Windsor mayor says he doesn't recall much about posing with supporter of Iranian regime

Mayor Drew Dilkens, left, attended an October 2018 event at Ahlul-Bayt Mosque in Windsor, Ont., where he was photographed with Firas Al Najim, who was wearing a scarf bearing the image of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Al Najim recently posted the photo on Twitter. (Firas Al Najim/Twitter - image credit)
Mayor Drew Dilkens, left, attended an October 2018 event at Ahlul-Bayt Mosque in Windsor, Ont., where he was photographed with Firas Al Najim, who was wearing a scarf bearing the image of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Al Najim recently posted the photo on Twitter. (Firas Al Najim/Twitter - image credit)

Drew Dilkens faces criticism over a photo on social media that shows the Windsor, Ont., mayor at a 2018 event supporting the family of a deceased Hezbollah leader, and with someone wearing a scarf depicting the supreme leader of Iran.

Dilkens says he doesn't have a "strong recollection" of the event, and if it had espoused "hate or discrimination, I would have immediately departed."

It's also "impossible to know the motivation or views of each individual who asks to have their photo taken with me," he says in a statement released in a letter.

At the October 2018 event at Ahlul-Bayt Mosque on Wyandotte Street East in Windsor, Dilkens was photographed with Firas Al Najim, who was wearing a scarf bearing the image of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Al Najim said the event was to honour the mother of a Hezbollah commander who was killed by a car bomb in Syria in 2008. This week, he tweeted the photo showing him with Dilkens.

Al Najim's Twitter bio lists him as the manager of Canadian Defenders For Human Rights. He tweets multiple times per day in favour of the Iranian regime, calling for people to "raise up the honourable flag of the #Islamic_Republic_of_Iran #Iran and destabilize all evil."

Hard to glean context, expert says

The tweet about Dilkens comes amid worldwide protests against the regime following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran. The country's morality police arrested her for not wearing her hijab properly, as the country's strict Islamic laws require. She died in custody.

Since then, at least 450 people have died and 25,000 have been arrested during protests.

That makes the photo "more of an issue than it would have been" before the violent protests happened, said Jamey Essex, a University of Windsor political science professor.

But municipal politicians don't always know the complexities of the communities they interact with, said Essex.

He said it's also hard to glean context from Twitter.

"It's hard to know what Dilkens would have known about the symbology around him or what the conversation would have been like."

'I condemn hate, discrimination,' mayor says

For a local politician, said Essex, "attending these events is quite common. It might be outside of your cultural wheelhouse, but you still want to engage with your city and the people in it."

The Canadian government considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist group.

Roshi Azami-Rostkowicz, a local Iranian-Canadian, is among Windsorites who have recently demonstrated against the regime in Iran.

"I accept [Dilkens's] letter at face value," she told CBC News. "Let's not make a scandal out of this. I must say though back in 2018, the riots in Iran were as they are now. He must do his research before he supports any organization."

Ardeshir Zarezadeh, director of the International Center For Human Rights, tweeted Thursday that Dilkens "should answer why you stand with" Hezbollah supporters.

Dilkens said the release of the images more than four years later "is clearly meant to foster animosity and discord, and I encourage residents to ignore these attempts to divide our community."

"Obviously, I condemn hate, discrimination and violence in all forms."