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Islamist extremismLessons from a former Somali refugee on the fight against Islamist extremism

By Ben Cohen

Published 30 January 2017

Nobody could seriously argue that Islam is a united body. It is more accurately understood as a culture in the grip of a brutal civil war—between Shi’a and Sunni, between secular authoritarians and radical clerics, between competing jihadi schools—that is simultaneously linked, ideologically and operationally, to monstrous acts of terrorism against non-Muslims inside and outside the Muslim world. We need to learn from the past by understanding that Islam’s internal fissures can work to our advantage. But there is nothing to be gained from a situation in which the very word “refugee” becomes a pejorative, as is more and more the case in America, or when we face legislative proposals that could, for example, prevent Kurdish Muslims from Iraq and Syria—traditionally our close allies—from entering our country.

He came to Canada as a 16-year-old refugee from Somalia. He’s highly regarded across the Canadian political spectrum. He was just appointed as immigration minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Now 40 years old, Ahmed Hussen has a promising career in front of him. And in these polarized, fragmented times, he is exactly the kind of public figure we need when it comes to clarifying the wider debate about immigration and Islamism, human rights and national security.

Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has often been lampooned as a kumbaya do-gooder, devoted to his liberal conscience and slow-witted when it comes to recognizing that fanatics across the world with diametrically opposed views to his are gaining strength and power. I will leave it to readers to judge whether any of that criticism is fair, but I will say that Trudeau’s appointment of Hussen shows a boldness that contrasts markedly with the approach of former President Barack Obama, despite their broadly similar worldview.

Obama, remember, regards the word “Islamist” as an insult rather than a descriptor. But Hussen has a record of actually tackling Islamism in his own community, engaging in the kind of political fight that Obama would most likely have dismissed as a sop to the radical, nationalist right.

Writing in the Toronto Sun, columnist Tarek Fatah, a close friend of Hussen’s—”though we disagree on much,” he noted—related the time the two first encountered each other. In 2004, Muslim activists in Ontario launched a campaign for the introduction of Islamic sharia law in the province’s family courts, arguing formally that they simply wanted the same rights that were granted to the Catholic and Jewish communities under legislation passed in 1991.

They were supported in this demand by Marion Boyd, a former attorney general who authored a report arguing that it was impossible to sustain Catholic and Jewish law-based family courts while denying them to the Muslim community. But Tarek Fatah and others weren’t buying it.

“Opposing them was a much smaller group of secular and liberal Muslims—including yours truly—for whom this was a do-or-die moment,” Fatah wrote. “We knew how the U.K. had let this happen many years before, only to discover, too late, the Muslim community of Britain being held hostage by Islamic clerics.”

For Fatah and his fellow secularists, permitting sharia courts in Canada would have effectively involved legal surrender to a conservative clerical establishment. Homa Arjomand, a Canadian-Iranian human rights


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