Best antidote to terrorism is immigrants' economic success: Don Pittis

Fears of terrorists among Canada's 25,000 planned immigrants are misguided. Instead, the lesson from the Paris attacks is that preventing long-term disenchantment requires a warm economic welcome leading to social integration.

Fear of Canada's refugee plan is misplaced unless newcomers face failure and exclusion

A migrant holding a baby steps off a bus with depictions of ancient Greek gods as he arrives at a camp before crossing Greece's border with Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni. Fears about Canada's Syrian immigrants are misplaced, and a more important worry is the economic inclusion of the next generation. (REUTERS)

Superficially, the fearful reaction of Canadian, U.S, and European politicians to a new wave of Syrian immigrants may seem rational.

In the wake of horrific attacks in Paris, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has asked that Canada's Syrian immigration plan be suspended. In Poland and some U.S. states, leaders have said they no longer want Syrian immigrants at all.

A more careful examination of what happened in Paris will tell us our worries should lie elsewhere.

The best antidote to the kind of domestic Islamic radicalism that we have seen in Europe is not fear of immigration, but successful economic and social integration of new immigrants into the Canadian mainstream.

A backlash against the new arrivals is no surprise to Shakil Choudhury, senior partner at Anima Leadership, a company that helps employers adapt to a more diverse workforce.

Choudhury, author of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs Them. says it is part of human nature for us each to harbour what he calls an inner terrorist that can switch on, especially when we identify a group as acting against our interests.
Belgian Army soldiers and police officers patrol the Grand Place in the centre of Brussels on Friday. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/The Associated Press)

Registering objects, not people

"What our brain tends to do is register those individuals and groups more as objects than as people," says Choudhury, speaking on CBC's Metro Morning

Right-wing politicians in the U.S. may be cynically playing to that Paris-generated xenophobia. Some have called it fear-mongering.

But Europeans must be looking at the disenchantment in the suburbs of Paris and in Brussels — where the architect of the attack was born and raised — and must be fearful of creating the same kind of Islamist breeding ground in their own cities. 

But the expected wave of 25,000 immigrants soon coming to Canada is not the problem.

The people currently escaping from the Syrian no-man's-land are unlikely to want to create a new war zone in their adopted countries. In the Canadian case, experts say screening to weed out potential radicals hypothetically disguising themselves among the immigrants will be more thorough and therefore more reliable following the Paris outrage.

What we have seen in Paris and Brussels is not the radicalism of a first-generation of immigrants. Instead, it arose domestically from their disillusioned offspring.
Three women protest Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's request that Ottawa suspend its plan to bring in Syrian immigrants. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC)

Kryptonite for terrorism

And while the Paris attacks may have made Europeans and Canadians less empathetic, quicker to judge and quicker to punish, Choudhury says the human tendency to separate into "we" and "they" when we feel threatened or rejected goes both ways.

In his experience, there is a way to overcome that kind of division. "Compassion and openness is the kryptonite for terrorism and fundamentalism," says Choudhury. "What draws young people into that process is the feeling of not belonging."

In the case of France and Belgium, the feeling of not belonging may indeed be part of the problem, but in many ways the origins of that feeling are economic. As was widely reported during the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, many Muslim youths in the Paris suburbs are unemployed, disenfranchised and disenchanted

In Canada, especially in the bigger cities, we have the advantage of our existing diversity. When we literally rub shoulders every day on public transit with people of all races and religions, when we hear diverse groups of young people chatting in Canadian accents, it is slightly harder to identify the "they."

Confused bigots?

Perhaps that was one of the problems for the poor confused bigots who smashed the windows of a Hindu temple in Kitchener, Ont., on Sunday, seemingly in retaliation for the Paris attacks.

For immigrants, coming to a Europe or North America they may have only seen in magazines or on the internet could well be a disappointment.

As we've seen before, even qualified professionals won't be able to walk into jobs in their chosen profession. Entry level jobs, especially in big cities, won't buy the sitcom lifestyle as seen on TV. 

Nonetheless, the first generation welcomed to Canada from a war-shattered country will be willing to make allowances. For most, a safe home, a job and good schools for their children will be enough. But that gratitude is unlikely to last another generation.

Even in Canada, without offering jobs and opportunity, without the chances at good colleges and promotions expected by other Canadians, the danger of creating a disillusioned second generation remains. And that, more than keeping out a group of homeless people escaping war, whatever their religion, may be the biggest risk to Canadian security.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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