The Rise Of Islamic Extremism In Canada

Mackenzie Institute

My family and I came to Canada more than 30 years ago from Pakistan because we saw the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the land of our birth. We never expected that, decades later, we would see the same shoots of Islamism beginning to sprout the free, liberal-minded and tolerant country we now call our home.

I grew up in a Pakistan that, like Canada, was at the time a pluralistic, visionary country with people of other faiths, mostly Christians and Zoroastrians. I am a Muslim, but I studied in a Catholic school. We rarely came across blatant extremism, terrorism, or political Islam.

However, in 1977, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq took power in a coup. His regime put the elected former prime minister, Zulfiqar Bhutto, on trial and had him executed. Zia, a follower of Abul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Islamist party Jamaat-e Islamiyya, implemented his extreme version of Islam. Women had to cover their heads in public, co-education was eliminated in schools, and Friday was made the weekly holiday. Islam, which had never been imposed upon Pakistan’s citizens, was suddenly forced into the public sphere. This discomfited those of us who had always lived moderate, normal lives imbued with a traditional, spiritual interpretation of Islam. Zia-ul-Haq was also responsible for implementing, in 1979, the Hudood Ordinance. These were Pakistani legal provisions intended to implement Islamic Sharia law. People convicted of robbery would have their hands or feet cut off. Those found guilty of having pre-marital sex would be whipped and adulterers would be stoned to death. Blasphemers were threatened with life imprisonment or execution. The sharia punishments most heavily targeted women. Women who were victims of rape were imprisoned for adultery. Women were restricted from participating in sports and the media, and head coverings for women were required in public schools and colleges. Women’s testimony in court was officially deemed only to be worth half as credible as a man’s. 

One of the legacies of President Zia was to fan the flames of sectarian differences. I am a Sunni — the majority in Pakistan — married to a Shia man, so we were suddenly living on the edge. In 1979, for the sake of our sanity and well-being, we decided to leave Pakistan (soon after, attacks against Shias began to rise, culminating in the Gilgit Massacre, where Sunnis, including followers of Osama bin Laden, killed and raped hundreds of Shia, and burned down entire villages).

After a brief stint in Dubai, we applied to immigrate to Canada. The process was smooth because we had the employment prerequisites that Canada needed. The immigration officials who interviewed us painted a glowing picture of Canada and told us about our rights in this country. Not once, however, did officials mention attendant responsibilities.

Initially we were charmed by the concept of official multiculturalism in Canada. As new immigrants, it meant a lot to know that we could preserve our own culture and heritage. We joined the workforce and as we expanded our own horizons, we started seeing signs that something was not right. We found it odd that the Canadian government, in the name of multiculturalism, was giving official government funding to Pakistanis to learn their own language and hold “multicultural” events, by their own community, for their own community. Of course, many ethnic groups were taking advantage of this misguided policy, and it was increasingly apparent to us that state-funded multiculturalism was helping to import archaic and centuries-old cultural practices into the Canadian framework without thought of the need to adapt to a new culture. This “excess cultural baggage” was a potentially divisive facet of multiculturalism that, we could tell, promised to split, rather than to build and unite, the people of our new country. We knew too well what had happened in Lebanon, a country that once prided itself on a mosaic of different cultures and faiths co-existing, while happily living in their own enclaves. Eventually a collision between religion and politics exploded into civil war.

One day, the mother of one of my children’s classmates of Pakistani origin, asked me why my kids sang the Canadian national anthem when it is haram, forbidden. Upon asking where she got that information, she confessed that the imam of the local mosque had told the congregation that it was against the faith to sing the national anthem, or, indeed, to show loyalty to Canada.

Upon investigation, we discovered that some mosques were giving sermons against loyalty to Canada and at other places; the sermons were different in English — where they were toned down for outsiders — and Arabic, the more extreme versions meant for the ears of Muslims only. Added to this disagreeable situation was the fact that many immigrants were enforcing cultural values and ideas that were at odds with Canada’s established traditions of democracy, freedom, and equality. No government or other authority seemed to contest any of this, and so these messages and teachings began to spread in the communities that had been subject to such instruction.

From a religious perspective, in a strange way it seemed that we were being followed by the same ideology from which we had escaped. One thing we were sure about, having lived and travelled in the Arab world before coming to Canada, was the expanding influence of extremist Muslim politics in Canada, especially among the country’s Pakistani Muslims. This was not Islam, but Islamism.

Islam is a faith like Judaism and Christianity and Islamism is a political ideology. 

Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a former U.S. Naval Officer, and a co-founder, along with myself, of the Muslim Reform Movement explains it this way: “Islamist ideas include antipathy for Western society, governments, military, and foreign policy. Islamists are misogynists and anti-Semites. They obsess with conspiracy theories and condition Muslims to always be victims and bear grievances against non-Muslims. Islamist grievance groups in the West, such as most Muslim Brotherhood legacy groups, are the first steps in Muslim radicalization.”

We began to see the rise of Islamism in Canada manifested in supposedly innocuous cultural nuances – for example, some Pakistani-Canadians dressing like Arabs, resisting Western values, expressing hostility toward the principles of freedom and gender equality. We saw many Islamic schools or madrassas being established. When our kids went to university, we learned how the Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) could be quite outspokenly anti-Semitic and extremist in their views. At York University in Toronto, they often approached my son to convince him to be a better Muslim by joining in congregational prayers instead of going to class. They left nasty notes on my niece’s door about how she would burn in hell if she did not wear the hijab. What I saw was a sudden rise of orthodox religiosity amongst young Muslims who were being sucked into the hardline Wahhabi/Salafist ideology.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, an American Sufi Muslim journalist and author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror, explains Wahhabism, the religious tendency from which so much of this radicalism seems to spring: “Wahhabism is an extremist, puritanical, and violent movement that emerged, with the pretension of ‘reforming’ Islam, in the central area of Arabia in the eighteenth century. It was founded by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who formed an alliance with the house of Saud, in which religious authority is maintained by the descendants of al-Wahhab and political power is held by the descendants of al-Saud… From its beginning, Wahhabism declared the entirety of existing Islam to be unbelief, and traditional Muslims to be unbelievers subject to robbery, murder, and sexual violation. Wahhabism has always viewed Shia Muslims genocidally, as non-Muslims worthy of annihilation. Wahhabism has always attacked the traditional, spiritual Islam or Sufism that dominates Islam in the Balkans, Turkey, Central Asia, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Wahhabism and neo-Wahhabism (the latter being the doctrines of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Islamists) are the main source of Islamic extremist violence in the world today. Wahhabism represents a distinct, ultra-radical form of Islamism.”

And now it had come to Canada.

I had not set out to be a writer about Islamic issues – my original dream was to be a romantic writer. But when I saw the rise of Wahhabi/Salafism in Canada, I was dismayed. The mainstream non-Muslim community at that time had very little knowledge about Islam. Therefore, I started writing for the Toronto Star to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about the spiritual message of my faith and to encourage my fellow immigrants to embrace the best of Canadian values.

Around 2000, I also started writing articles warning Canadian Muslims about the dangers of radicalization, especially among the youth who were confused, with nowhere to go between the mosque and the mall for answers to their questions. They had all the prerequisites of fodder for Islamist mercenaries looking for victims to brainwash. The youth had grievances, both real and imagined, and the burgeoning number of recruiters offered an ideology they could latch onto. If needed, they would doubtless have Saudi funding to support their nascent extremist viewpoints. 

By the late 1990s, several Islamist groups had already infiltrated Canada including Hezbollah and several Sunni Islamic extremist groups, including Hamas, and others with ties to Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iran. In 1998, Ward Elcock, then director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), testified before a Canadian Senate special committee that — with perhaps the exception of the United States — there were more international terrorist organizations active in Canada than in any other country in the world. He said that the counter-terrorism branch of CSIS was investigating over 50 organizations and about 350 individuals.

The earliest Muslims migrated to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They came for a better life and many of them settled in the Prairies (the first mosque built in Canada was the Al-Rashid mosque in Edmonton in 1938). They adapted well, some even changing their names to anglicize them. They followed their faith without imposing it on others and were not caught up in dogma and ritual, working side by side with their fellow Canadians.

But by the 1970s, Saudi Arabia was becoming unimaginably rich from its oil exports, and its wealth fuelled the spread of Wahhabism across the Muslim world. So when the second and third waves of Muslim immigrants came to Canada in more recent decades, something had changed. In his 2011 testimony before a Canadian Senate subcommittee, David B. Harris, Canadian lawyer and long-time intelligence specialist, referred to the problem of extremist attitudes being imported by immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. Relying on Pew surveys, he observed in the context of the tens of thousands of post-9/11 Egyptian immigrants, that the majority of “Muslim Egyptians prefer Islamists in charge, versus 27% wanting modernizers. Eighty-four percent favour death for converts from Islam, 82% want death for adultery.” 

In 2009, the extremist Muslim-supremacist group Hizb-ut Tahrir announced it would be holding a public conference in Mississauga, Ont., where we lived. We immediately tried to convince the mainstream media to report how serious this was (among other things, it plans to take over all countries, including non-Muslim ones by gaining leadership of local communities), but the reporters told us there wasn’t much of a story unless there was actually violence afoot and Hizb-ut Tahrir claims to be “non-violent.” 

So we attended the conference undercover. There we heard first-hand how Hizb-ut Tahrir opposition to violence was actually tactical and temporary — that the group is sympathetic to Jihadist ideology and works to create a politically charged atmosphere conducive to terrorism. Hizb-ut Tahrir representatives clearly and confidently stated that it is incumbent on all Muslims to implement Sharia where they live, and to have a Khalifa or Caliph – a sole ruler over all Muslims, guided by Sharia law — from among them.

We were seeing the overt rise of Islamism in Canada. In December 1999, U.S. Customs officials arrested Ahmed Ressam near Seattle after he came off a ferry from Canada in a car loaded with jars of nitroglycerine, timing devices, and other bomb-making materials, with plans to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam belonged to a Montreal-based terrorist cell thought to be linked to both the Algerian terrorist group Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and al-Qaeda. In 2006, 17 Muslims, including five juveniles, were arrested in Canada plotting a terrorist attack that involved the storming of Canada’s Parliament and the beheading of then prime minister Stephen Harper. Because these were largely “home-grown” Islamic terrorists, some blame was rightly directed towards Canada’s decades-old multiculturalism policies. “It’s breathtaking that this is going on in Canada,” the international trade minister David Emerson told the CBC, “To see the home-grown nature of it is shocking to me.” In 2009 Momin Khawaja was the first Canadian to be convicted under Canada’s federal anti-terrorism act after being charged with financing and facilitating terrorism.

In August 2010, three Ontario men accused of taking part in a domestic terrorist plot and possessing plans and materials to create makeshift bombs, had allegedly selected specific targets in Canada. In 2013, Chiheb Esseghaier, a Canadian university student, and Raed Jaser, a former Toronto schoolbus driver, were charged, and eventually sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up a passenger train running between Toronto and New York.

The restrictions on Canada’s capacity to deal with extremist interlopers are perhaps best illustrated by the family of the late Pakistani immigrant Ahmed Khadr, a senior al-Qaeda operative who used Canada as his base and bolthole. His son, Omar, was captured after a firefight with American troops in Afghanistan, but now lives in Edmonton. Omar’s sister, Zaynab, who had Osama bin Laden at her wedding, publicly expressed her hatred for Canada, while living here, endorsed the 9/11 atrocities and said she hopes her own daughter will die fighting Americans.

Al-Qaeda is banned in Canada but has Canadian supporters like the Khadr family. Two leaders of Ansar al-Islam are also Canadian and previously lived in Toronto; the group is known for producing chemical and biological weaponry for terrorist purposes. The Armed Islamic Group, which has been in violent conflict with the Algerian government and is banned in Canada, has supporters in Canada’s Algerian expatriate community. The Salafist Group for Call and Combat out of North Africa is also banned in Canada, but has members here nonetheless.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are believed to raise money in Canada, with the Hamas-linked Holy Land Foundation having raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in Canada. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist are banned in Canada, but the value in banning terror groups can be limited by the ability of members to change their organizations’ names and resume operations.On the website of Public Safety Canada several terrorist groups are listed, some of which are known under different names. The majority of them are international Islamic groups. In 2002, the director of CSIS warmed that “…most of the world’s terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, have adherents in Canada, as they do in every other western democracy. Sunni Islamic terrorist organizations from Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Somalia also have sympathizers in Canada, and we are obliged to deal with that reality.” 

Indeed, it was already being reported at that time that CSIS’ counter-terrorism program was investigating “50 organizational targets and 300 individual targets” in Canada.

The scale of this situation is a reminder of the interplay between radicalism and terrorism, on the one hand, and Canada’s enormous per capita immigration, on the other. About 260,000 immigrants are admitted each year to Canada or over 500,000 newcomers per annum, if student and temporary-worker visa-holders be taken into account. Within the immigrant category, tens of thousands seek political asylum and safe haven as refugees. Canada, however, does not automatically detain refugee seekers upon entry, even those with questionable backgrounds, so thousands of potential terrorists disappear annually into Canada’s ethno-cultural communities. For instance, Ahmed Ressam entered Canada in 1994 using a fake French passport and claiming refugee status. Raed Jaser had also used falsified French documents to get into Canada, and was able to resist earlier efforts by Canadian authorities to deport him, despite having a criminal record, by claiming, among other things, that he had been harassed by anti-immigrant groups when he lived in Europe.

It is now a crime in Canada to knowingly provide material support to terrorist organizations, including support of a logistical or financial nature. Canada’s laws require the publishing of a list of terrorist groups deemed to constitute a threat to the security of Canada and Canadians. Canadian law has also increased the government’s investigative powers and paved the way for the country to sign the last two of the United Nations’ 12 anti-terrorism conventions.

But vulnerabilities remain. Children can still be brainwashed in certain Canadian Islamic schools, where gender segregation and anti-Western lessons are taught. Many Islamic schools around the world, including some in Canada, are foreign funded, and along with the money comes subversive agendas. And there is little accountability for teachers’ credentials in Islamic schools. I was a member of the public committee for the Ontario College of Teachers and was appalled to learn that teachers in the private school system need not be members of the college unless their employers require it. At the Al-Huda Academy, a female-only school, in Canada, girls are taught a fundamentalist brand of Islam, promoting polygamy and subservience to men, according to a 2006 report in Maclean’s magazine. 

In some cases, governments in Canada have been coopted in helping promote radicalization. In 2004, the Ontario government considered implementing “Sharia civil law” in the province. Although radical Sharia advocates like the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) (now rebranded the National Council of Canadian Muslims) ultimately failed in getting a Sharia victory in the face of public protest, the treatment of the proposition as worthy of discussion has since encouraged Canadian and doubtless other Islamists to promote their agendas and become aggressive about bringing in Sharia by stealth. And in 2017, the federal Liberal government passed motion M-103. Backed by Liberal MP Irqa Khalid, officially condemning criticism of Islam.

The advent of campus radicalization and foreign funding is a concern that has not been directly, or at least, adequately, addressed by Canadian policy-makers and government officials. Some Canadian universities have started establishing chairs in Islamic studies through financing from Arab sources. When the University of Western Ontario’s affiliated Huron University College, an Anglican institution, established such a chair in its theology faculty, some alumni protested when it was discovered that the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Muslim Association of Canada and the troubling, Virginia-based International Institute of Islamic Thought would provide most of the $2 million in funding for the new chair. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, former head of the Islamic Society of North America, a U.S. organization that was designated by Washington an unindicted co-conspirator in a history-making terror-funding prosecution, was appointed chair of Huron’s Islamic studies department. Mattson and other radical interests have been able to parlay the ostensible respectability of such appointments into opportunities to gain access to elite circles. Mattson remains chair of the department to this day. And at Carleton University, in Ottawa, the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam hosted an event for Tariq Ramadan, a personality of the Iranian government’s Press TV who is reputed to be a leading Muslim Brotherhood front-person.

The best examples of de-radicalization are those that have involved accountability within pertinent communities. The Tamil and Sikh communities in Canada have managed to some extent to control extremism and terrorism within their ranks. But according to Ahmed Hussen, formerly president of the Canadian Somali Congress and now a federal cabinet minister, the Canadian government was concentrating on detecting and arresting terror suspects, but leaving their rhetoric unchallenged. Some of the community’s youth were being drawn into terrorist activities by Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorist group, the entity reportedly responsible for the 2013 Nairobi shopping-mall massacre.

“The strategy of Canadian officials as they confront this phenomenon in my community has been to view this serious matter only through the prism of law enforcement,” said Hussen. “There has not been a parallel attempt to counter the toxic anti-Western narrative that creates a culture of victimhood in the minds of members of our community.” 

But a counter narrative is urgently needed to defeat the voices of those extremists and victim-mongers who prey on Muslim youth, before targeted youth become terrorists. There are few, if any, think tanks in Canada looking in a genuinely realistic way at a long-term vision of the future of Canadian youth, from a counter-radicalization perspective. Contrary to our experience in Canada, the U.K. has had a history of think tanks that have been prepared to deal realistically with threats, and a few of these have pressed government for constructive change. Some British think tanks have produced publications that address some of the key “definers” of terrorism and the rise of radicalization on British university campuses.

Islamism is growing around the world and Canada is no exception. Indeed, Canada is one of its most fertile grounds. Canadians — both Muslim and non-Muslim — must educate themselves about exactly what Islamism is, how it differs from Islam, and the dangerous nature of Islamism. This book comprises a series of articles I have written on that subject, which I hope will leave readers with a better understanding of the serious challenge of Islamism, that we all must confront — and fight to stop — together. 

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