About ten years ago, there was a controversy about whether The Lord’s Prayer should be recited in schools across Ontario and I recall writing a column in favour of allowing prayer, saying that any prayer is better than no prayer as I naively thought a simple prayer could cause no controversy. Eventually a decision was made not to have the Lord’s prayer as schools are a place of secular education. I also realised that this was the most sensible decision because Canada has become a country where diverse faith communities are represented in the school system so giving one faith tradition priority over others is not fair.
This week there is a new hullabaloo raging about the Valley Park Middle School on Overlea Blvd. in Toronto where Friday prayer congregations for Muslim students have been held since a few years. Now the Canadian Hindu Advocacy and some other Toronto-area groups have voiced their opposition to this practice, saying that they would protest outside the school until these sessions are stopped.
Whether they have a point, there needs to be a better understanding and handling this volatile situation, without turning it into communal riots.
First off all, the Toronto District School Board should have distinct policies about religious accommodation. When they banned the Lord’s Prayer, the message should been loud and clear – a public school is a place of secular education and either all faiths should be allowed to pray in school or none. It’s not rocket science. I speak at various school board events and take a multi-faith, multi-cultural calendar with me to show the teachers that there are more than 40 faiths represented across the GTA. If schools were closed on the religious/cultural holidays of every faith, there would perhaps be only 50 days of school in a year! Similarly if all faiths decided to pray at school, there would be pandemonium. However the guidelines of TDSB are wishy washy so Principals and teachers do what they think is best.
I understand from a reliable source that the cafeteria of the Ontario Science Center is also emptied on Friday afternoons and used for congregational prayers. The reporter who shared this information with me was more concerned about gender segregation, than the use of the space. I told him segregation is an embedded issue, internal to the community and won’t be solved by allowing or not allowing prayers in school. By the way, he was later told not to publish his story.
This brings me to the need for Muslim prayers during a school day. There is in Islam, like all other traditions, religious and secular alike, certain sacred (or important if the tradition is secular) days where certain protocol is to be observed. However there is flexibility and reason prevails over dogma. Take example of the five daily prayers. Praying when the time sets in, is recommended but Islam recognizes that it may not be possible all the time. Therefore, one can perform this sacred duty even later, which is known as Ta’kheer. My kids went to Public school and observed prayers and fasting as their own responsibility, with permission but without involving outsiders.
A Muslim scholar tells me that he had a call one day from a very confused Principal of a Toronto school asking him if a couple of Muslim students should be allowed to leave the exam hall and perform their afternoon prayers because the time for prayers had already set in. The students said they heard their Imam say that the prayers must be done exactly when the time sets in. The students insisted they should be allowed! Of course, that Imam’s teaching was either wrong or he was not properly understood by these Muslim students.
Therefore the message imparted by the Imam and the time he takes over his sermon are crucial components of this debate. Herein lies the need for community leaders and parents to explain the system to Muslim youth. Instead of teaching them that they will burn in hell if they don’t pray at a certain time and in a certain way, they need to let them know that if they can’t perform their prayer at a given time, they can go home and pray or find a quiet spot to do the same. It happens all the time and is very workable if it’s done respectfully and with a sense of not making a nuisance of oneself which annuls the intention for which we pray.
Essentially the onus and responsibility of finding time and space for worship without causing a public disturbance is upon the individual and not the employer or the institution. Fact that many schools and Universities have accommodated Muslim students should not be taken for granted. Separation of church and state still exists.
At the same time, incidents like this one should not be an excuse to denigrate the faith but to find solutions to a serious community problem.
Raheel Raza is a freelance journalist and author of Their Jihad – Not my Jihad.