Fundamentalist, and proud of it
Canada's most controversial Muslim cleric spent his professional life working around vulnerable nuclear facilities in Canada and the U.S., designing ways to protect them from explosions, tornadoes and plane crashes.
The Ottawa Citizen
August 13, 2005
TORONTO - Behind a veil of trees along a little-used railway in suburban Scarborough stands a nondescript building that many believe is the epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism in Canada. Inside this converted warehouse, now called the Salaheddin Islamic Centre, Aly Hindy holds sway.
Mr. Hindy left Egypt for Canada 30 years ago and went on to enjoy a successful career here as an engineer. Only late in life did he re-make himself into a spiritual leader or imam -- an imam who says that the 9/11 attacks could not have been carried out without the collaboration of U.S. security services; who refused to join 120 other Canadian imams in condemning the London transit bombings; and who denies that Muslims carried out the London bombings or that the attack was committed in the name of Islam.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had to have a new enemy. And Islam became the enemy," he said.
Incendiary, yes, but Mr. Hindy's life is a story of contradictions.
When he lived in Egypt, a country of committed Muslims, Mr. Hindy was not overly religious; only when he came to Canada, a secularized western country, did he embrace fundamentalism. He never received the kind of formal religious training in the Muslim tradition that many other imams receive, yet he sees himself a defender of traditional Islam.
"All the sects in Islam are innovation. The Prophet Mohammed didn't have sects. That's why I say I am a fundamentalist. I want to practise the religion as the Prophet practised it."
But what might surprise his critics most is that this man who was not allowed to meet with Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was excluded from the meeting by fellow Muslims, is the same person who devoted the better part of his professional life designing safety measures to protect vulnerable nuclear facilities in Ontario as well as the U.S.
The paradox -- that a man who many see as a security threat has worked in such sensitive areas -- is not lost on the imam. He still works as an engineering consultant part-time. He works at the mosque on Fridays and Sundays.
"I spent 21 years working to improve our nuclear facilities at Pickering, Bruce and Darlington. When I was designing buildings to make the society safer, people who are now saying I should be deported were probably in their diapers. I am a Canadian. My family is Canadian. My children and grandchildren are Canadian. We are part of this society. We are not going anywhere.
"I'm branded because I am helping those guys on security certificates."
In interviews conducted over several days this month, Mr. Hindy elaborated on how he sees the world. Since 9/11, he says, the "Muslim nation" has been under attack in the West. Enemies of Islam have seized on the attacks as a means to weaken the religion, he says. He is suspicious of people who talk of modernizing Islam. "The buzzword is innovation but the real message is 'abandon what you've practised for centuries and become like us'."
He proudly calls himself a fundamentalist, and argues that the word is not synonymous with terrorist. "Training people to hijack planes or bomb buildings is wrong. We don't preach violence. We are fundamentalists (in that we) believe that the religion should be practised as the Prophet Mohammed practised it. That doesn't make us extremists."
Mr. Hindy challenges many aspects of the global counterterrorism effort. It's wrong, he says, that Muslims who once spent time in Afghanistan now find themselves under a cloud of suspicion. He says people have long visited the country for legitimate reasons.
"I don't accept the argument that if somebody travels to Afghanistan he is a terrorist."
He questions the competence of security agencies, pointing out that Maher Arar and, more recently, would-be Canadian diplomat Bhupinder Liddar, were wrongly labelled security risks. Accordingly, Mr. Hindy and the Salaheddin Islamic Centre continue to offer moral and material support to people who have been detained under security certificates, but have never been charged or convicted of any crime.
The Salaheddin centre has been under closer scrutiny from security agents than any other mosque in Canada. It's easy to see why. A long list of people suspected by the government to be al-Qaeda supporters or sympathizers have found spiritual fulfilment here. The infamous Khadr family, whose patriarch was a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant, prayed here and still do.
A former principal of the centre's school, Mahmoud Jaballah, is being held on a security certificate as a threat to national security. (Some 200 children from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 study Arabic and the Koran, as well as the normal provincial curriculum.) Two former principals, Helmy Elsherief and Muayyed Nureddin were held in Egyptian and Syrian prisons for alleged ties to extremists. They were later released.
Two years ago, Mr. Hindy himself was detained for two days in Egypt -- he says at the behest of Canadian security services -- and questioned about his ties to extremists who worshipped in his mosque. He says he was released because they could find nothing against him.
Earlier this year, CSIS linked one of the original founders of Salaheddin to Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. Mr. Hindy says that just because "so-called terrorists" have prayed or worked at the Salaheddin centre, it's unfair to paint the mosque as a terrorist incubator.
David Harris, a former CSIS official, says he knows nothing about Aly Hindy and, besides, being "a doctrinal fundamentalist doesn't make one a terrorist." But he adds that the spy agency has a responsibility imposed by law to investigate if there are reasonable grounds to believe that Canada's security is under threat. "There is a reason why you have the security intelligence service."
Aly Hindy came to Canada in 1975 with a degree in engineering from Cairo's Ain Shams University. He prayed five times a day like other ordinary Muslims, but was not deeply religious. He was clean-shaven back then.
He enrolled at the University of Western Ontario and by 1979, four years after his arrival, completed both his masters and doctorate degrees in structural engineering. For two years, he worked with a company called Stone and Webster, helping design safer nuclear plants in the U.S. In 1981, he joined Ontario Hydro, which later became Ontario Power Generation.
For 21 years, until he took a buyout in 2002, he was a safety expert, designing ways to protect the province's hydro-electric dams and nuclear plants. He was part of a specialized team of about four to six experts whose task included thinking up extreme scenarios such as explosions, tornados or plane crashes in which a nuclear plant could be attacked or be incapacitated. It was the team's job to come up with design solutions that would prevent radioactive material from leaking and endangering people.
Mr. Hindy's supervisor at the time, Ari Danay, recalls how the team won a new technology award in the early 1990s for work done on the Cornwall hydro-electric dam.
"Aly Hindy was a good worker, very serious and he did very good computer simulations on safety issues at dams and nuclear reactors. His work was quite important because it was all safety related," said Mr. Danay who left Ontario Hydro in 1993.
Mr. Danay, now self-employed, said apart from the time Mr. Hindy took in between work to say his daily prayers, his religion was never an issue at work. "He was definitely a Muslim and he believed in it, but there was no issue with his religion. He was outspoken, not necessarily diplomatic, but he was never aggressive. He was pleasant and quite civilized."
Mr. Hindy got involved with Salaheddin "by chance." The centre was set up in 1994 by an Egyptian immigrant and his two Iraqi friends. One or both of the Iraqis may have been Kurds, hence the name of the centre, Salaheddin, after the famed Kurdish Muslim general known in the West as Saladin, the man who defeated the Crusaders and won back Jerusalem in the Second Crusade.
In 1996, the centre, which was looking for a home, sought to buy a building on Eglinton and Kennedy. The Egyptian, who had then fallen out with his partners, asked Mr. Hindy for financial help. The centre had about $25,000, but the building was going for $600,000. Mr. Hindy said his friend arranged to pay for the building through monthly payments and asked him not only to be the guarantor, but for help with the deposit.
A little over a year later, the Egyptian died suddenly, leaving a surprised Mr. Hindy in charge. Faced with the unexpected responsibility, he embarked on self-education, reading voraciously to build on the foundation he already had. He attended international seminars on Islamic jurisprudence and traditions given by well-respected scholars, and studied one-on-one with others.
Today Mr. Hindy performs all the jobs of an imam -- from delivering sermons and officiating at marriages and funerals, to offering counsel and making rulings according to Islamic law.
"I didn't get formal training, but I feel I have good knowledge. If I don't know anything, people will find out. You can't deceive people all the time," he said.
"If somebody says I am not qualified, I'll say 'if I am not qualified, I can give you a list of a lot of people who are not qualified."
Mr. Hindy's lack of formal training is no impediment to being an imam. Islam has no formal process of ordaining imams and there are many examples of people who studied outside the formal structures, but became respected scholars.
Obviously, the imam has to possess some knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence in order to answer questions properly and adjudicate matters correctly. But in the end, it all comes down to community acceptance.
"If he gains recognition from the people he is serving as learned and religious-oriented, he can be imam," says the Ottawa Mosque's imam Gamal Solaiman.
Tarek Fatah, a Toronto television host and founding member of the secular Muslim Canadian Congress, says Mr. Hindy is not the kind of leader Canadian Muslims want or need. He says Mr. Hindy is "medieval" and quite out of touch with the 21st century. "His view of Islam is completely different from mine. It is narrow and he can't even get along with other imams," Mr. Fatah said.
No such doubts about Mr. Hindy's fitness to lead are felt at his congregation.
Last Friday, about 1,000 people packed the mosque to hear Mr. Hindy sermonize in full voice on what it means to be Muslim. After the prayers, people jostled to shake his hand or exchange small talk. They clearly enjoyed his company.
Kassim Mohamed, a Toronto man who was targeted by Canadian security and detained in Egypt after he was found in possession of a videotape that contained shots of the CN Tower, says Mr. Hindy is the only imam in town who truly represents ordinary Muslims. He says when he got into trouble over the videotapes, Mr. Hindy was the only leader who helped him. The imam organized a rally to publicize Mr. Mohamed's plight.
"I was innocent, but I was alone and lost. I didn't know Aly Hindy, but this is the only mosque that stood by me. All the mosques knew about my situation, but no one offered help except this imam and the mosque," Mr. Mohamed said. "We come to this mosque because we feel at home."
Another worshipper, Ahmed Warsame, said the imam articulates the unspoken, "inner feelings" of many Muslims. "These people know they are good Muslims, good citizens and good neighbours but they are forced to be apologetic, defensive. They see the imam as speaking the truth on their behalf."