBC journalist Evan Dyer notes the “misconception that the women of ISIS were less culpable or less violent than the men” – again, insinuating without substantiating some connection between ISIS’s actions and the Canadian detainees (women or men). The absurd limit-point of this “equalizing” logic is illustrated by a recent decision of the UK government, which deployed the argument that “judgements should not be made about the national security risk someone poses based on their gender and age” to rationalize denying life-saving assistance to a detained British toddler.

8. Foreignization:  Cementing the detainees’ discursive expulsion from the rights of citizenship, is the CBC’s description of the detainees as “alleged ISIS members with Canadian passports” who are being “offered” an “entryway” into Canada – echoing how Canadian Muslim “terrorism” suspects in previous cases have been referred to in media not as “Canadian” but merely “Canadian-born.” In reality, as the Federal Court decision made clear, the detainees are not being given an “entryway” but rather were ordered repatriated under the “constitutionally entrenched and jurisprudentially affirmed rights of Canadians to enter, remain and leave Canada guaranteed by subsection 6 of the Charter” which is “aimed at prohibiting the banishment or exile of Canadian citizens by their government.”

9. False Competition of Rights: Therefore, the suggestion communicated by the CBC’s reporting, that Canadian detainee repatriation is at the expense of Yazidi family reunification, is deeply misleading. This displaces the responsibility for family separation away from where it rightly belongs – with the Canadian government, for its punishingly restrictiverefugee policies in general (see, for example, Canadian Council for Refugees, 2022, “Refugee family reunification delays made worse through low immigration targets”). Perniciously, the court is not celebrated but castigated on the CBC forperforming its normative function – of upholding basic, constitutionalized protections, all too rare in the “war on terror” – misconstrued as “favouring” detainees’ over Yazidis’ rights.  

10. In the Name of “Justice”: Perhaps most grotesquely, this exercise in mass long-term extralegal internment – without any semblance of charge or trial – is sanctified on the CBC as somehow being in the interest of justice. A leitmotif in the CBC segments is that allowing the detainees to return would allegedly be “giving them a free pass for their part in genocide and terrorism.” On the contrary, it is the ongoing refusal to repatriate that precludes even the possibility of justice: the non-state entity administering the camps by definition has no sovereign legal authority to conduct trials, while detainees from Western states prosecuted in neighbouring Iraq – some accused of nothing more than having been a chicken seller or medical aide – have been sentenced to death based on procedurally unsound trials, on the strength of potentially tortured evidence, and without proper access to legal counsel, as reported by the New York Times. What is being claimed as a commitment to “justice” is, more accurately, the outsourcing of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and execution under a flimsy façade of the “rule of law.”

11. Exaltation of Invested “Experts”: This representational structure is sustained by the pervasive media treatment of security agency-linked sources as objective experts – symptomatic of how “expert discourse on ‘terrorism’ must be understood as operating at the contested boundary between politics and science, between academic expertise and the state,” as scholar Lisa Stampnitzky demonstrated in her book Disciplining Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Current and former agency employees are exalted on the CBC and other Canadian outlets as authorities on how to discipline the violence of others, while their institutions’ own involvement in violent practices such as invasive informant operationstortureextrajudicial killing, and spurious detentions is obscured. Conversely, independent human rights organizations and advocates – documenters of crimes against the detainees and Yazidis alike – are demeaned as “naïve” terror defenders, for pursuing the mandate of ensuring that “universal human rights” are indeed universally applied; the basic floor of protections to which all are meant to be entitled.

12. Exceptionalization: Through the combined operation of these tropes, the gross violation of Muslims’ human rights is framed as a perpetual aberration: always just a response to Muslims’ inherent violence, never a reflection of Canada’s. Occluded is the reality that Canadian complicity in torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and forced exile is not an exception but part of a systemic “war on terror” pattern, as recorded in two official inquiries, two decades of human rights reports, and multiple legal complaints.    

Coming in the days immediately following the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamophobia (January 29), this corpus of CBC coverage highlights not only the superficiality but the severe partiality of a concept of Islamophobia that fixates on the anti-Muslim “extremism” of private individuals while ignoring the institutionalized racism of media and the state. Shortly afterwards, the federal government announced that it would be appealing the Federal Court’s repatriation order – further prolonging the extreme, even life-threatening suffering of the detainees, and Canada’s shameful complicity.