Q&A: Hamid Slimi, the Toronto imam with a plan to prevent homegrown extremism
Our Six in the Six interview with the former chairman of the Canadian Council of Imams
Last week, the Canadian Council of Imams announced plans to open two or three deradicalization clinics in Toronto, as part of a strategy to prevent community members from being drawn into extremism. Imam Hamid Slimi is the CCI’s former chairman and one of the people behind the initiative. We asked him how—and whether—the clinics will make a difference.
Are these clinics a direct response to recent terrorist attacks in Europe?
The idea isn’t new. We’ve been proposing this for some time now. As imams, we are already doing deradicalization—though, of course, we don’t get the coverage, because good news doesn’t make headlines. You’ve heard of many thwarted terrorist attempts? It was imams that warned the governments. We want to do something, but we need the help of other experts.
What sorts of experts?
The idea is to have different experts from different fields: religion, mental health, psychology, social work, law enforcement. The problem we have all over the world is that experts don’t communicate. We need to put egos aside and take a holistic approach.
Is radicalization a bigger issue in Toronto than in other major North American cities?
The reason we are looking at Toronto is because we have the largest concentration of Muslims here. We have the largest concentration of mosques. Our feeling is, Toronto can teach the world how we can all live together with respect, in spite of differences. Last Sunday, guess where I was? I was the one doing the service at a Christian church. This doesn’t happen in other countries.
Still, you wouldn’t be talking about opening these clinics if there wasn’t an issue.
The problem is kids with mental issues. That’s the reality. If you look at the age of the people joining ISIS, it’s 16 to 22. Kids are having issues and they’re not getting the help that they need. It’s not just Muslim kids—look at what’s happening in Attawapiskat! These kids are already disenfranchised. They’re having issues with their schoolwork, their families, with isolation, with economics. They feel disconnected and alone, and this is what ISIS looks for—young people who have lost hope and don’t want to belong to the society that they are living in.
Specifically how would the clinics work? Would people come to you voluntarily?
They might. There are a lot of different scenarios. Sometimes we’re talking about people who are just having doubts, who don’t understand how they are feeling and who want to talk with someone. In other cases, we would get a phone call from a concerned friend or family member. Or it’s parents who are concerned about a child who is hanging out with new people, or getting very religious. Of course we can’t force people to come, but we can provide a safe and neutral place. In the Muslim community, people sometimes don’t seek help because of stigma, and maybe this can help with that.
Do you worry that these clinics might just reinforce the association between Muslims and violent fundamentalism?
It’s sad. We’ve been denouncing and denouncing and denouncing. And then something happens and we lose the trust that has been earned by Mulsims who came to Canada in 1850s. Terrorism is a fact. Either we can watch it and say we have nothing to do with it, or we can be part of the solution. I want to do something to help, and to show the world that we’re helping.