To prevent extremism, more safe spaces for Muslim youth are needed

As a new counter-radicalization centre opens its
doors, Steven Zhou argues there is a much more basic service still sorely
needed when it comes to reaching vulnerable youth.

By: /
14 July, 2017
Justin Trudeau greets people after speaking at a mosque to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Ottawa has pumped millions of dollars into its recently unveiled counter-radicalization centre to fund programs that are supposed to prevent radical extremism.

At least some of these projects will source guidance from perspectives familiar with various communities’ on-the-ground dynamics, particularly with respect to youth. Canada’s Muslim community, a huge chunk of which can be found in Southern Ontario, is most certainly one of these sub-populations of interest. As someone who is a part of that community and who works regularly with Canadian Muslim youth, I know that there’s at least one glaring need that this new centre can help fulfill.

Muslim youth in this country lack respectful spaces in which to talk about issues that matter most to them. Full stop. It’s quite jarring to think that such a basic need has yet to be addressed, but it’s true. 

In my recent experience working with around 200 Muslim youth and young adults in the past few years, through different community projects, it has become apparent that most of them don’t think that the mosque network can provide such spaces. Many say that mosques steer away from tough topics like gender or politics for fear of stirring the pot and driving people away. That leaves very few remaining options, such as people’s homes or school spaces, most of which aren’t serviceable on a consistent basis. This is where the federal government can help plug the hole, which would amount to a great public good. The government could provide funding for spaces or buildings that could hold discussions on tough topics that affect Muslim youth. Facilitators could be trained and paid to do the job on a consistent basis.

This is not — and I emphasize this greatly — to say in any way that Muslim youth are all by default susceptible to the whispers of extremist ideology when deprived of such spaces. Far from it. I have yet to meet a single youth in my work who I suspected or later found out to be involved in activity of that nature. Cases of youth involved in terrorist activity are still pretty rare in Canada, thankfully.

Nonetheless, I’d say that Muslim youth, like most young people in minority communities of colour, are — whether consciously or not — engaged in a process of balancing a religious identity with the parameters of a secular society. This is a highly personal process that has been exacerbated for Muslims, who are constantly placed under the post-9/11 spotlight. Much of Western foreign policy and Canada’s security laws has a connection to Muslims, often viewing them in a critical light — a reality that has a unique and cumulative effect on young people. Living with that effect requires the kind of understanding and coping mechanisms that can be found in dialogue and community spaces.

But especially for the very few who have fallen prey to the deadly utopian imagery of ISIS or any other terrorist group/ideologue, the challenge is particular great to reconcile a faith-based heritage/commitment with the norms and realities of today’s secular modernity. This is of course a simplification. Such a balancing act breaks down and particularizes in a million different ways for Muslims and many other minority groups in the West. Some have enough support to barely notice the difficulties, while others have to ask themselves tough questions that penetrate the very identity-forming assumptions and ideas that make up who they are.

In light of the newly opened centre, and a call for programming proposals, the Canadian government should study up on the realities of Muslim youth in a qualitative way by conducting interviews and looking at case studies. Then, funds should be used to provide spaces for safe, facilitated discussions where Muslim youth can work out these challenges. Such discussions would allow for exposure to a range of ideas and views, different from the variety that emerges within social media bubbles. This kind of exposure will benefit young people who have to learn to navigate disagreements and different perspective in a way that is empowering, not debilitating. Most youth I have come across do not think their families, places of worship or schools come close to having the capacity to consistently provide this function. That means someone else has to step in.

“Preventing extremism goes beyond surveillance, interventions or kicking down doors.”

To be sure, there have already been several efforts within the Muslim community to fill this gap without any significant support from government. For instance, there are biweekly informal meet-ups in the Greater Toronto Area that see about two dozen Muslim youth come together in private homes for facilitated discussions on issues related to gender, terrorism, racism, etc. The conversations are led by a handful of trained facilitators, including myself. The space is open to all, Muslim or otherwise. The facilitator prepares a number of questions on the topic beforehand as well as a couple of videos to assist the discussion. Food and a time to socialize is provided after each meeting. Over the past two to three years, over 100 different individuals (mostly Muslim youth) of very different backgrounds and beliefs have showed up. I would like to think that most left each session with a better understanding of how their own lives relate to the wider world. 

This type of space is, obviously, not some sort of security operation. It serves as a reminder that preventing extremism goes beyond surveillance, interventions or kicking down doors. The new centre is supposed to “support and empower local leaders to develop initiatives that are suited to their community.” What follows should be a way of engaging communities outside of a strictly security framework. 

If Canada wants to build trust, it has to stop approaching its Muslim population as first and foremost a security threat. Muslim youth are human beings with a lot on their minds and the government should help to provide spaces where this thinking can be done out loud. The idea is to throw grievances and concerns into an open space for collective discussion. It might seem too simple and unsophisticated a strategy, but I have personally witnessed the result: a more self-assured group of young people equipped with the right questions and tools to pick apart bad ideas. 

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