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On Parliament Hill last fall, the effect of extremists’ influence on vulnerable Westerners became painfully clear. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
On Parliament Hill last fall, the effect of extremists’ influence on vulnerable Westerners became painfully clear. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper gets tough on terror, but he ‘could do more’ Add to ...

The Prime Minister says it is time for the West to get on a wartime footing against global jihadis. But moderate Muslims caution that Ottawa cannot afford to overlook the power of persuasion, particularly in curbing the threat of homegrown extremists.

Increasingly, jihadis in war zones are broadcasting their message to malleable Muslims in the West. While only the most radical or vulnerable tune in to the hate preachers, the results can be devastating. Last fall, two Canadian Forces soldiers were killed in distinct attacks by lone-wolf extremists – the first such deadly incidents on the country’s soil. And overseas, Canadian terrorists have been part of attacks that have killed about 100 people in Somalia, Iraq and Algeria over the past two years.

In the wake of the Paris attacks this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that another new anti-terrorism law is coming. “The international jihadist movement has declared war,” he told reporters. “… The reality is we are going to have to confront it.”

The Conservative government has lately deployed jets to help bomb the Islamic State in the Middle East, and has given spy agencies greater powers to collect communications data. Dozens of police officers have been pulled off Mafia investigations and put onto national-security probes. Authorities have also been figuring out creative ways to keep dozens of suspected radicals off of planes.

Moderate Muslims, however, say that countering jihadis messaging can only be done by the “software” of argument, and not by the “hardware” of powers dispensed to security agencies.

“I think the government could do more,” said Hussein Hamdani, a Ontario lawyer.

“They invest very little in the Muslim community, supporting the moderating voices. This is where the Muslim community can do the heavy lifting.”

Mr. Hamdani, a member of a federal cross-cultural advisery body, said in an interview that he and others have quietly been working to change the thinking of about a dozen Canadian youths who had been on a path to radicalization.

“We were able to take some of these guys and turn them around,” he said.

“One guy we sent to Bangladesh to build homes after a flood.”

Some fundamentalist fighters are clearly beyond the reach of suasion, as are radicals who are mentally ill, Mr. Hamdani said. And recent converts to Islam present their own challenges.

Yet Muslim leaders are in a unique position to challenge young extremists at risk of becoming violent.

“A lot of people want to do something under the cloak of Islam: ‘If I can please Allah in doing this, [I can] get rewards,’” Mr. Hamdani said.

The government has been struggling with ways to drain the pool of prospective recruits in Canada. In fact, the tempo of radicalization appears to be growing.

Consider that, years ago, it was hoped that federal multiculturalism and immigration policies might prove to be a barrier against radical recruitment. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 shows that a federal spymaster told an American visitor that Canada was a relatively unfertile ground for jihadis – he argued that Canada’s immigrant communities were well-integrated, compared to the “ghettoized and poorly educated” counterparts across the Atlantic.

American visitors were unswayed by such arguments. “The jury is still out on … Canada’s escape so far from any terrorist attacks,” reads another U.S. State Department cable from 2008. Both cables were revealed by WikiLeaks.

In 2011, Canadian intelligence analysts produced a study that looked at the cases of dozens of violent extremists. It found that their only shared trait was a common belief that Islam was under attack.

Mr. Hamdani said that Muslims who know the foundations of Islam are best positioned to debunk that view, and to channel extremist impulses away from war and towards good works: “The Prophet said that at the end of time, the blood of a martyr will be weighed against the ink of a scholar – and the ink of the scholar will be more heavy.”

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