Canada's deradicalization strategy has a political blindspot, say critics

Efforts to counter the radicalization of young Muslims in Canada have focused largely on social and religious factors but have ignored the more contentious driver of radicalization: Canada's foreign policy. Critics say that unless religious and political leaders address the political grievances of disillusioned youth, deradicalization is destined to fail.

Deradicalization efforts have focused too much on religious, social aspects, not enough on politics, say some

A Canadian soldier searches a resident of Hajano Kali village in Arghandab district, southern Afghanistan, in July 2007. Many young Muslims feel they can't voice criticism of Canada's foreign policy without being branded as radicals. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Canada has a blind spot when it comes to its efforts to counter the radicalization of young Muslims and other disaffected youth, and hidden in it are the political grievances of young people who feel they have no way to air their views or effect change, some experts warn.

Phil Gurski is a former CSIS analyst who spent 15 years at the spy agency specializing in homegrown terrorism and violent extremism. He found that the government's foreign policies played a significant role in the radicalization of some individuals.

"It's a really hard thing to tell your government, 'By the way, your policies are problematic,'" he said. "Governments are not comfortable talking about it because it forces them to be self-critical of their own policy — but it cannot be ignored." 

Gurski says that Canada has taken positive steps toward thwarting the threat of violent extremism through such prevention programs as Calgary's police-run ReDirect and Montreal's anti-radicalization centre.

But, he says, these efforts have focused largely on social and psychological factors and ignored the more uncomfortable driver of radicalization: foreign policies that feed into a narrative of Western aggression against countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

A frank discussion about Canada's actions abroad is key if efforts to deradicalize members of Canada's Muslim population are to be successful, says Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst. (Phil Gurski)

"Every single plot we've had dating back to the Toronto 18 was predicated largely — not solely but largely — on this notion that our foreign policy is anti-Islamic or, in fact, killing Muslims," Gurski said.

"That is the reality. They (extremists) tell us that. They tell us that in their statements. They tell us that in their cellphone videos."

That is, in fact, what Michael Zehaf-Bibeau did before carrying out a shooting on Parliament Hill in October 2014 that left a Canadian soldier dead.

"This is in retaliation for Afghanistan and because [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper wants to send his troops to Iraq," he said in a short video manifesto found on his cellphone after he was killed in the attack.

'People like me don't air their views'

It's a point that resonates with one Toronto area man who says that, in the aftermath of 9/11, he thought about going to Iraq to join insurgents fighting against the United States. CBC News agreed to conceal the man's identity because of his fears that he might be branded an extremist.

"I could be considered a radical to some," he said. "That's why people like me don't air their views."

The man, who is in his thirties, says the reasons why he ultimately chose not to travel to Iraq are varied.

"I did contemplate joining them — in fact, I seriously contemplated it — but I never went. It was a thought. I was questioning."

If we want to address the scourge of terrorism in any meaningful way, we have to acknowledge the government's role.- Young Ontario man who contemplated fighting with insurgents in Iraq

There are signs that Canada is stepping up its deradicalization efforts. The federal government earmarked $35 million in its budget for a new community outreach and counter-radicalization co-ordinator, and in April, the Canadian Council of Imams announced plans to open two to three deradicalization "clinics" in Toronto as early as this fall.

Headed by former CCI chairman Hamid Slimi, the clinics will take "a holistic approach," providing religious counselling and access to psychotherapists and social workers.

"There are people who use religion to justify their acts, and these people are extremists," Slimi said. "So, you need to go to people who are leading the community on the religious level: imams."

Touchy subjects

Deradicalization centres aren't a new idea, says Gurski, but what is different about the Toronto initiative is that it comes from within the religious community rather than from the government or the justice system, which has attempted to mandate religious counselling in some cases.

In January, the federal parole board included religious counselling in the parole conditions of Saad Gaya, who pleaded guilty to participating in a bomb plot as a member of the so-called Toronto 18. Religious counselling was also ordered for Aaron Driver, a Winnipeg man who tweeted support for ISIS under an alias in 2014, before his lawyer had it dropped from his bail conditions.

The Toronto man who spoke with CBC says it's unlikely the new clinics will address his political grievances or those of others who've concluded that violence is their only recourse. 

"I don't care about imams," he said. "If we want to address the scourge of terrorism in any meaningful way, we have to acknowledge the government's role."

Many imams don't feel equipped or comfortable engaging in political debates, says Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow in religious studies at the University of Waterloo.

Most deradicalization efforts so far have focused on religious, psychological or social aspects, but critics say many radicals see politics as the most important element in their opposition to the status quo. (Mark Blinch/Reuters )

"Even just a couple of years ago, if an imam talked about jihad or Palestine or Syria, they would get on the radar (of intelligence agencies) pretty quickly or be suspected of having radical leanings — as if the fusion of religion and politics automatically leads to radicalization," Amarasingam said.

The fear that some political views might be seen as too extreme to be expressed at all can drive some young people into the arms of radicals, who might give them a means of translating their views into violent action, Amarasingam says.

"These youth are coming to their religious leadership with genuine questions, and they need an avenue through which to have these conversations," said Amarsingam. "Otherwise, they're going to find it elsewhere through people like Anwar al-Awlaki and so on, who are having those conversations."

Vocal opposition without the violence

Having interviewed dozens of foreign fighters and would-be extremists, Amarasingam says many of them want to transform society in some meaningful way and have a seat at the table when it comes to influencing foreign policy.

"It sounds almost silly to say, 'You should write a letter to your MP' or 'You should protest' when 250,000 Syrians have been killed and seven million refugees have left the country," Amarasingam said.

Researcher Amarnath Amarasingam says many imams don't feel comfortable engaging in political debates, and that leaves young Muslims looking for answers elsewhere, with some turning to radicals who are open to having those discussions. (CBC )

For Gurski, the question going forward is, "How do we get to the point that youth feel comfortable to be very, very vocal about what they feel about politics but don't cross that threshold … to violence?"

The Ontario man who spoke to CBC said that depends on whether young people's political participation can bring about actual change.

To Amarasingam, finding a way to include disillusioned youth in the political process is the crux of the problem.

"Canadian foreign policy isn't going to be determined by [the question], 'Is it making some youth angry?'" he said. 

But as long as radicalization is treated simply in religious or mental health terms, the problem will persist.

"That's the elephant in the room," he said.


Shanifa Nasser is a journalist with CBC Toronto interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her reporting on Canada's spy agency earned a 2020 Amnesty International award and an RTDNA, and her investigative work has led to two documentaries at The Fifth Estate. Reach her at: