The third speaker in our series on Peace and Conflict was Amir Ahmad NasrAmir focused on his own experience to talk about how the internet can open minds to knowledge and world views, but also allows extremist groups to attract youth to radical jihadism.
Cheryl Thomas introduced Amir Ahmad Nasr and set the stage for his talk. He is a writer, artist, storyteller, speaker, educator, business advisor, and a digital media entrepreneur. At the age of 26, Amir made his authorial debut with his searing coming-of-age story and subversive manifesto, My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul. His book was recommended by Foreign Policy as one of the top 25 books to read in 2013, alongside books by Pulitzer Prize winners and prominent diplomats and military personalities.
The book was swiftly banned in Malaysia, and forced Amir to seek political asylum in the land of beavers and maple syrup - Canada.
He is a senior partner at boutique management consultancy Living Blueprint; an MA in Philosophy dropout; an Aspen Institute Leadership Seminar alumni, and an advisory member of the Board and International Council at the Human Rights Foundation, organizer of the Oslo Freedom Forum: the “transformative annual conference where the world’s most engaging human rights advocates, artists, tech entrepreneurs, and world leaders meet to share their stories and brainstorm ways to expand freedom and unleash human potential across the globe.”
Amir has shared the stage with Nobel Peace Laureates, former presidents, and fellow entrepreneurs, and has been noted by WIRED as a “formidable speaker.”
At our meeting, Amir did not disappoint – he was a very engaging speaker. Amir tackled this complex and difficult topic primarily by focusing on his own experience. Growing up as a Muslim in Africa, Middle East and Malaysia, he flirted with radical Islam at a young age, eventually rejecting it.
Amir said that speaking to our club was a historic first – he had never given a speech at 7 a.m. before! He then went on to describe his experience coming to the Vancouver airport on January 29, 2014 in order to claim asylum.
The internet has had a huge impact on young Muslims. On the one hand, it liberates them from restrictive thinking and gives them access to a whole world of knowledge and thought. On the other hand, it allows radical groups to promote their views and strengthen their numbers.
As a child, Amir lived in Khartoum and Qatar. His father was an academic and both parents were Western educated. Amir attended British and American international schools but was also taught about the traditional Muslim way of living.  He was constantly questioning the religious teachings and way of life, which were becoming more restrictive, and didn’t like the ‘That’s just the way things are’ answer.
Amir’s family moved to Malaysia in 2006, in part to escape from the increasingly restrictive life in Khartoum and Qatar. As he continued to search for his identity, he became involved with some of the extremist forums on the internet. However, he eventually turned away from the radical community, reading more liberal Arab bloggers and becoming one of the key anonymous Arab bloggers that influenced the Arab Spring action.
A turning point for him was reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, realizing how many rights were being blocked by religious extremists. He included far right extremists in his condemnation – pointing out how many of those who were on the fringes of US society are now becoming mainstream, with frightening implications for democracy.
One question people often have is how young people from North America, even white, secularized youth who have rights, prosperity and opportunity, can become involved in jihadist activity. His view is that all people seek to find meaning in life, and many of the young people who turn to radicalism are searching for a purpose.
Amir closed his talk by saying “Is liberal democracy worth fighting for? His answer was a firm “YES”!
  1. What rights didn’t he have as a youth that are contained in the Human Rights ? Answer: Free speech, free thought, free expression
  2. What was the critical element that made him turn from radicalism? Answer: His parents, who always loved him. Also, he could see his parents in Khartoum were part of the “estranged generation”, people who had lived in a more open and cosmopolitan city and were now grieving its loss as fundamentalism took over.
  3. Can all radicalized youth be changed and redirected? Answer: No, some cannot, but it is possible that some can.
  4. How do you fit into Canada now? Answer: He said he still has many elements to his identity – Black, Arab, Sudanese, Malaysian, Muslim. Canada is the only place he has lived which has allowed him to integrate all these aspects of his identify. He said that in Canada our civic institutions allow us to be multicultural.