Understanding Islam – Extremism and the Distortion of a Peaceful Faith


CSC employees in Ottawa had a unique opportunity to peer inside the minds of religious extremists at an event celebrating World Interfaith Harmony Week last month. CSC Chaplaincy hosted renowned counter-terrorism expert Mubin Shaikh, who spoke on the theme of: “Understanding Islam – Extremism and the Distortion of a Peaceful Faith.” 

Mr. Shaikh explained that extremists, such as those involved with ISIS, manipulate sacred texts for their own purposes. They ignore teachings about peace and focus instead on inciting hatred and violence. He said that many new recruits are particularly susceptible to these distortions because they often have only a superficial understanding of the religion, or none at all. “If you are negative-minded, you’re going to go into the sources and you’re going to cherry pick those verses that are going to validate what you’re feeling” said Mr. Shaikh. He explained that it is always important to read such verses in context for the true meaning to be understood.

Mr. Shaikh is well-acquainted with this distorted reality. Having been radicalized himself in his teens, he reconsidered his views after the 9/11 attacks. The attacks and their aftermath caused him to engage in a deeper study of his faith and to reject extremism and terrorism as contrary to the teachings of Islam. He went on to become an undercover CSIS operative inside the “Toronto 18” terrorist group, helping to foil multiple bomb plots. Now, in an effort to combat recruitment by religious extremists, Mr. Shaikh goes online to chat rooms to promote his understanding of Islam. He uses the Prophet Mohammed’s actual words to interrupt dangerous arguments, citing authentic religious sources to communicate a fuller meaning of the Islamic religion, and to challenge the voices that preach violence and division. It takes patience and time. He has worked with one individual for one and a half years and believes that this individual is now finally close to abandoning extremism completely.

Extremists target society’s most vulnerable individuals, Mr. Shaikh explained. They will often take advantage of young people who feel alienated and isolated in their communities. They give these individuals a chance to become superheroes online. Extremists also appeal to those who don’t fit into society because of a violent or criminal past. They turn the violence of these individuals into something sacred, and even advertise that “sometimes the worst pasts create the best futures.” Mr. Shaikh notes that extremist organizations often utilize the tactic of sending gifts to these individuals, and reaching out to them on an emotional level, in order to build a relationship with them as possible recruits.

Mr. Shaikh finished his presentation by explaining that religious extremism has happened in all faiths throughout history. He said that the key to stopping it is knowledge, and that we must become educated as a society, and challenge those who seek to promote distorted truths and claims.

A photo of Mubin Shaikh and Michael Taylor

After his presentation, he was joined in a question and answer period by CSC Regional Chaplain for Ontario, Imam Michael Taylor, one of the organizers of the event. Mr. Taylor said he was pleased that CSC employees had the chance to learn about Islam beyond the stereotypes often seen in media and social media.

“Mr. Shaikh provided a fresh look at radicalization and some of its causes. His presentation debunked a lot of myths and stereotypes that many hold about the religion of Islam and Muslims.”

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