Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Unusual Suspects

Andy Knight works for conflict resolution

by Geoff McMaster
Folio Staff
Dr. Andy Knight
Dr. Andy Knight

Last year Dr. Andy Knight made a controversial claim in an Edmonton Journal column asserting that the Syrian National Socialist Party supports female suicide bombers. The reaction from the North American Syrian community was quick, loud and widespread, but Knight had strong evidence to support his contention.

As a committed public intellectual, Knight has learned to take this kind of controversy in stride. He is, after all, one of Canada's leading advocates for the United Nations as a forum for resolving international disputes. He believes in talking things out, even if it's sometimes uncomfortable.

The Syrian imbroglio only convinced him that more work needs to be done to understand this recent terrorist trend. Thus was born the latest project from one of the University of Alberta's best-known experts in the field of international relations. Along with Tanya Narozhna, a former U of A graduate student now working at the University of Winnipeg, Knight will explore the myriad, complicated reasons for the rise of the female suicide bomber.

"In some cases, some of them are forced, and some do this out of retaliation, because their husbands or sons were killed by an oppressive force 'black widows' we call them. Others do this because they are completely enamoured with the notion of Jihad." Some are even drugged, he said. "We have to look at it case by case to see what the rationale is."

This latest version of the Trojan Horse began in the Middle East, because women could more easily slide through checkpoints without being patted down, says Knight. But the practice has spread throughout the world, to places like Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Turkey, and that has the international community worried.

"We raise the issue of social contagion as a possible theoretical approach to understanding this problem, and like any other type of contagion, it starts in one place and it spreads," he said.

"A lot of it is Islamic, but a lot has to do with simply being oppressed and deciding the only way of dealing with the oppression is to use your body. If you're completely out-manoeuvred, out-manned, and out-armed, then the only thing left might be your own physical body. And if you think there's a life better out there than the life you currently exist in, then it's pretty easy to make the jump and sacrifice yourself for your people."

Knight is no stranger to hot-button issues. He has been interrogated at the border for his outspoken opinions on a range of international topics and has, on occasion, received less than flattering e-mail. But he believes academics have a responsibility to voice their opinions and share their research with those who ultimately pay his salary taxpayers. His research engages people in the field who struggle with the issues he examines on a day-to-day basis.

He has, for example, travelled extensively across Africa and hosted a major conference at the U of A to address the problem of children and armed conflict, the fruits of which will be released next year through University of Alberta Press. In addition to gathering testimony and examining the high costs of children in war, everything from psycho-social illnesses to the physical devastation of land mines, the book will suggest concrete ways of holding governments to promises of protection.

"We know that many of these legal conventions and treaties and protocols are simply paper protections, in the sense they are not adhered to by rebel forces and sometimes by governments who sign onto them," he said. "If these things aren't working, then what can we do to develop mechanisms for children? That's what we're working on right now."

As a native of Barbados and a specialist on the impact of globalization on small states, Knight is also keenly interested in free trade negotiations involving the Caribbean. He recently returned from a conference in Trinidad and Tobago on the matter. He says people in the region are leery of any agreement with the United States, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, that might come with ominous strings attached.

"Trade agreements are not just trade agreements anymore. They are linked to things like immigration, having stronger borders, customs agencies, stopping the trafficking of criminal elements, and so on. Free trade seems to be tied not just to economics but to security. There seems to be some hidden agendas on the part of America."

With all of the violence, suffering and broken promises, some would say it's an ugly world Knight has chosen to examine. But he takes heart from the growing networks of resistance and solidarity around the world, and also from the organization he has become somewhat famous for championing, despite its tarnished reputation.

"The world as we know it is much smaller than it has been in the past, and many of the problems are interconnected and cannot be dealt with by individual states acting on their own. The United Nations is vital for that purpose."