Friday, June 23, 2006

Canadian terrorist arrests

Canada is one of these countries that doesn’t generate much news – at least the kind of news that gets much mention outside Canada. That all changed three weeks ago…

Like many Canadians, I was shocked on the first Saturday of June, when I read the news and heard about the police breaking up a terror cell, confiscating explosives, weapons, and arresting several young Muslim men who had planned to wage a bombing campaign against Canadian government targets. The next day’s headlines were no less amazing: four hundred police officers had been involved with the bust, seventeen suspects were arrested, and additional suspects connected to the case were arrested in Britain. And, several of the suspects were from Mississauga, the same upscale suburb of Toronto that I lived in for five years.

When I first read the headlines, I was in shock – this did not sound like the Canada I know, and certainly did not sound like the Mississauga I know. Canada is one country where Muslims have generally blended well with the population, keeping their own identity, but respecting the identity of others and contributing to the mosaic of Canadian society and the Canadian political system.

In the days that followed the arrests, several pundits began questioning Canada’s immigration system and Canada’s multiculturalism program - the encouragement of immigrant groups to retain their own identity while contributing to a larger mosaic. Some painted a picture of a system that was broken, and suggested that the existence of this terrorist cell was evidence of the failure of Canada's multiculturalism concept.

I’d argue the exact opposite: the reason these terrorist plots were foiled before they could cause any damage was the direct result of Canadian multiculturalism. The integration of Muslims into Canadian society are actually one of the best successes of Canada’s multiculturalism program. In many parts of the world, Muslims live is isolated banlieues or ethnic ghettoes, have little interaction with mainstream society, and are largely disaffected from the political system; whereas in Canada, many Muslims live in mixed communities, are politically active, and are well represented in Canadian politics. In many parts of the world, there is considerable enmity between Jews and Muslims, but in Canada these groups tend to get along just fine. And, in the case of this terrorist plot, Muslim Canadians were the ones who tipped off the authorities to suspicious behavior of some plotters, allowing them to monitor this group for a long time, resulting in 17 arrests in Canada along with others in the United States and Britain.

Let us consider how far removed from the mainstream some of these miscreants were. At least six out of the seventeen suspects arrested were regular attendees at this tiny storefront mosque called the al-Rahman Islamic Center for Islamic Education, sandwiched between a convenience store and a Pakistani kabab restaurant in Mississauga. The eldest of the suspects, and the apparent spiritual leader of the younger people in the group, Qayyum Abdul Jamal, was a volunteer at this tiny mosque and was one of about half a dozen people who regularly led prayers there. Many of the remaining 16 young men who were arrested were former students of Jamal, or people who had fallen under Jamal's influence.

News reports about Jamal paint a classic picture of a man in midlife crisis. At 43 years old, Jamal's neighbors have not seen him holding down any sort of job, while his wife pays the bill by driving a school bus. With nothing to do but mope around the house and be miserable, Jamal spent his time by volunteering at this tiny mosque. He started out cleaning the carpets, and was eventually allowed to become one of about half a dozen men who took turns leading prayers there. Jamal's neighbors describe him as simply quiet and unfriendly, but at the mosque, his pent-up anger translated into an angry vitriol. Fellow mosque members describe him as being “more aggressive” than the other prayer leaders, and where, according to the Washington Post, his “angry view of the world, and his belief that the West is at war with Muslims, boiled over.”

About a year ago, Wajid Khan the elected member of parliament for the area (and himself a Canadian Muslim) was invited to speak at the al-Rahman Center, and Qayyum Jamal, who was leading prayers that day, was supposed to introduce him. Instead of an introduction, however, Jamal started on a personal diatribe, telling the congregation that Canadian troops are in Afghanistan to rape Muslim women. Wajid Khan, in a Reuters interview described Jamal as an "idiot" with "piss-poor" command of the English language, and spoke about what happened next:
"I just got up right away and I pushed him aside and started to address the crowd and criticised him for talking nonsense. People agreed with me, that this was bullshit." … Khan said he had been told that angry members of the congregation later confronted Jamal outside the center and "kind of roughed him up" to show their displeasure.

Jamal used his position at the mosque to spend time with teenagers and young men: impressionable people who could infuse his extremist concepts. The Globe and Mail interviewed several teenagers in the Mississauga area where Jamal lived, who told stories about all the times Jamal had joined them for soccer games or cricket matches, and of the lessons he taught at the mosque. But, as the same Globe and Mail article pointed out, some parents and others at the mosque were starting to see through Jamal's rosy exterior:

One of the mosque's board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a few parents barred their children recently from attending the mosque because they were worried about Mr. Jamal's growing influence. If Mr. Jamal is guilty of terrorist scheming, the centre will have to shoulder "some blame" for allowing him to propagate his hard-line version of Islam on vulnerable young minds, the board member told The Globe.

"In that sense, maybe we should be more vigilant," he said. "If something happened on your watch, even though you may not be condoning it or promoting it, you have to be careful."

In summary, the existence of a small fringe group of seventeen people is not sufficient cause to judge a community of almost a million people in Canada. In fact, I would argue that the fact this fringe group was not able to obtain enough support for their cause, and was turned in by members of their community is evidence of how well this community has integrated itself into the mosaic of Canadian society. In short, success, not a failure, of Canadian multiculturalism.