Opposing prayer in Toronto public schools, with dignity

How bad bedfellows have clouded the case against the “Mosqueteria”

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

A Toronto public school has caused enormous controversy in the press this month for its makeshift Muslim congregation. For the past three years, every Friday afternoon during the darker months, nearly 400 Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School, have—under the auspices of the Toronto District School Board’s Religious Accommodation policy—prostrated themselves on the cafeteria floor facing Mecca, and made their afternoon prayers as the sun set over the school (those lamenting the separation of church and state can thank Canadian winters for their reunion). The school’s faculty implemented the imam-led sessions when they noticed large numbers of students were signing themselves out of class after lunch on Friday to attend Mosque, and several weren’t coming back. It seemed an easy fix: eliminate a liability with a seemingly workable accommodation. Unfortunately it didn’t work: The girls prayed behind the boys to maintain “modesty” and menstruating girls sat lazily up-right at the back—excused from prayer until their “cleanliness” returned to them.

People are angry and I understand why: Organized prayer doesn’t belong in school, religious accommodation shouldn’t accommodate sexism, and tolerance should never tolerate intolerance. The Toronto District School Board does all of its students—Muslim and non-Muslim—a great disservice by compromising one policy (gender equity) in favour of another (religious accommodation). But lately something has complicated my indignation: An old bearded man—of any religious stripe—relegating 13-year-old menstruating girls to the back of the room is highly unsavoury, but so is Ezra Levant donning a burka on national television to show solidarity with oppressed Muslim women. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that some of the most strident opponents of the cafeteria congregation are as morally deficient as the congregation system itself.

But most Canadian publications haven’t noticed. Take the Canadian Hindu Advocacy, an interest group that’s been Valley Park Middle School’s most passionate opponent. Nearly every newspaper article on the topic, from those in the Toronto Star to the Toronto Sun, has called The Canadian Hindu Advocacy a mere “critic of Islam”. Closer investigation, though, (or any at all) makes clear that the CHA is no critic, but one, a vehemently anti-Islamic organization; and two, despite its name, an embarrassment to Canadian pluralism. Go on the group’s website and you’ll see, under “Our Activities”, items that provide a quick snapshot of the CHA’s truly charming take on minority rights: “CHA speaks at Jewish discussion of Geert Wilders” (Wilders, of course, is the inflammatory Dutch politician famous for comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf); “CHA exposes The Sham of Tarek Fatah” (Fatah, a fiercely secular Muslim writer and broadcaster in Toronto, is in favour of gay rights, a strict division between church and state, and a progressive form of Islam); and “CHA published op-ed, ‘Slam the doors on Immigration’” (acceptable advice, apparently, now that the CHA has slipped through the doors). The group’s leader, Ron Banerjee, has been quoted to the effect that: “In its entire history, Islam, the Islamic civilization, has invented and contributed less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys.” Just this past month Banerjee debated Toronto imam Steve Rockwell on the John Oakley radio show, where he spent more time belittling Muslims than he did championing secularism. “The PEW (Research Center) did a study” he told Rockwell, “and in each and every case the situation is the same. The Hindu community and the Jewish community have higher than average education and incomes, and the Muslim community rank at the very bottom…Numbers don’t lie”. Unfortunately Banerjee’s numbers haven’t yet managed to remove organized prayer from public schools; his alleged mission.

Ordinarily Banerjee wouldn’t bother me that much. He is small samosas, and he’s done a fine job so far marginalizing himself. But by joining the campaign against organized prayer in school, he and his organization have clouded what should be a crystal-clear, trans-ethnic argument about a fundamental ingredient in democracies. The CHA is now promising to protest in front of Valley Park Middle School if prayer congregations continue in the fall. And frankly, we shouldn’t let them. If we’re going to hold the school board accountable for allowing prayer in school, then we should hold the CHA equally accountable for disrupting school—and making Muslim kids feel bad about themselves. Banerjee says his biggest qualm about the “Mosqueteria”—as many right-wing bloggers have dubbed it—is that prayer interferes with the students’ education. Last time I checked, however, politically fuelled protests and mega phones do too.

Ron Banerjee should take a page out of Raheel Raza’s book—a moderate Muslim activist and author, who argues that whatever is done should be done with “respect and dignity, because this is not about bashing another faith, and children are not responsible for what their elders have put them into”. Raza doesn’t believe prayer belongs in school, but she has an interesting idea about why it’s there. “I call this the Liberal white guilt complex,” she says, “where they [the TDSB] think they are being accommodating when all they are doing is adding to the problem”. According to Raza, the gender segregation and Imam present in the Valley Park service is not a universal representation of true Islam. Yet what Tarek Fatah calls “the racism of lower expectations” prevails, and school board officials blithely assume the worst about a religion they’re too afraid to question. “They are making a mockery of my faith,” Raza argues. “The Koran says there is no compulsion in prayer.”

But there is compulsion at Valley Park Middle School. “What about the students who don’t want to pray?” Raheel Raza asks. “Can you imagine the pressure on them?” Considering the prayers are monitored by members of the community—parents included—such pressure is almost guaranteed. So while the TDSB has given kids the right to pray, it’s inadvertently stripped them of the right to pass. And that is infinitely more important. It’s also precisely the kind of principle that the Ron Banerjees of this world are indifferent to. The end may justify the means sometimes; but in this case, doing the right thing for the wrong reason would be a bitter kind of victory.

Read Ron Banerjee’s response to this article

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