What is the Impact of Fundamentalism on the Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly?

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By Monia Mazigh, National Coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group

Florence, Italy – What is the impact of fundamentalism on the freedom of association and peaceful assembly? That is the question that the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly is trying to answer in his next report. Mr. Maina Kiai organized an expert meeting in Florence, Italy to reflect on that particular issue and suggest some answers. The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group is the organization representing Canada.

The discussion will start around the word “fundamentalism”. Even if the intent of the discussion isn’t to coin a definition of the word, it is important to examine it from different perspectives. Are we talking about religious fundamentalism? Political fundamentalism? Racial? Nationalistic? Certainly all of these forms are to be considered.

But beyond the type of fundamentalism, we will be more interested in the “perpetrators” side rather than the victims’ side of the question. It is the actions of the groups who are espousing and practicing the ideology of fundamentalism that will require our attention.

It should be mentioned that two stakeholders of fundamentalism will be examined:

  • The State
  • The non-state actors.

So as far as we are concerned in Canada, does the State practice or practiced any form of fundamentalism and if yes, what was its impact on the freedom of association and peaceful assembly?

In Canada and for the past decade, the former Harper government played a main and predominant role in violating and abusing rights of individuals and civil society groups basing its approach mainly on neoconservative neoliberal economic views and thus targeting environmental activists, anti-petroleum protesters, union activists, pro-Palestinian activists and anti-austerity groups, combined with a xenophobic ideology where Muslims, refugees and immigrants have been demonized.

Non-state actors:

Non-state groups have also been flourishing and thriving in this context of normalization and institutionalization of attacks on the rights of association and peaceful assembly.

These non-state actors can be divided in two categories. The lines between the two categories cannot always be easily drawn.

  • Right wing extremists
  • Anti-Muslim groups or websites

Just remember, last September 19, 2015 the first protest of PEGIDA held in Canada (in front of the Ontario legislature). Even if the protest was not a huge success, as the Anti-Racism protesters outnumbered the PEGIDA protesters, we saw in that event a troubling incident. The movement was encouraged in its fundamentalist rhetoric by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean that has brought hundreds of thousands of Syrians and other refugees into the European Union and by the xenophobic discourse increasingly adopted by the Harper government in the last past years, which culminated during the election.

As for the State actions, we just need to look at all the systematic criminalization of dissent that occurred since 2006 and that took multiple forms: intimidation, harassment by spying and surveillance, verbal attacks on Indigenous groups, environmentalist activists and trade union activists, political profiling, student arrests, demonization of Muslims groups and individuals, etc.

Freedom of association and freedom of assembly are pillars of a democratic society. Attacking them or trying to restrict them or limit them can have a counterproductive effect on individual rights but also on the civil society as a whole. Many studies suggest that criminalizing the “promotion of terrorism”, for instance as it is included in Bill C-51, is not the right direction to take to fight fundamentalism. By allowing, these “fundamentalist groups” to operate in the light, while having them under control, is crucial to detect what are the messages being circulated among the actors, as long as the messages are not explicitly calling for hate or violence. Governments can’t allow some groups to express themselves, such as right wing extremists, and still criminalize individuals or groups who are opposing the Western policies in the Middle East. Freedom of expression should be for all.

Internet and the social media play a huge role in spreading all sorts of messages: recruiting new members for fundamentalists groups, spreading hateful and xenophobic messages, but also disseminating useful information to dissuade young people from joining the fundamentalist groups, educating people, calling and informing people about peaceful gathering, public campaigns, etc.

Keeping the good side of the Internet and social media without allowing some hateful and fundamental groups to use it for their own purpose is extremely hard if not impossible.

It is not by banning the Internet or limiting the freedom of expression that we will get rid of fundamentalist ideas or ideology. Fundamentalism always existed and we can’t eliminate it. However, we can be more vigilant. The government has a role here to play in the education system. Kids should learn about the Internet from kindergarten: what is appropriate, what is not. What is violent, what is not. What is respectful, what is not. The work should definitely start there.