Islamic History Month: An Interview with Naheed Nenshi
Not that long ago a friend of mine moved from Toronto to Calgary. Shortly before heading West, she tweeted about her moving plans and less than an hour later, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had replied to her tweet and welcomed her to Calgary.
My friend’s story is not an isolated one – there are many stories about Mayor Nenshi’s savvy ability to navigate social media and of the energy and enthusiasm he brings to his job as mayor. His ability to speak in an intelligent and accessible way, both in person and online, has helped make him a popular public figure not just in Calgary, but across Canada.
I recently had the chance to speak with Mayor Nenshi and he was his usual engaging and energetic self. We discussed everything from his Muslim heritage to how he wants to get more women involved in politics to why human rights must matter to cities to why he believes the world needs more Canada.
October is Islamic History Month in Canada. What does that mean to you?
Well, it’s a good opportunity for us to look at the long history of Muslims in Canada and their contributions to this community and this nation. To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure I knew that October was Islamic History Month, because for me every month is Islamic History Month, but I think it’s always good to take a moment to step back and just think about the power of diversity in this community and how we are all richer for it.
You identify as an Ismaili Muslim. Can you tell us a little bit about that identity and what it means to you?
I am – as is everyone – the combination of all of the factors that have contributed to my upbringing. The fact that I grew up in Northeast Calgary, the fact that I went to excellent public schools, the fact that I have a business degree and a graduate degree, the fact that I am a son and a brother and an uncle and a cousin, and my faith are all integral parts of me. I was recently at a conference in the United States where I was introduced as Canada’s first Muslim mayor and I remarked on it saying that I’m never introduced that way in Calgary and very rarely anywhere in Canada. But when I travel, I’m always introduced that way. It doesn’t bother me, because it gives me the opportunity to have a conversation about just that. It’s not correct to say my faith doesn’t matter – it’s not correct at all. But it is correct to say that we are lucky enough to live in a community where we accept the fact that people state this part of who they are and it doesn’t prevent us from sharing the opportunities our community has with those people. For me, as an Ismaili Muslim, it really is a very, very important part of my identity – the fact that the ethics of that faith, which include the necessity of service and the dignity of every human being, are absolutely important to me in my decision-making, but I’m open and transparent about that and I think that people accept and appreciate that.
In 2010 you became the first Muslim elected mayor of a large North American city. What message do you think this sent to Canadians, both Muslim and non-Muslim?
The most important part about my election is that my faith was not an issue in the election. When Sadiq Khan was elected the mayor of London earlier this year, his faith was a giant issue in the election, both pro and con. When I was elected in Calgary, the couple of times that my faith came up in the conversation, Calgarians didn’t like it. They kept saying “You know, we already know about his faith – we’re more interested in what he wants to do with transit.” I think that speaks a lot to who we are as Canadians. It’s something that we take very much for granted – the fact that we truly believe that everyone deserves equal opportunity in this place. That is uncommon – it’s not true everywhere in the world; it’s not even true in other great democracies, always. For me, I think that’s a very Canadian story; it’s the story of a place where multiculturalism and pluralism work better than just about anywhere in the world. But it is also a tale which I think can be used as an example. We need to be proud and loud about Canada’s embracing of diversity and of pluralism, because in this broken world of ours, we could actually use more of that. It is one of those cases where it is true that the world needs more Canada.
You’ve spoken out about the importance of ethnic and gender diversity at Calgary’s city hall. Why do you think this issue is important?
I think it is important that in our communities, we are forever living the value of opportunity for everyone. We need to make sure that people have opportunities everywhere and for public sector organizations, it’s particularly important that we reflect the communities that we serve – because then we do a better job. Because if we really are reflective of the people whom we serve, then we are better able to anticipate their needs and to offer them services that make a difference to them. One of the most important ways to do that, in my opinion, is to encourage women in public office. One of the things that I don’t like about Calgary is that on my city council there are 15 of us and there are only two women. It’s the lowest number of women on our council in decades. We are seeing a small trend towards that in other cities – in Edmonton, they’ve only got one woman on their council now. We have to look at what, if any, systemic barriers are preventing women from running for public office and from getting elected. It’s not just that we have the lowest number of women on council, because it’s a democracy – people vote for who they like. But we had the lowest number of women candidates in many, many years in the last election. So we have to ask ourselves, what is preventing women from putting their names forward? That’s just one example. It’s always fair to be constantly asking ourselves what implicit and explicit barriers are getting in the way of people’s full participation in society – regardless of what they look like or where they come from, or how they worship, or whom they love.
Do you think cities and civic government have a role to play in protecting and upholding human rights? What do you think that role is?
No question! Every single one of us has a role to play in protecting and upholding human rights. I always say that real change in our community comes when everyday people use their everyday hands and everyday voices to advocate for real change. So every one of us has a role to play. As for politicians and people in civic government – I think that everyone who is lucky enough to have a microphone or the ear of others needs to use that in a way that upholds the dignity of every human being. When we give rise to voices of fear, intolerance, division or xenophobia, or in these days particularly, Islamophobia – and we give rise to those voices either by playing to those concerns if we’re politicians that think that will help us, or by not standing up against those voices in little ways and big ways – then we make those voices stronger. It’s really, really important that every one of us really fight for the rights of every other one of us. If we see someone being the victim of abuse on the bus and we don’t do anything, and we are a bystander, then we make those voices of division stronger. So I really believe every one of us needs to do that. Sometimes when I speak out on issues of diversity around the country and the world, people say: “Hey, are you swimming outside of your lane a little bit?” But I don’t think so. I think every one of us has a responsibility to stand up for human rights. And we have to do it using whatever tools we have –my microphone just happens to be a bit bigger than other people’s.
I should just say that I’m also crazy about cities. And one of the reasons that I’m crazy about cities is because they are where human beings intersect. So by their very definition, cities have different kinds of people in them. They have people who are richer than others and poorer than others; they have people who come – especially in this country – from every corner of the earth. Cities are the living labs for pluralism – and so if cities don’t work as instruments to share opportunities and uphold everyone’s rights, then nothing else will work. No other unit of government or organization will work, so it really comes down to successful cities.
You visited the Museum this past summer and told us your favourite gallery was Actions Count, which tells stories of Canadians who have taken action for human rights. Why?
It’s pretty straightforward. Because it just makes a huge difference when everyday people work to make change. I found that gallery so touching because it really was everyday people – like I said before – using their everyday hands and their everyday voices and their everyday hearts to make extraordinary change in the lives of others. It reminded me why I do what I do and that people everywhere have the power to make that kind of change and I just loved that. It was wonderful to see the pictures of the big leaders – to see the Aga Khan there, for example – but it was also really great to go into that gallery to see just what everyday people can do.