As the shock of Canada's brush with an alleged al-Qaida-directed terror plot recedes, it's comforting to learn a prominent Toronto Muslim cleric played a key role in foiling the attack. More than a year ago, he alerted the authorities to someone he felt was an extremist who was radicalizing young people.
That speaks to something very Canadian: The sense we can count on each other to do the right thing for the wider community, that we are all in this together. The Via Rail passenger trains that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police say the alleged plotters had in their sights might just as easily have been carrying innocent Muslim passengers as anyone else. The imam who spoke up was motivated by a sense of civic duty and a concern for human life -- values the vast majority of Canada's 650,000 Muslims share with their neighbours, but for which they are not always given credit.
Recently, much attention has focused on radicalism among Muslim youth, following reports the RCMP is investigating Canadians at the forefront of terror attacks in Algeria and Somalia that left scores dead. And the "Toronto 18" also planned carnage here. The problem is undeniably a real one. But it's far from being the entire story.
"Since 9/11 the Muslim community has been working very closely with government agencies, including the RCMP and police forces," says Yusuf Badat, an imam and director of religious affairs for the Islamic Foundation of Toronto. "We share the same concerns that Canadians share in the safety and the prosperity of our beautiful country," the young Toronto-born cleric told CBC News. After all, he added, "we are equally affected by any terrorism threats."
Or as another Toronto Muslim leader, Muhammad Robert Heft, put it, Canada is "our country and our tribe. We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion."
Despite this good faith, some feared an angry backlash and demonization of the community after reports that Raed Jaser of Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal had been caught plotting to derail a Via Rail train between Toronto and New York. If the RCMP is right, this would be the first known al-Qaida-directed attack in this country, although Canada has long been on the group's hit list. They have been charged with conspiracy to murder for the benefit of a terrorist group, and other crimes. One expressed "shock and disbelief" at the charges; the other called the allegations unfair.
Much about this case has been sealed by the court and will only come out at trial. Until then we won't know how the two men came to be connected or the extent to which this may prove a case of homegrown radicalization, or imported extremism. Jaser is reportedly a Palestinian who lived in the United Arab Emirates before coming here, and is a permanent resident. Esseghaier was born in Tunisia. Neither is a citizen. But they have been in Canada for years, and at least one allegedly approached young people seeking to radicalize them. If true, this won't be the last attempt to turn young people to violence.
But since the 9/11 attacks, many Canadian Muslim leaders have exposed jihadist violence not only as a crime but also as a repudiation of the values that Islam holds dear. Muslim clerics have denounced terror, challenged Internet-fed extremism as irreligious, barred radicals from mosques and alerted police. And they have rebuffed efforts by al-Qaida and its ilk to whitewash their crimes by claiming Islam is at war with the world.
In announcing the arrests, the RCMP rightly briefed Muslim leaders, thanked them for their help and publicly credited them with bringing a suspect to their attention.
Tough laws, good policing and vigilant courts all have their role in thwarting jihadist violence. But as the Via Rail case reminds us, an alert Muslim community and raised voices are the key. If the police have it right, a Toronto cleric's concern saved the day.