What should we do with extremist preachers?

Anyone who has seriously studied violent radicalisation knows that it does not happen in a vacuum. The term “self-radicalised” is inaccurate and unhelpful.  True, it is remotely possible for some individuals to adopt violent ideologies entirely on their own, but it is so rare as to be inconsequential.  Never say never, the old adage goes, but in this case you can say “hardly ever”.  Radicalisation to violence happens in social circles.

It is also clear that the people who exert a degree of influence during the radicalisation “process” in those social circles can come from anywhere.  Family (the Khadrs anyone?), friends (the London, ON young men who carried out a terrorist act in Algeria in January 2013), on-line contacts (Anwar al Awlaki remains the most famous in that category), religious leaders and others would constitute that class.

But this blog is about extremist preachers so let’s remain on point.  If you perform an even cursory read of the world’s press on any given day you will find a religious figure saying something profoundly stupid in the name of his religion (I would say his/her but it is clear that the vast, vast majority are men).  These statements are not merely ridiculous: they are dangerous.  Case in point calls for murder by shaikhs accusing people of blasphemy in Pakistan.  And, more recently, a Danish imam in Aarhus has made some particularly asinine comments including the suggestion that children who won’t pray should be beaten.

In response to this one imam’s idiocies, Danish parliamentarians have suggested that he and his ilk be deported (see story here).  I can certainly understand the furour surrounding this moron and the visceral desire to be rid of him.  But is it the best policy?

Not surprisingly I will argue that it depends.  Deportation as a rule is sometimes a knee-jerk response to a bad situation and certainly satisfies a desire to just do something rather than ponder more effective policies, which of course take time.  There are clearly occasions where it is merited and we must allow our governments to retain that tool.  But what are the downsides to punting people we don’t like?

Simply stated, deportations amount to state NIMBYism.  We just displace a problem somewhere else, and most likely to a somewhere where we have little influence or visibility. If Canada, for instance, elects to get rid of a hate preacher who is calling for non-Muslims to be persecuted (trust me, it does happen), does that “solve” the problem?  Well in a way it does, or rather appears to, since the undesirable is no longer present in this country to spew his hatred.  And yet, he now becomes free to continue to promote violence in whatever country he ends up in through the miracle of social media, a mode that is much harder to regulate.  So in the end deportation leads to a larger conundrum and can in fact worsen the situation (i.e. radicalisation) that we are trying to address.

If deportation is therefore not a panacea for all cases, what should be done?  There are a few possible roads we can take:

  • we can let our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies investigate these fools to see who exactly is taking up their message and acting on it.  This of course is fraught with dangers – i.e. some of those radicalised may carry out terrorist acts here or elsewhere – and does little to prevent the radicalisation scourge from spreading
  • we can lay charges and allow the courts to decide.  This is a great tool since it is transparent, but suffers from the challenge of amassing information and deciding whether a law has actually been broken
  • or we can allow communities themselves to police the matter.  The overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslims reject this garbage and can take steps, through mosque boards of directors for instance, to put a stop to it and challenge these extreme views which do not represent the mainstream.  Unfortunately there have been instances where hate preachers have been allowed to continue as well as instances where a given institution merely ejects the problem, only to have it metastasise somewhere else.  Nevertheless, a community response is probably more effective than a state one.  Should a community want state assistance, they can ask for it.

We need to acknowledge that radicalisation to violence is a particularly tricky and persistent problem in Canada and the West.  It is also a problem that needs well-crafted solutions.  I suppose the question remains: do we want to put in the time and resources to develop longlasting solutions, or do we prefer to play Whack-a-mole, thus ensuring that the problem goes on and on?  The choice is ours.



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.

2 replies on “What should we do with extremist preachers?”

Where do you draw the line? Only the preachers? Do we discuss politicians or other hate filled individuals spewing rhetoric against others I.e. the Pam Gellers of the world? .. Don’t get me wrong I’m not defending hate in any form, whether a religious leader or politician. All forms of hate need to eradicated. We need to treat everybody equally regardless of position. It’s NOT ok for anybody to disseminate hate filled commentary in any medium period. This is a candle we need to burn from both ends.

Trump needs to be considered as hateful as Awlaki. A hate comment from an imam should carry the same weight as a hate comment from a Priest, Rabbi, politician or a community activist. I promise you when that happens you will see a drastic change in the social landscape. IMHO.

Keep up the good work.

I couldn’t agree with you more Kamran – hate is hate. This blog was in response to a particular event but could have been written about all the people you mentioned. And maybe I will some day!

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