Canada·Analysis

Fighting radicalization: Why mosques shouldn't close their doors to troubled Muslims

Muslim groups in Canada have been under pressure to speak out against radicals, but taking a hard line against troubled Muslims may come with its own dangers, experts say.

Taking a hard line could leave individuals vulnerable to extremist views, experts say

Muslim communities in Canada have been under pressure to speak out against radicals, but taking a hard line against troubled Muslims may come with its own dangers, experts say. (Shutterstock)

Muslim groups in Canada have been under pressure to speak out against radicals, but taking a hard line against troubled Muslims may come with its own dangers, experts say.

Such action could in fact leave those individuals more vulnerable to extremist views, they say, a position that could turn conventional wisdom about how to prevent homegrown radicalization on its head.

Muhammad Robert Heft says struggling new Muslims with existing social and mental conditions can become isolated. (Twitter)
Muhammad Robert Heft, the founder of a Toronto-based centre that provides mental health support and addiction counselling to struggling new Muslims, says converts with existing social and mental conditions can become isolated. They might also seek acceptance in potentially dangerous circles if they can't find support in their new communities.

Having access to social services, Heft says, "could be the difference between someone getting recruited by someone with erratic views or actually getting the help they need."

Concerns over homegrown radicals have grown with reports of young Canadians joining militants fighting abroad. John Maguire, or Abu Anwar al-Canadi, as he goes by in a newly released ISIS video, is just the latest example.

After the fatal attack on Parliament Hill by Micheal Zehaf-Bibeau, a spokesman at a Calgary mosque he attended said he had been asked to leave the congregation when he was found sleeping there overnight. Zehaf-Bibeau had clashed with the mosque over an open-door policy toward non-Muslims.

After hearing of the Calgary mosque's action, Heft took to social media with a plea of his own to mosques across the country.

“If there are any new Muslim converts across Canada who have social problems, please do not kick them out of your mosques without referring or offering assistance,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Increasing scrutiny

Turning those who appear at risk away from congregations without providing resources to address mental and social problems is an approach that a lot of religious communities take, says Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who is researching radicalization.

Muhammad Robert Heft founded a Toronto-based centre that provides mental health support and addiction counselling to struggling new Muslims. (Shanifa Nasser)
Mosques are under increasing scrutiny to deal with radicalism and many are keen to rebuild a positive image by speaking out against it, he says.

But while conventional wisdom may call for a zero-tolerance policy toward potential radicals, shutting the mosque doors on troubled Muslims can further isolate them, Amarasingam says. That can leave them looking for acceptance elsewhere and turning to social media, where they can easily encounter extremist rhetoric.

“The knee-jerk response to isolate the individual and kick them out of the community can backfire,” Amarasingam says.

Faisal Kutty, a Toronto-based lawyer, says he is aware of eight instances in the past few years of Canadian mosques turning away an individual they feared could become radicalized.

But rather than simply cutting ties with young men at risk of radicalization, Amarasingam and Heft say mosques need to do more to make sure that troubled Muslims with underlying personal or social problems get the help they need.

Converts under the microscope

In the effort to pinpoint radicalization’s root causes, conversion to Islam has increasingly come under the microscope as a risk factor for extremism.

In the United Kingdom, 27 per cent of terror incidents since 2001 have involved a convert to Islam, says Scott Flower, a post-doctoral fellow in political science at Australia’s University of Melbourne.

Earlier this year, Flower further probed the correlation, leading an independent study of 25 Ontario converts. The study was published in a working paper series by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, a national initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Public Safety Canada, with support from CSIS and the RCMP.

But that study found no evidence supporting what the authors called a "conveyor belt" mechanism of radicalization from conversion to terrorism. Converts taking part in the study did report higher overall levels of self-esteem and sociability after their conversion.

At the time of the report, three Canadian Muslim converts had been convicted of terror-related offences.

Still, a new poll by the Angus Reid Institute has found that nearly half of its respondents believe that radicalization is caused by a person's religion. The online poll that surveyed 1,609 Canadians in November also found that 37 per cent feel mental illness is the cause and another 34 per cent believe that feelings of marginalization are to blame.

'Old baggage'

Heft says he has seen many converts who are adrift, struggling with past demons such as substance abuse, unemployment, or mental health issues and lacking the means to address them.

“They have good intentions in the beginning, but somewhere along the lines their old baggage comes out in their anger and intolerance,” he says. That baggage often includes issues that mosques don’t readily address.

“Part of the radicalization process is them feeling isolated and bitter with the community’s lack of moral and social support,” Heft says.

Martin Couture-Rouleau, left, waited in a parking lot for at least two hours before driving his car into two Canadian soldiers, killing one. Two days later, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he guarded the National War Memorial, before storming Parliament Hill. (CBC/Facebook/Twitter)
Heft, who has been counselling troubled new Muslims for more than a decade, believes acts such as those of Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, who fatally ran down Canadian Armed Forces member Patrice Vincent in October, are driven by desperation.

Finding support and acceptance within Muslim communities can be especially important for converts who lack it elsewhere.

Indeed, many in Flower’s study reported that their families and friends cut ties with them following their conversion. One man feared his family would kill him, it noted.

Complicating the matter, converts sometimes find themselves isolated not only from their existing social circles, but within their newfound communities as well. 

Imam Yasin Dwyer, until recently the country’s only full-time prison imam, says that while new Muslims usually have support from friends or mentors, others can find it difficult to integrate into mosques with tight-knit communities.

Many of Canada’s mosques were built along ethnic lines — Somali or Pakistani, for example. Meanwhile, extremist groups can seem inclusive, inviting anyone to join their cause.

'Catch-22'

“The broader jihadi worldview is pitched as a global Muslim community, not divided by ethnic boundaries,” says Amarasingam.

But “mosques are in a catch-22,” says Farhad Khadim, director of education at the Islamic Institute of Toronto.

Many are not adequately equipped to provide social services, he notes, and imams aren’t usually trained to be counsellors.

“You don’t want to restrain someone from coming to the mosque because of mental issues, but at the same time, you have to take a look at how that impacts the congregation.”

Nevertheless, Dwyer says, "mosques should be a home to everyone," especially those who are sick.

"It's forbidden to turn our backs on people." 

Shanifa Nasser is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto and a fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said an independent study of 25 Ontario converts was done with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, a national initiative funded in part by CSIS and the RCMP. The study was published in a working paper series by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, a national initiative funded by SSHRC and Public Safety Canada with support from CSIS and the RCMP.
    Dec 19, 2014 11:31 AM ET

now