To combat extremism, we must work together


Muslim communities are working to fight homegrown terrorism. But that’s hard to do in a climate of distrust

By Abbas Kassam | The Toronto Star

Last week, evil struck. There were vicious attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. I grieve with the families and friends of the victims and hope the perpetrators are brought to justice. Violent extremism is universally condemned; terror is never the answer and the loss of one innocent life is equal to that of all of humanity.

We cannot let such horrific violence achieve its goal of striking fear into our communities and dividing us. It is deeply distressing to many that there has been apparent backlash against Muslim communities, including in Canada.

In Peterborough, a mosque was set on fire last Saturday. Police are investigating the fire as a potential hate crime. This week in Toronto, a hijab-wearing woman was verbally assaulted, punched repeatedly in the stomach and had her hijab ripped off. Canadian Muslims are naturally very concerned.

At the same time, Canadian Muslims know these acts are cowardly and do not represent our society. They are simply the ignorant expressions of criminals.

We see that Canadians have come together to reaffirm bonds of community by fundraising to rebuild the mosque in Peterborough — a city, it’s worth noting, whose newly elected MP Maryam Monsef is the first Canadian Muslim to serve in the federal cabinet. The generosity on display in Peterborough shows the true spirit of Canadians and their shared opposition to such hateful acts.

We must bear in mind these common values in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, as we seek solutions to the issue of homegrown terrorism, once again a focus of public debate. Undoubtedly, there exists a tiny minority of individuals, mostly young people, who are attracted to the violent ideology of ISIS. Experts point out that there is no single reason why such people travel the path of radicalization. The roots are complex, the solutions not obvious. And combating the problem is made yet harder by the reality that this new brand of brazen terror is a contemporary phenomenon — it did not exist in the 1980s or 1990s.

Mainstream Western Muslim communities have recognized the challenge. In Canada, for instance, mosques are at the forefront of building a positive Muslim identity that is integrated and civically engaged. Violent extremist ideology is being challenged head-on by Canadian Imams and scholars. In short, they are part of the solution.

The British intelligence agency MI5 found that most extremists are religious novices and that “there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”

Countering radicalization towards violent extremism means that we need real partnerships that strengthen Muslim communities instead of isolating them. Canadian Muslims have a large stake in and are committed to our country’s national security. Collectively, no group suffers more from terrorism than Muslims.

However, there can be hesitation on the part of Muslims to step up. This is because we are too often portrayed as dangerous subversives instead of partners in countering terrorism.

Consider the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. It is known that Zehaf-Bibeau frequently prayed at a mosque in Burnaby, B.C. When it came to light that he opposed the mosque’s interfaith openness and had issues with drug abuse, Zehaf-Bibeau was asked to leave the mosque by an administration not wanting to associate — or perhaps to be seen to associate — with an extremist.

As Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother later stated, the mosque’s actions may have made matters worse. “If they did turn him away I am sad that it is so,” she said, “for that is what religion should be about, helping people in trouble, providing emotional support, not turning people away because it is ugly and complicated.” In this case, the perceived distrust of the Muslim community helped to undermine the mosque’s confidence in doing the important work it exists to do.

Violent extremism is not a “Muslim problem” but one that affects us all — and it will not be defeated by a society divided. It’s time to stand on guard together and protect our society and pluralism through genuine co-operation between major stakeholders: government, communities, security agencies and civil society.

We are not going to spy and arrest our way out from under the scourge of violent extremism. Freedom and liberty are our greatest assets. Falling into the trap of fear and dividing ourselves would only give the agents of chaos precisely what they want.

We are in this together. Canadian Muslim communities understand that we need to step up and are doing just that. Who is with us?

Abbas Kassam is a Toronto lawyer and a board member with the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).