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The father, Izzeldin Abuelaish: 'We need to tell because we care about others' (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The father, Izzeldin Abuelaish: 'We need to tell because we care about others' (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Rick Salutin

At 7, a terror suspect Add to ...

I met Abdullah, the seven-year-old terror suspect, at a dinner near Toronto on Canada Day. He came last year from Gaza with his dad, Izzeldin Abuelaish, who's here teaching global health at the med school, and five surviving siblings. His three oldest sisters were killed in their home in Gaza by Israeli shelling during the 2008 invasion. His mother died shortly before, of cancer. You can read about it in Dr. Abuelaish's remarkable book, I Shall Not Hate. Abdullah has a sweet, mischievous look. Fireworks went off nearby and he asked his dad, Is it the Israelis? His dad reassured him.

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This summer he took the kids back to Gaza to visit family. He hoped to vacation in the United States first but learned, after a blizzard of visa forms, photos etc., that the visa for his 12-year-old, Mohammed, was suspended for "review," so they just went to Gaza. On their return and after a U.S. congressman intervened, he went for the visas, so he could take the kids on his book tour. He was told the rest were fine but the seven-year-old's was now under review. No reasons or discussion.

He compares it to passing through Israeli checkpoints, which he did endlessly for his work in Israeli hospitals or, agonizingly, to try and reach his wife before her death. "Sometimes you are boiling," he says, "but don't want to show it." In his book he tells with searing honesty how he realized his occasional verbal outbursts at home were related to suppressing his feelings at checkpoints. If we had a country, he says, you could speak with your officials, "But we have nothing, who is going to defend you?" I should note he's been criticized by some Palestinians for the centrality he gives to not "hating," and his deep belief in peace through dialogue.

I thought of this during the recent "homegrown terrorism" news, which involved a Muslim Canadian who plays ball hockey and auditioned for Canadian Idol. A terror expert said it's scary, "they" could be anywhere, even beside you at a rink. Does this mean Nazem Kadri, a top Leafs draft pick, should issue a disclaimer? Personally, I think such matters are less opaque and are rooted in phenomena like Abdullah's visa, the U.S. mosque furor or attacks on Muslim countries. As for the "lure of jihad" to the young and privileged - I think it has less to do with religion than with the nature of youth, which leans to absolutes, and privilege, which senses injustice precisely due to its status. The strain can also be acute among Muslim parents who assure their kids about justice in a society like ours, then feel they've let them down. Izzeldin says Abdullah asked, "What have I done? Why only me?" when he learned about the visa. "We are pushing them to think of something bad," his dad says. "This child when he's grown up will remember: 'I was suspended.' "

When I asked if he'd mind my writing on this, he said he wanted to think about whether it may have a "negative effect" on the kids' ability to travel. He called back in less than a day and said, "Even if the price is to lose a visa, we should pay the price to open their eyes" - by which he meant Canadians. "We need to tell because we care about others" - meaning, again, Canadians. This shows an amazing trust, or faith, in his fellow humans: that they really want to know the truth, and knowing it, will act. He is a pious Muslim and his faith sustains that trust - but others react differently.

I heard the tale of Abdullah's wayward visa at an iftar dinner one night in downtown Toronto attended by Muslims and non-Muslims. Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. At some point, everyone went onto the back porch to see what looked like the Northern Lights, rarely visible here, mingling chaotically with spotlights from the CNE. It beat the ambiguous fireworks of Canada Day all hollow.

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