Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Back to School for Canadian Muslims: Faith and Education Choices

Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School can attend a Friday afternoon prayer in the school so they don't have to miss class. (April 2, 2011), from Let the students pray at school

Immigrants often come to Canada for financial and social opportunities not available in their home countries, or less easily available. They also come, and often make the decision to stay, based on educational opportunities for their children. Public school education in Canada is of high quality, and there are no fees involved except for extras. This makes a public school option attractive to most Canadians. In general though, as cut backs through the 90s affected the public education system, parents who can afford it have chosen private school options, most often secular.

Jewish families have long chosen to send their children to private Hebrew schools, when they can afford it. Jewish communities have made the development and continuance of such schools a priority. Fundamentalist Christians, sometimes of specific ethnicities, have done the same.  For historical reasons Roman Catholic schools have had a unique status.

There is a long tradition of faith-based schools in Canada. Indeed, all schools at one time were faith-based. When the French lost to the British in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), the Treaty of Paris (1763) guaranteed French language, Roman Catholicism, and education in French language Roman Catholic schools for French Canadians.  While the French Canadian school system was distinctly Roman Catholic, the English Canadian school system was distinctly Protestant. Depending on province and sometimes region, in other words depending on population and local governance, either one could have been labelled and paid for via taxes as the "public school" option. For the other there would be extra fees.

More recently, through the 80s and 90s, Protestant public schools became more secular and less monarchist. While they have always accepted children of all races, ethnicities, and faiths, they have gradually removed the morning "Our Father" prayer, singing of  "God Save the Queen", and celebration of specifically Christian holidays, like the traditional nativity play at Christmas time. Instead, different school boards have opted either to ignore all religious studies, or to specifically incorporate teaching on different faiths and cultural activities related to holidays that are significant to their local populations. Individual teachers have a certain leeway in how they choose to integrate these, or not.

All schools are obliged by law to accommodate their individual or collective students' beliefs.  This is particularly true of public schools which are funded by tax payer dollars, while private schools, whether faith based or not, have more rights to determine specifics, like dress codes, within their schools. There have  been challenges to these rights, famously the right for Sikhs to wear a kirpan, whereas knives are usually forbidden on school grounds. Muslim girls have been challenged about wearing hijab, particularly for sports safety reasons, but have the right to do so within school based activities.

There have long been individual accommodations for students of whatever faiths, around their time off for holidays, or other requirements. For example, my mother taught a high school student who refused to stand for the playing over the intercom each morning of "O Canada". As a Jehovah's Witness he was not allowed to honour patriotic symbols. Since she couldn't tolerate him sitting through the national anthem, especially in the presence of the rest of the class, they agreed he would go into the hall for the playing of the anthem, and return when it was over. They both lived happily with this solution for the year she had him in her home room class.

Most Muslims in Canada are recent immigrants, and most have their children in public schools. A few send their children to private Islamic schools, that is, schools which follow the provincial curriculum but have additional classes in religious studies, follow Islamic dress codes, and are often segregated. Those in public schools receive their religious education elsewhere, but are accommodated for their beliefs, holidays, and dress, as are all Canadian students. For example, during Ramadan, schools with a high Muslim population set aside a separate room at lunch time for Muslim students to pray and reflect, lead by parent or local volunteers. Individual Muslim students would also be accommodated to meet their needs even if they were a small minority in a school.

Friday prayers in the auditorium at Valley Park Middle School, Toronto. (John Goddard/Toronto Star). Original caption: "The girls sitting at the back during Friday prayers are menstruating and not allowed to sit with everyone else", accompanying the article, "Mallick: Time for someone to speak up for shy young girls" by Heather Mallick, Star Columnist

Just before the ending of the school term last May-June, one school's religious accommodation of its Muslim students drew media attention after a Hindu activist group protested. The school's high Muslim population would attend obligatory Friday prayers at the closest mosque, which was still a challenging distance away--all distances being greater in time commitment during the winter. In order for the students to be able to return to their next class on time, and to return at all, the school decided to allow for Friday prayers to be conducted in the school auditorium, lead by the local religious leaders, and to be attended on a voluntary basis by any Muslim students who wished to do so. This effectively accommodated the religious needs of the school's students, and eliminated Friday afternoon lateness or absenteeism.

This went on for 3 years without problems, until the complaint was launched. Unfortunately there was much media misinformation and hand wringing over this rather standard accommodation. Some of it was incredibly ignorant of the Canadian school system--including from Canadian reporters. Other articles misrepresented what was happening at that particular school, or launched into Islamophobic crusades to liberate the Muslim students, particularly the girls praying at the back of the auditorium, or sitting further back when menstruating. Needless to say, the blogosphere went even further than the mainstream media. The Toronto District School Board, responsible for this school, is not backing down on this accommodation.

The article below is a good brief overview of the situation, linking it to an American example of fairness towards Muslims, and rejection of Islamophobia.

14-year-old Manigha Satari, left, and Rida Zahra, 12, eat food they purchased in the school. Valley Park Middle School at 130 Overlea Blvd. requires all their students to eat lunch in the cafeteria [along with a number of other schools, in a bid to improve nutrition and decrease obesity, by stopping students from eating at local fast food outlets].

Canada remains a model of mutual respect
Jul 24, 2011 21:47

The Toronto District School Board of Canada and the news network CNN stood out this month for fairness and refused to jump on the Islamophobia wagon.

For North American Muslims, enjoying equal rights with fellow North Americans but harassed by malicious allegations, these actions reflect the decency of the Canadian and American people and offer them hope.

In the Walid Shoebat saga, CNN performed its journalistic duty faithfully. It investigated Shoebat who has been raking money, sometimes a half a million dollars a year, speaking and writing denouncing Islam and calling American Muslims a threat to the United States. He spoke even at US government institutions, basing his expertise on Islam and terrorism on being a former Muslim and terrorist. He was born in Beit Sahour, close to Bethlehem, to a Palestinian father and an American mother. He claims that he bombed Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem and was jailed by Israelis before moving to the US. He said he converted to Christianity in 1993.

As CNN's Anderson Cooper stated in two reports, which included interviews with Shoebat, his claims are dubious. CNN found no evidence of the bombing of Bank Leumi’s former branch in Bethlehem or of Shoebat being a former Palestinian terrorist or ever being in Israeli jails. His relatives in his village denied his having being an activist. Hopefully, Americans will now see Shoebat as a self-serving Islam basher whose words are not to be trusted.

In the Canadian case, the Muslims’ freedom to worship was challenged.

For three years Muslim students of the Valley Park Middle School in Toronto have prayed on Friday noon in congregation. Canadian schools, universities, private offices and government institutions routinely make “reasonable accommodation” to meet the religious obligations of all Canadians. Sikhs, for example, are allowed to wear the kirpan. Prayer and/or meditation rooms are also provided at Canadian airports.

Suddenly, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy objected to the use of school premises for prayers. A Jewish Defense League spokesperson called for monitoring the prayers to ensure that the imam conducting such services doesn't preach intolerance. The president of Canadian Muslim Congress expressed concern that Ismailis and Ahmadis might not be invited to such prayers because they are not viewed as mainstream Muslims while another CMC official objected to girls praying in the back rows. CMC has said it might sue the school board. The International Campaign against Shariah Courts leader called the service a “political statement” by Muslims. A Canadian Council of Muslim Women official also called for monitoring the prayers.

Friday congregation prayers are obligatory on Muslims. All that the school did was to enable Muslim students to follow their faith. This is no more a political statement than are services at synagogues, churches or temples. As for “monitoring,” media, students and politicians of different faiths often attend Muslim Friday prayers at mosques to listen, exchange views or to just meet Muslims. No Muslim objects.

There is no evidence that Ismaili or Ahmadi students at the Toronto school, if any, wanted to join the prayers and were refused. Ismailis pray at their own jamaatkhanas and their prayer services are reserved only for Ismailis. Ahmadis visit mainstream mosques for funeral services of friends. They never pray, however, behind Shiite or Sunni imams. They pray only behind an Ahmadi who owes allegiance to Ahmadi prophets and caliphs. Mainstream Muslims, Ismailis and Ahmadis maintain excellent relations in Canada. But they pray among their own and, like Canadians of other faiths, neither join nor invite others for prayers. As to the claim that women have to pray in the back rows, this argument could be used to ban Muslim prayers throughout Canada — and the practices of many other faiths.

Most Canadians cherish freedom and do not want agitators to sow divisions and acrimony. Christian groups, the Hindu Canadian Alliance, the World Sikh Organization and Jewish Community Council support the right of Muslims, and all other Canadians, to freedom of religion. In many cities Muslims prayed at churches, at their invitation, before their mosques were built.

The Toronto District School Board has stood firm and reiterated that it upholds the religious freedom of all students and will continue to provide them with reasonable accommodation without discrimination or favor. It said Muslim students will continue to pray as they wish.

So Canada remains a model of mutual respect despite occasional efforts to sow dissension. Muslims are grateful for this blessing but they and all Canadians have to remain vigilant to safeguard their freedom and harmony.

— Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.


On Labour Day, September 5th, just before classes began for this school year, there was another interesting article on schooling choices being made by Muslim parents and students. Part of what was interesting to me about this article was that it was deemed newsworthy.

Many, if not most, of "my Muslims" have attended Roman Catholic schools, or at least Roman Catholic nursery, day care, or kindergarten schools, often in former French colonies. Their parents were concerned that they get a high quality education, at a reasonable price, and an early mastery of French, so started them in schools run by nuns at the age of 3, then switched to public schools at age 6 or 7 for their obligatory education. Some switched to private French schools run by the French government, and so following the norms of laïcité, that is no religious symbolism in schools, similar but different to American secularism.

In my experience, Saudi students in Canada on medical specialist scholarships, most often have their children attend secular English language nursery, daycare, and kindergarten schools, then public schools, in order to best ensure their grounding in English before they return to the Saudi public system in Arabic, or sometimes private schooling in Saudi Arabia.

In order to best appreciate the article below, one should realize that Roman Catholic schools in Canada follow the provincial curriculum (including evolutionary science), add religious classes based on Catholicism, and cover interfaith topics in later years. In Ontario, at least, Roman Catholic schools are paid for by taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers may choose to direct the educational portion of their taxes to the public (formerly Protestant) system or to the Catholic one (which has its own local boards of education, in English and in French).

Saadia Sediqzadah, first year medical student at University of Ottawa prepares her notes in her apartment in Ottawa. Ms. Sediqzadah is Muslim and went to a Roman Catholic high school. Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

Muslim students enrolling in Catholic schools
EDUCATION REPORTER— From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Sep. 05, 2011 10:53PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Sep. 06, 2011 7:10AM EDT

At a time when progressive sex education and gay-rights clubs are becoming an increasing part of the secular curriculum, many devout families in the country’s most populous province are looking for a faith-based approach to learning. In Ontario, however, the only publicly funded faith-based option is Catholic schools – and that’s just fine for some Muslim parents, even if it’s someone else’s faith.

For Seid Oumer, an observant Muslim and a father of four from Ethiopia, Catholic education has a lot going for it. He sells the other Muslim parents on the benefits of uniforms, discipline and the faith-based approach.

Mr. Oumer’s 16-year-old daughter, Daliya, has been attending Catholic religion classes at Cardinal Ambrozic Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., for two years.

“I find it very interesting, I like getting an idea of how our religions are very similar,” she said.

Ms. Oumer feels comfortable using the chapel whenever she needs to pray. The only time she feels a little awkward is on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter or Remembrance Day, when the school attends Mass, and she’s left alone in a pew while her classmates line up to take the Holy Eucharist.

“They suggest that non-Catholics go up for a blessing, but I don’t know, I don’t want to do that,” she said. “So I sit down and everyone’s like, ‘Why aren’t you going up?’ I tell them I just don’t want to.”

Though at least one parent must be Catholic in order for a student to enroll in a Catholic elementary school, at the high-school level faith doesn’t matter as long as there’s room. Declining high school enrolment has meant that there often is room – about 10 per cent of the pupils attending Catholic boards in the Greater Toronto Area are non-Catholic.

Shared Abrahamic traditions and an emphasis on modest dress help make Muslim students feel at home at Catholic schools. Over the past decade, there is anecdotal evidence that more and more of them have been taking advantage of the fact that at the secondary level, Catholic schools are open to any local family who wishes to register, be they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Rastafarian.

In the Catholic board, religious accommodation hasn’t ignited controversy like it has at the Toronto District School Board.

This spring, when it became widely known that a Toronto middle school was allowing an imam to lead prayer sessions in the school cafeteria on Fridays, critics including Jewish, Hindu and secular groups accused the school of taking accommodation too far, saying such services were inappropriate during class time. This summer, they rallied outside that board’s headquarters protesting “the mosqueteria.”

One of the reasons Muslims students attend Catholic schools is because many Canadian Muslims are recent immigrants from East Africa and South Asia where “often, the best schools are the ones run by nuns,” said Shafique Virani, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. “That image may have remained from when they were back home.”

So far, no one has tried to quantify the trend or study the reasons behind it, he said.

Mr. Oumer said he is grateful that in Catholic schools his children will be taught a conservative approach to reproductive biology, sex education and same-sex relations.

Sometimes the local Catholic school does have a better reputation or higher standardized test scores than its secular counterpart.

That’s what prompted Saadia Sediqzadah to ask her parents if she could attend Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ont., east of Toronto.

She says her father was worried she might convert, but that his biggest concern was that she might face discrimination or bullying at her new school.

“He said it was okay if I didn’t tell anyone I was Muslim,” she said. “But I decided I had to be up front and I went around to everyone and told them, ‘Hi my name is Saadia, I’m Afghan and I’m Muslim.’ ”

The fall of her Grade 9 year, Ms. Sediqzadah said there were only a few Muslims at her school, but by the time she graduated, in 2006, there were close to 40.

“It’s word of mouth, parents talking to other parents,” she said. “Often families are related or from the same community and they’re telling each other good things about the Catholic schools.”


Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
What type of school system or systems did you attend?
What advantages/ disadvantages did you experience because of it?
Where would you prefer (your) children to study?

See Also:
Living among Christians on Jordian-Syrian Muslim blogger Jaraad's experiences at a Rosary Sisters School in Kuwait.

Sarah Rostom. Grade 12 Erindale Secondary School [public] student Sarah Rostom's team won the most awards at the Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament and Muslim Association of Canada Youth Quest in Toronto. Rostom won more individual awards than any of the other participants at the event. Photo courtesy of Zayn Media Inc. From the article Erindale tops in Muslim competition


Wendy said...

I am not happy with Ontario in regards to this school. If any religious group feels strongly that their children practice their religion on school grounds and on school time then they have the option of enrolling them in a religious school. Canadian public schools do not even hold nativity plays anymore. I also do not like the 'segregation' of boys and girls and girls separated from prayer during their menses.
Canada accommodates all religions in many ways but I am a firm believer in keeping religion out of public schools period. I would hope this school shuts down it's prayer room. I have said over and over again that anybody is welcome to come to this country but they must understand what the laws and rules are and accept them and not expect Canada or parts of Canada to change laws for them.

Muslim Convert said...

Wendy this is not about Muslims coming to Canada and not abiding by Canadian law. In Canada Muslims as well as other non Christian religions who go to a public school have to go through the whole ritual of Christmas: Learning Christmas songs, Christmas crafts....the whole "Christmas spirit".

This school is not bringing anything into the classroom, they are praying on their lunch break, no one is forced to pray or pulled in to watch the service provided for these kids.

Kids are praying, I really don't know what people would rather see Muslims praying or kids possibly getting into trouble on their lunch break (I was a teenager not too long ago and remember full well what it was like), I figure the answer to this would be easy, but I guess not.

The fact is you have a problem with this because it's's the truth no one can stand to see Muslims in a situation where they are happy and not hurting anyone, the whole 9/11= Muslims association is much easier to stomach.

Jay Kactuz said...

Muslim convert,

Yes this is about Muslims and Islam. There is no doubt that once they get one "accommodation" other demands will follow, usually dietary demands then footbaths.

Take it from someone who knows Islam: Everything about Islam offends me. Yet I would hang up my hat in an instance if I were to see Muslims returning goodwill and respect in those places where they dominate. With Islam it is a one-way street.

Oh yes, why should I, an infidel who has read the Quran, believe that people praying to a god that says that non-Muslims are lower than animals, are building a better society?

If the Imam is reading the Quran, you can be sure that unkind things are being said about non-Muslims.

Or haven't your read your own sacred writings?

Sorry Chiara, but MC deserves a whack or two.

Muslim Convert said...

Well I can see your knowledge of Islam stems from nothing more than Fox news and what you've been told by fellow racists.

I'm glad to see someone show their true racist thoughts by saying I deserve a "whack or two" cause you know us Muslim women don't get enough of that at home.

Funny u say you are educated in Islam but anyone with half a brain and a sniff of common sense can see you are nothing more than a locust to society.

oby said...

Muslim Convert...

"The fact is you have a problem with this because it's's the truth no one can stand to see Muslims in a situation where they are happy and not hurting anyone, the whole 9/11= Muslims association is much easier to stomach."

You are being quite insulting to Wendy. She is WELL acquainted with Muslims.

The uproar has nothing to do with being happy or not. Stop thinking like a victim. It is about outlawing something for one group while giving preference to anther for the exact thing you took away from the first group.

The fact is Christian holidays/communal prayer have been practically outlawed in public schools at least in the USA. I actually don't have a major issue with that fact because, while I think it is very PC, I figure the USA has a lot of nonchristians who attend those schools and don't want to participate in Christmas...fine and dandy. The problem arises when one group is required to abide by a rule and then exceptions are made for other this case Muslims but it could be anybody. If the law says no religion in school then that should apply equally to ALL. Now, if Muslims want some prayer time then to be fair I think we should give the Christians their holiday back or at a minimum allow them to have communal prayer like the Muslims do if they want. Or Hindus or Jews or whomever.

How would Muslims feel if They could not pray but Christians could?

As for the Christmas spirit it might do you some is about Goodwill and IMO there is nothing wrong with someone wishing another person who is not Christian Merry Christmas just as there is nothing wrong with wishing a nonmuslim Eid Mubarack. I grew up in a time when that is exactly what happened. Muslims were not offended by the Merry Christmas and neither were Christians offended by Happy Eid. Each side took it in the spirit it was of goodwill and good wishes. But now the world is so darn politically correct that no one can talk to each other or send their particular good wishes lest someone be offended!

Muslim Convert said...

Oh wow this is something isn't it.

You assume you know something about me, acting like I am a victim. No that's not the case and you presume to know how I feel entirely on my defense of allowing Muslims to pray on their free time.

Wouldn't it be great if Christians could have a place to pray too....any faith having a place to pray is great!

Christmas does not offend me, no non Muslim holiday offends me, it's on our secular schools and yet you whine about Muslims praying for God's sake what's wrong with you people it's prayer, your God is the same God as mine and if you don't believe it then that's fine but being Christian you should know it's in your belief system that prayer is a good thing.

oby said...

Muslim Convert,

Of course I agree with you it is the same God. And I don't think prayer is a bad thing in any religion. But you are missing the point.

Christians are no longer allowed to pray communally in public schools. They can't set up a prayer room and go to pray even if they wanted to. Of course in high schools there are myriad and sundry "clubs" and college is a whole different ballpark. But prayer on school grounds in lower than highschool is not allowed. One can say a quiet prayer to themselves no problems but I am talking time out for communal prayer like we are talking in Toronto. So I say either it should not be allowed for anyone or it should be allowed for everyone. It is about equality in how faith is treated.

Muslim Convert said...

Yes it should be for everyone. instead of people speaking out against this it would be nice to hear other religious groups getting involved together in their own "lunch time prayer club". Wouldn't it be great if kids did something like this on their lunch break, instead of say getting high or smoking (only using these examples as that's what most of us did in high school on break time).

oby said...

Muslim Convert...

Oh you are talking like a mama! wink wink (I am a mama). It would be lovely if kids wanted to pray they could...or barring that a game of kickball or something...anything besides doing destructive things.

I was one of the weird ones...clean as a whistle and what many would consider boring. While some kids were out smoking I was in the library reading. ZZZZZZZZZZZ

countrygirl said...

There's a part in the second article that made me think "She says her father was worried she might convert" i mean what's the problem about it? She lives in a free country where there's freedom of religion and this means also the right to change religion.

I agree with Jay and Obi it's a common room and i don't see why muslim must have more rights compared to others faith...i'm wondering what would happen if during ashes wensday the same room would be used by cathlolics for mass and the ashes rites. I've read that in the US in one High school some christians were barred from forming their own club because only cristian could join it, just put muslim instead of christians and i'm pretty sure islamophobia would be used by the usual useful idiots.

But of course speaking about the ills of islam is branded as islamophobic no matter what

Wendy said...

Muslim Convert - I am married to a Muslim and he also agrees with me on this issue. Canada doesn't allow Christian anything in schools anymore. Even the Christmas celebrations have had Jesus taken out of the whole thing so as not to 'offend' people of other religions so when one school bends over backwards for Islam and denies what is the basic religion in this country I am very annoyed. I like the way France does things. Nothing religous allowed in the public school system. No crosses, hijabs, yamulkas or what have you. Pray on your own time and be happy about it. Canada allows for all kinds of religious celebrations and events. Canada Place here in Vancouver had a huge Eid celebration. We have Sikh festivals, etc, etc, etc. Children learn about other religions in school and that should be the end of it. Either that or make room and accommodations for every religion and every person including Athiests.

Anonymous said...

The real meaning of Secular is complete separation of religion and government and thereby no appeasement of a particular religion. Keep religion out of our school.


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