Student Islamists are mounting a coordinated campaign to expand Muslim religious services in the high schools of Canada’s sixth largest city.
So far, authorities are proving sympathetic, suspending a new policy meant to regulate student sermons.
“The school board should not be policing religion,” campaign leader Shahmir Durrani told one of two November board meetings in Mississauga, Ontario, that heard from imams, parents, high school students and university leaders of the Muslim Students Association (MSA), an organization founded for universities students by members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1963.
“Many students are feeling stigmatized because of this.”
Talk of prayers and sermons might come as a surprise to those unaware of how widespread Muslim religious activity has become in some Canadian school jurisdictions, and how far the fundamentalist MSA has penetrated the public education system.
The changes started a decade ago, when the Ontario provincial government encouraged accommodation of an individual’s religious practice at workplaces and schools.
At first, Muslim students were denied Friday congregational prayers and were told they could only pray only as individuals.
Five years ago, however, the Toronto Sun reported that 800 students at Toronto’s Valley Park Middle School were converting the school’s cafeteria into a temporary mosque every Friday during class hours, with boys praying in front, girls praying behind them separated by a barrier and menstruating girls obliged to sit at the very back to observe the service but not participate.
Toronto school trustees upheld the practice, and since then, Friday congregational prayers have been spreading though the public school system ever since.
One of Canada’s highest Muslim concentrations is in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada’s sixth city located at Toronto’s western border. Of the city’s 19 high schools, 17 have a Muslim Students Association (MSA).
The list of 17 includes Meadowvale Secondary, which temporarily banned its MSA 10 years ago after two alumni were caught co-leading a terrorist cell known as the Toronto 18, with plans to blow up buildings in downtown Toronto. A third cell member had led the school’s Friday prayers.
The MSAs promote Friday prayers in schools, but how many Mississauga elementary, middle, and high schools are holding services is not publicly known. “We don’t track school-by-school,” Peel District School Board spokesperson Brian Woodland said.
At some point — Woodland would not give details — staff supervisors reported problems with student sermons.
On Sept. 20, the school board ruled that students could not deliver their own sermons, but must choose from a bank of approved sermons written by a committee of six local imams. Themes were restricted to the board’s stated values of caring, cooperation, honesty, inclusiveness, respect and responsibility.
The students pushed back. In a well organized campaign, three levels of activists publicly petitioned school trustees to scrap mandatory use of approved sermons. They also demanded that students be allowed to pray together every day, not just on Fridays.
“Eliminate the prohibition of allowing students to pray together outside of Jummah [Friday] prayers if it is convenient [to the students],” said campaign leader Durrani, a University of Toronto at Mississauga student and activist for the Canadian Muslim Youth Federation.
“Policing this one group [Muslims] based on prejudice and control… could have serious psychological impacts,” said Maleeha Baig, a student at the same university and coordinator for the High School Muslim Student Associations, a subsidiary of the youth federation.
“This policy… sets out to prohibit the discussion of Islamic beliefs in sermons,” said Hamza Aziz, MSA president at John Fraser Secondary School and part of the third organizational rung. Aziz was one of 16 MSA executive members from five Mississauga high schools who addressed the school board at a recent meeting.
Bilal Sheikh, a self-described “active member of the Muslim community” — and who with several other men refused to stand for the national anthem — accused the board of “systemizing Islamophobia.” (See video below.)
In response, school trustees immediately suspended mandatory use of the approved sermons. As an interim measure, they ruled that students can submit their own sermons to a principal for approval on the Monday before the Friday prayer service. A revised permanent policy is to be announced in the coming weeks, board chair Janet McDougald said.
Although the school trustees have allowed the prayers — which are already problematic due to their segregation rules (and certainly embarrassingly stigmatizing to girls who are menstruating) — the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked MSA organizations, which are known promote Islamist ideology, is even more than troubling.
John Goddard is an independent newspaper and magazine reporter living in Toronto.
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