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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi believes Canadians need to stand as one against the reprehensible conduct of a few. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi believes Canadians need to stand as one against the reprehensible conduct of a few. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Calgary Mayor Nenshi ‘shaken’ by racism in debate over refugee crisis Add to ...

Naheed Nenshi can often speak eloquently about the pluralistic wonder he considers Canada. But as one of the most high-profile Muslim figures in the country, the Calgary mayor admits he has been “shaken” by the closed-minded, even racist nature of some of the debate over the Syrian refugee crisis.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut have only added to the mayor’s burden. And while he says he is not concerned about his personal safety amid the current backlash, he believes Canadians need to stand as one against the reprehensible conduct of a few.

Mr. Nenshi’s comments come as politicians elsewhere, including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory, issued pleas that the events in Paris and other places not trigger acts of hatred against Muslims. They are part of an ever-broadening chorus of voices at the political level, led by U.S. President Barack Obama, urging tolerance at a time when the knee-jerk reaction of many is to blame all Muslims.

“I don’t mind telling you that I have been shaken over the last four months by a tiny minority of the discourse,” the mayor said in an interview in his office.

“I haven’t heard stuff like that in a long time, and I think the really divisive rhetoric [around accommodating Syrian refugees] during the election gave people permission to say stuff that wasn’t polite to say in modern society. And that is absolutely different than it was six or seven months ago.”

Since becoming the country’s first Muslim mayor in 2010, Mr. Nenshi has been reluctant to wade into the often sensitive and difficult discussions that have taken place about followers of his religion. He says he is the mayor of a multicultural community of 1.2 million and not a religious authority who can speak on behalf of Muslims everywhere.

However, the current conversation in Canada and around the world seems to have stirred some genuine feelings of angst from within. He said he is “very concerned” when Muslims “are asked to apologize for Muslims everywhere.”

“Every one of the terrorists so far has been a man,” he said. “We don’t ask all men to apologize on behalf of all men when stuff like this happens. We certainly don’t ask Christians to apologize when there is a mass shooting involving someone who happens to be Christian.

“But, of course, it’s different, because these people [the terrorists] purport to be doing this work in the name of their faith. But the guy in Norway [mass murderer Anders Breivik] was also that way. But we didn’t ask every Lutheran to apologize for what he did.”

The mayor said Canada has a “tiny minority” of people who assume anyone who is a Muslim or an Arab “must be in cahoots with the terrorists that they are, in fact, actually fleeing from.” He also questioned some of the terrorists-will-come logic being used in an attempt to thwart the Syrian refugee plan in this country.

He said if he was organizing a plot to infiltrate Canada, he would consider the fact that terrorists were able to get people in France and Belgium to do horrible things inside their own countries. “If someone pulls out a French passport, they can be in Calgary in seven hours,” the mayor said, “without checks of any kind.

“So why would I want to embed bad guys, put them on leaky boats where they could die, have them sit in a refugee camp possibly for 18 months, in the hopes they might end up in a country where they might want to do bad stuff? It’s way easier to do bad stuff in other ways.”

The mayor said that when he hears about the racist behaviour that has taken place in recent days in this country, it hurts him as a Canadian.

“I’m used to people insulting me because I’m a politician,” the mayor said. “They can insult my faith, they can insult my hair, they can insult my weight and once in a while my ideas, but rarely. So I’m totally used to that. But when I say I’m shaken as a Canadian, it’s not as an individual. I’m not worried about my personal safety. But I’m shaken in terms of my personal political belief.”

The mayor reiterated time and again that he believes the vast majority of Canadians are open-minded, open-hearted souls who sympathize with the Muslim community at times like this. And he has no problems with those raising legitimate concerns about problems that could be created in the Liberal government’s rush to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year.

“As I go out and about, I’d say eight out of 10 comments I get about refugees is: How can I help?” Mr. Nenshi said. “And then there is 1.8 of the comments that are thoughtful, legitimate comments like the kind Premier [Brad] Wall raised: What about safety? What about housing? How we going to deal with all this?

“And the remaining 0.2 are really nasty racist things. So I try and ignore those and focus on making sure we answer those legitimate questions.”

He said the people leaving Syria hoping to come to Canada are fleeing the same kind of “bad guys” who killed in Paris and Beirut. “And as a place of sanctuary and a place of welcome, we have the opportunity to offer these people safety, and an opportunity to offer them a great life for their families and kids.

“To me, this is critical to who we are as a community. I think the way we manage ourselves over the next several months will really be defining for us as a nation.”

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