It was a curious scene last month in Toronto: Iranians and Jews, joining forces to express solidarity with demonstrators in Iran protesting over rising fuel prices.
The rallies appeared innocuous enough. The Iranians wanted to draw attention to Tehran’s violent response to protesters, of which hundreds were killed and thousands more arrested. The Jewish demonstrators, led by advocacy group B’nai Brith, said they were “proud” to stand side by side with their “Iranian brothers and sisters.”
“The tyrannical Iranian regime poses a serious danger to both of our communities, and it is important that we always stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity,” declared Michael Mostyn, CEO of B’nai Brith. Several politicians also attended, including Liberal MP for York Centre Michael Levitt, Conservative MPP for Eglinton-Lawrence Robin Martin, Conservative MP for Thornhill Peter Kent and Liberal MP Willowdale Ali Ehsassi.
What was less clear was a sign inscribed with “1400 years of stupidity” — an explicit Islamophobic trope often levelled by the far right — was being held, less than 10 feet away from Levitt and Martin. When the sign was flagged to Mostyn and other MPs on Twitter, only Levitt bothered to respond: “It’s been brought to my attention that there was a placard at Sunday’s rally that was inappropriate and hateful. It had no place at an event supporting Iranians fighting for their human rights against a brutal regime,” he posted on Twitter.
It would be easy to attribute the sign to the actions of a lone racist — except that it wasn’t. The rally was one of many organized by rogue elements of the Iranian Canadian community that display fierce anti-Muslim sentiment and a bizarre level of crudeness.
Later that same day, the advocacy group Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC) held a candlelight vigil at the University of Toronto campus, also to express solidarity with protesters in Iran. The vigil was stormed by a group of self-described Iranian activists who shouted anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs in Farsi, including “I want to shit on your Kaaba,” Islam's most sacred site in Mecca. When they were asked not to swear publicly because children were present, one man by the name of Nasser Pooli responded, “Give me your daughter to rape.” Before leaving, another man brandished a knife and slashed the tires of an ICC board member’s car, parked nearby.
It gets murkier.
Pooli can be seen in a YouTube video from this month, having a private meeting with Conservative MP Garnett Genuis on the sidelines of a gala event promoting human rights in Iran. Pooli identified himself in the video as a representative of the Iranian Canadian community (a bizarre assertion given that he has no official affiliation and his YouTube channel has only 19 subscribers) and discussed policy and human rights issues in Iran with Genuis.
While there’s nothing wrong with sitting down with a concerned constituent, it’s hard to believe that an MP wouldn’t carry out the necessary due diligence before meeting an individual who purported to be a community representative. Was Genuis aware of Pooli’s slurs at the vigil? And if not — and he learned of them afterwards — would he even care?
I decided to put the questions to him. “I had a brief conversation with the person you mentioned outside of an event he was attending promoting human rights in Iran,” Genuis told me in an emailed response. “I don’t have much knowledge of this person’s views or past actions, so I cannot comment on whether what you allege has any foundation.” I sent him the video of Pooli at the vigil, pointing out his racial and sexually charged comments. No response.
The actions of these MPs leave many questions unanswered. Why are they feigning ignorance or silence when questioned on issues of legitimate public interest? Why are our elected politicians failing to question the racist rhetoric behind the “activists” they choose to stand in solidarity with?
Bigotry can manifest in different forms. Racism doesn’t always rear its ugly head in the face of an alt-right white demonstrator donning a yellow vest or MAGA hat calling for an end to “creeping jihad.” Extremist elements lie within racialized communities as well.
But it’s also critical to understand the wider context around in-fighting among the Iranian community, which stems from their ideas around Canada-Iran relations.
One faction calls for Ottawa to keep dialogue open with Tehran and gradually normalize relations in much the same vein that the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers did. These Iranians, largely represented by the ICC, condemn the Iranian government for their violent response to protestors. They also urge for the grievances behind the protests to be viewed fairly within the lens of reimposed U.S. sanctions, which have crippled the economy, leaving ordinary Iranians starved for food and medicine.
The other faction of opposition activists comprise Iranians who immigrated or fled the country after the Islamic revolution in 1979; many were political prisoners who argue that Canadian politicians should keep Iran at a distance and support U.S. sanctions or military intervention. Some are nostalgic for the pre-revolution monarch days of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (hence the many signs of Pahlavi at the rallies). Others belong to or are supported by the MEK, a cult-like and former terrorist group from Iran with a sole mission of overthrowing the current government in Tehran. Individuals from this faction interpret ICC’s position as support and endorsement for Iran’s government and launch vitriol attacks on the organization, both at events across the Greater Toronto Area and on social media.
The rift between these two factions is long-running and complex, much like Iranian politics. What Canadians need to take away from the latter’s unholy alliances, however, is how our MPs are consistently failing to question the racist rhetoric and true motives behind the opposition “activists” they’re choosing to stand with.
Iranian Canadian academics say this faction of opposition activists is harmful.
“Their obsession with regime change and the framing of their messages is so anti–Iranian establishment that such ideas seem attractive to Western politicians, but they are not really looking at who these groups are,” one Canadian professor told me in confidence. “There have been years of opportunity for these groups to take actionable steps to support the people of Iran, and to many Iranians, they didn’t.
“Also, for Canadian lawmakers and voters, it should be a concern that they’re not honestly looking at the past of the groups they’re trying to support,” he added. “The MEK has a questionable past in Iran including assassinations and bombing of holy sites. During the Shah, there weren’t human rights in Iran. Just because he didn’t kill as much as the Islamic Republic, under his watch people still got arrested, tortured and executed for political reasons. He still didn’t respect human rights. There needs to be a reckoning.”
“It’s bad for Iranians but it’s bad for Canadian taxpayers too,” another Iranian Canadian professor who has been viciously smeared by pro-Shah and MEK-inspired activists in Canada said. “We’re allowing Canadian politics to be overwhelmed by lobby groups. I am sure the Canadian public would denounce tainted agendas of democracy and human rights once they become aware of it. They don’t want it for themselves and they will surely not want it for others.”