Comments made by Government House Leader Darin King Wednesday are drawing condemnation from the Canadian Islamic Congress, after King said the term "ayatollah" is associated with violence.
King is defending the comment, saying that in the minds of many people, the word "ayatollah" is associated with Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, who was connected with violence and terrorism.
"I'm arguing that the connotation in which the member used, that term is a culmination of an attack on volunteers in this province," King said. "In that connotation, I think most people in the western world associate ayatollah with Ayatollah Khomeini, an individual who was connected to violence and suspected mass murder."
Ayatollah Khomaini was involved in the 1979 Iranian revolution; he died in 1989.
The whole thing started when Liberal MHA Jim Bennett asked a question about the unelected board which is overseeing the amalgamation of the province's four English-language school boards into one mega-board. Bennett wanted to know how long the unelected trustees would be in place; he called them "the ayatollahs of education."
After question period, King raised a point of order in the House, arguing that the way Bennett used the term was an insult, and he should be forced by the Speaker to apologize.
"I believe he used it in a negative sense," King said. "In the negative sense, 'ayatollah' would reference violence - an individual who is connected with mass murder and death."
Amin Elshorbagy, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said that the term "ayatollah" refers to a religious scholar in the Shia sect of Islam. It is akin to a archbishop or cardinal in the Roman Catholic church.
"I'm not sure how this can be related to violence," Elshorbagy said. "Many of the ayatollahs may not be involved in politics at all. They're just sitting in schools and academic institutions and learning and teaching people Islamic studies."
Elshorbagy said the incident could have been an opportunity to teach people about Islam, instead of equating senior Muslim religious figures with violence.
"Actually, it might be even an opportunity to educate the public about the meaning of this terminology, rather than giving the impression that carries a meaning of violence or anything, because it does not," he said. "When they give such comments, they will leave Muslims with the feeling that some politicians insist on making this link, even though its completely false."
Elshorbagy wasn't impressed with Bennett's comment either.
"I think whoever the politician that referred to it, I don't know what he really means. In what sense is the behaviour of those trustees similar to an ayatollah?" he said.
Speaker Ross Wiseman has said he's going to study the transcript of the House of Assembly and take time to consider the matter before he delivers a ruling on whether the term "ayatollah" is considered unparliamentary language.
King said he'll live by whatever the Speaker rules.
"You don't condemn the lawyer if he loses the case," he said. "I'm just the Government House Leader raising points. If I win the point, it'll be dealt with. If I lose the point, that's where it is."
Bennett said he knows exactly what an ayatollah is, and in his original comment, he was making reference to the fact that they're unelected.
"The members of the transition team are not elected, so that means it's undemocratic," he said. "They're not elected, and we need democratically elected school boards in this province. The ayatollahs are simply highly educated clerics."
Bennett said he can't imagine why King is associating his comments with violence.
"This just shows a government that isn't very worldly, and regrettably, we're suffering from their lack of knowledge of the world, and their incompetence," Bennett said. "Christians have killed a lot more Muslims than Muslims have killed Christians."
Dr. Syed Pirzada, president of the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (MANAL), said that when he heard about the whole brouhaha, he just had to smile.
Pirzada said he doesn't believe that either Bennett or King were deliberately trying to demonize anybody.
"As a member of the community I feel that, when we are given any position of importance, no matter in the community or in the government, we have an obligation to be responsible in our actions, behaviours and public speaking. We must promote peace, harmony, love and tolerance for each other as we are judged on a higher pedestal," Pirzada said in an e-mail. "As a president of MANAL this is our motto and this is our aim to promote peace, love and tolerance in our beautiful Island."