A Senate committee is calling for Canada to go much further in cracking down on radicalism and terrorism, including training and certifying the credentials of Muslim imams as a means of stamping out "extreme ideas."
The controversial focus on religious leaders is part of a report from the Senate committee on national security and defence that represents the view of its Conservative majority. The report, however, does not have the support of Liberal members of the committee.
The training and certification idea drew swift condemnation from the Muslim community, which labelled it religious discrimination.
In what the committee sees as a way of diminishing the risk of violent extremism, key proposals in the 25-recommendation report include the creation of a no-visit list of "ideological radicals" who would be barred from entering Canada, the outlawing of membership in a terrorist group and considering prohibiting the glorification of terrorism.
The committee, led by Conservative senators Daniel Lang and Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a former Prime Minister's Office staffer, issued the interim report Wednesday as part of a study of security threats facing Canada that included terrorist recruitment, operations and financing.
Fighting terrorism is a major theme in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's campaign for re-election this year, with the Conservative Leader painting the rise of groups such as Islamic State as a threat to the Canadian way of life and arguing that his rivals do not take the matter seriously enough.
Muslim leaders decried the idea of certifying imams.
"We're deeply concerned about the suggestion that imams require special vetting as opposed to any other faith leaders," said Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
"This recommendation bears the hallmarks of racial and religious discrimination and in our view would be contrary to the Charter and human-rights code."
The committee's recommendations, which come only weeks after the enactment of a controversial new anti-terror law, C-51, call for a more pervasive, and potentially more invasive, fight against extremism and radicalization in Canada.
Recommendation No. 9 in the report – the push to certify imams – calls on the federal government to "work with the provinces and the Muslim communities to investigate the options that are available for the training and certification of imams in Canada."
The Conservative-dominated Senate committee justifies this by saying it is worried about the influence of jihadis on Canadian Muslims.
"The committee heard testimony from members of the Muslim community and others that some foreign-trained imams have been spreading extremist religious ideology and messages that are not in keeping with Canadian values," the committee's interim report said.
"These extreme ideas are said to be contributing to radicalization and raise serious concerns if they continue to go unchecked."
The committee said estimates gathered during their study suggest there are more than 318 radicalized Canadians "supporting the extremist jihadist movement or seeking to leave Canada to join it."
Mr. Lang, the committee chair, said "we must be vigilant against the threat posed by terrorists, extremists, supporters or sympathizers."
The Harper government spoke glowingly of the report, and said they would study it, but gave no indication of which recommendations it might adopt.
"We thank the Senate committee for their thorough report. Once again, it is clear that the threat posed by the international jihadist movement is real," said Jeremy Laurin, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.
Austria this year passed a law requiring Muslim clerics to demonstrate "professional suitability" by taking a University of Vienna program or proving they have equivalent training. It also barred Islamic clergy funded by foreign interests from teaching in Austria.
The Conservative senators also called on the government to establish a program that provides information on signs of radicalization to "front-line workers" such as teachers, police offers, prison staff, nurses and doctors so they could be better equipped to detect extremism. "The committee believes that having more informed 'eyes and ears' is vital to terrorism prevention," the report said.
It also calls on the government to investigate and discourage the spread of violent extremism, "especially the ideology promoted by the global Islamist fundamentalist movement," and recommended Ottawa work with Muslim communities to create an "effective counternarrative" to denounce this extremism.
Mr. Gardee, with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called the Conservative Senate report "out of touch" with the reality of Canada. "It reads like a colonial document dictating a primarily one-way relationship with minority communities and suggesting the state has final say on determining who can participate in our communities," he said.
He feels it "stigmatizes and marginalizes" the Canadian Muslim communities and "portrays them as a threat rather than as a partner in national security."
Mr. Gardee said many Canadian Muslim scholars and imams are already encountering and addressing "false narratives" employed by radicals. "They [scholars and imams] are the ones best equipped and situated to unpack, demystify and debunk the sort of cut-and-paste approach to religion that is employed by violent extremists."