When charged with an alleged crime – of whatever degree – one’s innocence must be presumed until proven guilty. This is not merely an ethic rooted deeply within the Canadian legal code and tradition, but one adopted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The premise of this ethic is simple yet important at the most foundational level: our humanhood. If we are denied our innocence we are ultimately denied our humanity and our ability to live a ‘good life’. Our ultimate fate rests upon that wavering line between guilt and innocence, and if the former is chosen as a default presumption the ability for justice to prevail has been completely compromised – both for the individuals involved and for society at large. To assume one’s guilt before even the most minimal of knowledge is known is to commit a great crime against an individual and ultimately against us all, as the presumption of guilt over the presumption of innocence then becomes a precedent for any sole individual caught in such a bind.
And yet while we embrace the presumption of innocence, especially on the proud basis of our democratic and liberal nature, we are concurrently committing the heinous crime of presuming guilt against three individuals recently arrested on charges relating to allegedly conspiring a terrorist plot right here in Canada.
One of the three individuals in particular, Khurram Syed Sher, has been the recipient of our collective glare that asserts his unproven guilt as a co-conspirator of the alleged ‘world-wide’ terrorist plot. Sher received national attention in 2007 when he auditioned for Canadian Idol. Adorned in traditional Pakistani garb, speaking heavy accented words, talking about his love for hockey and busting some robotic and Michael Jackson-esque moves whilst singing Avril Lavigne, he gave Canadians a good, endearing laugh. Yet given his already, albeit brief, public role and thus the subsequent general accessibility to actual images of him, Sher has become the face of the recent arrests as well as the now problematically framed discussion on ‘home-grown terrorism’ which is sweeping across the various Canadian media outlets.
Increased aggressive tendencies amongst young male Muslim youth – however minute – is most certainly a disconcerting as is any other growing aggressive tendency amongst any other demographic, as Muslims certainly do not have a monopoly over such an apparent “phenomenon.” Much in the same way Black Americans don’t have a monopoly over small-scale violence; Mexican Americans over illegal immigration and South Koreans over the Black hair industry.
Well, maybe that last one is more true than not.
Yet to allow these perceived ‘increased aggressive tendencies amongst young male Muslim youth” to undermine a central characteristic that sets our country, in particular, apart from despotic regimes across the world which are institutionally, in some or many cases, designed to undermine justice, is to ultimately hurt our own pursuit of justice in a society deemed free.
Unless you’re, you know, part of the original inhabitants of this land.
We have, however, done just that. In the wake of the arrests, the Canadian media went to task. Or, in more appropriate terms, jury duty. Without any hesitation, all three men were immediately painted as suspicious characters whose guilt was known beyond any reasonable doubt: an Iranian with a tumultuous relationship with finding work in Canada; a Pakistani-origjn Montrealer who longed to revisit the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, where he had lived for a period of his life and a Pakistani-origin McGill graduate doctor, known for his vast humanitarian commitments around the world.
The depiction of the latter, in particular, has served to be perhaps the most substantive in absurd rhetoric and gross possible implications for the Muslim community at large. Finding no specific ‘dark, suspicious’ sort of ‘dirt’ on Sher, he’s been branded as the poster boy of ‘homegrown terrorism.’ Unrelentingly have national media outlets dived right into the discussion of Sher as an all around good Canadian boy who succumbed to an evil and hateful ideology, despite what his record shows, prior to even the release of any sort of bare-minimum evidence to the public.
Before Sher even had a chance to appear in court, the verdict was already delivered: guilty.
But not only was Sher guilty, but his entire community of faith was also implicated in the presumption of his guilt. The presumption of Sher’s guilt comes not from his arrest, at least not solely. The presumption of Sher’s guilt, as well as his fellow accused, comes from their association with a community which has come under fire for having a particular monopoly over large-scale, politically motivated acts of violence – or terrorism.
This isn’t, again, specific or unique to the Muslim community. Not by a long shot. Nevertheless, it is becoming prevalent within our media that Muslims thrust into the spotlight, as suspects for purported planned plots or crimes, are deemed, in a matter-of-fact way, as guilty because of the dominant discursive portrayal of Muslims as having a sort of monopoly over such acts of violence; as violent dissenters. See the sort of vicious circle that’s created?
Muslims are seen as the primary perpetrators of large-scale, politically motivated violence (terrorism) as portrayed by our media. Muslims thus arrested or suspected of plotting, without any sort of evidence given to the public or any sort of follow-up to the initial brouhaha and revelations, are presumed guilty by the general public and media because they are part of a community seen as the primarily perpetrator of large-scale, politically motivated violence.
And this is where my head explodes.
The presumption of guilt, over innocence, and guilt by association render justice and its pursuit useless. We become victims of our own fears, compelled to believe created narratives that just fuel divides amongst our citizenry and keep the news just barely watchable, with its mesmerizing and entrapping sensationalism.
Even if we know better and we tell ourselves we know better, something inside of us tells us otherwise – that we actually really know better than what we think we know better.
How do you fight against that?