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Sun Media's inappropriate obsession with Calgary Mayor's religion needs to stop

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Demagoguery is not an accusation that stings very much nowadays. Almost anyone can be accused of being a demagogue for saying almost anything, and one's inclination is merely to shrug it off with a snort.

Still, a reasonable person could conclude from the evidence that when Sun Media columnist Ezra Levant wrote his New Year's Eve column about Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, he risked arousing the emotions, passions and prejudices of some of the people of that city, which is a workable definition of demagoguery.

In his column, Levant tendentiously and unsuccessfully tries to build a case that Mayor Nenshi, whom he repeatedly (four times in approximately 650 words) identifies as a Muslim, is guilty of anti-Christian bigotry.

Levant's logic, if I understand it correctly, proceeds from the fact that Nenshi is a Muslim, to the fact that during Nenshi's tenure in office Occupy Calgary protesters were allowed for a time to camp in the nearby Olympic Plaza, to the fact that a group of evangelical Christians were asked not to conduct a public service without permission inside Calgary's Civic Building, and, when they didn't co-operate and move on, their leader was apparently arrested.

Ergo, Levant preposterously concludes, "the Muslim mayor thinks religious tolerance is a one-way street -- a point he made again brutally this Christmas."

Regardless of Levant's very colourful language, it is clear taken directly from his own account -- if one actually takes the trouble to read it carefully -- that there was no brutality, that the evangelical pastor who tried to conduct a private service within the Civic Building has broken Calgary's civic bylaws more than 70 times over the past six years, and that Mayor Nenshi wasn't the mayor of Calgary when the city cracked down on the earlier offences, many of which involved the volume of the preacher's amplification system.

It is also important to note that in some of this particular pastor's previous tangles with the law, his Charter rights to free expression were violated. However, having established this in the courts -- and presumably therefore now being free to preach his Gospel message out of doors at a legal decibel level -- this individual took his message to a venue where he could be confident he would generate more publicity by again coming into conflict with the law.

Notwithstanding this qualification, Levant clearly went way over the top when he suggested Mayor Nenshi has been personally conducting a campaign against this group, or against Christians generally, or that when Christians turn up at City Hall the mayor "sends in the boys with the billy clubs." In addition, the implication that Nenshi is doing this because he is not a Christian, which is a very reasonable interpretation of Levant's argument, is outrageous, as is calling Mayor Nenshi a bigot.

Moreover, the author is taking a gratuitous cheap shot when he observes as an aside that the mayor once lived in his mother's basement -- something I would bet is true of most of us, even some of us who have now paid property taxes for decades. Indeed, even me.

It's not at all clear whether "the boys with the billy clubs" had their billy clubs with them, or were all boys, since there appears from a cursory Google search to have been very little coverage of this event by legitimate news media. Although from that, it's safe to conclude that if the boys did bring their billy clubs, they obviously didn't use them.

On a personal note, I must tell readers that I covered Calgary City Hall for several years for the Calgary Herald. And while there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, I think it is extremely unlikely that Mayor Nenshi called the police himself, or even knew the police had been called. In fact, I'd bet you a shiny new Twoonie that if Nenshi had known about it, he would have asked the city's security staff to just let the preacher preach.

Be that as it may, if I had been the security supervisor on duty that night and a group of people intentionally created a disturbance inside the Civic Building, I would have called the police too.

This may lead someone like Levant to conclude that I'm a self-hating Christian, but as some readers of his columns may not be aware, there have actually been some fairly deep divisions within Christianity for a number of years that, thankfully, don't seem to arouse quite as much passion nowadays as they once did. So it is possible to think another Christian is behaving inappropriately without hating yourself or questioning your faith -- which, within the broad Christian tradition, can come in a lot of different variations.

Regardless, toward the end of his column, Levant comes to what I suspect is his real motive in writing this drivel: Nenshi is a left-wing mayor. That's not new -- Calgary's last four mayors have been Liberal, as are most of its city councillors.

Well, not all of us would agree that Nenshi is particularly left wing, but he is obviously too left wing for Levant's well-known right-wing tastes.

By the way, if we accept Levant's claim about the last four mayors (Nenshi is identified with the Alberta Party, which is pretty liberal, and I can't find any affiliation information about one of the four), and if we count Ralph Klein as a Liberal as well (the party he was identified with when he ran for mayor), then seven of the last 10 Calgary mayors were Liberals. So Levant is right about this at least: there is a clear pattern, though not necessarily a negative one from Calgary's perspective.

But by going from his complaint about the tendency toward liberality of Calgary's mayors and voters to his completely unsupportable conclusion that "the Muslim mayor thinks religious tolerance is a one-way street," Levant risking inflaming religious prejudice that may exist within Calgary's population to achieve his political goals.

Whatever this author's intention was, that is clearly a danger here. If Sun Media's editors pay attention to what their columnists write, they were irresponsible to run this particular piece. If they do not, they are doubly irresponsible, and need to start paying attention.

Regardless, Sun Media's inappropriate obsession with Mayor Nenshi's religion clearly needs to stop.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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