The local Muslim community is calling on the federal government to help fund more programs to engage youth in the wake of the apparent death of a 20-year-old Hamilton man fighting with ISIS.
Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud, a Somali-Canadian, went missing in mid-July, travelling to Turkey and then Syria. He is believed to have died in a fight between Kurdish forces and Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham fighters last week.
The Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton released a statement Thursday, to “categorically condemn any form of extremism and violence.”
This message has been “consistently taught and reinforced by our Imams, our elders and our youth to all of our members.”
While the community is not aware of other local young people expressing interest in extremist organizations, Mohamud’s death and similar stories from Alberta underscore the need for more programs, said council spokesperson Raza Khan. “It could be happening in any Canadian city,” he said. That’s why the community is organizing a youth town hall, likely for the end of October, when young Muslims will gather to talk about issues, and about being targeted by recruiters.
Programs offered, including the youth-led Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association, are entirely funded by donations. Khan said the existing programs are “underfunded” and they would like to expand educational and outreach work.
Mohamud, once a bright, happy, engaged student reportedly became withdrawn, fundamentally religious and stricken with the desire to help combat the Assad regime in Syria. His family, desperate to find him, was not able to stop him.
Madina Wasuge, a former director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion and a member of the local Somali community, has known the Mohamud family for years. She said she would not talk about the family as she is honouring their request for time to grieve in private.
However, she did say that from all accounts, young Mohamud’s radicalization is puzzling.
“He had a bright future, a bright future. For a young man to turn around and choose ( jihadism), is something we need to understand. It is not an issue for Muslims, it’s not an issue for Somalis, it’s an issue for Hamiltonians and an issue for all Canadians.”
Wasuge said young men are being recruited in many countries and many cultures, and communities need to understand why.
“I do not know the answers, but someone in the community needs to take leadership and bring people together to seek the answers.”
Three known factors can lead to radicalization: age, technology and religion, said Randall Hansen, Canada research chair in immigration and governance at the University of Toronto. In the wrong circumstances, the three together can be an “explosive cocktail.”
“All young people in general, but men in particular, go through a difficult phase in the late-teen years to early 20s … often there is a great yearning for something,” he said.
If that yearning isn’t satisfied through school, work, religion, f amily or some other outlet, they continue to search, he added.
In Mohamud’s case, family believes he was “radicalized” online while attending York University. Hansen said people used to think radicalization happened in mosques or other gatherings, but that generally isn’t true. Now, the Internet is a haven for propaganda.
“If you are Muslim, you have a violent option” in ISIS or other extremist groups, he said, noting that throughout history other groups have also had violent options.
However, there is also something intangible and personal that causes a small minority to be led astray. Many young men may read material online and “see what a bunch of nonsense” it is, Hansen said.
In Mohamud’s case, there is no evidence he was part of a wider local recruitment. Hussein Hamdani, acting as a spokesperson for the family, said Wednesday he doesn’t believe the young man had travelled into Syria with any other young Hamiltonians.
However, Mahamad Accord, president of the Edmonton-based Canadian Somali Congress Western Canada, told media Wednesday that youths from the Somali community as young as 16 have signed up to become terrorist soldiers.
Rima Berns-McGown, associate director of the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University, has spent the past two decades interviewing Somali immigrants.
In her many conversations with Somali-Canadians, she said one of the things that came through “loud and clear” is there is no support for radicalization at all.
“It’s not because there is something flawed in the culture … something is going on with these specific kids,” Berns-McGown said.
She believes there is a kind of “romantic appeal” to some specific young men to go fight. Recruiters are good at manipulating targets who are often not well-versed religiously.
Part of Berns-McGown’s work has focused on people coming from conflict zones, including Somalia. Canada does a terrible job helping people who have been through trauma, she said.
“We, as a society, exacerbate that trauma when we deal with people in racist ways,” she said, adding there appears to be a correlation between Islamophobia, racism and radicalization.