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 campaigner, eloquently summarized the problem as she pushed back against Boyd’s recommendations. “Our lawyers are studying the decisions of several arbitration cases and will bring them to court and expose how women are victimized by male-dominated legal decisions based on 6th-century religion and traditions,” she said at the time.
Eventually, a decision was reached that neatly reflected the dilemma that all liberal democracies face when balancing the need to strengthen secular values against the demands of a vocal religious minority. Sharia courts were not permitted in Ontario, which meant that other religions were also prevented from resolving family disputes in faith-based courts.
As Fatah tells it, Ahmed Hussen played a diligent, behind-the-scenes role in this episode. Newly minted as a Liberal Party staffer, he introduced the secularists to prominent Ontario politicians, allowing them to present their case directly.
The importance of having someone like Hussen countering Islamist encroachment among Muslim communities in the West cannot be overstated. As a child, he had seen firsthand the horrors of the conflict in Somalia, which triggered an Islamist surge in that country nearly a decade before the 9/11 atrocities. In Canada, he became a community activist, helping to secure $500 million in funds to revitalize the community in which he lived in Toronto. Moving into immigration law was perhaps the natural next step for him to take.
Now that he’s in Trudeau’s cabinet, Hussen is well-positioned to drive home a key message that is increasingly being lost in the global agonizing over national security, particularly in America. Simply put: Islamism and Islam are distinctive concepts.
“Distinctive” does not mean, of course, that they are entirely separate. The imperative of waging jihad in order to impose the rule of shari’a law did not suddenly appear out of nowhere; rather, that struggle is grounded upon authentic Islamic texts, Islamic laws and Islamic traditions. The argument over whether Islamic radicalism is a distortion of Muslim teachings (a default position held by politicians as diverse as George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama) or a faithful reflection of them (as argued by nationalists in America and Europe) will continue to rage.
My own perspective, based on nearly two decades of observing Islamists and their fellow travelers in the West, is that a sledgehammer approach to the more fundamental issue of Muslim integration may play well politically in the short term, but is highly destructive in the long term.
Nobody could seriously argue that Islam is a united body, after all. 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. There were plenty of warnings before the 9/11 attacks that this trend was growing, such as the 1994 Iranian-sponsored bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, but Western politicians by and large ignored or misunderstood where this tide was heading.
If we are to avoid repeating these same errors, 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.
In that sense, we can learn much from people like Ahmed Hussen about the importance of nuance and compassion. As a former refugee, he instinctively understands the plight of those driven from their homes by war and genocide. As a human rights advocate, he grasps that some groups are far more vulnerable than others—which is why he just announced that Canada will allow entry to an unspecified number of Yazidis from Iraq, who have been horribly persecuted by Islamic State, within the next four weeks.
At the same time, Hussen’s record suggests that he recognizes the clear difference between practical support for the victims of extreme cruelty on the one hand, and sinking into nebulous cultural relativism or knuckle-headed bigotry on the other. Partisans of both left and right would do well to consider that.
Ben Cohen is a Senior Editor at The Tower Magazine and the Director of Coalitions at The Israel Project. Publications he has written for include Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Ha’aretz and Tablet. He writes a weekly column for JNS.org, a news agency serving the Jewish media. Follow him on Twitter @BenCohenOpinion.