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October 26, 2014

Canada: New Converts to Islam, Then and Now, a Tragic Difference

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Last week in Montréal, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, ran over two Canadian soldiers with his car, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

Days later in Ottawa on October 22, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, fatally shot unarmed National War Memorial guard Corporal Nathan Cirillo with a hunting rifle before charging through the front entrance of the Parliament Buildings’ Centre Block with the still-loaded double barrelled shotgun. He was shot dead by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers before he could murder anyone else.

If Zehaf-Bibeau had planned his attack for just 40 minutes later, Members of Parliament would have been exiting the caucus rooms and standing in that same hall – the iconic Hall of Honour – doing media interviews. The outcome could have been a bloody slaughter or a massive hostage-taking that even the heroic Mr. Vickers could not prevent.

Both Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau were white (Caucasian) Quebecers and recent converts to Islam. RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has stated that there are no apparent links between the two so-called “self-radicalized” Muslim converts.

These horrific terror attacks against an entire nation through the cold-blooded murder of Canadian soldiers have been unequivocally condemned by Canadian Muslims.

But a Canadian Muslim friend sadly reported that on Friday (October 24) in an Ottawa mosque only a few kilometres from the spot where Corp. Cirillo was gunned down, a very disturbing incident occurred.

During Friday prayer, the actions of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau were condemned in no uncertain terms. But suddenly a member of the congregation objected, proclaiming the slain killer was a Shaheed (martyr) and “he should be viewed as a hero.” 

This alarming extremist outburst inside the mosque happened right in front of visiting local candidates for the upcoming municipal election and Ottawa police officers, who had come to assure the Muslim community that measures would be taken to prevent any possible backlash against them.

“The mosque is now in crisis mode,” my friend lamented. “The man was a convert.  What is happening with converts?  Just yesterday, a ‘convert’ tried to butcher two New York City police officers with an axe!”

This is how I answered her:

A long time ago, Westerners were attracted to Islam’s teaching of love for God and His whole creation – fellow humans, animals, plants, trees, the living and physical environment – everything made by divine intention. They were also attracted by the long history of Muslim tolerance, understanding and reconciliation, compared to that of other world religions. Those early Western converts were taught about the faith by dedicated scholars who strove in every aspect of daily life to act according to the principles of Islam. Among the most influential early 20th century converts was Britain’s renowned Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005), whose work inspired thousands of Europeans and North Americans to embrace Islam as a path to peace and spiritual enlightenment.

Lings authored some two-dozen books about Islam, including the best sellers Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (first published in 1983); his masterpiece, The Qur’anic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (first published in 1976); and A Return to the Spirit: Questions and Answers (published just prior to his death in 2005).

But beginning during the later decades of the 20th century and continuing to the present day, the dominant Da’wah (calling or evangelizing) work among Western nations has been spearheaded by politically driven Muslim groups whose leaders are increasingly seeking to turn many new converts to extremist views of Islam. Without looking very hard, you can find and meet some of these radicalized new Muslims – both men and women – in any Canadian, American, or European mosque. Some of these extremist converts have been co-opted by their governments when an overseas cause is in line with Western political policy, as happened in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation, or more recently in Syria. When working in sync with the West they are described as "Mujahidin," "freedom fighters," or even "heroes."But when an overseas movement changes or runs counter to the Western agenda – as in today's Syria and Iraq – they are prevented from traveling abroad by their governments and are branded as "would-be terrorists."

As an academically trained Muslim Canadian and active international researcher, I value the pursuit and expansion of knowledge. Following the events of 9/11, I called upon fellow academics to persevere in trying to answer more fully some still-unanswered questions pertaining to the radicalization of Muslim youth. Who are they? How and why does self-radicalization occur? How can we detect, prevent, or reverse it?

I called on government granting agencies to fund such research in the humanities, law and law enforcement, political science and social sciences. But sadly, no one among those agencies saw any value in conducting that needed research.

It is untrue and unfair to blame Islam for the “radicalization” of Canadians, some of whom have embraced the faith for perverse reasons, or while under the influence of conditions such as mental illness, or substance abuse.

It is also counterproductive to expect the Canadian Muslim community to rectify the situation unassisted by mainstream society and government. Such an approach leads only to a paralysing division of energy and resources at a time in our history when we need more than ever to be unified and focused.  

In their collective grief, worry and concern, Canadian Muslims are crying out passionately for help. Constructive action must happen before the next “self-radicalized” extremist chooses the fatal path of terrorism, creating more victims in the false name of religion. The time is here and now.

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an Egyptian-born Canadian, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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Today’s topic is the Origins of Islamic History Month in Canada In this show, we are interviewing Dr. Mohamed El-Masry a professor at the University of Waterloo

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