Why Hassan Ghedi Santur wrote a novel about the radicalization of a young Muslim man

The Somali Canadian author discusses how he wrote his second novel, The Youth of God.
The Youth of God is a novel by Hassan Ghedi Santur. (Mawenzi House)

How does a shy, intelligent student and dutiful son become radicalized? That is the question at the centre of Hassan Ghedi Santur's novel The Youth of God.

Set in and around a Toronto neighbourhood of mostly Somali immigrants, The Youth of God tells the story of Nuur, a Somali teen who is bullied at school for his religious piety, while he tries to balance his academics and part time job.

Searching for a sense of purpose, and longing for male guidance in the absence of a father who abandoned his family, Nuur looks to two opposing father figures. One, a compassionate teacher named Mr. Ilmi who sees Nuur's potential, and the other, an Imam who has more heinous intentions in mind. 

The Youth of God is on the Canada Reads 2020 longlist. The final five books and their champions will be revealed on Jan. 22, 2020.

Santur talked to CBC Books about how he wrote The Youth of God.

Radicalized youth

"The literal translation of al-Shabaab is 'the youth.' I've done a lot of research about the history of the group and how they portray themselves and the function that they think they serve. They see themselves as the youth that is representing God's will or God's wishes. I found it interesting that they see themselves as the representatives of God.

"Back in 2012-13, when I started writing the novel, there were stories in the news about young Somali kids who were indoctrinated and radicalized in various parts of Canada and were sent to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab. One of the articles I read said that 20 young men may have gone to fight for al-Shabaab through this particular way of slowly being radicalized, slowly being indoctrinated. I was curious as to why a young Somali kid who's never even been to Somalia would be compelled to leave the only life they've ever known in order to fight for this organization in a faraway land. 

I was curious as to why a young Somali kid who's never even been to Somalia would be compelled to leave the only life they've ever known in order to fight for this organization in a faraway land.- Hassan Ghedi Santur

"I was working backwards and trying to find potential answers for why something like that would happen. A lot of the stories had one particular theme that was running through them: a sense of alienation, a sense of feeling like they don't fit in, they don't belong. That sense of alienation makes the idea of finding a home — sometimes a literal home and sometimes an emotional home — quite attractive to these young men. It can give them a sense of identity and a sense of belonging in the world."

Opposing influences

"I always saw Nuur as on this contested ground, between two powerful figures in his life. One being this very austere religious dogmatic figure who is a radical, who believed in a particular vision of Islam. And on the other side is a man who is also a Muslim, but a different kind of Muslim. A Muslim who believes in democracy and freedom of speech and who believes in the equality of men and women and who is cosmopolitan and has a different way of being a Muslim in the world.

"To have these two forces vying for this young soul, for this young person and his future, I found that interesting on a purely dramatic and narrative level."

What could have been

"We all carry around other potential lives that we could have lived. This happened in the book on a subconscious level. I wasn't planning on each person in this novel having a potential life that they could have lived, but for whatever reason, didn't. If you look at it, Mr. Ilmi has this other life that he longs for but didn't get, the same with his wife.

We all carry around other potential lives that we could have lived.- Hassan Ghedi Santur

"The same with Nuur's parents, in some ways. His mother and his father have, through large scale geopolitical events that were out of their control, been made refugees. They could have lived a completely different life, had it not been for this one major cataclysmic event.

"Each person in the novel is grappling with where they find themselves and where they find their life versus what could have been."

The world as it is

"My ambition was to write the kind of book that I would like to read. The kind of novel that I love and interested in is the kind of novel that tries to tackle what's happening in the world around us — they're not removed from our everyday lives. They're engaged with questions about how we live who we are at the moment.

"Especially with recent attacks in Somalia, the ideas in the book become a lot more real. They're no longer just theoretical or hypothetical — it's happening, people are making these choices."

Empathy and understanding

"The only thing that I would say is I hope that a reader of the novel would come away thinking, 'I could see how this could happen. I could understand — even though I may not condone it or may be disturbed by it — I can understand what would make somebody do something like this.' Just that extending your imagination and what you're capable of imagining. To a lot of us the idea of joining a terrorist group is unimaginable. So if a person who reads this novel can come away with at least a temporary ability to understand why somebody would do this, I think that would be a great thing for me as a writer."

Hassan Ghedi Santur's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can see more interviews from the How I Wrote It series here.


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