Deradicalization is about much more than just religious scripture

An emphasis on counterterrorism and deradicalization by successive administrations in Canada has put the country's Muslim minority under consistent scrutiny.

There is a need for spaces that allow youth to vent their frustrations in a productive way

Worshippers take part in Friday prayers inside a mosque. The rise of Daesh in the Middle East and high-profile terrorist attacks in Ottawa, Paris and Brussels have shifted public opinion in a way that puts the onus on western Muslims to prevent "their own people" from committing such acts. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

An emphasis on counterterrorism and deradicalization by successive administrations in Canada has put the country's Muslim minority under consistent scrutiny.

The rise of Daesh in the Middle East and high-profile terrorist attacks in Ottawa, Paris and Brussels have shifted public opinion in a way that puts the onus on western Muslims to prevent "their own people" from committing such acts.

This unfair logic has prompted an array of responses from Canadian Muslims; including that of some Muslim religious leaders, who've tried to solve the problem of youth radicalization by promoting deradicalization clinics or ideological detox programs.

Canada's most recent iteration of this idea comes from the Council of Canadian Imams (CCI), an influential organization that represents a significant number of Canadian Muslim religious leaders.

In 2016, the group announced that it wants to set up three deradicalization clinics in Toronto and nearby communities by fall. They've yet to disclose how such a clinic will operate but have announced that their method will be a "holistic" one that incorporates mental health practitioners and sound theology.

Not a new idea

The idea of Muslim-led deradicalization clinics has a history in Canada that goes at least as far back as the Toronto-18 case of 2006, when over a dozen Muslim Canadian men were arrested for planning to hatch a bomb plot.

Some have since been convicted and the fear of homegrown radicalization has never left the Canadian public.

An undercover mole in the Toronto-18 case, Mubin Shaikh, emerged as a popular Canadian expert on deradicalization. He promoted a method of ideological detox that mirrors the 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Other proponents of similar ideas who rose to a comparable level of temporary national prominence include Ahmed Amiruddin of the Al-Sunnah Foundation (now ostensibly defunct) and Muhammad Robert Heft of Paradise Forever, an organization focused on caring for Muslim converts.

All of them stressed deradicalization in a way that portrays the problem as both preventable and curable through sound theology. Upon closer examination, their work with youth resembles that of a counsellor.

Some who came to them displayed genuine signs of violence, though most didn't.

A good majority of cases involved disobedient children who were afflicted with a wide range of social problems, including bullying and broken homes. ISIS-like ideology seemed to be an afterthought.

Missing the point

The real danger of radicalization deserves attention from the Muslim community and its leaders, who have been tripping over themselves since 9/11 to condemn every major act of terrorism committed by a very small minority who kill in the name of Islam.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA) even jointly unveiled a United Against Terrorism handbook in Winnipeg two years ago.  

But the way the CCI and other individuals or groups try to treat this problem will directly affect how society sees individual radicalization and whether Muslims pose a threat. This is dangerous ground.

The minute details of individual radicalization are still unknown to researchers, but a consensus has emerged in the past decade or so that those who decide to carry out lone wolf attacks or join Daesh do so after a number of life circumstances come together in a perfect storm-like situation.

What these circumstances are and how they come together differ from one person to the other, but all do so in a way that makes the individual particularly susceptible to extremist rhetoric, either online or in real life.

In other words, radicalization is about much more than ideology and theology. 

Deradicalization that focuses on using the Quran or scripture to "cleanse a mind infected with jihadism" implies that the problem is caused primarily by a misinterpretation of Islamic scripture, and therefore can be cured or even prevented by the dissemination of better religion.

This appraisal of the problem goes against several years' worth of studies in North America, Europe and elsewhere that stress social circumstances and anger at Western foreign policy as major factors that contribute to a person's road to violent extremism.

A dangerous narrative

Moreover, the decontextualized way in which deradicalization efforts are presented to the public often exaggerates the problem's size.

North Carolina's Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security reports that 28 Muslims were involved in terrorism plots on U.S. soil in 2015. This is an increased number from previous years, but it still pales in comparison to the number of people who're involved in shootings, murders and other fatalities that don't involve religion at all. 

Canadian numbers are even smaller, but the disproportionate amount of noise made in the aftermath of terrorist attacks around the world puts an abnormal amount of strain on the Muslim community.

This is an old story, but Muslim leaders who try to make it all about theology and scripture don't seem to be learning the broader lesson here.

Any successful effort in Canada to curtail extremism will take a commitment that goes way beyond the Muslims. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies will have to earn the trust of community members who are close enough to the ground to notice problems.

Spaces that allow youth to vent their frustrations in a productive way have to be constructed, and portrayals of Muslims as ticking time bombs must stop. 

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, Oxfam Canada and other NGOs.