ALBERTA

Prominent Muslim cleric says imams need to vet new Islamic converts

10/23/2014 01:02 EDT | Updated 12/23/2014 05:59 EST
CALGARY - A prominent Muslim cleric says he intends to reach out to other imams to make sure that new converts to Islam are watched closely for signs of radical beliefs.

While authorities have made links to extremism in both the Ottawa and Quebec attacks, Imam Syed Soharwardy of Calgary says he is concerned about media reports that the two perpetrators were recent converts to Islam.

Soharwardy, the founder of Muslims Against Terrorism and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, said imams should look for warning signs, such as a criminal record or drug abuse, before allowing an individual to convert.

"I'm not sure who helped them to convert to Islam. Who was the imam? What kind of relationship did those people have with those people who converted them to Islam? Those very important questions need to be answered," said Soharwardy.

"They should take on the responsibility of checking backgrounds and staying in touch and make sure this person is not being recruited by any radical organization or terrorist organizations."

Soharwardy estimates 20 to 30 Canadians convert to Islam every week. He said it is the responsibility of clerics to make sure the converts are doing it for the right reasons.

"I'm not saying don't convert them, but we have to be aware of those activities and work with the police intelligence to make sure that a criminal person who just converted to Islam does not commit a major crime or a bigger crime."

Soharwardy said he was sickened by the fatal attacks on Canadian soldiers this week. His organization has scheduled a memorial service Friday in Calgary for Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.

Calgary's Chris Boudreau, whose 22-year-old son was killed while fighting with Islamic extremists in Syria, agreed there needs to be more support for converts to Islam.

Her son, Damian Clairmont, converted to Islam as a teen and reportedly died in heavy fighting in the city of Aleppo last winter as a member of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Clairmont found religion at 17 after a depression, Boudreau said. He changed his name to Mustafa al-Gharib. His mother noticed that Islam initially appeared to help and he became peaceful, calm and happy. But as time passed, he became more fundamentalist in his beliefs.

"When they convert to Islam for whatever reasons the worst thing is, without the right direction and guidance, they're converting for the wrong reason or there's no one there to help them assimilate," said Boudreau. "They're vulnerable at that point."

Boudreau said when Damian first became interested he attended a mosque in the city's northeast and met some "great young men" who were helping him along.

She said when he switched to a different mosque things changed for the worst.

"That's where things started to go off and once you get introduced to the ideologies and someone points you in the right direction on the Internet, then the rest of it's done that way."

Soharwardy said he believes that many Muslims are being brainwashed by radical groups such as ISIL. He said there needs to be more sharing of intelligence between Canadian law enforcement and trusted members of the Muslim community who could work together to "deradicalize" those at risk.

He said this week's attacks have him concerned about a backlash against Canada's mainstream Muslim community.

"They are harassed and targeted by the fanatics who consider these people like myself as traitors, as people who are not good Muslims, who are supporting an infidel government and on the other side there are other people who think that every Muslim is the same."

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