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Military Philosophy

Parliament Hill

CFJIC Photo REC73-444

Parliament Hill, Ottawa.

Exporting Canadian Values: Thoughts on the Meaning of the War in Afghanistan1

by Marc Imbeault

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Philosophy of Human Rights

Among the many measures set out in Canada’s latest International Policy Statement, released in April 2005, one was to “…create coherent governance assistance programs with a focus on sharing Canadian expertise in the rule of law and human rights.”2 Although future statements may take precedence over the 2005 statement, one can expect that defending the rule of law in general, and the basic values underpinning the philosophy of human rights in particular, will continue to colour the spirit and the letter of our nation’s international policy. For Canada, this means “exporting” the values associated with the philosophy of human rights – a philosophy whose origin dates back to the great political revolutions that took place in 18th Century America and France.   

According to Walid Phares,3 Western democracies, including Canada, are currently waging a war of ideas where the fundamental principles of modern democracy are being demolished by the jihadist ideology, whose best-known advocate is al Qaida. And while the soldiers of jihad do not form a perfectly homogenous movement, plans like those to reunite Muslim countries under the authority of a single caliph so as to impose Islamic law (Sharia), to force infidel armies to leave the Arabian Peninsula, or simply to destroy America, are objectives upon which they all agree. In essence, the underlying values of these plans are diametrically opposed to those characterizing Western democracies, such as the separation of Church and State, pluralism, gender equality, the freedom of scientific research vis-à-vis religious dogmas, tolerance, the desire for enduring peace, and, in general, the fight against prejudice and narrow-mindedness.   

I would now like to touch upon the central ideas of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which I believe can serve a key hermeneutic purpose in understanding Canada’s role in the world. This is the principle by which man, in reaching adulthood, can no longer depend upon an outside authority to determine what he must think. In his famous essay "What is Enlightenment," published in 1784, Emmanuel Kant had this to say on the matter:

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority4 is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurredwhen its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [dare to be wise] Have courage to make use of your ownunderstanding! is thus the motto of enlightenment.5

Immanuel Kant

Painting by V.H.F. Schorr, Bettmann Collection, © Corbis Corporation

Immanuel Kant

Kant is speaking of man’s coming of age, the chief characteristic of which is the ability to think for oneself. The full use of human reason implies that we completely embrace our autonomy from a theoretical standpoint (that of knowledge) and from a practical standpoint (that of ethics). To Kant, having made it to the Age of the Enlightenment means that the human being is capable of judging for himself what is right for him, and that he no longer needs to depend continually upon an outside authority to make decisions for him and impose upon him a way of thinking, and, thus, a way of living. The human species’ coming of age has entailed being freed from the yoke of the clergy in a religious sense, that of the metaphysical in a scientific sense, and that of the absolute monarchy in a political sense.   

In view of the preceding, it is no surprise that Kant sees respect for human dignity as the supreme principle where morality is concerned. That same principle forms the basis of Canada's foreign policy, and it is also front and centre in the Department of National Defence’s Statement of Ethics. This means that our country is committed to respecting fundamental human rights, and that it is prepared to fight for those rights. As such, Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan is entirely logical, and it indicates a degree of coherence between the official discourse of the Canadian state and our country's tangible actions in the world. In fact, it would be “embarrassing” were Canada to depend upon other countries to defend its “supreme principle.” If Canada’s place in the world is on the side of human rights, this implies that we are willing to stand up to those who, at this point in time, most radically oppose the promotion of these rights: the jihadists.

Statement of Defence Ethics

DND Statement of Ethics

The Jihadist Ideology

Jihad is an aspect of the Muslim religion whose literal meaning is “struggle” or “effort.” There are several types of jihads. For instance, jihad can be a purely spiritual endeavour to achieve self‑control, a kind of yoga6 practised by Muslims seeking to deepen their religious experience. But jihad can also be “war in other nations”7 for the sake of Allah and for His glory. Today’s jihadists use this second meaning to spread an ideology justifying the war against the West, accusing the West of attacking their faith, those who practise it, and their territories. This is why jihadism is fundamentally an ideology justifying the use of violence. It is important to emphasize that it is not a religion, even though its origin is religious, and that the proponents of this ideology sincerely claim to be acting to defend Islam.

In addition to being violent and anti-democratic, jihadism is deeply anti-Semitic. The ideology is much like the Nazism and fascism that existed in the first half of the 20th Century. In this regard, “Islamo-fascism,” an expression President Bush was condemned for using, is a fairly accurate characterization of the enemy we are fighting. It bears noting that fascism and Nazism were able to spread quickly in the 1920s and 1930s without any real reaction from democratic countries. In fact, the response during this period to Mussolini’s, then Hitler’s, authoritarian and expansionist regime was hesitant—some might even say fainthearted—culminating in the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938, which allowed Great Britain and France to buy a few months’ peace in return for the annexation of Czechoslovakia. The democratic countries’ policy of appeasement and desire for peace at any price served only to increase the considerable prestige already enjoyed by Hitler and Mussolini.

Hitler and Heinrich Himmler


Hitler reviewing a parade of Nazi Stormtroopers with henchman Heinrich Himmler, 1940.

The political history of the West in the 1980s and 1990s mirrored that of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s in that, during those two decades, the West refused to acknowledge the dangers threatening it.8 After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, something similar to the ‘Roaring Twenties’ took place. And did the fall of the Soviet empire also not foretell of a “radiant future”9 following the Communist regime? Nevertheless, the jihadist forces were already assembling, and, in 1993, when the first attack on the World Trade Center took place, it was clear that war was inevitable. The publication of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations was the first indication that America was waking up. This extraordinary book, however, received a lukewarm response; many readers preferred Fukuyama’s essay on the end of history and the definitive victory of the great Western democracies. It was only after the second attack upon the World Trade Center, on 11 September 2001, that Huntington’s ideas truly began to be taken seriously. It took a near-fatal blow for America to begin to understand its misfortune and to wonder: “Why do they hate us so much?”

According to Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s ‘bin Laden’ section and a leading analyst of radical Islamism, the West is currently losing the war against terrorism. And for our country and its allies to be able to hope to turn the situation around, a number of conditions must be met. I will discuss only two of these here, as they pertain to Canada. The first concerns the respect of human rights by political leaders, soldiers and the members of Canada's security structure. It is critical that our country continue to set an example in this area. The fact that people suspected of terrorism, or “persons of interest,” as was the case with Maher Arar, were handed over to torturers, or that prisoners were transferred to Afghan authorities with no regard for their rights, clearly indicates that vigilance is needed in this respect. And while the US committed the most serious errors, Canada participated indirectly, perhaps through naïveté, in the systematic organization of torture of people suspected of terrorism. In no way does this mean that we need to reason like choir boys, or that we must continue to behave like angelic boy scouts. It means that we need to practise the principles that we advocate.10

And that is not all. Carelessness, or disregard, in terms of respect for human rights goes hand-in-glove with another kind of error: underestimating the value of the enemy. The jihadists’ attacks are not motivated by a plot cooked up by criminals seeking prestige, power, or money. Instead, according to Scheuer, to understand jihadism, we need to look at how the Western nations’ Mid East policy is perceived. The analyst also reminds us that Afghanistan’s Mujahidin were not fighting the USSR because the latter openly professed materialism and atheism, nor because the USSR was mistreating Muslims within its own borders, but because it had invaded and occupied a Muslim land.11 One of Osama bin Laden’s strengths is to orchestrate a veritable confrontation by focusing upon the survival of the Muslim religion. As Scheuer puts it: “Part of bin Laden’s genius is that he recognized early on the difference between issues Muslims find offensive about America and the West, and those they find intolerable and life threatening. The difference, that is, that moves large numbers of people from demonstrating with placards to demolishing with plastic explosives.” 

Those who support the jihadist ideology feel that, in the end, the policy Western countries have followed in the Islamic world since the 1980s will wipe out their religion. That is why they have devised their action as a legitimate counterattack and not as a brutal offence. We can only conclude that the jihadists, far from being just senseless ‘kamikazes,’ are acting according to a well-structured ideology that provides them with not only a vision, but a mission as well, both of which are incarnated in the quasi-mythical figure that is Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden

Reuters RTRI4G0 by Ho New

Osama bin Laden

Indeed, al Qaida’s troops are inspired by a leader who is at once courageous, calm, resolved, methodical, and charismatic. Preparations for the simultaneous attacks against two US embassies in the 1990s should have drawn more attention to the professionalism of al Qaida’s fighters. Bin Laden succeeded in training elite commandos capable of infiltrating the heart of enemy territory in order to strike. Extremely competent, well-educated young engineers and doctors, who could have had a bright future, were magically transformed into warriors eager to sacrifice their lives to defend their ideals. In modern psychological terms, Osama bin Laden is a true transformational leader, which makes him a formidable enemy, perhaps more fearsome than Hitler or Mussolini. He is better trained than his predecessors, and, graver still, his beliefs are rooted in a thousand-year-old tradition. His appeal is directed not at a single people, but at an entire civilization. Only a tiny fraction of this civilization need take up arms for the West to be seriously threatened. And that is not to mention the discreet ways in which one can participate in the jihad by purchasing CDs featuring warriors’ “deeds” and “prayers,” or by donating money to so-called charitable works.

Underestimating our enemy also distorts the objectives of the war. We are apparently waging a “war against terror,” which means we are fighting a method rather than an ideological movement. It is a movement unified by clear ideas organized around specific goals: to retake previously Muslim lands, to drive out the invader, and to re-establish Islamic law.12 That is not to say that this ideological movement is not using the aforementioned method.

In the same vein, Walid Phares goes as far as to speak of a French intifada to describe the events he witnessed in France in autumn 2005. After describing the Salafi militants’ activism in the Parisian suburbs and the electrocution of the two young Muslims that sparked the riots, Phares adds this disturbing analysis:

French authorities rushed to call it “gang wars against the state,” and the media dubbed it “le soulèvement des jeunes” […]. I was in Paris at the time and had the chance to observe the first spasms. Intellectuals and academics, ignoring the Jihadi strategy at work, attempted to find “social” root causes. The reality, in my view, was deeper under the rug. Other immigrant communities, some of them in worse economic condition, didn’t witness their youth being mobilized as they were in the banlieues: identical graffiti and slogans appeared suddenly in about 72 hours in more than 150 cities and towns across France. But more important were the statements made by Jihadi and Salafi commentators in the chat rooms and in the media, which characterized the riots as a first round that would precede other strikes. The architects of the intifada intended to send a message, test the French national response, and learn from the experiment. In the eyes of many observers, the “burning of Paris” and other cities was a first strike in the Jihad against France.13

The situation is critical and the West has already lost too much time. In fact, the jihadist assault against the West has been going on for at least 30 years, but has only begun to receive public acknowledgement since 11 September 2001. In his last video message, Osama bin Laden urged American citizens to become Muslims to put an end to the war pitting them against the Mujahidin. Al Qaida's leader could not be blunter: the West must convert if it hopes to live in peace. No compromises appear possible, and Canadians as well as Americans are targeted by bin Laden’s ultimatum.

Canada’s Future Role in the World

With the way things stand, what role should Canada play in the future? There is reason to believe that our country is going to play an increasingly important role in the world. The 21st Century could well belong to Canada. Indeed, our nation is one that possesses the most assets to assert itself in the future. In particular, its natural resources, water, mineral-rich subsoil, and oil give it a significant strategic advantage. In addition, Canada possesses all the space it needs to increase its population and to bolster its strength. This new status will also entail new responsibilities and new risks, particularly if we operate on the principle that respect for human dignity is still at the heart of our nation's values.

Today, Canada is at a crossroads; it could do as Spain did following the 2004 attacks and choose to no longer fight the jihad. It could also decide not to admit defeat and to continue the battle that inspires its values.

  1. The first option would give Canada’s people and its armed forces respite. The jihadist leaders can be magnanimous toward to those who submit. As long as the "Great Satan," i.e., the US, is not defeated, a certain neutrality among the "lesser Satans," such as Canada or Spain, is temporarily acceptable. I say temporarily, because once America is isolated and conquered, the focus will inevitably turn to the others, for the ultimate goals of the jihadist ideology are the Islamization of the entire planet and the imposition of Sharia law around the globe.   
  2. The second option is riskier – at least in the short term – because it means that the Canadian people refuse to submit to the jihadists’ dictates and will therefore have to fight.

I personally believe that Canada will choose the second option. Its fight may change in terms of form, strategy, or location, but it will go on. I also believe that the clear gains made by the jihadists in the past two or three decades will not continue, that the “Islamo-fascists” will meet a fate similar to that of their European predecessors, and that they will finally be vanquished. Democracies take some time rallying the troops, but, once they do, their combat capacity is formidable.

Aurora Borealis

DND Photo IS2009-3013 by Corporal Angela Abbey

Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, in a star-filled sky at Vee Lake, Yellowknife, North West Territories, 23 February 2009.

CMJ Logo

Marc Imbeault, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean. Living in Paris for several years, he studied philosophy with Professor Jacques Bouveresse at the legendary Sorbonne University. Along with teaching philosophy and leadership, Marc conducts research in the fields of politics and ethics.


  1. This text is based on a lecture presented during a symposium entitled “The New Battlefield,” held at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in 2007.
  2. http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/cip-pic/ips/ips-overview5-fr.asp, based on an article entitled “La guerre de Rick Hillier” [Rick Hillier’s War]. This policy statement was inspired by former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Hillier. Alec Castonguay, L’Actualité, September 1, 2007, Vol. 32, No. 13, pp. 338-47.
  3. Walid Phares, The War of Ideas. Jihad Against Democracy, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, and Future Jihad. Terrorism Strategies Against the West, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  4. Author’s italics.
  5. Emmanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, “What is Enlightenment,” Cambridge University Press, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, 1996.
  6. Expression attributed to Walid Phares.
  7. MEMRI, Special Report No. 22, 14 November 2003, p. 1. Available at: http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/998.htm.
  8. For more information on this topic, please consult the chapters entitled “Readying bin Laden’s Way: America and the Muslim World, 1973-1996” and “Fighting Islamists with a Blinding Cold War Hangover, 1996-2001” from Michael Scheuer’s book Marching Toward Hell. America and Islam after Iraq, Free Press, New York, 2008, pp. 21‑54, 55-98.
  9. Novelist Alexander Zinoviev used this expression, the title of one of his novels, to lampoon the Soviet propaganda that promised happiness for all through a Communist dictatorship.
  10. Since it is impossible to morally justify torture and its exorbitant political cost, we will refer to the text entitled “Noble Ends,” in The War on Terror – Ethical Considerations, edited by D. Lagacé-Roy and B. Horn, Canadian Defence Academy Press, Winnipeg, 2008, pp. 97-106. A French version of this text is available at http://phigeo.blogspot.com/.
  11. Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris. Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror, Washington, Brassey’s Inc., 2004, p. 10.
  12. This error is likely associated with excessive political correctness that prevents us from thinking that religious‑based ideas can inspire terrorist-like violence.
  13. Walid Phares, Future Jihad, p. 268.

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