Mubin Shaikh found his way to extremism in an earlier decade. But the Canadian man's journey is a lot like that of many young Muslim men in the West today. Shaikh says his upbringing in Toronto was pretty typical. Then at age 18 he had an identity crisis, so he traveled to India and Pakistan in 1995 on a mission to find himself.
“I wasn’t bullied or picked on in high school," Shaikh says. “We were the cool kids, but I was shamed and guilt-tripped into feeling I was a bad person. So I tried to make right by going on a rebound experience.”
That experience would last for six years and even include a chance encounter with the Taliban before their takeover of Afghanistan in 1996. Shaikh says he became enamored by them, describing his initial impression of them as "religious heroes from a romanticized Islamic age gone by."
"I was just walking around, trying to talk to the locals, see what's up and I chanced upon these guys who were sitting there armed to the teeth. Here I was, 'Yeah, I'm here to find myself.' And they're saying, 'Well, here we are. We're fighting this jihad. You know, jihad is the only way for Muslims to regain their worth and value in the world.'"
After that trip, Shaikh returned to Canada radicalized and with politics consuming his life.
"I started to become more aware of the geopolitical conflicts that raged in the world," Shaikh says.
By 1998, Shaikh had gotten married, but he did not reveal his radicalization to his wife, instead leading what he says was a double life as he recruited others and established his footprint in the extremist network.
But after the 9/11 attacks, Shaikh was forced to confront his views.
"That told me, wait a second, I don't know my religion properly," Shaikh says. "I didn't know any Arabic. I hadn't studied Islam properly under scholars."
So Shaikh decided to do just that, spending two years in Syria studying Arabic and Islamic studies.
"I registered with my embassy. I wanted them to know exactly where I was, my wife and two kids. I was there to study."
Shaikh credits that proper teaching by his imam with helping him to become de-radicalized.
"He didn't need to berate me or insult me, because I was a complete fool. ... He was very merciful and gentle in his approach."
Shaikh says the imam exposed him to what he calls the "spirituality of Islam" that's in contrast to the pain, anger and frustration Shaikh says many extremists have in their lives.
"[Radical Islamists] appeal to a general narrative that they expect everyone will believe. 'We're the caliphate and Islam was spread by the sword.' This is what they affirm. Whereas the vast majority of Muslims, who are fighting them, are saying, 'No, you have nothing to do with Islamic practice.' This is why I call them terrorists in Islamic costume."
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