Dean Obeidallah: Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh taught us an important lesson about love this past week
In the face of hate, he chose kindness and acceptance -- an approach all of us could benefit from, Obeidallah writes
Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @deanofcomedy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
“When is your Shariah going to end? … We know you are in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood!” an irate white woman screamed in the face of a brown-skinned politician at his town hall meeting on Wednesday night.
Sixteen years after 9/11, bigoted remarks like these against Muslims – or even those perceived to be Muslim – have become disturbingly commonplace. And our President, who during his campaign openly attacked Muslims with false claims – that “thousands” of Muslim Americans cheered in New Jersey on 9/11, for example – isn’t helping matters.
In the case of this incident, the politician who was subject to this barrage of anti-Muslim comments, Jagmeet Singh, is not even Muslim. Singh, who is running to be the head of the New Democratic Party, one of Canada’s political parties, could’ve simply told the heckler, “I’m not a Muslim. I’m a Sikh.” But he didn’t. Nor did he respond by screaming at the heckler or publicly dismissing her as a bigot.
Instead, Singh chose love. While the woman shouted anti-Muslim slurs, Singh asked the audience, “What do we believe in?” He paused for a moment, then together with the audience said: “Love and courage.” He added, “We don’t want hatred to ruin a positive event, so let’s show people how we treat people with love.”
In a time when political disagreements often escalate into heated debates that threaten to tear our nation apart, Singh showed us all a different, more constructive approach.
But Singh didn’t stop there. He calmly and sincerely told the heckler, “we welcome you. We love you. We support you.” “Everyone in this room loves you … this room is filled with people who are loving,” he soon added. The crowd then applauded in support. Faced with this showing of love, the heckler eventually stormed out.
Singh’s actions and words echoed those of Martin Luther King Jr. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” King famously said. Despite the threat this woman may have posed to Singh, he remained calm and kind. At no time did he show fear, anger or even condescension to the woman reciting bigoted talking points.
And, after the incident, Singh put out a statement explaining why he did not clarify that he was not Muslim. Singh’s words are potentially even more moving than his reaction at the town hall. “My response to Islamophobia has never been ‘I’m not Muslim,’” he wrote. “It has always been and will be that ‘hate is wrong.’”
“Once allowed to grow, hate doesn’t pick and choose, it spreads like fire,” he added.
As a Muslim, I can’t thank Singh enough for refusing to simply take the easy way out by responding, “I’m not Muslim.” And he had every right to do just that. Since 9/11, it’s been challenging and even deadly to be a Sikh in North America because anti-Muslim actors have multiple times mistakenly taken Sikhs for Muslims.
In the days after 9/11, the first person reportedly killed in the anti-Muslim backlash was actually a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was working at his Mesa, Arizona, gas station when he was shot and killed. The gunman told the police upon his arrest, “I stand for America all the way.”
But that wasn’t the last incident. Sikh places of worship – known as gurudwaras – have been defaced with hateful graffiti. And in 2012, a white supremacist murdered six Sikhs at a gurudwara in Wisconsin.
But hate doesn’t stop at the US-Canada border. In Singh’s Canada, Sikh places of worship have also been defaced, including an incident in December when racist language and swastikas were spray-painted on the walls of a gurudwara in Calgary.
Yet Singh – and his many supporters in that room – chose not to sink to the level of one bigot. Sikh concluded his statement with words that apply both in his home country of Canada as well as in Trump’s America. “It’s important that we stand united against all forms of hate,” he said. “It takes love to understand that we’re all in this together.”
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Could this be a lesson for us in the United States? We have all witnessed heated political arguments, in which we view each other as bitter enemies instead of fellow Americans who happen to have differing political opinions. We know this is destructive and adds to a sense that our nation is dangerously divided.
Maybe, just maybe, the last chance for our nation is love.