Would you be surprised to discover that the Peel Board of Education recently starting providing space for Muslim students to pray, supervised by volunteer staff? I would be too—because it is a practice that has been going on for two decades already. So why is it making news?
Although the Peel public school board has been allowing Muslim students to pray together on a Friday for some twenty years (as it has in some Toronto schools also), critics have only recently targeted the group and called for it to be banned. At the end of last week, two provincial ministers openly endorsed Muslim prayers in school.
The recently passed anti-Islamophobia law has been met with, well, Islamophobia. While many recognize the need for such a statement in light of recent attacks on the Muslim community, others have been vocal about their views on giving what they regard as special protection to one group. Many have interpreted allowing Muslim prayer in school as discrimination against other religions, or exposure to religion within public schools.
The level of misinformation being spread became abundantly clear to me when I read reactions to an article detailing Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey’s admonishment of the backlash (nb: never read the comment section).
There seemed to be two main arguments being voiced. The first was, “If we had to stop saying The Lord’s Prayer, why do we have Muslim prayer in schools?” If you are old, like me, you probably remember saying The Lord’s Prayer during opening announcements. Our family was not overly religious (a fact highlighted by my sister’s realization as she got older that it was in fact not, “Our Father who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name), but all students recited it as we did ‘O Canada’. This was replaced in my middle school years by a moment of silence in some schools or simply removed completely.
According to CBC: “In 1988, a landmark Ontario Court of Appeal ruling found that school-led recitations of the Lord’s Prayer violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the practice has been banned in Ontario public schools ever since.” I was too young at the time to see it, but I’m sure this both ruffled some feathers, and smoothed others. But when it came down to it, requiring children to pray was against the rules.
Those equating the Lord’s Prayer being incorporated into the curriculum with accommodating Muslim prayer are missing the key difference between prayer being required and prayer being allowed. Children who do not wish to engage in Muslim prayer are not asked to.
The other argument stems from the misguided notion that Muslim prayer is being allowed, but Christian prayer is not. Disallowing prayer of any religion would be a breach of the Human Rights Code and board guidelines for religious accommodation. Allowance for Christian prayer has always been, and continues to be, allowed. My school even had a Christian Fellowship club.
So knowing that allowing for Muslim prayer does not mean involuntary religious practice, nor does it prevent voluntary practice of Christian prayer or prayers of other faiths, AND knowing that it has been going on for twenty years without issue—why are there protests popping up all over?
The rise in Islamophobia stems from fear and ignorance. As the Muslim community grows, some people see it as a threat to their own culture. This breeds false information which spreads like wildfire. It leads to outrage without basis in fact. The way to combat this is not with protest or segregation, it is through getting to know each other.
I belong to a phenomenal parenting community that began as an online group but has become part of the larger community. About a year ago, there were incidences of Islamophobia popping up within the parenting community and the city at large. One Muslim mother stepped up. She said, “I can see there is a lot of misunderstanding about the Muslim community. I would like to invite anyone who would like to come to my house for coffee and to answer any questions people may have about our religion and our culture.” It opened the lines of communication, it formed friendships, and it went a long way to calm some of the fears and even curiosities people were feeling.
This is how we combat fear and ignorance. We recognize that though there are differences in cultures, fundamentally, we are all still just parents trying to get our kids to eat anything besides Bear Paws and peanut butter sandwiches. Though some children may engage in Muslim prayer, Christian prayer, prayer of a different faith, or no prayer at all, they are still just kids racing to be the first one at the slide at recess. We are more alike than we are different, and as soon as we realize that, and understand that our differences are not a disadvantage, the richer our friendships will be.