Canada: Islam’s conversion problem

Islam’s conversion problem

Is enough being done to either stop or support troubled young converts?


All three men came from troubled backgrounds. All three suffered some degree of mental anguish, battled drug addiction and turned to Islam for purpose and meaning. All three were recent converts.

Lone-wolf attacks and the future of terror
David Frum on the allure of radical Islam in Canada
Two killers, one twisted objective

This has become a worrying trend over the past year in which Islamic State has emerged as the world’s most notorious and violent radical group. Unsurprisingly, it appears to be attracting some of the most troubled individuals across the Western world, including the U.K., France, Germany, Canada and the U.S.—young men defined by fractured lives and violence, embracing a corrupted and debased version of faith to justify their rage.

That more and more of these people appear to be gravitating toward Islam has become a focal point of debate within Canada’s Muslim communities. Why has Islam become a magnet for the deranged, the lost and the psychologically unstable, many are asking, and what can be done to either keep these people out or support them once they have converted?

The Islamophobes, naturally, will argue that it is Islam itself that is the problem: A religion of violence attracts violent individuals. That, obviously, ignores the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not subscribe to violence and whose hearts bleed every time a horrific act is committed in Islam’s name.

Islam is suffering through an era of ideological crisis. Like other crises, religious or not, an environment of conflict and confrontation attracts people seeking out conflict and confrontation. Canada’s FLQ crisis in the 1960s is one domestic example: Leftist discontent fed by Cold War-era conflicts, coupled with economic stagnation in Quebec, created the perfect environment for the emergence of a radical group like the Front de libération du Québec. The FLQ, in turn, attracted young, discontented individuals searching for a cause that would allow them to vent their internalized anger.

Islam is suffering through a similar state of crisis and is, similarly, attracting young discontents. “We’re helpless,” says Yusuf Badat, 34, imam at the Islamic Foundation in Toronto and vice-chair of the Canadian Council of Imams. “We can’t see into the inner motivations of a person who wants to convert to Islam. Many of these people are coming from broken backgrounds. They’re looking for an escape.”

The problem, he adds, is complex. On the one hand, conversion to Islam is relatively straightforward: A person announces his or her intention, then recites the Shahada, a declaration of faith, three times. There is no formal procedure. According to one website that encourages people to convert, “Becoming a Muslim is a simple and easy process. All that a person has to do is to say a sentence called the Tesitmony of Faith.” This, the website adds, can be done alone.

Once a person has converted, however, the onus remains on the individual to learn about his new faith. Unlike Christianity, where conversion usually plays out in a church setting with the congregation serving the role of guide and support network, a convert to Islam is often left to float in a sea of opposing doctrines. He may attach himself to an individual, who then becomes his guide, or he may rely on the Internet, a haven for radical views, for guidance.

This is dangerous, says Badat. “Given the current context, there needs to be some kind of protocol put in place, be it background checks or criminal-record checks. We need to know why a person is converting.”

More broadly, the Muslim community needs to talk about these issues, he adds, and make changes to the existing conversion procedures. But resources are scarce. Some organizations, such as the Muslim Association of Canada, do offer post-conversion support groups—but they only reach a small number of converts.

“Mosques are the front-line institutions in the Muslim community,” says Badat, but most mosques are run by volunteers. Some do have formal procedures in place, where a new convert recites the Shahada in front of the congregation and is accepted into the community of Muslims. We need more of this.”

In the meantime, Muslim leaders, such as Badat and others, emphasize that the rash of Muslim converts turning to Islamic State-type radicalism tell us more about Islamic State than they do Islam. “No true Muslim or Muslim convert who is embracing Islam out of a love for the faith will ever join Islamic State,” he says. “But there are too many people who see conversion to Islam as a kind of ticket into war. They are not converting as true believers, but rather, to become soldiers.”


Radical Islam, Canada-style

Canadian institutions will surmount this threat, writes David Frum

David Frum


A woman stands at makeshift memorial in honour of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo outside of The Lieutenant-Colonel John Weir Foote Armoury in Hamilton

Last year, the head of Canada’s security agency delivered a warning to the Canadian Senate.

“Five years ago, we weren’t as worried about domestic terrorism as we are now,” said Richard Fadden. He explained why: In the 1990s and early 2000s, Islamic terrorism was perpetrated by structured organizations with lines of command—groups like al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabab. But the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition had smashed the leadership of these groups, and left behind a motley bunch of autonomous freelancers whose plots were much “harder to get your hands on.” Western intelligence agencies were seeing far fewer large-scale plots such as those that did so much damage in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid and London in the early 2000s, Fadden continued, but they were collecting much more chatter about smaller-scale threats against less predictable targets.

Fadden’s prophecy has been all too tragically vindicated this week. On Monday, a French-Canadian convert to Islam drove his car at two Canadian soldiers in the small city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montreal. One soldier was killed. The assailant was shot and killed by police after a high-speed car chase. Wednesday brought a spectacular attack on the National War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa. Again, a soldier was killed, before the assailant himself was reportedly felled by the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons. This attacker, too, was a Canadian-born Muslim convert, the son of a French-Canadian woman and (according to recent press reports) a Libyan man who had immigrated to Canada.

The hit-and-run driver in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Martin Couture-Rouleau, appeared on a list of 90 persons monitored by Canadian police and had been identified as a “high-risk traveller”; he was arrested last summer when he tried to leave the country for the Middle East. Official sources have not said anything about whether Couture-Rouleau and the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, were acquainted or connected in any way. Former public safety minister Stockwell Day, however, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the two men may have visited the same Internet chat rooms. Islamic State has promoted using cars as weapons against Westerners, though it remains unclear whether Couture-Rouleau drew inspiration from the extremist group.

Related reading: Martin Couture-Rouleau: A homegrown madman

Since 2006, Canadian security has thwarted many localized plots—two in 2013 alone. At a July 1 Canada Day celebration in front of the British Columbia legislature, two Canadian-born converts to Islam intended to detonate homemade pressure-cooker bombs, police charge. Two non-citizens—one Palestinian, one Tunisian—were arrested in April 2013 for allegedly plotting to derail a passenger train.

A lot of energy is wasted debating whether do-it-yourself jihadists should be called “terrorists.” The Obama administration notoriously insisted on describing the Ford Hood shooting of 2009 as an incident of “workplace violence,” not terrorism. The killer at Fort Hood, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was perceived by colleagues as mentally troubled long before he opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 32 more.

Judging by media reports, Zehaf-Bibeau likewise could be described, if one wished to eschew the T-word, as a troubled misfit with a long record of petty criminality. On the other hand, what kind of person would one expect jihadists to recruit from inside a Western society? In countries like Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States, the call to Islamic holy war often appeals to more marginal people: the thwarted, the troubled, the angry. Yet, even so, the killer in Quebec—Couture-Rouleau—reportedly had a clean police record and a reasonably stable personal life until his conversion to Islam. He owned a pressure-washing business and lived in a single-family home with his father.

If you are alienated, angry and attracted to violence, radical Islam provides a powerful ideology of justification. If you are lonely and purposeless, it offers redemptive self-sacrifice. (One report claims that Couture-Rouleau persuaded “four or five” friends to convert to Islam with him.) Until roughly 1960, French-speaking Quebec ranked as one of the most Catholic societies on Earth. In the late 1950s, more than 80 per cent of French Quebeckers could be found at mass on Sundays, according to one famous estimate. Then, abruptly, in the short span of years from 1960 to 1980, religion seemed almost to vanish from the province. It’s been aptly said that, from the point of view of religious observance, “centuries, not decades” separated the Quebec of the 1980s from the Quebec of the 1950s. Yet, the hunger for meaning is always a part of the human spirit. In a different time, Couture-Rouleau might have vanished into a monastery. In the 21st century, he found a different and deadlier path. The alleged would-be British Columbian bombers might likewise have gravitated to Maoism in the 1960s or Nazism in the 1930s. But those ideologies, too, have lost their hold on the modern mind, leaving radical Islam as the strongest competitor for the credence of those who seek self-fulfillment through mass destruction.

Like other advanced democracies, Canada is a lightly policed society. It is also a society that has imposed on itself extraordinary legal difficulties before dangerous non-citizens can be removed from its territory. One of the two men who allegedly plotted the 2013 train derailment arrived in Canada with his family in 1993 using a fake passport. First, the family sought refugee status on the grounds that they had been victimized by anti-immigrant gangs in Germany, their previous place of residence. When that plea was rejected, most of the family sought and gained residency as stateless Palestinians. The suspected train plotter, Raed Jaser, was denied residency because, by the time the courts got around to hearing his case, he’d accumulated a lengthy criminal record. But since neither the United Arab Emirates (where he was born), nor Saudi Arabia (where his mother was born), nor the Palestinian Authority (where his father came from) accepted responsibility for him. In Canada, he stayed. He’ll now be staying somewhat longer and, perhaps ultimately, as long as Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad, a Palestinian terrorist who entered Canada in 1987 with false papers and was ultimately deported only after a 26-year legal battle.

Despite its self-image as a peaceable land, Canada has not escaped political violence. In the mid-1960s, Quebec separatists launched an escalating campaign of bombings and attempted kidnappings: 160 violent attacks that killed eight people and wounded dozens more before the terrorists were finally suppressed in 1970-71. In 1985, Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India flight from Montreal to London mid-flight, killing 329 people, 268 of them Canadian citizens, in the worst terrorist atrocity in Canadian history. Canadian soil has been troubled—and Canadian lives have been lost—as a result of Palestinian terrorism, Tamil terrorism, and domestically inspired violence of the far left and far right.

Since 2001, political violence (both plotted and executed) in Canada and against Canadians has overwhelmingly been inspired by the teachings of radical Islam. Our era’s foremost ideology of murder has found a home inside Canada, too. Canadian law, Canadian institutions and the Canadian government must adapt to the threat accordingly. After the shock and sorrow of October 2014, they surely will—as they have so successfully adapted and surmounted much greater threats in generations past.

David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

(C) 2014 The Atlantic Media Co., as first published in The Atlantic Magazine. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Categories: Americas, Canada

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