When Shahina Siddiqui, the founding executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association, went before the Canadian Senate, I was proud. Winnipeggers could claim this religious leader as our own. 

Whenever I hear of her activism and leadership in new initiatives to help others, I think how lucky we are to have people of all faiths willing to speak out for what is right in Winnipeg. When a senator asked her offensive questions in return, I was not as proud of the intellect of those in government.

When Siddiqui pointed out that the “Terrorism battle is not a fight with Muslims,” I wanted to cheer. Of course not — my husband’s professor colleague or the kind lady who helped take care of my children—these are not terrorists. We can’t equate the problem of terrorism with one religion and be done with it. The problem is radicalism.

One dictionary defines radicalism as “the belief that society needs to be changed and that the changes are only possible through revolutionary means.” Another definition includes: “the opinions and behaviour of people who favour extreme changes especially in government: radical political ideas and behavior.” 

Radicals don’t come from only one religious tradition. They can consider themselves left wing or right wing. These aren’t people who come from only one neighbourhood or place of worship, although some communities foster radicalism, often because of poverty, discrimination or charismatic leadership.

Who are radicals?

Experts use many different words to label these behaviours but in today’s headlines and in history there’s a lot of radicalism to go around. Who are radicals?

Jewish communities might call Lev Tahor, an extreme ultra-Orthodox sect, a radical group. Some Jewish communities might call certain behaviours of the Price Tag Israeli settlers radical: They vandalize, commit arson attacks and destroy the property of those with whom they don’t agree.

Beliefs aside, the overwhelming majority agree that these groups’ behaviours cannot, in all good faith, be known as the way Jews should behave according to Jewish tradition.

Everyone mentions Al-Qaeda, ISIS or ISIL, Boko Haram, or Al Shabaab. All of these jihadist movements terrorize us in graphic ways. Most Muslims, at home in Canada or in many countries abroad, feel terrorized as much as everyone else, if not more so.

Most of the people killed by these groups are Muslim. Would we call their beliefs and behaviour Islamic?  Not according to more than a billion largely moderate Muslims worldwide.

History offers us a lesson in Christian radicalization in the Crusades. During the Crusades, waves of European Christians stormed across Europe towards modern-day Israel. On the way, they pillaged and killed thousands in Jewish communities across Europe. Those that got to the Holy Land killed Muslims and others, bringing war to a previously peaceful area. I think it’s fair to say that no one now thinks these murders to “free the Holy Land” embodied Christian ideals.

Creating radical individuals is complicated, but some commonalities exist. These are people who feel isolated and alone or get swept up in sweeping rhetoric. They lack strong connections in some vital sense: family, friends, neighbours, who might help them feel a sense of belonging.

They seek polarized, right-versus-wrong solutions to problems that might help them feel confident in their choices. Often, they undergo religious or political conversion, sometimes with a charismatic leader, which makes them feel as though they have found their true purpose.

Volatile environment

Society also plays a role in the creation of radicalism.

When governments destabilize and people are poor, hungry or disenfranchised, they may coalesce around radical ideology in the hope that it will offer them a better life. Right now, the destabilization of many governments in the world has created a volatile environment that can be perfect for brewing these terrorist groups.

This is a simplistic explanation but it offers us a chance to help support positive moderate change.

As political and social choices, we can choose to support strong moderate nation-building in places torn apart by war. We can donate to charities that help care for the many hungry and sick refugees who have been made homeless in this violence.

We can also work close to home. We can reach out and speak to our classmates, our friends and community members. We can look each other in the eye, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity. We can visit others’ homes, as the Meet a Muslim Campaign suggests.

We may not be able to change the world upheavals happening around us as individuals. We can, however, stop using divisive tactics to make some people feel less Canadian than others.

When we make others feel as though they belong here and that they contribute valuable things to our society, they do not need to radicalize, embrace hate, and fight against us. No matter what your faith tradition or background, no one feels safe when poor and disenfranchised. It’s not hard to then feel isolated, alone, and desperate.

By respecting meaningful and subtle differences, we can actually come together as a stronger, more caring community. Perhaps together, we can work for moderate, positive, intelligent change.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and the mom of twin preschoolers. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.