Jagmeet Singh praised for 'calm and positive' reaction to anti-Muslim heckler

Federal NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh is garnering praise for the way he reacted to a heckler who accused him last week of supporting Muslim extremism, because he chose to say that "hate is wrong" rather than emphasizing that he is Sikh rather than Muslim.

NDP leadership candidate says 'it's important we stand united against all forms of hate'

NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh deals with a heckler at a Brampton, Ont., meet and greet. (YouTube)

Federal NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh is garnering praise for the way he reacted to a woman who accused him last week of supporting Islamic extremism, because he chose to come out against "all forms of hate" instead of emphasizing that he is Sikh rather than Muslim.

The Ontario MPP was interrupted by an angry heckler at a meet and greet last Wednesday in Brampton, Ont. The woman stood in front of the candidate and shouted as aides tried to usher her aside in an incident that was caught on video and shared widely on social media well beyond Canada's borders.

The woman accused Singh of wanting to impose Shariah law, an Islamic legal code based on the Qur'an, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an 89-year-old religious and political group. The exchange was caught on video and lasted more than four minutes.

On Saturday night, Singh said in a statement: "I chose not to answer the questions asked because I didn't accept the premise.

"Many people have commented that I could have just said I'm not Muslim. In fact, many have clarified that I'm actually Sikh," Singh explained in a statement.  

"While I'm proud of who I am, I purposely didn't go down that road because it suggests their hate would be OK if I was Muslim."

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'This is probably not the first time'

A political science professor told CBC News on Monday that Singh took the right approach. 

"It suggests the fact that he is not Muslim is irrelevant," said Erin Tolley, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"You can just imagine for example a white politician standing in front of a room and heard something racist being said. The exact wrong reaction is to say, 'Well, I'm white, I'm not a person of colour, so this isn't important to me.'"

Singh wanted to defuse the situation, she said, highlighting that hate of all forms is wrong, whether it's directed at your community or not.

His response also signals that Singh, who wears a turban, has experience dealing with direct threats because of his outwardly religious appearance. 

"To me, what it says is that this is probably not the first time that this has happened, that he's able to respond like that suggests to me that this has happened before, and he has some experience and ability to understand what's going to defuse the situation rather than what's going to inflame it as well," said Tolley. 

'Jagmeet is ready to be prime minister'

Although it was a negative incident, she explained, it allowed Singh to show off his leadership skills and raise his political profile across the country.

Wab Kinew, who is from an Ojibway community in northern Ontario, says he has faced racism throughout his political career because of his background.

Manitoba NDP MLA Wab Kinew, who endorsed Singh's leadership bid Monday, also lauded him for how he handled the situation, adding he's not surprised by it.  

"Even though somebody is being very hateful and very angry, he was still calm and positive and even encouraging of this woman and he also handled it with poise," Kinew told CBC News, saying it sets an example for Canadians.

"This shows that Jagmeet is ready to be prime minister, because rather than taking the easy way out, which would have just been to save his own skin, so to speak, he took a broader approach and didn't leave anyone behind."

'Canada has a problem with racism'

Despite Singh's poise, Tolley noted the incident is part of a larger conversation Canadians need to have about discrimination.

"There's still a large portion of Canadians who don't think Canada has a problem with racism," she said.

This is a high-profile incident, but if you look at municipal elections or local elections, federally and provincially, this kind of thing happens at doorsteps.It happens at Parliament.- Erin Tolley, political science professor

"They think this is a multicultural society, it's very open, and that makes them overlook these kind of incidents that happen every day to black Canadians, to Muslim Canadians, to people of colour, to Indigenous people."

Kinew, who is Ojibway, grew up on Onigaming First Nation near Kenora, Ont. He says throughout his political career he has faced racism because of his background.

"There is unfortunately these undercurrents of ignorance and in some cases hatred in our political sphere and so we need leaders who can deal with it effectively," he said.

Others have not been so lucky, according to Tolley. 

"This is a high-profile incident, but if you look at municipal elections or local elections, federally and provincially, this kind of thing happens at doorsteps. It happens at Parliament," she said. 

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is among many female politicians in Canada and beyond who face sexist abuse on social media. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has also endured homophobic and sexist slurs and earlier this year, Mississauga MP Iqra Khalid was swamped by hate mail, death threats and sexist comments after introducing a motion to condemn and combat Islamophobia.

She told the House of Commons in February that she received more than 50,000 emails in response to M-103. The private member's motion calls on the government to condemn and eliminate "Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination."

"I have asked my staff to lock the office behind me as I now fear for their safety," she said previously. "I have asked them not to answer all phone calls so they don't hear the threats, insults and unbelievable amount of hate shouted at them and myself."

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid says she has received hate mail and death threats after tabling a motion calling on the government to condemn Islamophobia. (CBC)

CBC News reached out to Khalid for reaction, but she declined to comment. 

Singh also did not accept a request for an interview after CBC News made several attempts. 

"Once we say it's OK to hate someone based on their religion, we're also opening the door to hate based on race, gender, sexuality, and more," Singh said in a statement. 

"It's important that we stand united against all forms of hate."