A controversial Canadian Muslim preacher recently expelled from the Philippines says his being banned from entering several countries, including the United States and Britain, is not stopping him from reaching thousands of his followers there through online courses.
"The message that I am trying to convey is being conveyed anyway, whether I am in that country or not," Bilal Philips said in an interview Monday, after his return to Canada.
Mr. Philips, who denies allegations that he promotes extremist views, said the authorities' attempts at muzzling him will only create a vacuum filled by violent, radical recruiters.
"The harm that is being done by preventing us [from speaking] is far greater than the benefit that is thought to be gotten from preventing us," he said in an interview from Vancouver.
He had been scheduled to give a lecture in the Philippines but was taken into custody a week ago and then flown out. On landing in Canada, he said, customs officers interrogated him and examined his laptop and mobile phone for two hours. Then came questioning from agents of the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
He has never been criminally charged, says Muslims in the West should shun violent jihad and says the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq is bogus.
"If they [right-thinking Muslims] have knowledge, they know that it's a false claim. But it they don't have knowledge, then it may strike an emotional chord – the chord of the revival of the caliphate," he said.
However, Mr. Philips is seen with suspicion by authorities because he advocates a staunchly orthodox, literal form of Islam.
"If Salafi means that you're a traditionalist that follows the scripture according to the early traditions, then yeah. I'm not a modernist. I'm not a person who makes his own individual interpretations according to the times," he said.
He has in the past been accused of inciting hatred for saying that, under sharia law, homosexuality is punishable by death. And he believes Muslims owe allegiance to their religion first, before their country. "My message … really is for Muslims to be Muslims first, and then nationalist after, whatever their nationality is. So you're a Muslim first and you are a Canadian second. You're a Muslim first and an American second," he said.
"This is looked at as some kind of fifth-column movement; we're creating a group of people whose first allegiance is not to their country."
Born in 1947 in Jamaica and raised in Toronto, he was a Communist while in university in Vancouver before converting to Islam in 1972 and studying in Saudi Arabia. He acknowledges that in 1993, he was involved in a scheme to send former American soldiers who had converted to Islam to go fight in Bosnia. "That cause at that time was a righteous cause," he said.
Some of the men involved in the Bosnian project were also implicated in the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center. Mr. Philips was named in a list of possible co-conspirators but he was never charged and says it was guilt by association.
"I'm fundamentally an academic … My message is the moderate message of Islam. It is away from violence," he said.
At the same time, he said beheadings have been "part of warfare" and are no different from Saudi Arabia executing scores of people each year through the same method. "Who is to say that beheading is a savage way? Humanely, if you put poison into your veins, that's more humane? This is a value judgment of society."
He is now a resident of Dubai but travels frequently to Canada, where he was an imam at the Abu Huraira mosque in Toronto. Every few years, he makes headlines when countries such as Australia or Britain bar him from entering. "Banning me … is not stopping the message," he said.
With reports from Colin Freeze in Toronto