Monday, April 29, 2013As the shock of Canada's brush with an alleged al-Qaida-directed
terror plot recedes, it's comforting to learn a prominent Toronto Muslim
cleric played a key role in foiling the attack. More than a year ago,
he alerted the authorities to someone he felt was an extremist who was
radicalizing young people.
That speaks to something very Canadian: The sense we
can count on each other to do the right thing for the wider community,
that we are all in this together. The Via Rail passenger trains that the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police say the alleged plotters had in their
sights might just as easily have been carrying innocent Muslim
passengers as anyone else. The imam who spoke up was motivated by a
sense of civic duty and a concern for human life -- values the vast
majority of Canada's 650,000 Muslims share with their neighbours, but
for which they are not always given credit.
Recently, much attention has focused on radicalism among
Muslim youth, following reports the RCMP is investigating Canadians at
the forefront of terror attacks in Algeria and Somalia that left scores
dead. And the "Toronto 18" also planned carnage here. The problem is
undeniably a real one. But it's far from being the entire story.
"Since 9/11 the Muslim community has been working very
closely with government agencies, including the RCMP and police
forces," says Yusuf Badat, an imam and director of religious affairs for
the Islamic Foundation of Toronto. "We share the same concerns that
Canadians share in the safety and the prosperity of our beautiful
country," the young Toronto-born cleric told CBC News. After all, he
added, "we are equally affected by any terrorism threats."
Or as another Toronto Muslim leader, Muhammad Robert
Heft, put it, Canada is "our country and our tribe. We want safety for
all Canadians regardless of their religion."
Despite this good faith, some feared an angry backlash
and demonization of the community after reports that Raed Jaser of
Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal had been caught plotting to
derail a Via Rail train between Toronto and New York. If the RCMP is
right, this would be the first known al-Qaida-directed attack in this
country, although Canada has long been on the group's hit list. They
have been charged with conspiracy to murder for the benefit of a
terrorist group, and other crimes. One expressed "shock and disbelief"
at the charges; the other called the allegations unfair.
Much about this case has been sealed by the court and
will only come out at trial. Until then we won't know how the two men
came to be connected or the extent to which this may prove a case of
homegrown radicalization, or imported extremism. Jaser is reportedly a
Palestinian who lived in the United Arab Emirates before coming here,
and is a permanent resident. Esseghaier was born in Tunisia. Neither is a
citizen. But they have been in Canada for years, and at least one
allegedly approached young people seeking to radicalize them. If true,
this won't be the last attempt to turn young people to violence.
But since the 9/11 attacks, many Canadian Muslim
leaders have exposed jihadist violence not only as a crime but also as a
repudiation of the values that Islam holds dear. Muslim clerics have
denounced terror, challenged Internet-fed extremism as irreligious,
barred radicals from mosques and alerted police. And they have rebuffed
efforts by al-Qaida and its ilk to whitewash their crimes by claiming
Islam is at war with the world.
In announcing the arrests, the RCMP rightly briefed
Muslim leaders, thanked them for their help and publicly credited them
with bringing a suspect to their attention.
Tough laws, good policing and vigilant courts all have
their role in thwarting jihadist violence. But as the Via Rail case
reminds us, an alert Muslim community and raised voices are the key. If
the police have it right, a Toronto cleric's concern saved the day.