Each time I visit Canada, my fellow Muslims there tell me about their peaceful, multicultural and welcoming home. "It's America with healthcare and no guns," they say. Yet that harmony was shattered in Ottawa this week when a gunman opened fire at a war memorial, killed a soldier and then tried to murder others in the Parliament. The shooter was killed. On Monday, two soldiers were deliberately run over in Montreal, killing one. What happened? And what does this mean for our own country?
The killer was not a madman. The locations were not accidental. And the message was not muddled. The shooter in Ottawa was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to radical Islam with a history of robbery and drug possession. He chose the war memorial and Parliament for their symbolism to protest against Canadian and Western involvement in the recent American-led bombing campaign in Iraq. Zehaf-Bibeau was following orders from the so-called Islamic State.
How do I know? Two weeks ago, IS published a magazine in English, Dabiq, calling on their followers: "It is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State." Canada is part of the alliance. Zehaf-Bibeau will not be the last jihadist in the West. I hate to make this prediction, but we too will be targeted by those like him and others returning from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
The threat of a terrorist attack on British soil is real: the likely scale of it is unknown.
Government estimates suggest that perhaps 500 British Muslims are currently fighting with various jihadist factions. Additionally, UK intelligence agencies are monitoring in excess of 3,000 violent extremists. The threat of a terrorist attack on British soil is real: the likely scale of it is unknown. That said, our enemies want us to panic, and panic we must not. Not every British jihadi returning from Syria will become an enemy combatant in our midst. Some want to come home and settle into normal lives: their fight was against Assad, not us. But for others, Britain is the enemy, the "abode of warfare" or dar al harb. Whether we support or oppose their barbaric caliphate, whether we bomb them or not, Britain is not Switzerland: our history of involvement in the Middle East from the Crusades onwards, and the jihadis' ideology of violently opposing secular democracy, make us enemies.
Our first line of defence against this evil is intelligence from British Muslim communities. Muslims know those who are fighting in Syria, be they on university campuses, in charities, in mosques where many prayed together, and tight-knit neighbourhoods. Last month 120 Muslim scholars condemned IS. The esteemed Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah issued a fatwa against the IS caliphate, and called on Muslims to reject this crime in the name of religion. The Muslim Council of Britain's leadership called on UK Muslims to co-operate with intelligence agencies to handover those with murderous intent.
British Muslims are an asset for this country: now is the time once again to demonstrate their loyalty to their society. Britain is not hostile to Islam and Muslims, but has welcomed millions of them into every facet of British life. Those who talk of jihadism in Syria and killing people are not martyrs, but murderers. To alert the authorities against them is, in the language of the Koran, "to enjoin good and forbid evil".
But we have a blind spot, even with support from established Muslim communities, and that is the converts to radical Salafi Islam. Zehaf-Bibeau was a convert, a criminal who sought salvation in religion. In Britain's prisons, the rates of conversion to Islam are high. There, convicted terrorists and others mingle with those seeking a rigid, black-and-white form of religion that gives them a new purpose in life, that promises an afterlife. Extreme Salafi Islam of the Saudi variety, with its emphasis on rituals, hatred for others, literalism and opposition to mainstream Muslims and society, helps converts find a new home and meaning. They bring their aggression and violence with them: it is now lionised in the name of jihad against the West.
Jihadists justify their actions by citing scripture without context.
Jihadists cannot function, cannot fight, unless they have total yaqeen, or religious certainty, in the validity of their violence. They justify their actions by citing scripture without context, and hadith — quotes of the prophet Mohammed that have been contested for lack of authenticity by scholars for centuries. But in this age of direct access, scholarship and nuance is put aside by the zeal of the convert or the born-again Muslim.
Our best antidote to returning fighters is to talk to them in the language they understand — and that language is religion. When someone is suspected of harbouring or advocating views that justify killing in the name of jihad, then that jihadist urgently requires isolation from wider society and religious counsel. In the prisons of Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia and parts of the UK, this programme of deradicalisation is under way.
Without yaqeen, a suicide bomber cannot strike, as it is his belief that he is a martyr, heading for paradise. Unless we inject doubt and assert that he is, in fact, a murderer heading to hell, as highlighted by countless verses of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet, then no amount of human rights rhetoric will resonate. For the extremist, these are all man-made ideas.
Fortunately, Britain is blessed to have imams and other well-versed Muslims who can undertake this work with credibility in prisons and other facilities where jihadists spend time in seclusion. We cannot kill our way out of this threat. The answer to bad religion is good religion. We showed the world how to end the conflict in northern Ireland. By uprooting the religious and political narrative, by healing the absolutist mindset of the jihadist, we can take out the weapon from his mind and then his hand.
This article originally appeared in the London Evening Standard.