On Sept. 11, three religious groups set aside conflicting ideologies in a crusade against Islam in Toronto schools, for the third time in less than two months.
A fringe coalition representing the Jewish Defense League (JDL), Christian Heritage Party (CHP) and the Canadian Hindu Advocacy (CHA) stood together in front of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) central offices, protesting a decision by administrators at a Toronto middle school allowing Muslim students to hold Friday afternoon prayers in the school’s empty cafeteria.
The latest protest marked the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, with the goal -- as declared on the large sign carried by one protester -- to draw attention to “the infiltration of radical Islam in Canadian institutions.” Others brandished placards exclaiming “No to Islam, yes to Muslim” and “The TDSB is on LSD,” while chanting “Muhammad was a pedophile.”
Valley Park Middle School serves an inner-city community that is predominantly Muslim, and approximately 80% of its students actively practice the faith. Three years ago, the principal grew concerned that hundreds of Muslim students were leaving school early on Friday afternoons to attend prayers at a local mosque, as their faith requires.
For Valley Park, accommodating the 30-minute weekly prayer service within the school seemed like a good solution to the problem of lost instructional time and the safety issue of students walking unsupervised to and from the mosque. Three years later, despite the school having received no complaints from students, parents, or the wider community, its religious accommodation has attracted the ire of anti-Islamists, who insist that it unfairly discriminates against other faiths.
School board officials point out that only Muslim students face this timetable conflict with religious services. Like all Western nations, Canada follows the Judeo-Christian calendar. Weekends are designed to accommodate the weekly holy days of the Jewish and Christian religions, but not that of Islam, which falls on Friday.
Media coverage of this issue has focused largely on the in-school prayer debate, dismissing the protesters as an isolated fringe and side-stepping examination of root causes like growing Islamophobia.
The small number of secularists participating in one of the earlier protests were quick to distance themselves from the Islamophobic hysteria on display around them, maintaining they are simply opposed to any religious practices within the public education system.
“It has nothing to do with the specific religion,” said one embarrassed-looking man. “Whether it’s Islam or Catholicism, I don’t want my tax dollars funding any religion in public schools.”
“These people are nuts. They don’t represent Torontonians so nobody really cares too much about what they have to say,” said one mainstream journalist, off the record, at the group’s first protest in July. “We probably won’t cover it, unless it’s a slow news day.”
Politicians seem to hold the same view that the issue is nothing but a local dust-up.
“I have confidence in the ability of school boards and schools to sit down with parents, with the community, and to make decisions that meet the needs of that community,” said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty during a campaign stop in Newmarket on September 9.
When asked for his party’s position on this issue in the midst of an election campaign, McGuinty said, “If you knock on doors around the province of Ontario and ask them today about schools, they’re not talking about that.”
However, the results of a survey conducted last week by the Association for Canadian Studies
suggest that Islamophobia in Canada is not limited to “fringe” elements like the JDL, CHP, CHA, and others. When 1,500 Canadians were asked whether they believe there is an irreconcilable conflict between Western and Muslim societies, more then half of respondents (56%) answered “Yes.”
These findings may signal a growing malignancy in Canada’s body politic. In fact, it appears that Toronto, long considered a bubble of multicultural tolerance, has not been immune to the rising tide of Islamophobia across the Western world since 9-11.
While mainstream public discourse in Toronto has, for the most part, remained fairly civil, virulent on-line opinions, like these reader comments on two Toronto Sun articles, are increasingly common:
“Sick, sick, sick. Children can't say the Lord's prayer...but they bring in an "Imam" representing a death-cult to pray in class?!?!? What's next - will he bring the suicide vests too??”
“It's difficult not to know about this religion. It's in the headlines every day, around the world. And it doesn't look good. What right do you have to pray in a public school setting? Are you that ignorant of Canadian society? Or do you just not care how things are done here?”
“I am only going to say this ONCE. I am sick of these douche bag muslim pigs telling us what we can and can't do! Don't like it go back to your s h i t t bag mud huts. Our kids can't say the Lords prayer because it OFFENDS YOU. I find you all offensive. This is MY COUNTRY. My ancestors had a hand in building this country. My family went to war to fight for OUR FREEDOMS AND RIGHTS. NOT YOURS. PHUK OFF!”
The recent protests at the Toronto school board have also brought supporters into the light. A Thank You TDSB rally is planned for Saturday, September 17, to show support for the school board’s refusal to back down. With several Muslim organizations helping spreading the word, rally organizers are anticipating that hundreds of supporters could attend.
For their part, the anti-prayer coalition is also planning to show up in numbers. With as many as 300 people expected outside TDSB’s head offices on either side of the issue, a police presence is likely.