This story originally appeared in the Vaughan Citizen.
When Naseem Mahdi first got a call telling him that he had been inducted into the Order of Ontario, he was surprised.
But it wasn’t until he realized the scope of the designation that he felt humbled.
“I had no clue, I didn’t know this was happening,” he said. “My immediate reaction was that I’m not personally worthy of this honour, and that in reality, this is an appreciation for my community.”
Mr. Mahdi, a Vaughan resident and national vice-president of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Canada, has been working as a missionary with the Ahmadiyya community for 25 years.
He got a call about a month ago from the Ontario lieutenant-governor’s office telling him he was being recognized for his work in spreading awareness of inter-faith issues.
Mr. Mahdi is largely responsible for the Baitul Islam mosque in Maple, having overseen the project and helping to raise funds.
He has toured across Canada and the United States to speak at various universities and public events about Islam and its misconceptions.
He is a frequent speaker at multi-faith events and said he strives to break down religious barriers and bring various faiths together.
“All across the country we are promoting peace and respect towards different religions,” he said. “We are trying to bring all the religions onto the same platform.”
Apart from his leadership here in Canada, he has also served as a leader of Ahmadiyya communities in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. He says at the various conferences and symposiums he has spoken at, he focuses on similarities between different religions to foster acceptance and understanding.
“After the conference, the audience says, ‘There’s so many commonalities in all our religions, so why are we fighting’?”
Thornhill Councillor and chair of Vaughan’s community equity and diversity committee, Alan Shefman, noted the importance of the Baitul Islam mosque in promoting diversity in Vaughan.
He said that while the media can sometimes perpetuate the image of Muslims as violent or uncivilized, the Ahmadiyya community has tirelessly worked to dispel myths surrounding their faith.
“It helps other people begin to understand differences and diversity by having the dynamic of the Ahmadiyya community,” he said. “I think it has helped to open people’s eyes and destroy stereotypes.”
Mr. Mahdi agreed that the Maple mosque has played a major role in encouraging multi-faith discussion in the city of Vaughan.
“This mosque has become a symbol of peace, not only for us but for everybody because this mosque is open to every person whether he’s a Hindu, a Christian or a Jew,” he said.
Mr. Shefman said he was glad to see the Ontario government recognizing Mr. Mahdi for his work, both as a Vaughan citizen and as a national leader.
“I think it’s well-deserved and quite extraordinary to recognize an individual and his community, which have both done so much for the city of Vaughan.”
And while Mr. Shefman did say he was somewhat surprised when he heard the news, Dildar Ahmed, a representative of the local Ahmadiyya community, said the traits Mr. Mahdi exhibited in his time at Baitul Islam show that he was worthy of the appointment.
“He is an extremely capable, sincere, and compassionate person,” he said. “He has been a source of satisfaction, encouragement and progress in the community.”
Despite the praise, Mr. Mahdi is unwavering in his belief that the Ahmadiyya community as a whole should be hailed for working to improve inter-faith relationships in the province.
“It’s the work of thousands of people across the country that is being appreciated,” he said. “I’m just representing the community.”