As Canada heads to war for six months or more in Iraq (and perhaps Syria), Canadian Muslims will once again feel under the microscope. As with the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and in the years after the 9/11 attacks, this community will bear the burden of suspicion, discrimination and possible recrimination.
Acts of violent extremism committed overseas, ostensibly in the name of religion, predictably fuel a backlash against those who bear no responsibility for the actions of barbarians elsewhere. Already, the sadistic actions of the Islamic State (which is neither Islamic, nor a state) have spawned hate. In September, a Calgary imam claimed to have been struck by a car while being called a terrorist, and a Muslim prayer space was twice vandalized in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Bullets were fired at the Pickering (Ont.) Islamic Centre with worshippers inside and hateful graffiti was spraypainted nearby a few days later. And a Muslim-owned business in Windsor, Ont., was subjected to gunfire, anti-Arab graffiti and arson.
Amid the drumbeat of war, Canadian Muslims must remain vigilant. But they have already been taking bold steps to confront radicalization. Syed Soharwardy, the Calgary imam, has been an outspoken critic of terrorism and extremism for years. The Calgary Muslim community recently brought together stakeholders for a one-day summit on the prevention of criminal radicalization through youth empowerment. Similar meetings are being planned in Ontario.
To that end, the Islamic Social Service Association of Canada and the National Council of Canadian Muslims launched a handbook, "United Against Terrorism," to provide Canadian Muslims with the tools to recognize signs of radicalization, challenge extremist messages and engage in active citizenship. Both groups have condemned the Islamic State. The RCMP also contributed to the 14-month collaborative effort, but withdrew a day after the launch, citing an "adversarial tone" in the handbook but not elaborating further.
The RCMP's withdrawal left the groups perplexed, and damaged goodwill that took years to build after the disastrous Maher Arar affair. The underlying message was also troublesome: "The RCMP will work with you for months, and then walk away." How will this be perceived by young Muslims?
The timing of the move couldn't have been worse.
With Western intervention in Iraq and Syria, violent extremists' attention is "increasingly turning to the West," Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, told The New York Times recently. "Most of the jihadi groups were not interested in attacking the West, but now it has become a priority for them."
As the United States, Britain and France appear to realize, this is all the more reason to enhance co-operation with Muslim communities in order to stem the tide of radicalization. Trust is a key issue, as Omar Saqr, 25, told the Times: "Our relationship has to be built on trust, but the U.S. government hasn't given us very many reasons to build up that trust."
We will have to build up that trust quickly. Muslim Canadians are part and parcel of this nation, and should not feel ostracized for their beliefs.
In the days after 9/11, former prime minister Jean Chrétien sent a powerful message by visiting an Ottawa mosque. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney did the same in 2012 when he spoke in solidarity with worshippers at a vandalized mosque in Gatineau. Such symbolic acts by elected officials help build social cohesion.
The wider public should know that Canadian Muslims are reporting security threats. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked last month in New York, "our security and intelligence agencies … work most particularly well with our Muslim communities in identifying such threats."
Finally, Canadian Muslims should take a cue from their British and French counterparts, and organize public demonstrations against the Islamic State. This group has defiled Islam more than any cartoon could.
Whatever our differences, the safety and security of every Canadian is paramount. Let's all stand on guard for each other, and against the hate that has destroyed societies elsewhere.