Fear and Testiness Marks Canada's Muslim Community

IN THE YEARS since Sept. 11, 2001, distrust between Muslim groups and federal authorities, especially police and intelligence agents, has at times seemed to be hardening into bitter resentment. Realists on both sides admit it. Some even concede they are in part to blame. But there have been hints recently of a thaw in that chilly relationship. In May, an unprecedented meeting was held, without publicity, at an Islamic centre near Toronto's Pearson International Airport, bringing together Muslim leaders, senior CANADIAN SECURITY INTELLIGENCE SERVICE representatives, and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who oversees Ottawa's anti-terrorism strategy. One participant reported an exchange in which an Islamic cleric chided CSIS for failing to reach out to mosque leaders for help in investigations after 9/11. "You should have called us," complained the imam. "You have a phone, too," shot back a CSIS officer.

A testy bit of dialogue, but still dialogue. How such attempts to open up lines of communication will fare in the fear-filled climate following the London terrorist bombings remains to be seen. Both sides know they have their work cut out for them. They are tentatively trying out softer messages. "We're recognizing the importance of outreach to the Muslim community," CSIS spokeswoman Barbara Campion said last week - a cautious change of tone for the federal intelligence service that's been eager to emphasize its toughness on terror. "The Muslim community has to overcome its reticence, its tendency to be a bit parochial," allowed Riad Saloojee, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada - not exactly tough self-criticism, but something for a prominent Canadian Muslim community leader.

What's going on is that both sides realize they haven't gained anything by letting relations sour. There has been plenty to fuel mutual suspicion. Following Sept. 11, weeks after Osama bin Laden was identified as the prime suspect, many Canadian mosque leaders were still insisting that Islamic extremists couldn't be responsible. When the Liberal government tabled a new anti-terrorism law, Muslim and Arab groups opposed the measures as a threat to their civil liberties. Then a series of apparent police missteps - most prominently the Maher Arar saga - confirmed in the minds of many Muslims their suspicion that innocent members of their community would be unfairly targeted.

While non-Muslim Canadians might view the well-known Arar story in isolation, many Muslims see the case as part of an alarming pattern. The Ottawa owner of a company that transferred money overseas was listed by the Canadian and U.S. governments as a financer of terrorism, until a judge ruled that RCMP evidence failed to show any terrorist link. A group of foreign students were rounded up in a Toronto RCMP raid and identified by a federal lawyer as a possible terrorist cell, but they turned out to be guilty only of immigration offences. In both cases, Muslims who apparently had no terrorist ties were left trying to shake off the terrorist label - not such an easy thing to do if your name happens to be, say, Hussein or Mohammed.

No wonder some Canadian Muslims are uneasy. But what's their best approach to dealing with government, now that the London bombings seem certain to intensify concerns about radical Islam in all Western democracies? There are deep divisions about strategy among Muslim leaders. Take the simple question of how to respond to an attack like the one on the London subway. Many Muslim groups are fed up with being asked repeatedly to reject terror - as if they might secretly support it. "Why should I get 15 media calls?" says Mohamed Boudjenane, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation. "I have nothing to do with idiots and criminals who are blowing themselves up." Yet Boudjenane hastened to add in his next breath that he unconditionally condemned the London bombings.

Saloojee said that, frustrating as it is to be pressed to react to every new terror incident, it is important to keep on doing so. "You really don't have a choice but to speak up," he said. "Your silence will be taken as condoning terrorist acts." Even condemning TERRORISM, though, is sometimes not enough - depending on how that condemnation is packaged. Mohamed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, denounced the London bombings, but was still slammed in a National Post column and a Globe and Mail editorial for also asking that Canadian Muslims not be "found guilty by association." Why the criticism of what seemed a reasonable plea? Perhaps because Elmasry's comments tend to be viewed unsympathetically in light of his previous controversial statements, especially his suggestion last year on a TV talk show that all Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are legitimate targets for Palestinian suicide bombers.

In fact, despite his high media profile, Elmasry's name doesn't come up often in discussions of the evolving relationship between Ottawa and the Muslim community. One federal official said he has "fallen off the radar screen for obvious reasons." On the rise are a diverse range of increasingly sophisticated groups. The Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, largely a social network prior to 9/11, now advocates for civil liberties. The Coalition of Muslim Organizations, the organization McLellan and CSIS connected with in their May meeting, is an umbrella group mainly for Toronto mosques that has the ear of top Liberals. Still relatively small, but media-savvy, is the left-leaning Muslim Canadian Congress, which sees itself as an alternative to the religious conservatism of Elmasry's CIC.

There are also a few new Muslim voices inside federal politics. Liberal Yasmin Ratansi, elected the first Muslim woman MP last year, casts herself as the representative of her diverse Toronto riding, not of her Ismaili Muslim community. Still, she's taking a close interest in the review of the federal Anti-terrorism Act, and sympathizes with Muslims, as well as Sikhs, who say they tend to be unfairly singled out for scrutiny under the law. Ratansi says the act was an understandable first reaction to Sept. 11, but its mandatory review by Senate and House committees, both of which are to issue reports by year-end, is a chance for cooler heads to prevail in calmer times. "Yes, we had to respond to something in a hurry," she says. "But now let's do some consultation with normal people who want to lead a normal life."

Normal, though, is not how the debate feels after the London bombings. Canadian Muslims who had been hoping to win changes to Ottawa's anti-terrorism law now know they face a much tougher challenge. Among their main goals: drop the reference to "a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause" from the law's definition of terrorism. Muslim groups complain that clause justifies CSIS and RCMP investigators asking questions about religious beliefs that offend many Muslims. But in light of reports of how the British suicide bombers were influenced by Islamic extremism, dropping the reference to religion from the Canadian law now seems far less likely. Instead of reshaping the law, Canada's Muslim groups may have to settle for repairing relations with the authorities who enforce it.

Red Carpet in Ottawa

Tariq Ramadan, Europe's most famous scholar of Islam, was barred by Washington from taking up a U.S. university appointment last fall. He was once banned from France. Last week, London's tabloid The Sun filled its front page with outrage over the fact that the Swiss author was scheduled to speak in the city only days after the subway bombings. He has been denounced as an apologist for suicide bombers, but also praised as a leading thinker on how Muslims can make peace with the West. There is at least one Western democracy, though, where Ramadan's presence hasn't stirred up controversy-Canada. When he lectured at the University of Ottawa in February, he was not only hosted in part by the city's police force, but also met with Foreign Affairs officials while he was in town.

From his home in Geneva, Ramadan has visited Canada regularly over the past decade. But the February visit was his first since the U.S. revoked the visa he needed to take up his post as Henry Luce professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. Exactly why Washington kept him out is not clear, but Ramadan has said he has been invited to reapply. The French blocked his entry in 1995, but lifted the prohibition the next year. Despite the U.S. and French concerns, Canadian authorities seem to view Ramadan as no threat. "Dr. Ramadan brings important insights into building a harmonious, safe, open community," said David Pepper, the Ottawa Police Service director of community development. Pepper added that he was drafting a letter jointly with the group Muslim Presence in support of Ramadan, to be sent to Britain's The Guardian newspaper.

While Ramadan's Ottawa lecture drew some media attention, his visit to Foreign Affairs went unreported. But the department included an interview with him in the spring issue of its electronic quarterly Intercultures, touting him as an Islamic reformer who "calls on Muslims to embrace Western culture rather than reject it." His latest book is called Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. On suicide bombing, Ramadan was quoted last week claiming he has been misrepresented. "When we are dealing with such situations we have to understand why it happens," he said. "To explain is not to justify."

Maclean's July 25, 2005