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September 28, 2011

Prayers at schools: "This isn't about religion, it's about community," parents say

Scott Stockdale

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Some 200 people with opposing views of the Toronto District School Board's (TDSB) policy to allow students at Valley Park Middle School (VPMS) to pray at the school on Fridays - the Muslim holy day - faced off against each other, surrounded by police officers, at the TDSB's office on Yonge Street recently.

In what could be characterized as a war of words – with no hint of physical violence – students, parents and student representatives expressed their appreciation to the TDSB, while across the sidewalk to the front entrance to the TDSB office, vocal critics of the decision – led by representatives of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), and supported by the Canadian Hindu Advocacy and the Christian Heritage Group, expressed their opposition to allowing Muslim prayers at VPMS.

Chris Andrewsen, a University of Toronto student - who has converted to Islam - was acting as a spokesperson in favour of the TDSB decision. He said this issue is about creating a safe learning environment where students can get the most out of school.

“It's a good idea for anyone to express themselves religiously and culturally. Students should feel comfortable about who they are.”

He noted that there are safety issues involved because by being allowed 30 minutes off on Fridays to pray at school, it avoids students having to leave the school, go to a mosque to pray, and return to school.

Moreover, Mr. Andrewsen said Fisherville Middle School has Jewish prayers in the cafeteria and there have been no complaints about this practice in the three years it’s been going on.

Meanwhile, Ali Baig, a parent of one of the students at VPMS, said he and other parents just came to thank the TDSB for what they're doing.

“The effort is about mutual respect and understanding each others needs. It's very important that children can express freely what they believe; and this isn't about religion, it's about community. Different ethnic cultures all want to coexist and understand and work with each other.”

On the other side of the sidewalk leading to the entrance to the TDSB headquarters, some of those opposing the TDSB decision carried placards denouncing “gender apartheid,” while others read “Don't use the TDSB to promote Sharia Law” and others demanded a public inquiry into the TDSB.

One burly fellow with a bull horn shouted invectives such as “hatred and bigotry is being taught in the mosques” and “gender apartheid,” with references to Allah and suicide bombers interspersed in his speech.

When asked, he said he was with the Jewish Defence League and referred me to a couple of their spokespeople, one of whom was Meir Weinstein, head of the JDL Canada. Remembering me from a different event about a year ago, he said he didn't want to speak to The Canadian Charger. Another JDL spokesperson, who refused to identify himself, said there was nothing more to say.

However, JDL member Val Grunberg shed some light on the organization's position on this issue.

“Our institutions are slowly being taken over by Islam, pretending to be a religion. It's an ideology whose purpose is to promote itself. The movement wants Sharia Law and when they get it you and I will be third and fourth class citizens. Today it is in the schools. Tomorrow it will be somewhere else.”

Samira Kanji, president of the Noor Cultural Centre, said she was taken aback by the racist and brutish messages of those opposed to the TDSB decision.

“They don't seem to realize that they're expressing the same qualities of intolerance and disrespect that they accuse Muslims of. They were sent a fact sheet in advance pointing out that schools hold Jewish prayers, yet they chose to ignore this and complain about religious practice on a secular space. It's very clear that they're motivated by racism against Muslims.”

All too familiar with opponents who quote the Koran to support their opposition to Islam – and there were a number present that day – Ms. Kanji said they're taking quotes out of context. “They should be aware of the fact that all ancient religious texts, including theirs (Jewish, Christian, Hindu) have passages which need contextualisation and interpretation by reference to the conditions and societal norms of the first communities,” she said, “These are fearmongers. The bogey of a sharia takeover is just that. All private religious law arrangements will always be subject to the ultimate authority of the sovereign state (Canadian) law, and there can be no greater threat of a sharia takeover than there can be of takeover by any other faith group employing religious arbitration in family law (for voluntary access).”

When I attempted to get further comments from those in favour of the TDSB decision, a policeman told me I couldn't proceed beyond the public sidewalk. He said they were just trying to keep out all troublemakers, and I said: “So you've decided that I'm one of them.” He said no, I could proceed further to do interviews, but his colleague told me to get back on the public sidewalk because the area I was on was private property.

Ironically, the police were offering no impediments as I mingled with the group opposed to the decision, on the other side of the sidewalk to the entrance to the TDSB headquarters.

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