CANADA'S MUSLIMS are scrambling. Over a month after the July 7 bomb attacks in London that killed 52 and injured dozens more, deep fissures are emerging in a community grown weary of defending itself against the actions of a very few of its members. In the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, dissenting voices are battling for the ears of Muslims. On the one hand, the vast majority of leaders are asking their community to be ever more vigilant against extremism. But a vocal fringe group has taken a harder stance. Led by Aly
Hindy, a controversial and famously outspoken imam at Toronto’s Salaheddin Islamic Centre, they are speaking out against what they see as a concerted effort to destroy the Islamic faith. While the former group was quick to condemn the London bombings outright, Hindy provided only a qualified condemnation: “We have seen our Muslim brothers and sisters killed all over the world,” he told Maclean’s. “Is their blood worth any less than the 50 or so people who died in London? This is not a war against terror, it is a war against Islam.”
Moderates worry that battle of ideologies is pushing Toronto’s Muslim community into opposing fronts. “From an Islamic perspective, it’s easy to exploit young minds,” says Mohammad Butt, president of the Muslim Students Association at York University. “You just add words to the interpretation of the Koran. In Pakistan, for example, some madrasas [Islamic schools] teach young students to live as mujahid [holy warriors] and die as martyrs. It’s an atmosphere of violence that turns these kids into violent adults.”
The process has already begun, according
to 23-year-old Omar Chauddary, a worshipper at another mosque near Toronto’s Little India district, especially among those youth struggling to survive in the poorer neighbourhoods. Many of his friends quietly celebrated the attacks in London, he says, though they would never admit to it openly. Chauddary himself condemns the suicide component and the loss of innocent life, but supports the ideology behind such attacks. “You know, I pay taxes,” he says, struggling to justify his perspective. “Those taxes feed the government, which then pushes them over to fund the war in Afghanistan. My money pays for bombs and bullets that are used to kill fellow Muslims. So I too feel like I have blood on my hands.”
The Canadian military’s current move into Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province adds another variable to the already simmering mix of emotions. A recent comment by Canada’s military boss, Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, that the job of Canadian troops “is to be able to kill people,” has angered many Muslims, who see it as a sign
that Canada is stepping outside its historical role of peacekeeping.
“That statement caused a lot of anger among young people,” says a visibly irritated Chauddary. “I’m angry about Canada’s role in Afghanistan.” In fact, he says, he could imagine some retaliation in Canada if the troops got more involved in active campaigns against the Muslim population there. “If things get worse there because of what Canadians are doing in Kandahar,” Chauddary adds, “then there could be an attack. You know, it’s like shaking a can of pop—if you keep shaking it, it will eventually blow. Best thing is to leave it alone in a corner.”
THE SALAHEDDIN Centre sits in a poor neighbourhood, a fact underlined by the scruffy-looking man begging for change at the front entrance and following worshippers in to tell them a down-and-out tale of job loss and pain. Rumours among the city's Islamic community have it that the centre is influenced by the Salafi branch of Sunni Orthodox Islam, the literalist version embraced by militant factions like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Salafis have a penchant for targeting the poor for conversion to their myopic version of Islam. In Pakistan and parts of Europe, in Africa and the Middle East, they set up their schools and mosques in the most impoverished regions. In London
Hindy (opposite top) and worshippers at a Toronto mosque:
‘a war on Islam’
it was the Finsbury mosque, headed by the now-j ailed Imam Abu Flamza, that spread the militant message. That mosque was closed down in 2002, re-opening in 2004 after an announcement that it had purged its congregation of extreme elements. Now Canadians are wondering if a similar bombing could happen here—and if Canada has a Finsbury.
The answers, according to most experts and Muslim leaders, are no and not really. At least, not yet. “There are no terrorist groups operating in Canada,” insists Hindy, though he admits there are some extreme elements within the community. The 56-year-old, Egyptian-born cleric, who arrived in Canada 30 years ago,
asks. “Only if the Americans want it.”
This type of rhetoric has put many Muslim leaders in Canada on the defensive, fearing that a confrontational stance sends the wrong message to angry and disillusioned
imam who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, noting that Hindy has condemned all attacks against innocent civilians, “but more an issue of how he’s saying it.” Guiding young people away from the radical path has become a central theme in discussions within Toronto’s Muslim community. At the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, Zain Khan, head of media relations, urges political and religious leaders to focus on fortifying young minds against literalist groups like the Salafis, not rooting out radical elements within the community. “There is always the danger that these groups are operating,” he says. “We just don’t know. If they are, they are not attending the
WITH CANADIANS FIGHTING MUSLIMS IN KANDAHAR, ‘THERE COULD BE AN ATTACK’
has caused a stir in recent weeks among Muslims and non-Muslims alike with his unapologetic views on events like the London bombings and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and his instructions to Muslims not to co-operate with Canadian security forces. A flyer at his mosque, titled “Exposing the 9/11 Lies,” invites worshippers to a meeting in mid-August to discuss the “conspiracy” that claims Muslims were involved.
Hindy himself insists that many of the more serious incidents over the past few years, including the London bombings, were in fact planned and executed by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, and the CIA. “Will there be an attack in Canada?” he
youth. While there’s widespread agreement that Muslims have to stand up for themselves in a politically charged atmosphere, many believe Hindy is going about it in an altogether too confrontational way. “It’s not a question of what he’s saying,” says one
But for Muslim moderates like Khan, the more pressing concern is making certain Canada’s Muslim community, especially its youth, does not devolve into a radicalized extreme. And that, says Khan, is as much a responsibility of the Canadian authorities as it is of Muslims themselves.
“There has been a marked rise in profiling by police since the London attacks,” says Khan, “mostly against Muslim youth. The problem is that when you marginalize young people through continuous profiling, then you have a real chance of these kids being preyed upon by extremist groups.” For Butt at York University, the problem with radicalized youth lies in a poor understanding
of Islamic principles. “When these kids try to interpret the Koran themselves, without a full understanding of it, that’s where the problems arise,” he says. But even Muslims who oppose violence, says Butt, understand there are passages in the Koran that support it in certain circumstances. Promoting a better understanding of Islam is what’s needed most, he argues.
Or, as Khan says, confronting the spectre of the literalists, which he maintains can only be done through dialogue and understanding. “Canadian officiais need to trust the Muslim community,” he says, criticizing the approach authorities such as CSIS have taken so far. “The fact that we have never had any CSIS representative come to one of the largest Islamic Centres in North America,” he adds, “says something about the willingness of Canadian officials to openly engage the community. They’d rather spy on us than talk to us face to face.” Khan proposes a concerted effort, with Muslims and security agencies working together to undermine the agenda of radical elements—a tack that Hindy has criticized as catering to unfounded Western paranoia.
“These imams are turning Muslims against each other,” Hindy says, referring to a group of 122 Muslim leaders across Canada who signed a statement denouncing the attacks in London and vowing to confront the radicals in their midst. Hindy, who did not sign, accuses the Muslim leadership of acquiescence in the face of intense pressure. “I feel like this is a plan to destroy Islam.”
Many Toronto Muslims feel their moderate approach to Islam is under attack from two sides—the radicals and a mistrusting Canadian officialdom. At root, there is a nagging fear that a very few misguided members of their community could shatter the relative peace Canada has enjoyed since the onset of the war on terror. The battle lines have been drawn, and the next few months, as Canadian troops engage more aggressively in Afghanistan and Muslims at home struggle to find a common ground, will be critical.
“I truly believe Canada is the best country in the world,” states Hindy. “Why should Canadians attract hate?” So far so good. But then there’s that way he puts it: “Why should we try to act like Americans? God forbid as a consequence of our actions that someone should hijack an Air Canada plane or bomb a Canadian embassy. But that is a possibility now.”
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