Peace, War and Islam

In the face of extremist propaganda from Islamic State, one local scholar and activist is waging a campaign for tolerance.

May 5, 2015

If not for its elegantly domed minaret, you could easily overlook Masjid Al-Salaam as you drive down Canada Way, past Deer Lake Park. Yet on Friday, a holy day for Muslims, the mosque is packed with hundreds of the faithful wearing the traditional loose-fitting salwar kameez. As they kneel toward Mecca in worship, verses from the Koran fill the room with the atmosphere of devotion. It’s a peaceful scene—the antithesis of the violent images being projected around the world by extremist groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram.

Aasim Rashid is determined to promote the former, calmer face of his faith. A scholar, teacher, and activist, the Surrey resident is on a mission to distance his religion from the radical groups dominating the nightly news and the Twitterverse. “There’s a big problem with that interpretation of Islam,” he says, trying to distill 1,400 years of complex tradition and theology. “These radicals are at odds with the majority of Muslims. They’re a deviant sect.”

Rashid was born in Pakistan while his parents were visiting that country, having immigrated to Canada several years before. Life in the Rashids’ Edmonton household was devoutly religious. Aasim was a regular Canadian kid, but precocious, with a sense of religious purpose that emerged while most of his peers were still distracted by sports, social drama, and hanging out at West Edmonton Mall. He says that during high school, he was a “good listener” and so it was natural that other students came to him with questions. “I was only 15, so I didn’t have all the answers. But I felt it was my calling” to pursue Islamic studies and serve followers of the faith. The next year he began his formal spiritual education, first at Jaamiah Al Uloom Al Islamiyyah, a boarding school in Ajax, Ontario, then on to England, India, and Pakistan. Back in Canada he served as an educator and imam, the person who leads prayers at a mosque, in several communities.

Now 38, he holds the title of mufti, a legal expert able to rule on religious matters. As a teenager, he felt the calling to pursue scholarship; as a man, he has come to feel another calling, to transcend academia with activism. He runs the Al-Ihsan Institute of Higher Islamic Education, a school he started in Surrey. At the same time, he’s overseeing the Campaign Against Violent Extremism, a program he helped launch earlier this year. CAVE began under the auspices of the B.C. Muslim Association as a way to reach out across Metro Vancouver to Muslim youth and others who may be confused by extremist messages and what they mean in the larger context of Islam, or may be tempted by recruitment efforts. In a similar spirit, this winter he spearheaded a series of lectures at Lower Mainland colleges, libraries, and universities titled Peace, War, and Islam: Dare to Be Informed. To say he is well versed in Islam is an understatement.

His audience is only growing. In 2011, the Canadian National Household Survey reported there are 79,310 Muslims in this province, a 40-percent increase from a decade earlier. Muslims still make up less than two percent of the population, but Islam is anticipated to become B.C.’s fastest-growing religion by percentage. Yet integration with the larger populace sometimes seems more distant than ever. (The proposed Bill C-51, aka the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, has done little to ease the minds of Muslims. The Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association has come out strongly against it, saying that it poses “a risk to the civil and privacy rights of Canadians.”)

One woman who came from Uganda two years ago spoke to me on condition of anonymity about her experiences with Islamophobia. (“We’re private people. That’s part of our religion, and we just want what everybody else wants: to be able to practise our religion and pray peacefully.”) She says she has grown used to the stares—from middle-aged white people, mostly—when wearing the hijab in public. She describes a visit to a Lower Mainland Superstore where a man yelled out, “There’s a terrorist! Run for the doors!” She ignored him. “I knew he was talking about me. I didn’t even want to look at him because I was scared,” she says. “When I think about it now, it’s kind of funny. But I have three daughters who wear the hijab and ride public buses.”

In October, Canada sent fighter jets to support the fight against Islamic State (sometimes also known as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; or ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The decision was prompted equally by pressure from our diplomatic partners and the need to respond to what Rashid calls “a medieval interpretation of Islam.” He’s referring to the ancient underpinnings of Islam as interpreted by Islamic State, including behaviour Graeme Wood has described in Atlantic Monthly as including “a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts.” Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings “are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel told him. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

“This is a vicious death cult that is a threat to regional and international security,” Jason Kenney, federal minister for defence, told the Toronto Star in February. “They have declared war on Canada and our allies, and that’s why Canada has a responsibility to be there.” The repercussions of that commitment immediately worried Rashid: would our deeper involvement in a global war on terror strengthen the ability of extremists to recruit on Canadian soil? He might have been thinking of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, who were arrested in July 2013 for planting homemade bombs near the Legislature in Victoria. In a video, Korody, dressed in a black shawl, called on Muslims to fight the heathens of this country. “If you have a stone, throw it; if you have a bomb, drop it,” she urged. Or Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, who were arrested in 2013 for a plot, linked to Al-Qaeda, to blow up a Via passenger train in Toronto.

So Rashid and other Muslims from Surrey and Burnaby mosques met with RCMP officers and community leaders and politicians like his MP, Jinny Sims (Newton-North Delta). He couldn’t have known that at the same time, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service quietly raised our domestic terrorism threat level from Unlikely to Could Occur. But one thing he did foresee: three days later, Martin Couture-Rouleau, a 25-year-old sympathizer with radical Islam, ran down and killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Two days after that, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the Canadian National War Memorial, before himself being gunned down in the House of Commons. “I was texting MPs in Ottawa to ask if they were okay, and they were telling me that I was prophetic,” Rashid says. “Those aren’t the kind of prophesies that I want to come true.”

Of course, it hasn’t stopped there. In December, John Maguire, a former University of Ottawa business student who changed his name to Abu Anwar al-Canadi and moved to Syria to participate in the jihad, released a video addressing the people of this country, warning of future attacks here. The terror level rose again, to Medium. As Stephen Harper extends Canada’s presence in Iraq, more threats will doubtless follow.

These are the forces Rashid is attempting to moderate through education and public speaking. He’s not alone. Daud Ismail, chair of Burnaby’s Masjid Al-Salaam and Education Centre, also believes that the need to do public outreach on behalf of Muslims has never been greater, though he emphasizes that Metro Vancouver remains an open and respectful society. Last fall, his mosque was in the news with reports that Zehaf-Bibeau had been a member of the congregation for a spell in 2011. Ismail knew him casually as a man who prayed and volunteered at the mosque but says there was nothing about him that would raise concerns. However, people who worked with Zehaf-Bibeau and knew him better said his radical beliefs were no secret.

Jinny Sims shared the podium at several of Rashid’s lectures. She suggests that anyone looking for perspective and insight into how the majority of Muslims view the violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam peer into the histories of all religions. “People have to remember that if you took the Bible and applied it literally, it could result in a similar violent interpretation,” she says from Parliament Hill. “Many KKK members would have said they were following the tenets of Christianity. Yet most Christians would consider that nonsense.”

Rashid remains concerned about the actions of morally unhinged or imbalanced individuals looking for adventure and notoriety within the Islamic faith, as well as Muslims who have suffered loss of family or property from Western military intervention in the Middle East. He is now trying to take the CAVE message to a national level and remains optimistic that it can reach those both within the local Muslim community and outside it. “Seventy-five percent of the people that came were non-Muslim,” he says. “At Kwantlen, a man came up and told me that he had been filled with rage and feelings that Muslims don’t belong in this country. After, he said he felt informed, like a light had come on. That’s why I wanted to do these talks.”

I was texting MPs in Ottawa to ask if they were okay, and they were telling me I was prophetic. Those aren’t the prophesies that I want to come true.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.