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Opposing sides of Muslim prayer debate still divided after meeting

by Mairin Piccinin

Riot barriers reinforced their philosophical divide as opposing sides in the debate over Muslim prayer in schools clashed on September 17 at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) head office.

According to rally organizer Chris Andrewsen, the event was originally planned to thank the school board for allowing Muslim students to hold Friday prayer services in Valley Park Middle School’s cafeteria during Ramadan.

But the rally also attracted a number of protesters against the religious accommodation arrangement at Valley Park Middle School, largely members of an anti-prayer coalition formed by the Jewish Defense League, the Christian Heritage Party and the Canadian Hindu Advocacy. The fourth such gathering to take place in under two months, this latest event was the first to draw equal numbers from both sides of the debate. 

A chance for dialog

Andrewsen, a recent convert to the Islamic faith, blames the anti-prayer protests on a vocal anti-Islamic fringe. Torontonians in general are not Islamophobes, says Andrewsen. “They just don’t know the plain and simple facts about what is going on. If they did, they wouldn’t have an issue with it. People don’t really understand what’s going on at Valley Park MS. All they have really heard is the negative spin in the media.”

TDSB teacher and pro-prayer supporter Omar Qayum said he believes that more reasonable voices are not being heard. He added that, when assaulted by members of the anti-prayer coalition at an earlier rally, police who witnessed it asked if he would like to press charges. Qayum said he declined because, “It wouldn’t have been worth it. All it would have done is cause more anger and divisions. We are yelling, arguing, shouting, but not talking. We need dialogue,” said Qayum.

The crusaders are coming

Hope that the rally might become an opportunity for dialogue between the two sides was quickly dispelled when anti-prayer protesters arrived chanting, “The crusaders are coming,” and “50 Islamic states, not one is a democracy.”

“Muslims aren’t victims, there’s a tendency to see them as that. We just want them to take pride in being Canadian,” explained protester Mike Snider of the Jewish Defense League. When asked whether he thought his views reflected broader public opinion, Snider said, “We are not fringe. We represent a silent majority, a sleeping giant. Not everyone has the time or desire to get active and come to rallies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t support us and share our beliefs.”

Blogger Arnie Lemaire, known online as the anti-Islamic Blazing Cat Fur, believes the protesters’ views are common. “We aren’t the fringe. Our opinions are not radical or fringe.” Claiming his website receives 5,000 visitors daily, he said, “I have members of parliament and people who work for citizenship and immigration regularly following my blog.” According to Lemaire, the real problem is, “a larger issue with Islam. In Toronto you have a very vocal, radical voice of Muslims that doesn’t fit in with secular institutions.” He said, “They don’t want accommodation, they want to take over.”

This argument that Muslims cannot integrate with secular society has been the favourite go-to point of the anti-prayer coalition. But in The clever tactics of Islamophobes, Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui writes that the argument has no basis in fact.  “It is said that Muslims cannot integrate. But studies show otherwise, especially in the U.S. where they are among the most educated and are among the top earners. The ones not doing well are in countries where they face the most discrimination, such as France and Germany. Polls in Europe, U.S. and Canada also show that Muslim values are no different than those of other groups,” says Siddiqui.

Siddiqui points out that, “What’s said and tolerated about Muslims and Islam is not about other people and their religions. Self-restraint is also missing when violating the privacy and dignity of Muslims, disproportionately. Their every move and word is parsed, to nail them for some real or imagined radicalism.”

Joining prayer supporters at the rally, Mubin Shaikh, a former counter-terrorism operative on the Toronto 18 case, believes the intolerance and discrimination on display at the rallies is an example of the social exclusion that causes radicalization. “When you exclude Muslims from general society, the Muslim minority starts to feel under siege and they get radicalized,” said Shaikh.  He added that there is often a double standard implicit in how we define racism, saying, “Give me an anti-Semitic statement, replace the word Jew with Muslim, and you’ve got freedom of speech.”


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