How the Islamic State (ISIL) threatens Canada and the West
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi
This essay is based on the author's presentation to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Canada on December 9, 2014.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak about "Canada's response to the violence, religious persecution and dislocation caused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." The group's official name is the Islamic State, and it is also known by the names IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh and the Caliphate.
All Canadian parties are united in condemning the Islamic State as an enemy of Western civilization because of its stringent implementation of Shariah (Islamic law), which includes, among other things, mass killing of unbelievers and apostates, public beheading and crucifixion, chopping off thieves' hands and legs, flogging cigarette smokers and alcohol consumers, allowing sex slaves, stifling with an iron fist any opposition, and depriving people of basic human rights.
The Canadian government and the opposition have differences over the preferred way to confront the Islamic State, whether by contributing (however modestly) to the U.S.-led military coalition together with large-scale humanitarian aid, or by concentrating primarily on humanitarian aid and combat support.
The formulation of foreign policy in this case must consider, besides the obvious moral aspects, an objective evaluation of the threat posed by the Islamic State to Canada and Canadian strategic interests.
The Islamic State has justly gained the reputation of being the most brutal and ruthless regime. It has taken control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq and has meticulously strengthened its grip by creating alliances with local clans and centers of power. It is accelerating its process of state-building with an emphasis on education in order to create a new jihadist generation.
The Threat to the West
The war in the Levant is not a political or territorial conflict that can be resolved by negotiations and compromise. The Islamic State leaves no doubt about its extremist Islamic Sunni ideology and its determination to relentlessly conduct jihad to spread the rule of Islam and the word of Allah, first in the Middle East and later in Europe and North America.
The cornerstone of the Islamic State's publicly reiterated strategic goal is to conquer Rome, the capital of Italy and home of the Vatican, in order to strike the symbol of Christianity. Spain is portrayed as a formerly Islamic occupied country, as are other parts of Europe, and all must be liberated, according to the Islamic State. This is not a far-fetched, harmless fantasy; it is an actual plan of action. The Islamic State sees itself as fully committed to bring about the fulfillment of this prophecy of Muhammad, in order to pave the way for the emergence of the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah.
As part of its ideology that generates jihad in the Levant, the Islamic State calls upon all Muslims to initiate attacks throughout the world – including in Canada – with the explicit purpose of indiscriminately killing nonbelievers by all available means.
The Islamic State threatens Canadian strategic interests because of its unwavering, religiously-motivated determination to redraw the map of the Middle East, erase existing borders, unite the Muslim world under its flag and pursue a foreign policy of jihad in which Western civilization is the prime enemy.
Four years of civil war in Syria and Iraq with virtually no international interference have served as a golden opportunity for this al-Qaeda offshoot to gradually build up the Islamic State as an independent entity that can no longer be ignored.
The West, including Canada, has no option of sitting on the sidelines. Refraining from confronting this threat head-on will most probably result in even greater threats to the stability of the oil-rich Middle East and the main international trade arteries.
The military option against the Islamic State is not a magic wand. It is essential in the long run for degrading the group's military power and terrorist capabilities, but it has little effect on the ideological aspect. Moreover, the Middle East is currently torn by the Sunni-Shiite rift. Ferocious sectarian fighting is taking place in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, with friction also occurring in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
After the fighting ends in Syria and Iraq, the "day after" strategy must focus on helping the local people build strong, new regimes that respect human rights and prevent a vacuum that might allow Iran to realize its vision of a Shiite Crescent and military domination over the Arabian-Persian Gulf states.
The so-called "Arab Spring" – which has brought about the collapse of Arab regimes in the Middle East, prolonged civil wars, and the rise of radical Islamic movements – has caused millions to become displaced within their homelands, as well as flooding neighboring countries with refugees who live in dire conditions. Curbing the Islamic State and preserving the basic geopolitical order in the Middle East is also important in order to limit the human tragedy and prevent further chaos and the massive displacement of additional refugees.
U.S. President Barack Obama and political leaders in Canada have asserted that the Islamic State, with its rigid interpretation of the Quran, does not represent the true, peaceful vision of Islam. Prominent leaders of the Canadian Muslim community even argue that those who are affiliated with the Islamic State should not be portrayed as Muslims by the media.
It is true that none of major Islamic movements worldwide and in Canada have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. However, the ideas of the caliphate, jihad as a legitimate tool to spread Islam globally, and the belief in the prophecy of Muhammad regarding Rome are shared by the great majority of Islamic movements and organizations, including the international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafi movement, Hezb a-Tahrir, the Islamic Jihad, al-Jama'a al-Islamiya, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Iranian regime, among others.
Jihadist Ideas in Canada
The caliphate, jihad, and the teachings of Muhammad are embedded and enshrined in the DNA of the Islamic faith (with some minor exceptions), and that explains why so many Canadians, like other Westerners, are so fascinated with the message of the Islamic State and have gravitated to join its ranks. These ideas exist and flourish in Canada.
Listening to the voices of Muslim community leaders is highly important to understand the underground currents. The following are some examples: A leading imam in Montreal, who is a member of the Quebec supreme council of imams, explained to his congregation in his weekly sermon that apostates should be executed in the Islamic State, mentioning in this regard the Islamic punishments of crucifixion and chopping off hands and legs. Another respected Toronto imam also justified the application of corporal punishment on apostates in the Islamic State, in a speech at the University of Waterloo.
The Walk in Islamic Info Center (WIIC), a Toronto-based organization dedicated to Dawah (propagating Islam) activity, distributes for free at Dundas Square in downtown Toronto the book Human Rights in Islam and Common Misconceptions. Here are some quotes from the book, which is used to present the perspective of the true Islam: "Jihad is…an honorable "struggle"…to spread the message of Islam….The non-Muslim residents of an Islamic state are required to pay a minimal tax called "Jizyah."…If the robber kills and seizes money, the punishment may be killing and crucifixion. If he takes money and threatens but does not kill or assault, the punishment may be amputation of his hand and leg….[For a] married male or female who commit adultery, the punishment applied to them is stoning to death….Execution of such an apostate is, in reality, a salvation for the rest of the members of society." The book also justifies slavery under certain conditions.
The caliphate and the strict implementation of Shariah law are main tenets of the ideology embraced by the Canadian branch of the international Hezb a-Tahrir organization. Facing the challenge posed by the Islamic State and the constant pressure on its members to pledge allegiance to the caliph, Hezb a-Tahrir decided to move from the phase of preaching to taking concrete action to establish the true caliphate as an alternative to the Islamic State.
There are also mainstream imams who have warned of the danger embodied in Islamic radicalism to Canadian national security. An imam in Calgary called on the Canadian government to designate "Wahabism a terrorist ideology and the followers of Wahabism an illegal terrorist cult."
Another imam from Brampton, Ontario, described the Salafi ideology as "extreme," "like a poison," "like a disease in the Muslim community." He said indoctrination was "like a brainwashing" and those who espouse it are "misguided," "very aggressive," and "sometimes they can be violent."
A RCMP deradicalization counselor, who met recently with Taliban officials in Qatar, admitted, based on his own personal experience, that converts to Islam are more vulnerable to absorbing extremism. At least 13 Canadian converts to Islam were involved in terrorist activities since mid-2012:
The Canadian government has already joined the multinational coalition against the Islamic State and tabled bills enhancing the powers of law enforcement agencies. I would like to concentrate mainly on the intelligence aspect. According CSIS and RCMP, more than 140 Canadians were involved in terrorist activities abroad and 80 have returned to Canada. Each one comprises a potential threat to the country's national security.
Successfully thwarting future terrorist attacks requires greater investment in intelligence gathering in all its aspects:
Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.