[Guest post by Ian McMillan]
This piece is very hard for me and has been a month in the making. When the original story broke in early December, I wanted to write something, but couldn’t find the time or frankly the words to express what I wanted to say properly. But now I feel I have to say SOMETHING to the world.
At 9:20 pm on January 14th 2015, I saw an article claiming that John Maguire, the young Canadian man who left his life behind him in 2013 to join ISIS, was killed in Kobani, Northern Syria. To those of you that don’t remember, John (who went by the name Abu Anwar Al-Canadi when he entered Syria) was the young man who was all over the news back in December when he made a video for ISIS threatening attacks against Canada and Canadians. The news was sensational because he seemed like a normal Canadian kid who wanted to play in the NHL, a smart kid, a kid and loved the outdoors. But something changed in John, who started to go by the name Yahya on Twitter and Facebook. He converted to Islam, became radicalized and abandoned his country and way of life, to fight the Jihad, against the infidels, in Syria.
It seems like a huge leap for me and you, right? To be honest, it even seems weird for me to be writing about him since he is “just another terrorist” and “a traitor”. Why should we even think, let alone care about him? I understand that most people will view Yahya’s death as sad, but quickly move on from it since it is a very small story in the grand scheme of the overarching tale of ISIS. Also I understand that people will frankly not care that he died and feel that he got exactly what he deserved based off his actions and words.
But for me there is a reason to care. I actually knew Yahya.
I am not claiming to be some childhood friend, or classmate of Yahya’s. I worked with him for almost a year at a grocery store in Ottawa. Ya, weird, I know right? The young man the world saw as a terrorist used to be a stock boy.
I met Yahya at 5:00 in the morning one cold miserable day in the winter of 2012. I was a little hesitant to meet him at first. The group that we had at this grocery story were mostly non-religious (or else very quiet in our convictions). Not only that, we were a group of younger guys who would get together for a beer or two after work. Yahya was different. He looked like the rest of us, in the sense that we were mostly white Canadians, but from the very start we all knew he was deeply religious. There was a fear that this might change the workplace, that we might need to censor ourselves. Still, I figured that as long as he did his work, we would get along.
Quickly, though, Yahya endeared himself to the group. Not only was he nice, easy to get along with and a hard worker, he was funny! We would talk about dumb things, crazy stuff that was happening in our lives, the scores of hockey games and other trivial matters. The group all thought he was a good guy and a valued member of the team. I saw a lot of him because we worked the 5:00 am shift together every day. He was always polite, willing to offer a hand if I needed it; the definition of “solid” guy. I also quickly realized that behind his easy going nature there was a deep intellectual side to him. Now, I’m not going to claim I’m some deep philosopher, but I like to have good conversations and debates with people about the issues of our times. Yahya seemed to be that type, too.
The first time I ever had a deep conversation with Yahya was in the lunch room. We were both sitting across from each other having our hour lunch when he started to ask me about my beliefs. I shared that I was raised Catholic, though I am no longer practicing. Normally I would keep this very private because it is something that I was raised to NOT talk about, but I felt the need to talk to someone of a different faith superseded the way I was raised. The conversations that the two of us had about religion, faith and morals fascinated me. As a student of history I could talk to Yahya about the early church history and its relationship with the Islamic Faith. We talked about the crusades, the religious justification for them and the morality of killing in the name of God (for his part, Yahya shared his personal belief that killing in the name of God was only justifiable if an innocent life was at stake). We talked about the similarities and differences between the two religions. It was all very civil, very respectful and always informative. I pictured this as how any religious conversation should be.
This went on for almost a year, every day the two of us talking to each other about what is truth and what is just. Not only did we work well together, we had some of the most intellectual conversations that I have ever had. But then one day Yahya was quitting. He had an internship that started in January 2013, and couldn’t handle the workload of both jobs. While we were sad to see him go, we were all happy for him. He was a hell of worker and a good guy. I can remember shaking his hand, giving him a hug and wishing him the best of luck. He wished me the same. This was December 2012, his last day. If you have been following the news you know that this is point that Yahya bought a one way ticket to Turkey so he could slip into Syria and join ISIS. According to every news source I have read, no one close to him knew he was planning on leaving. This is now the second hardest part of Yahya’s story for me (the first being his death).
I only knew Yahya for about a year but in that time he was a good friend who could be counted on in the workplace. He never complained and always did what was asked of him. The news of his death saddened me, but honestly didn’t surprise me. In early December, when the video of Yahya surfaced, I commented to my girlfriend that “he is never making it out of there alive”. I didn’t want that statement to be true, but I knew that was probably his fate. A very small percentage of young Muslim men and boys join terrorist groups (even fewer white men from the West), making Yahya’s story extremely odd. But to me, what made his story odd was this: Yahya went from someone who could debate about religion civilly and respectfully, to calling for attacks against innocent people. I’m truly am saddened by his death but am more saddened by how someone who was so bright and so strong in his beliefs could be twisted into something so evil and unrecognizable to those that knew him.
I end this piece with what I truly wish I could have done for Yahya. I wish that me and him could be put in a room by ourselves. Just two chairs, a table and us. Just so we could talk again. I just want to listen to him, hear his thoughts, his fears. I just want to be reminded that the different religious groups of the world can sit together in the break room and enjoy each other’s company.