A MUSLIM LIBERAL IN SUBURBIA

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By Eva Salinas

Omar Alghabra thinks it’s important to keep religion separate from politics. But that has been near impossible for the Liberal candidate in Mississauga-Erindale.

Alghabra, 36, is Muslim and the level of devotion to his faith has become a campaign issue. After his victory of the Liberal nomination last December, the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, which claims to be a non-partisan organization, incorrectly quoted Alghabra as saying “This is victory for Islam…Islamic power is extending into Canadian politics.”

Alghabra was quick to deny it, and media such as the Toronto Star and Mississauga News were quick to pick up the story after the coalition released a retraction and apology to Alghabra. “I believe that was a smear campaign, it was fabricated,” Alghabra said. “I think it was a desperate attempt from people who are trying to divide up the riding, to divide up the community and create a false perception about who I am as a person and about what I stand for. But it backfired.” It was a hard introduction to election-time politics for the young candidate.

“I’m new to politics, and I never expected it to be like that, but at the end of the day its not really personal,” he said. Alghabra became a member of the Liberal party a few years ago. He was born to Syrian parents in Saudi Arabia and came to Canada by himself at 19. He received a Mechanical Engineering degree from Ryerson and a Masters in Business Administration from York University.

He was working at General Electric Co. before the election campaign began, but it wasn’t until the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York that Alghabra became political. “It was after (Sept. 11) where I…realized every time I go and sit around with friends we just complained about, especially as a minority, about how things are done, how there are a lot of misunderstandings about the Arab community,” he said.

“And I realized we do a lot of talking and complaining ourselves but we don’t do anything about it. We don’t realize that we have a role to play here if we want to combat what we think is unfair.” In 2004, Alghabra was the national president of the Canadian Arab Federation and spent a year as a member of the community editorial board for the Star. All five ridings in Mississauga elected Liberal candidates in the previous election, including the controversial and now-independent Carolyn Parrish in Mississauga-Erindale. Even so, Alghabra still had to earn voter confidence.

While out introducing himself to the 100,000 voters in the area, Alghabra finds himself debating religious issues again, this time with his own supporters. Sitting in a living room one Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a dozen Muslim men, most much older than himself, Alghabra is peppered with questions on same-sex marriage. Alghabra, knowing the faith does not support it, stands by his party.

“I know moral issues tend to be very sensitive issues for people of faith and I think it becomes difficult for others to accept something that goes beyond their own faith or belief. So I understand the emotional aspect of it,” he said. “We live in a multicultural society, in a diverse society, we are ruled and protected by laws and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Getting to know Omar

1. Do you remember starting out at Ryerson?

I was the frosh person of the year or whatever on frosh day. I was the most purple-painted faced person…. And the Barenaked Ladies, they were not as famous at that time, they were somewhat famous but not as famous as they are now, they played for us (on Centre Island). I had a great time.

2. Are you one of those guys who has a thousand white socks, and do you roll them down or fold them?

Colour and the fold are two different things. Most of my socks are dark socks and yes, I do fold them over.

3. A healthy breakfast person or Froot Loops?

No breakfast. Coffee. Just coffee. Cream and sugar. After working three years at a donut shop, I’ve become really experienced at making coffee.

4. (Upon finding out he is a bachelor.) Do you have a speciality you like to cook?

Boiled water.

5. Any secrets pleasures?

I love chocolate. Chocolate is my guilty pleasure. All of it. I like coffee chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, I eat it all. Fancy chocolate, cheap chocolate, I eat it all.”

6. What was the last film you saw in theatres?

I think, what was it called, Kingdom of Heaven. I am a tough movie critic. I pay attention to the plot and if it comes across genuine and convincing, I like the movie and if it comes across for the sake of show off and stuff, I’m not a big fan.”

7. Why should young people vote Liberal?

If elected as the next government, they’ll be paying 50 per cent of first year tuition and 50 per cent of last year tuition for all students.

8. What about security near campus and gun violence?

I think many people reduce the Liberal strategy to just banning handguns… We’re talking about bringing minimum sentences for gun crime. We’re talking about strengthening our border security to ensure that we don’t get any guns smuggled. And we’re talking about investment in our communities and our youth, so we can suffocate any excuses or despair or frustration and prevent them from being seduced by gangs or criminals.

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