Several imams issued a religious edict against ISIS last month, denouncing its threats against Canada and its online recruitment after dozens of Canadians – mostly from Calgary – traveled to Syria to join their cause.
In the fatwa, the imams urge young Muslims to shun the sway of ISIS, which they accuse of having violated Islamic tenets “in the most horrific and inhumane way.”
“Some Muslims, having the fatwa against them, they will have second thoughts” before seeking to join an extremist group, said Khalil Khan, president of Calgary’s Al Madinah Islamic center. “[They] will wonder if this is right or wrong.”
Khan is one of 37 imams and religious scholars from across Canada, plus one from Texas, who endorsed the fatwa.
The edict was motivated by a wave of recruitment, as at least a dozen people have left the oil-rich province of Alberta to fight with ISIS abroad.
The call comes in the wake of the January 2014 death of Damian Clairmont, a 22-year-old Calgary man who was enticed to join the extremist group and who became the first Canadian casualty in the ISIS push to carve out a “caliphate” in the Middle East.
Zaheera Tariq, a director of Al Madinah mosque, told AFP that “it’s a lack of education, a lack of knowledge,” adding that young people are “being influenced by those people who are misrepresenting Islam, who are misquoting the Prophet” and “they need to find proper imams.”
Gathered at the mosque, Tariq, Khan and others say more resources are needed to address a growing religious education gap facing Muslims of soaring numbers in Calgary.
The city’s Muslim population has increased fourfold in the past two decades to 120,000. In 2010, Naheed Nenshi became the first Muslim to be elected as mayor of a major Canadian city.
“The Muslim population is growing rapidly in Calgary. That’s why we needed a bigger mosque,” Tariq commented, pointing to construction underway to enlarge the mosque and add space to accommodate some 800 students.
The son of French-speaking Canadians, Clairmont converted toIslam aged 17 following a failed suicide attempt. Three years later, he began showing signs of radicalization.
“He met someone and moved downtown,” his mother Christianne Boudreau told AFP.
He joined an extremist cell whose leader was monitored by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“They were a dozen young people in the group, sons of immigrants or religious converts. They all went to Syria,” Boudreau said, leafing through a letter from CSIS telling her they did all they could to try and stop her son from leaving Canada.
The population of Alberta province is just under 4 million, or about 10 percent of the Canadian total, yet a large proportion of Canadian jihadis originate there.
Boudreau thinks one reason is the “easy money” to be made in Alberta’s oil fields, that’s used to pay for travel or facilitate terrorist activities.
Many young people work in the oil patch of the isolated northern Boreal forest, where they can earn quick and easy cash.
“You can work in relative anonymity, you live in a work camp, and you can accumulate suitcases of money over a short period,” according to Rod Knecht, chief of police in Alberta’s capital Edmonton, where several recruits have also come from.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Muslim convert who stormed Canada’s parliament last October, had worked in the oil patch, hoping to raise enough money to travel to Libya to join jihadis. His attack, he said, was in retaliation for the West’s military deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Canada’s.
There has been no reaction from ISIS to the Canadian imams’ fatwa against them, but another militant group linked to Al-Qaeda has called for attacks on Canada’s biggest mall in Edmonton.
In response, imams say Canadians – Muslim or otherwise – need to remain vigilant.
“ISIS, they’re so strong, they’re killing people all around the world. It wouldn’t be surprising if they would attack and hit here,” ImamAzfar Ayub Qadri said.