Muslim MP Says His Community Must Expose Extremists

The clash between Islamic extremism and Western democracy tends to be discussed as a geopolitical abstraction.

Muslim MP Says His Community Must Expose Extremists

The clash between Islamic extremism and Western democracy tends to be discussed as a geopolitical abstraction. But around a year ago, in a storefront mosque in a suburban Toronto strip mall, the confrontation was reduced to a very human scale - a single strident Muslim ideologue against a lone elected Muslim politician. Liberal MP Wajid Khan was making what he thought would be a routine visit to the Al-Rahman Islamic Centre in his Mississauga-Streetsville riding. The drop-in took an unexpected turn when the mosque caretaker who was to introduce Khan instead began railing against Muslims participating in mainstream politics. It was a memorably unpleasant encounter for Khan, but it came to public attention only because of the identity of the radical who delivered the tirade: Qayyum Abdul Jamal, now 43, one of the 17 terrorist suspects arrested in Toronto, and the man singled out as a mentor to the much younger accused would-be bombers.

According to Khan, Jamal's rant that day reached an outrageous climax with the charge that Canadian troops in Afghanistan were "raping Muslim women." It was too much for the MP. "I stood up and moved this gentleman, if I can call him that, aside, and spoke to the congregation - utter nonsense, this isn't true, our troops are doing a wonderful job," Khan recalled in an interview. "Most of the congregation was very pleased with my comments and very upset with this gentleman." And Khan hints strongly that he did not merely walk away from the incident. Asked by Maclean's if he reported Jamal's incendiary views to the RCMP or CSIS, Khan said cautiously, "I don't think I want to answer that question for obvious reasons. All I can say is that I did my duty. I can't be quoted on specifics."

The possibility that a member of Parliament was among those who raised the alarm about Jamal is an intriguing twist in the complex story of how police built their case leading to the arrests. Even if, as is likely, any report to the authorities from Khan was a minor element in the investigation, the episode stands out in the growing debate among Canadian Muslims about how they should interact with police and CSIS agents. Some Muslim leaders have objected in the past to the approach federal anti-terrorism investigators have taken, complaining that the line of inquiry often seems to suggest the most devout Muslims represent the greatest potential security threat. Khan argues that Muslims must now become less defensive and more co-operative, answering questions on the assumption that authorities will use information responsibly. "While the wider community must be vigilant," he said, "the onus now rests, not solely, but mainly on the Muslim community."

Khan said he expects his call for greater co-operation with police will anger some Muslim leaders. But he contends that most Canadian Muslims are so shocked by the arrests and the sensational details of the charges that their attitudes have shifted. "This has brought a new reality to our community across Canada," he said. "Up to now, people were hoping against hope that it doesn't happen here." Following last July's London transit bombings, Khan said, many Canadian Muslims, among others, emphasized that the level of poverty and youth disenfranchisement among Muslims is greater in Europe than here, making young Canadian Muslims less receptive to radical messages. But that optimistic reading of the situation now looks hopelessly inadequate.

Khan's call for Muslims to take more responsibility for identifying potentially dangerous extremists in their communities was echoed by some other Muslim leaders last week. But there are competing voices, and conflicting statements. Aly Hindy, the controversial imam at the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in suburban Toronto, denounced the charges as "an attack on the Muslim community," even though he also told reporters that he himself had called authorities to report concerns about one of the suspects. Khan said moderate Muslim leaders must become more outspoken, and tout the opportunities and openness of Canadian society. A former military pilot in Pakistan, he settled in Toronto in 1974, and rose from car salesman to president of a large dealership, before winning his seat in the 2004 and being re-elected this year. His wife is a doctor. Khan, 60, says he has never faced bigotry in Canada. "Our watchwords," he said, "are diversity and respect." And in these tense days, he argues, Canadian Muslims need to trust those values - and the RCMP and CSIS, too.

See also TERRORISM.

Maclean's June 19, 2006