Commentary | The occidental jihadist

On the radicalization of Canadians

Frankly, I do not share most people’s surprise with the rise of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The current sectarian violence in Iraq has been slowly brewing since the American invasion that resulted in the formation of a Shia government over a predominantly Sunni population. This is a reflection of the situation in Syria where the minority Alawites, a Shia sect, rule over a majority Sunni population.

After the marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities by a Shia-dominated government in Iraq and the eruption of civil war in neighbouring Syria, the region has become fertile soil for radical jihadist movements.

As the most successful terrorist organization since al-Qaeda’s heyday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) dropped the last two letters of its acronym, becoming the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), liberating itself from the geographical constraints that used to bind it. Now, it seeks the classical dream of every Islamic insurgent group: the restoration of the elusive caliphate, uniting all Muslims under religious rule. The group’s evolution does not, however, explain why the organization has been successful in recruiting thousands of fighters from Western nations.

According to some estimates, 1,000 to 3,000 fighters have joined IS from Western countries, including around 130 Canadians.

According to some estimates, 1,000 to 3,000 fighters have joined IS from Western countries, including around 130 Canadians. An example of one of these Canadian fighters is Calgary businessman Salman Ashrafi, who prior to his departure to the Persian Gulf, worked for Talisman Energy, an oil and gas company. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) revealed that Ashrafi had carried out a suicide bombing responsible for killing 19 Iraqis in northern Baghdad in November 2013.

Why would a Canadian citizen abandon a relatively comfortable lifestyle, a job, and a family to join the ranks of an insurgent group halfway around the globe – one that has killed thousands and displaced millions at that? The answer could be rooted in the notion of radicalization, the process by which, for a host of reasons, people adopt tactics of extreme violence. We could therefore rephrase the question to: what influences are responsible for the radicalization of Canadians such as Ashrafi?

In the absence of cultural integration, immigrants remain captives of whichever cultural cluster they belong to. What’s more, a fear of mixing with other cultural groups is a completely understandable reaction in a society that still treats people of Middle Eastern origin with suspicion. Xenophobia and racism aimed at immigrant populations (especially those of Middle Eastern origin) are precursors to social isolation. The proposed Quebec Charter of Values, which sought to ban conspicuous religious dress among public sector workers, is clear evidence of this underlying xenophobia.

Xenophobia and racism are not the only factors that push Canadians toward radicalization – foreign policy plays an important part.

The result of this sort of prejudice is that many feel like outsiders in their own country; immigrant groups with similar ideologies, religious views, and cultural backgrounds then form their own social circles in isolation from the rest of society. In the absence of ideological diversity, and in the presence of feelings of social rejection, these clusters could easily foster radical notions and yield radicalized individuals.

Xenophobia and racism are not the only factors that push Canadians toward radicalization – foreign policy plays an important part. All over the West, citizens (not necessarily immigrants) have expressed their outrage at the recent stances of their various countries regarding Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. Canadian foreign policy toward the Middle East, which is almost as hawkish as the U.S., is unquestionably a source of frustration and even personal attack to many citizens. For this reason, hundreds of Montrealers took to the streets in July, calling on the Canadian government to condemn the Israeli operation in Gaza.

Such healthy forms of self-expression provide means for citizens with opposing views to channel their condemnation of government policies. Political activism, at its most effective, can change society – at its least effective, it can at least eliminate an accumulation of resentment and bring people together.

With all the cultural stigma attached to peaceful forms of protest, along with a valid fear of prosecution, some immigrants could become more inclined to channel their political frustrations via radically violent routes.

Unlike those who marched the streets of Montreal to express their political views, some immigrants, especially those of Arab and Middle Eastern descent, do not share the same culture of dissent. Despite what the Arab Spring might suggest, the state of political awareness and activism in the region is still nascent. For those who have been raised under more authoritarian governments, various forms of protesting the government are severely stigmatized. The Daily article “Do you speak politics” (Commentary, June 26, 2014) illustrates how political activism was considered taboo among many Turks, including the youth. It was not until the Taksim Gezi Park incident in 2013 that waves of demonstrations started to appear in Turkey. Even after the Arab Spring movements, political activists in the Middle East (including journalists) still face systematic oppression.

With all the cultural stigma attached to peaceful forms of protest, along with a valid fear of prosecution, some immigrants could become more inclined to channel their political frustrations via radically violent routes. Radical movements such as IS take advantage of this frustration and turn it into violence.

Though Western governments point to the use of social media to lure foreign fighters, we must realize that it is not the distinguished marketing skills of the jihadists that are responsible for their great recruitment success. Rather, disasters could be evaded if Western governments adopted less exploitative foreign policies that target not just institutions but people. Society as a whole should also recognize that xenophobia and racism aimed at immigrants will only lead to further cultural clustering and isolation of these communities.


Mohamed Laila is a PhD student in Natural Resources Sciences, and can be reached at mohamed.laila@mail.mcgill.ca.


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