The issue of Friday prayers in Peel public schools has bedeviled the Peel District School Board for months now and last week things reached a boiling point at a PDSB meeting with parents screaming hysterically and often incoherently while other activists indulged in uncivil behavior.
Security was forced to clear the meeting after some attendees made comments deemed to be Islamophobic and one protester went as far as to rip pages of a Quran copy he claimed contained inflammatory verses that went against everything Canadians stand for, naturally then that crossed the line.
Thousands of parents have genuine concerns
Many South Asian parents have joined a group called Religion Out of Public Schools ( ROOPS) who are focused on ensuring school premises aren’t used for any prayer meets during school hours. Now these parents some of whom I have spoken with are worried that real Islamophobes and those with an anti-immigrant bent of mind are using their protest to further their agendas and in the process de-legitimizing their concerns.
The problem with the media coverage
The mainstream media has all along painted the parents and those protesting the Muslim Friday prayer as Islamophobic racists that need to take some lessons on tolerance and diversity. Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey condemned the ‘hateful’ campaign against Muslim prayer and so have a few other politicians, but there will be a backlash because this isn’t so much an issue of White Christian Canadians protesting Muslim prayer, instead we have other minorities who are spearheading the protests- Hindus and Sikhs. This changes everything, it is why the media isn’t quite sure how to cover such an issue since it really isn’t so black and white after all, there is a distinct shade of brown here. Had Whites been in the forefront of these protests, it would have made world headlines, instead it is just the deplorable actions of a few open Islamophobes who are making hateful comments and speeches about Muslims that are hogging the headlines while the parents who have genuine grievances feel ignored. Some even feel discriminated against because they are brown!
The protests puzzle the mainstream
Over the weekend a White parent I know happened to watch a segment on CTV news dealing with the contentious PDSB meeting held the previous day. He was puzzled because those protesting were ‘mostly brown’ and he was under the impression that the browns were Muslims defending Friday prayer in school, the only problem was White protesters who were conspicuous by their absence. I explained to him that most of those vocally pushing the PDSB to ensure no religious group gets to hold prayers in a public school period happened to be Hindus and Sikh parents who’ve been spearheading and leading this agitation. White parents have by and large wisely decided to sit this one out. They may privately sympathize with the opponents of Friday prayer but will dare not make it public.
The media coverage has unfortunately been indifferent to their genuine concern and more interested in the extreme and aggressive stance of those few who espouse hatred against Islam. This they say is unfair, even Janet McDougald, chair of the Peel board believes that Islamophobia and the situation south of the border are driving these protests.
Canadian media should understand South Asian history
Many South Asian of Hindu, Tamil, Sikh or Buddhist backgrounds against these prayers are first-generation immigrants who have grown up having Muslim friends and neighbors back in India and deny they are Islamophobic. However the often tortuous history between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian sub-continent is long and complex and the mostly white media people covering the story sees the issue framed in strictly the Canadian narrative which is rooted in the concept of multiculturalism and diversity being a strength. This is not strictly an issue about Muslim prayers in schools or Islamophobia. It is complex and white reporters hoping to understand what drives these protests must first understand not Canadian history but South Asian history.
Parents are pushing for religion-free schools
Many Hindu parents say organized Friday prayer held at Peel schools don’t want their children to be exposed to prayers in school be it Christian, Muslim or Hindu. Even in India, they point out, no prayers are of any religion are permitted in public schools. They are upset at being portrayed as Islamophobes but it isn’t deterring them from fighting for the principle they believe is right.
Unlike Whites who are burdened by historical sins and guilt when it comes to their history involving Blacks and indigenous people, brown Canadians aren’t overly concerned with their portrayal.
Is there a strain of Islamophobia? There is certainly a section of activists who are using this issue to further their agenda- neutralizing the perceived preferential treatment given to Islam and the feeling that politicians are cultivating a distinctly new and emerging Muslim vote bank. All this resonates with many Indian immigrants who have seen such dangerous politics played out in India by venal politicians.
Some parents worry that their children could be influenced by seeing their Muslim friends in school praying and are fearful to a point of being irrational. This I don’t think would really matter because at Christian-run schools in India Hindus and Muslims did hear Christians recite prayers every day but it didn’t bother anybody. There is an underlying fear of Islam among many Hindu parents for reasons that have to do with their own experiences growing up, things they’ve witnessed, read about and heard about. I am not about to judge the merit of their fears which many believe are legitimate. However I doubt a Hindu or Sikh student seeing a group of Muslim students praying every Friday would want to suddenly embrace the religion. Most would be indifferent and some if at all it may be guilted into wanting to deepen their own faith, but parents I spoke with point out that what they would really want is for their children to deepen their understanding of math and science. The weekly half-an-hour disruption in schools they say isn’t fair to their kids.
Many Hindu parents I spoke with are religious and their families regularly visit the temple or gurdwara, but they point out that they do it on their own time.
Although religious accommodation in Canadian schools is enshrined in law and supported politically, these parents protesting all prayer in school just believe that religion is a private affair and prayer in public spaces has no place.
Over the decades as Canada’s population has become more and more multicultural, the public sphere has been more or less scrubbed clean of any Christian religious symbols and the tradition of reciting or referencing any Christian prayer or story has been discontinued. Many observant Christians were and are still rankled by any references or signs of the their faith which was something they grew up with when the country was overwhelmingly White and Christian.
Many protesting Friday prayer see this as the beginning of religion making a comeback into the public sphere. Some ask what would be the implications for education in schools if all religious groups demanded prayer time on different days. If and when that day comes, it will then be the growing number of atheists and ardent secularists who will be offended. Meanwhile Hindu and Sikh parents seeking an education for their children may soon have to consider sending them to private school or better still back to a school in India. Last year what united many minority parents was their united opposition to the revised sex-ed curriculum, this year what has divided them is religion!