The grassroots deradicalization efforts within Canada’s Muslim communities

(Sarah Lazarovic illustration)

Around 100 people have left Canada over the past four years to join terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. Many are set to return to this country and the debate over what to do with them has become a national issue.

Deradicalization – the reverse engineering of an individual’s descent into violent extremism – has thus become particularly relevant to national security officials.

Thirty-three Canadians, including 18 children, are currently being held in northeastern Syria, where they, or their parents, went to fight with ISIS. Ottawa hasn’t announced any specifics about how they’ll be treated if they return.

This isn’t the first time Canada has had to deal with extremism within its own population. Aside from white nationalist and neo-Nazi threats, Canada has dealt with several high-profile cases involving violent Muslim extremists.

In 2014, one man rammed his car into a group of soldiers in Quebec (killing one) and another man shot and killed a soldier on Parliament Hill. More recently, in 2017, a man with an ISIS flag drove a U-Haul truck into a crowd of police and pedestrians during a CFL game in Edmonton, where the Canadian military was being honoured.

Deradicalization became a hot topic in Canada in 2006, when 18 individuals were charged with planning to carry out a string of terrorist attacks across southern Ontario. Eleven of the so-called Toronto 18 pleaded guilty, or were convicted in court.

In the wake of these incidents, many spoke out against the habit of conflating Islam with terrorism. Experts have long debated how and why individuals decide to commit such violence, as well as how to prevent or intervene in the radicalization process.

Less recognized are the Muslim leaders who have very quietly been engaging those who have been seduced by perverted versions of Islam that call for mass violence.

“The reason why we have so few numbers of people joining ISIS is that the community and mosques, by spreading mainstream Islam, already do a version of prevention,” says Mubin Shaikh, an operative who worked to infiltrate the Toronto 18 for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP. “A lot of that work simply doesn’t get known or heard, because it’s being done privately.”

Over the years, around 40,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries have travelled to the Middle East to join ISIS. Around 180 came from Canada. According to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, around 1,900 people from France have joined ISIS, along with 300 or so from Belgium, while 295 people from the United States have either joined, or tried to join.

There are numerous Muslim-Canadian leaders who have been working within their communities to engage those who harbour extremist ideas. Authorities get involved only when it’s clear that nothing is working and an act of violence seems imminent.

“You cannot force deradicalization, it has to be part of a natural, organic process,” Shaikh says. “This, I think, is the bigger gap that we face: that it’s not some switch to flip on or off, or some pill you can eat. It has to be done willingly and naturally.”

Ghayda Hassan, a clinical psychologist who currently serves as the co-chair of the federal government’s national expert committee on countering radicalization to violence, says that, “For the past few years, there has been an increase in efforts by local communities to address the problem on several levels, such as within schools and youth groups.”

But Hassan feels “that in recent years, because there’s been so few Muslim radicalization incidents, most of the emphasis has been on stemming the impact of far-right hate crimes, which often targets Muslims… Nonetheless, there are organizations across the country that have created teams that work with individuals in certain communities who are affected by radicalization.”

Those teams often include trusted Muslim leaders and counsellors who’ve earned a substantial level of respect and trust within their local Muslim communities.

One such person is Navaid Aziz, who has been the director of religious and social services for the Islamic Information Society of Calgary since 2012. The organization received quite a bit of attention after it bolstered its youth programs in response to several young Muslim men who left the area to join jihadist organizations in Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015.

Navaid Aziz

On his own time, Aziz spends about 10 hours a month dealing with what he says are rare cases of Muslim youth who might be in danger of radicalization. These referrals sometimes come from concerned parents, but they also come from Edmonton’s Organization for the Prevention of Violence, which focuses on countering extremism and lists Aziz among its team of expert consultants.

“That’s a very long-term process, so my approach has generally been that I have to create trust between people and that you have to get them to confide in you and to open up and talk about what really happened,” Aziz says.

“Measuring success in these programs is very difficult, and everyone has their own metric system.… So for me, I ask: After a period of three years, how is your thought process? What are you doing in your free time? Are you progressing in your life? Are you getting more integrated into society? How comfortable are you with your Muslim identity?”

Aziz emphasizes that just about every person he’s counselled this way has used Islam or obscure scriptural interpretations to justify their actions (and the actions of other terrorists).

“No one I know came across Islam for the first time and says that, ‘Yeah, Islam made me radical,’ ” he says. “I have never seen a case like that.”

Instead, people often self-radicalize away from the gaze of mainstream community leaders or spaces. A study conducted by CSIS in 2011, which was obtained by the Globe and Mail two years later, concluded that extremists aren’t generally being radicalized inside mosques.

“In my experience, people who’ve had social isolation, difficult lives or some frustration with Western foreign policy are looking for a way to express their frustration,” Aziz says. “Sometimes – whether they fall into an online community or even an in-person community – they end up in a radicalization process because it’s the only way they’ve found to do that.”

Aziz and his colleagues focus on engaging Muslim youth, in order to keep them safe from all vulnerabilities, be it extremism or otherwise. He says that guarding against radicalization then becomes a natural part of that broader, more holistic approach.

Another organization that has explored how to make communities more resilient against extremist ideologies is the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). Over the past few years, the group has launched two major projects that tried to strengthen community ties through positive engagement.

One is Project Communitas, which sought to increase community resilience (in seven Canadian cities) across cultural and religious divides by advocating dialogue and civic engagement. Another is the Common Ground Project, a similar initiative led by, and focused on, youth, intended to promote dialogue between Canadians of different backgrounds. Both projects were funded by the federal government.

“We know that, unfortunately, there’s a lot of negative influence online and in social media, and whether it’s white supremacists or Muslim extremists, the goal is to perpetuate hate and to misguide people,” says Nuzhat Jafri, the executive director of CCMW. “And essentially, a lot of our work has been trying to increase people’s capacity to use their words to counter hateful narratives.”

She adds that there have been cases where youth, including Muslims, have come out of a particular program with a much healthier and more accepting view of other religions and groups. The programs gave participants the opportunity to engage those from other faiths who have very different backgrounds and experiences. Jafri says that the experience showed young people how social change can happen when like-minded people get together.

This two-pronged approach tackles extremist sentiment that frames other groups as inferior, dangerous or entities to be fought against. It also addresses youth who are frustrated by what they see happening around the world, or within their own communities, and can’t figure out what to do about it.

“We want to do something positive in their lives,” she says. “The Koran says over and over again we should have the ability to see right from wrong and to redirect them onto the right path – God wouldn’t have put us here if He didn’t want us to do that.”