Are Canadian mosques hotbeds of extremism?

As we continue to deal with the very real – albeit not existential – threat from Islamist extremism and terrorism we are inundated with analyses and reporting from a variety of institutes, scholars and journalists all extolling on some aspect of the problem.  I have worked in this field for the past 15 years as both a strategic analyst at CSIS and a policy advisor and outreach officer with Public Safety Canada and have chosen to remain active in my post civil service career.  Then and now I have elected to keep as up to date as possible with the literature that is out there.  Some of it is quite good, some terrible and the bulk of it ok.

It is important to keep a level head on this issue and not engage in fearmongering and exaggeration.  I try to do neither: there is far too much of that kind of analysis out there and I have no intention of contributing to it, nor adding to efforts to create demons where there are none.

So what should we make of a recent report by Thomas Quiggan and Saeid Shoaaib entitled The Lovers of Death on the presence of extremist literature in Canadian mosques?  The report caused a stir when published in the Post Media chain.  I would have read it for myself except that  I could not get access to it on the website of one of the authors (Mr. Quiggan) and did not feel like shelling out $6.95 for a PDF copy.  The little available on the TSEC site is not helpful and somewhat inaccurate (the works  of Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb appear from a tiny photograph  to be Fi Zilzal Al Quran – In the Shadow of the Quran – a well-respected Quranic exegesis and not Al Ma’alim fil Tariq – Milestones-  a very dangerous book, but then again I could be wrong).  One review of the paper in was entitled That Study about Extremist Mosques in Canada is mostly Bullshit, which says quite a bit but it is important to note that this is just one article.

Not having read the piece it would not be fair to rely on an outsider’s review so I will dispense with my own review and get to the point underlying the paper: are Canadian mosques hotbeds of Islamist extremism?  My views are based on work I did while at CSIS, my own visits to mosques, my talks with imams and my relationships with hundreds of Canadian Muslims, both leaders and average people.  In a nutshell the answer is no.

Are there individuals at some mosques who espouse violent extremism?  Absolutely. Are they large in number?  Absolutely not, at least from my experience.  Are they embraced by mosque leadership?  On the contrary, they are often kicked out (whether this is a good strategy is a whole other issue).  Furthermore, I can think of only one or two imams who historically supported a less tolerant version of Islam and I have no idea if these men are still active.

Do some mosques carry literature that could be see as espousing extremism?  Maybe, though I have no direct evidence of it.  Nor do I know whether such literature is widely promoted or discussed.  I doubt it.

The most important point to be made is that the leadership of mosques in Canada are active partners with the government, and yes that includes at times CSIS and the RCMP, AGAINST violent extremism.  In this regard I want to commend the efforts of the Canadian Council of Imams, a body I know well, having briefed them several times on radicalisation and violent extremism.  There was a time when denial was rampant among the leadership and in the community but those days ended years ago.  In addition, ordinary Muslims across Canada are becoming more active in this space and we should be grateful for that.

I cannot enter into the heads of the authors of The Lovers of Death to determine why they chose to write it. I do know that one of the authors (Mr. Quiggan) did write an equally scathing paper on the danger in Canada from an apparently ubiquitous Muslim Brotherhood (I have already shared my views on whether the MB poses a security threat and will not repeat them here).  But as to motivation there are several possibilities I suppose:

a) the authors wanted to provide Canadians with a wake-up call on what is happening under their very noses and think that political correctness is getting in the way of understanding threat, or;

b) the authors are part of the fearmongering crowd who see threats everywhere

I believe it likely that b) is the correct answer although, again, I have not read the paper and am not a mindreader.

The threat from Islamist extremism is serious and we really need to be vigilant.  Vigilance ranges from the work our security services do to credible, evidence-based and peer-reviewed scholarship.  We are doing really well on the former and are getting better on the latter.  I am not so sure that The Lovers of Death is a useful addition to our collective grasp of the threat.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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