Guest Commentary

Omar Alghabra, MP


The rush to judge others seems to be part of the human condition. I don’t think it will ever stop. I know firsthand the experience of being judged as a minority – and judging others. The experience made me a better man.

I was born in Saudi Arabia. Community life was black and white. As a Sunni Muslim we learned we were on the correct path and everyone else was going to hell. Minorities were suspicious people who harboured questionable loyalties.

My father was an architect, and looking back I had a sheltered childhood. I attended private school with friends who were just like me. Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians – we shared the same culture, language and faith. There was little actual political debate, though everyone talked politics. Saudi Arabia is not a country that encourages outspoken dissent.

Prejudice is typically subtle. A boy at our school might be labeled the “Christian guy”. It was not a term of praise or affection. It was an insult. It implied he might have looser moral values than us. Sometimes there were cruder remarks, and everybody judged minorities from their own viewpoint – but the prejudice was implicit. This was normal.

I recall one incident: at age 11 I was playing soccer with my friend when I became angry with him over a play, and cursed: “Go away, Shia!” He was Shia Muslim. Our community did not consider it a compliment. I was only a boy, but afterwards I felt embarrassed and ashamed. In a flash of anger I’d insulted my friend because of his faith.

Like most Middle Eastern teenagers I sought opportunities outside our country. I immigrated to Canada at 19. I went from being a member of a privileged majority to a visible minority. Sometimes it was a sideways glance or remark: “He’s a Muslim”; “He’s an Arab”. As a public figure I’ve received Twitter comments describing me as an “infiltrator” and a “Sharia lover” and a “Jew-hater.”

I became a member of a suspicious minority for the first time in my life. It reduced me to one dimension. It was wrong and unfair. It helped me understand the importance of respecting each human being regardless of faith, background, sexual orientation or gender. To this day, I carry with me the deep understanding that regardless of our faith, we all share humanity and the common desire to do well for ourselves and our family.

Tolerance is not conformity. Tolerance is respect. My journey was the cornerstone of my deep commitment to human rights regardless of background and upbringing. In my 46 years I’ve lived on both sides of prejudice. The insight it’s given me is invaluable. There is no substitute for empathy and courtesy, for awareness and understanding in our individual behaviour, in our communities, in our laws.

And my boyhood Shia chum, the soccer player? We are still in touch. He lives in the United States and we are still friends. Every time I see him I apologize!

(Editor’s note: the author is Liberal MP for Mississauga Centre, Ont., and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs)

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