An extremist ideology is reaching inmates in Ontario jails, creating a “boiling pot” and a potential danger for all, says a chaplain who counsels Muslim prisoners.
“Either the pot runs out of water, or the lid pops off,” Ibrahim Downey, a former inmate who has met more than 5,000 prisoners since becoming an imam, predicted Saturday, Jan. 30.
While working as a chaplain, Downey said he’s met many members of the Toronto 18, a group planning bomb attacks in Toronto when arrested in 2006.
“These guys are coming out now. So what is our community doing about it?”
Downey said Muslims in Greater Toronto should do everything necessary to get counselling to people while they’re incarcerated and after their release.
But both federal and provincial governments have cut back chaplaincy programs in recent years.
Supporters at the One Love Gala, a fundraiser for Muslim chaplains on Saturday at a north Etobicoke banquet hall, were told there are too few to serve the 800 to 1,000 Muslims Downey said are currently behind bars in Ontario.
They also heard Downey and others say there’s not enough financial support for the work they do.
“Nobody wants to pay. Our community thinks it should be done for free,” he said. “Talk is cheap, and people’s lives are at stake.”
Downey’s journey from inmate to imam began on May 10, 1983 - the moment he embraced Islam, he said.
Before that, he told the gala’s audience, “I was difficult to be around. I was violent, engaged in gangs. However, God had a plan for me.”
Downey said he grew up on some of Toronto’s mean streets, living in Regent Park and Bathurst Heights, a neighbourhood known as The Jungle, before moving in 1967 to North York’s Driftwood Avenue. As a member of one of the first black families in the area, he felt he had no choice but to fight, he said. “We had to be in a gang just to survive.”
After his conversion and release, Downey was asked back by inmates who knew him by reputation, and despite the authorities’ skepticism, got good results.
“I’m the guy they listen to, because I’ve been through what they’ve been through,” said Downey who said frustration builds in some inmates over Canada’s military involvement overseas, or how Muslims are treated in Canada by government, police or media.
“You can’t abuse a group of people without having it come back at you,” said Downey, who nevertheless teaches Muslim inmates not to blame Canada and innocent Canadians.
There’s no way to tell how many inmates have picked up extremist ideas; you can only find them by listening to them, Downey said. “It’s being monitored by the authorities, but they’re late to the party.”
Many inmates convert to Islam in prison, said Ahmed Habhab of Scarborough, who was arrested at 19 and served two years for trafficking in materials used to make ecstasy. “They’re new to the religion, so it’s not like they know all the answers to their questions.”
Born a Muslim, he still felt he was not qualified to answer questions from other inmates about what people can or can’t do as a Muslim.
Muslim chaplains such as Downey are important because they provide spiritual guidance to inmates who otherwise may ask someone less qualified, added Habhab, who’s been out of prison since 2011 and says running for mayor of Toronto is in his future plans.
People may ask someone who committed a terrorism-related offence for guidance, Habhab said, “and that’s a potential disaster.”
Shahina Siddiqui, author of United Against Terrorism and founder of Winnipeg’s Islamic Social Services Association, said the word “radicalization” was strategically misused by both the former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and the media.
It’s not negative to be a radical, she argued, citing Martin Luther King and Jesus as people with radical views. “If we didn’t have radicals, society would be stuck in the Dark Ages.”
Though members of Daesh (ISIS) and al-Qaeda are terrorists and criminals, politicians should stop calling them jihadis, because they are not, Siddiqui said.
Daesh and al-Qaeda don’t recruit youth by inviting them to blow up buildings, rape and kill, she added. “Do you think our youth would go for that?”
Instead, Siddiqui said, they start by asking: “Do you want justice in the world?” and, “Do you think you want to give voice to those who need a voice?”
Many Muslims don’t know what a chaplain does, “because there’s no concept of chaplaincy in Islam,” said Dr. Hamid Slimi, head of the Canadian Centre for Deen Studies, a Muslim seminary.
In the past, Muslims simply volunteered to look after people, and it’s rewarding work though chaplains “pay gas and everything else” from their own pocket, he said.
Slimi said Greater Toronto’s Muslim community needs an army of people skilled in social work and mental health, particularly for Syrian refugees who will have a big problem dealing with post-traumatic stress.
“If we don’t invest in the human being, no matter how many buildings we build, they will be empty and useless,” he said.
Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who once worked as a prison chaplain in Whitehorse, Yukon, said chaplains give people a chance to get out of prison “better than they went in,” and he hopes the new Liberal government can restore cuts to chaplaincy services.
Chaplains should represent the full spectrum of beliefs, so when people are vulnerable they are not preyed upon by extremists and pick up the wrong ideas, he said.