In late August of this year news headlines across Canada announced the arrests of three men on terrorism charges, with a fourth arrested for having connections with the others but charged with non-terrorism related crimes. Canadian mainstream media widely reported the story, which the RCMP dubbed “Project Samosa”, focusing on the threat of “Islamic extremism,” and particularly “homegrown terrorism,” in the abstract. Many of the commentaries and editorials on the arrests focused on the “ethnic backgrounds” of the accused, and their place in Canadian society. For instance, much was made of the fact that one of the accused had auditioned for the television show Canadian Idol, while another was a respected physician. As the Vancouver/Coast Salish Territories based migrant rights organization, No One Is Illegal notes: “despite the fact that the men arrested are all residents and citizens of Canada, the questioning of their ‘Canadian-ness’ reveals a shallow multiculturalism and reinforces the racialized national space”. No One Is Illegal’s response to the media’s sensationaliation of the story provides a critique of the arrests by providing a critical history of highly publicized cases of “homegrown terrorists” in Canada. For instance, in 2003 more than 20 men were arrested in Toronto. News media emphasized that all were of South Asian background and most Pakistani Muslim; ultimately all of the men were released, and none of them were formally charged, but this news did not capture headlines. While the men were never found guilty of any crime, the media’s portrayal of them reinforced the rhetoric of the so-called “War on Terror” and particularly the construction of all Muslims as potential threats. In this case, while the four men are presented as the specific threat to Canadian security, the operational name of the investigation, “Project Samosa”, reflects the way in which the discourse or narratives of “our” security rely upon notions of racial difference.
The public code names for major military operations are part of the ideological rationale, in many cases reflecting noble justifications. For instance, the official name of the United States military operations in Afghanistan is “Operation Enduring Freedom” and the highly publicized code name for the invasion of Iraq was “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. Most code names, however, do not gain great public currency. Canadian operations in Afghanistan have gone under the names of Athena, Archer, and Apollo, for instance; the current title for these operations on the government of Canada website is simply, and benignly, Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan. The 2003 arrests of 20 men in Toronto was code-named “Operation Thread”, a fairly generic name that did not gain the sort of public currency that “Project Samosa” has. Most often police operational names do not go public at all and certainly not as a way for the media to identify cases.
However, in most of the reporting of this recent case of arrests of Canadians for alleged plans to commit acts of military-style violence, the RCMP’s code name for the operation, “Project Samosa”, was used, and it often figured in the headlines. Why would the RCMP call the investigation Project Samosa, and what are some implications of the media using it as a short hand for the arrests, and the nature of the charges? The RCMP launched Project Samosa in September 2009, a “massive probe into a suspected Ottawa-based Islamist terror cell plotting a bombing campaign.” Paraphrasing from wikipedia, a samosa is a fried or baked triangular pastry with savory filling, and is a popular snack in South Asia, as well as other parts of Asia, the Mediterranean, and Africa. Those with sensitive tongues and stomachs may find samosas a bit spicy, but they are hardly synonymous with either explosives and destruction or Canadian security. While No One Is Illegal sarcastically questions the effectiveness of RCMP cultural sensitivity training, stating that “not many Pakistanis and Indians actually like samosas”, the power of the word in this context is not dependent on whether South Asian people actually eat samosas but its signification in mainstream or dominant Canadian culture; in Canada, the samosa is associated with Indian food. It’s a staple appetizer on the menus of Indian restaurants across the country and at “Indian” food booths at multicultural events. Within the framework of Canada’s celebration of (superficial) multiculturalism, Indian-ness is associated with bollywood, bhangra, saris, and samosas. As a result, I think, the use of this specific term, and the willingness of mainstream media to uncritically use it as shorthand for the arrests, reflects the tenuousness of Canada’s multicultural ideal.
In her 2008 book, Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, Sherene Razack argues that since the beginning of the so-called “War on Terror” the Canadian nation – and most Western nations – is/are being produced, once again, through the terms of race: “we are witnessing the consolidation of a racially ordered world” (6), she argues; the national community is “organized increasingly as a fortress, with rigid boundaries and borders that mark who belongs and who does not” (6). Controversies over the wearing of hijab or headscarves in youth soccer leagues or in schools provide just one example of how these boundaries are managed. The last decade in Canada has seen a rise in discrimination against Muslims, and anyone “appearing” Muslim. Like a number of others (see Mamdani, Goldberg), Razack has identified how Islam is ever increasingly being constructed as a racial term. In September 2001, shortly after the attacks on New York City and Washington DC, a Hindu temple in Hamilton, Ontario was set ablaze and destroyed, apparently as a retaliatory act. This act of arson was just one of a great many attacks on any one who “appeared” Muslim – “brown”, “Arab”, “Sikh”, etc. In the Hamilton case, the violence was, by some, explained away as the act of an ignorant individual who couldn’t tell the difference between Hinduism and Islam, as if it would have made more sense, or been just, to have attacked a mosque… As if Muslims, as a group, had carried out the September 11 attacks.
To organize the surveillance and investigation of people – who become “people of interest” by attending mosques or travelling to Pakistan or critiquing U.S./Canadian foreign policy in internet chatrooms (and by being categorized as not white) – under the term “Project Samosa” reframes the potential for political violence from a group of individuals, with particular political perspectives and motivations, to those associated with the otherwise benign snack food, whether they eat samosas or not; that is, anyone racialized as “brown”. So, the term, and its highly senstationalized repetition, serves to secure the boundaries of genuine Canadian-ness.
The use of the term, Project Samosa, reflects a troubling paradox in the ideal of Canadian multiculturalism. Sunera Thobani argues that “multiculturalism was to prove critical to the rescuing of Euro/white cultural supremacy: white subjects were constituted as tolerant and respectful of difference and diversity, while non-white people were instead constructed as perpetually and irremediably monocultural, in need of being taught the virtues of tolerance and cosmopolitanism under white supervision” (148). The alleged plans of these four men reflect a threat to Canadian well-being and the ideal of Canadian tolerance. As (alleged) “Islamic extremists” these men are narrow-minded and have no respect for difference or human life, the media reports. Razack contends that as a racist discourse, the “War on Terror” provides a “story that we are under siege by Muslims and that our governments must save us from this threat. We agree for the most part that stern measures must be taken against ‘those who do not share our values’” (175). In this case, the samosa, and its association with a particular group of people, is transformed from a symbol representing an Other within Canada, tolerated within the mainstream and adding spice to the Canadian mosaic, to a symbol of the irredeemably foreign (as against those who are truly and authentically Canadian), a symbol of those different values “we” must always be wary of, and indeed must “devour”.
Goldberg, David Theo. The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Mamdani, Mahmoud. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Three Leaves Press, 2005.
Razack, Sherene H. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Thobani, Sunera. Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2007.