Public Safety Canada is funding a project by an Australian academic to study why Canadians convert to Islam.

This is the first study on the subject ever conducted in Canada and one of a number of studies to receive money from Public Safety through its Kanishka Project, which funds research into terrorism and counterterrorism.

"Canada was a country that had not even one published journal article on converts between its borders. So, I thought, 'Wow, what a great opportunity,'" said Prof. Scott Flower of the University of Melbourne.

Flower's earlier research looked into Muslim converts in Papua New Guinea and Australia and he was looking for comparative cases in other Western nations.

Scott flower

Scott Flower, a researcher from The University of Melbourne in Australia, says he understands why some Muslims may be leery of his research. (University of Melbourne)

He hopes to spend the next few months in Canada conducting interviews with converts to Islam with a view to finding out what spurred their conversion. 

Flower doesn't know what the government will eventually do with his research but he did stress in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that he understands how the subjects of his study might be leery of it.

"You'd have to be very ignorant to not sense the level of concern amongst the Muslim community in general, let alone the convert community. There's been a number of recent legislative bills passed in this country — I won't use the word oppressive — but I would say that it's really made Muslims go to ground," said Flower. 

He added that this atmosphere is complicating his research.

"That's really posing a challenge to recruiting participants to what is really a study that is not interested in security whatsoever," he said.

Kanishka not 'nefarious'

Canadian academics who have received money from the Kanishka Project for other studies say there is nothing nefarious about its intentions.

"All the work is being done by independent scholars that are arm's length," explained Jeremy Littlewood, a Carleton University professor and terrorism expert.

Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax, agrees with Littlewood, but sympathized with Flower's challenges.

Amarasingam is conducting his own research into violent radicalization, also funded by the Kanishka Project.

"We've tried very hard to explain that [our] research was independent. None of the data is being handed over and the government is seeing the final product and there is no secret report," he said. 

"As the researchers retain copyright, such reports provide policy research advice and do not necessarily represent the policy position of Public Safety Canada," wrote Jean Paul Duval, a spokesperson for the department, in an email to CBC News.

The Kanishka Project was created in June of 2011 and came out of a recommendation in the Air India report. It is a five-year project worth $10 million.

Flower's study received $169,240 from the Kanishka's fifth round of grants. His report will be called, "Towards understanding the extremely rare: distinguishing ordinary processes of religious conversion from violent extremism."