In the "battle for the hearts and minds" of Canada’s Muslim youth, Hamilton lawyer Hussein Hamdani is on the front lines, pulling kids away from the tendrils of extremism and terror sects.
And in a political climate where radicalization is a commonplace term and Mosques are holding events to denounce hatred and extremism, he’s actively working with the federal government and the RCMP, counselling young people with sometimes dangerously violent views.
He sits down with would-be extremists one-on-one and tries to pull them off the path to violence. In recent years, he has saved 10 young people with radicalized views from across Canada who were actively planning to join terrorist groups like ISIS, he says.
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He has gotten pushback from his own community who cry "sellout" for his government connections, but it hasn’t dissuaded him from work he believes is integral to fostering a safe and secure Canada.
"It truly is a battle for the hearts and minds of young people," he told CBC News from his downtown Hamilton law office. "It’s like a marketplace of ideas," Hamdani said. "We just try to present ours and hope it’s attractive."
The 42-year-old is a Hamilton-based corporate and real estate lawyer — but he’s also one of the founding members of the Canadian government’s cross-cultural roundtable on national security. He’s articulate and knowledgeable, and speaks with an intensity about issues of race, inclusion and radicalization.
Hamdani, who works with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service too, is an active part of the city’s Muslim community. He was thrust into the spotlight in September after news broke that 19-year-old Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud left his family in Hamilton to join ISIS.
It was too late for Hamdani to step in, back then. No one could save Mohamud – and he was reportedly killed. But for years, the lawyer has been straddling the line of mentor and community spokesperson at the federal level.
In many cases, kids in the Muslim community come to Hamdani with their problems, looking for guidance. Sometimes, they’re of the mundane "I like this girl and don’t know what to do about it" variety. Other times, it’s much more serious – calls from parents who are asking for help because their child has "drifted."
"People will call me and say, 'look, I think my son is going down a bad path,'" he said. When that happens, his first inclination isn’t to go to police – it’s to sit down with the person and have a "theological discussion" to prove that violence isn’t part of the Muslim faith or the Qur'an.
"You tell me – where are the acts of violence or suicide bombings?" he asked. "They just aren’t in there." But if there’s a hint of violence and danger, he will go to police, he says – for the good of the public and the person themselves.
The 4 types of radicals
It's these young people who make up the bulk of the youth Hamdani counsels. They’re mostly young men, often educated, and who usually who have intense grievances with the world – be it the death toll in Syria or unrest on the Gaza Strip. "They just feel like nothing is being done in these things," he said.
"What we try to do is give them legitimate avenues to voice their grievances," he said. That might mean pushing for change as part of a political campaign, or doing something positive like building a school in Bangladesh.
"What we need to do is show them that whatever grievances they feel are legitimate," he said. "But if you really want to make a difference … you have to do something that pleases your creator."
That doesn’t include picking up a gun.
This kind of person is one of four "types of radicals" that Hamdani sees. There are also the "hardcore extremists" – people who are usually older, educated and supremely convinced of the cause. Usually, he’s of no help there.
"Ain’t nothing bringing them back," he said.
Then there are former anarchists – usually white people, he says – who take to Islam as a kind of "flavour of the month" method to protest. In that case, it’s up to the Muslim community as a whole to make people understand it is a legitimate faith that deserves respect, not to be used as a vehicle for preexisting violent views.
The last kind of extremist is one that has been all over the news in recent days, Hamdani says. Since Hamilton’s Nathan Cirillo was shot guarding the National War Memorial in Ottawa, gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s intentions and connections to organized terror sects have been intensely debated.
What motivated Zehaf-Bibeau?
The RCMP says it has evidence that Zehaf-Bibeau was driven by ideological and political motives. Stephen Harper has called Nathan Cirillo’s shooting a terror attack – though NDP leader Tom Mulcair has preached caution on that front, presenting Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions as "criminal" rather than "terrorist."
Hamdani maintains that Zehaf-Bibeau falls into the last category of extremist: a person who is fuelled by mental health and drug issues. "People are going to try to make that one out to be more than it was," he said. "That was someone who couldn’t get the help that he needed. He was just alone in this world."
Zehaf-Bibeau told a B.C. judge almost three years ago that he was homeless and wanted to go to jail to help break his drug addiction. He was also charged with robbery and uttering threats for an incident which court records indicate may have been an attempt to get help.
"This is just a person I think had real mental health issues," Hamdani said. "This is not 'ISIS comes to Canada.' Canada is not under attack here."
Hamdani’s work doesn’t come without naysayers – people from within his own community who don’t trust police or the government and see him as a "sellout." He says he has received death threats, hate mail, and people have keyed his car and egged his home over a misbegotten sense that he has a "hidden agenda."
"But I am not too bothered by these things," he said. "The threats come from racists."
The failings stay with him
There are also times where he feels like he has failed people. In Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud’s case, he simply wasn’t notified by the family in time to do anything. But he also spoke at a retreat attended by two of the arrested members of the Toronto 18.
Though he wasn’t aware of their radicalized ideals, and didn’t speak to them one-on-one, he still feels a weight from it. "I failed," he said. "I didn’t articulate to them well enough and they thought I was too soft."
"Should I have seen the signs? I don’t know."
But he still feels the need to help as a calling – a way to help young people find their way in Canada and lead productive, positive lives. He sees younger parts of himself in them in some ways too – deeply political, idealistic and angry about the way the world is.
"For some people, the ice was just a little bit thinner than it was for me," he said.
"And they fell in."