A blogger’s tale of Islamic prayer taking place inside a Toronto middle school ignites an online battle in Canada
Valley Park Middle School in Toronto offers more than just lunch in their school cafeteria – they also offer a place for Muslim students to pray. One anonymous Canadian blogger caught wind of this and wrote a post that set off a furor in the Canadian blogosphere, debating whether Canadian schools should be accommodating this religious practice
Valley Park Middle School is one of a half dozen schools in its district that accommodates Islamic prayer services, according to a school board representative. While it’s a secular school system, the school board offers one very practical reason for offering prayer services: “All our schools would permit students to take time off to prayer… Many students leave school for prayer services and some don’t come back.” To make things more convenient for students and help fight truancy, the school began to offer a prayer service inside its cafeteria.
An anonymous blogger at a blog called Blazing Cat Fur first noted it online, observing: “School administration take part preparing the Cafeteria and making it into mosque every Friday and no one but Muslims can use the Cafeteria during the Islamic prayers on Friday.” The post was mentioned on a site called Jihad Watch, where it sparked a flurry of comments. One commenter wrote: “I’m just glad there are still people keeping watch and making this stuff public….Islam is quite a creeping darkness all over the globe right now.”
The school board responded in a statement that they were not, in fact, violating any school board guidelines: “In the case of Valley Park, the school is not teaching the ‘religious practice.’ Rather it is accommodating for the religious and spiritual needs of the students like many other schools do around the country for a number of different faith communities.”
Critics also argue that this is a case of gender discrimination, responding to photos of the prayer services that show girls standing behind boys and young women who are menstruating being placed in the very back of the cafeteria. In an opinion piece for Toronto’s National Post entitled “Spreading Islamist misogyny –with your tax dollars” author Tasha Kheiriddin writes, “One is tempted to say: Is this the Middle Ages? Have I stumbled into a time warp, where “unclean” women must be prevented from “defiling” other persons?”
These are some of the social media elements featured in this segment.
An anonymous blogger brought attention to the prayer with the following post on Blazing Cat Fur:
School administration take part preparing the Cafeteria and making it into mosque every Friday and no one but Muslims can use the Cafeteria during the Islamic prayers on Friday. And there are a number of other incidents involving Islam and other anti-Christian issues that I complained about, including a white convert to Islam who was a supply teacher and who openly promoted Islam and bashed Christianity last year!”
The same post was mentioned on Jihad Watch, sparking a flurry of online comments.
We defeated the Nazis who were probably the greatest single military force on the planet – it wasn’t easy, but we did it. An extremely well armed and well trained army with a cause. They were defeated. The Islamist will be too as they are cowards. When the gloves are truly taken off the West will come out with a knock out blow that the Islamic world will never forget. Inshallah.
Here is the official statement from Valley Park Middle School representatives as posted on the Toronto District School Board’s website:
In the case of Valley Park, the school is not teaching the “religious practice.” Rather it is accommodating for the religious and spiritual needs of the students like many other schools do around the country for a number of different faith communities. Providing this religious accommodation does not violate any Board policies since the service is not a Board or school activity.
I struggled with the decision to write a response to Herman Cain’s recent appearance on Fox News Sunday in which he declared that local communities across the U.S. have the right to ban the construction of mosques. His statements were so ludicrous, so bigoted and so fundamentally at odds with contemporary understandings and applications of the First Amendment that, on one level, they hardly merit a response. But I also recognize that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the U.S. and comments like Cain’s do resonate with some Americans.
In the end, Cain’s political Islamophobia cannot go unchallenged.
Responding to questions from Chris Wallace on Sunday concerning a planned Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza argued that local communities like Murfreesboro can and should ban the construction of Islamic houses of worship in light of their legitimate concerns about Islam. “Our Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state,” noted Cain. “Islam combines church and state. They’re using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals in that community, and the people in the community [of Murfreesboro] do not like it.”
Cain is not the first Republican politician to employ this type of argument in recent years as a means to gain popular support at the expense of Muslim Americans. He is not even the first to do so in light of the Murfreesboro controversy. In July of last year, Ron Ramsey, Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor and then gubernatorial candidate, opined whether “you could even argue that being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult.” A month before this, Lou Ann Zelenik, a Republican congressional candidate, stated that the proposed Islamic Center in Murfreesboro comprises “a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.” These statements concerning Islam resonate with those made by more high-profile Republican politicians, such as Newt Gingrich’s characterization of Islam as a “cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”
Cain’s comments reflect a strategy among some Republican politicians to challenge Islam’s place in the American religious landscape by calling into question whether it is even a legitimate religion. By casting doubts on Islam’s status as a religion, these politicians can let like-minded supporters off the hook over any concerns about the Constitution and the First Amendment’s guarantees for religious liberty. The First Amendment, after all, protects religious communities and not “foreign” political ideologies.
But on what grounds can a case be made that Islam is not a legitimate religion? For Cain, the case is rooted in the assumption that Muslims want to force their “intolerant” political and moral convictions on those who are are not Muslim. Never mind that Muslims are in no position in the U.S. to force anything on the larger population, even if that’s what they wanted to do. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Never mind that many Muslim Americans pay taxes, abide by local laws (including zoning laws for proposed Islamic centers such as in Murfreesboro), serve local communities as doctors, teachers and lawyers, and share values and convictions that are in harmony with the U.S. Constitution. Never mind that if any religious community has forced or imposed its convictions on the rest of the population in American history, it has been Protestants.
From restrictions on the rights of Catholics, Jews and atheists to hold public office in some states well into the 19th century, to bans on polygamy and gay marriage to reflect an orthodox Christian view of marriage, to the prohibition of mail delivery on Sundays and the implementation of Sunday blue laws, the historical evidence all points to one religious tradition in the U.S. that has done what Cain claims that Islam is trying to do: Protestant Christianity.
Calls by Cain to restrict the freedom of Muslims to construct houses of worship are not really about whether Islam can be classified as a legitimate religion according to the laws of the land. No, these calls simply reflect the reality of Islamophobia in America and the fact that in some political circles, easy points can be scored by denigrating Islam and by linking Muslim Americans with violence, terrorism and political oppression.
It’s possible that Cain did score points among some potential voters for his remarks on Sunday, though I would like to think that he turned off far more voters. Either way, until comments like his are challenged and rejected not simply by the media but by other high-profile politicians, including Republican presidential candidates, the only real “winner” in this ordeal will be religious bigotry.