Brampton Mayor’s Defense of Muslim Prayer in Schools Angers Far Right American Pundits

You know you've done something right when your level-headed and rational defense of a long-standing school policy is torn apart by the far-right American commentariat.

Last week, Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey released a statement outlining her support for accommodating Muslim prayer in Peel schools and expressing concerns over what she called misinformation and hateful speech.

I am alarmed by the recent misinformation and hateful speech surrounding the accommodation of Muslim prayers at the Peel District School Board,” Jeffrey said in a statement. “Over the last two decades Muslim students, in schools across the Region of Peel, have been accommodated for Friday prayer. This is not something new.”

The debate over the board’s decision to allow Muslim students the option to use their own sermons during Friday prayers has been heated, with critics arguing that religion has no place in public schools at all.

While people are divided on the issue, Jeffrey has been firm in her opinion that the school board isn’t doing anything unprecedented that unfairly favours Muslim students.

But while Jeffrey's statement sparked some local ire (there have been protests against the school board's policy), her words have somehow made it onto far-right websites such as Info Wars, The Daily Caller and The Gellar Report.

Shortly after Jeffrey released her statement, hyper-conservative U.S. pundit Pamela Geller challenged the sentiment on her website, rhetorically asking if the same privileges are awarded to Christian, Jewish and Hindu students.

"When are the Jewish prayers? The Christian prayers? The Hindu prayers? Of course, there aren't any," Geller wrote on The Geller Report. "Only Muslims get this kind of special accommodation. And any dissent will get you branded as a racist-islamophobic-anti-muslim-bigot. The bitter irony here is that in Islamic states, non-Muslims are never given this kind of accommodation. Linda Jeffrey may find that out before too long in Canada."

According to Geller's website, she's the founder, editor and publisher of The Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America. Her website also mentions that she's the author of The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America and Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance.

While it's certainly not uncommon for voices on the right to decry supposed Muslim favouritism or the perceived left-wing ignorance of the ever-potent and dangerous Islamic threat to local peace, it's always somewhat surprising when a local mayor's defense of a niche domestic policy to make it onto U.S. pundits' radar. Although far-right media outlets in Canada, the U.S. and beyond have often taken umbrage with all aspects of Islam, nationalist rhetoric has hit something of a fever-pitch in recent months.

Interestingly enough, the issue of Muslim prayer in schools—or rather, the school board's recent decision to allow students to say prayers of their choosing rather than ones pre-selected by the board—is, in the end, a small one.

As Jeffrey pointed out in her statement, the Ontario Human Rights Code mandates religious accommodation and this concession (if you even want to call it that) is a minor one.

"Our city and region have a proud history of upholding religious accommodations at our public schools. Whether it is protecting the right of religious dress, like a Sikh student’s kirpan and turban, or accommodating a vegetarian/kosher/halal religious dietary restriction at a school event, we proudly stand for our Charter rights protecting religious freedom.”

While some local protestors have argued that religion has no place in public schools at all, others have focused more on conjecture and "what ifs."

What if, some protestors argue, the students secretly pray for the death of all western deviants in Arabic during prayer time?

Neither the mayor or the school board are giving the notion much credence.

I am troubled by the misinformation, fear mongering, and outright falsehoods being spread by some," Jeffrey said. "Peel is one of the most diverse regions in Canada. We not only cherish diversity, we celebrate it. It is our strength, the very essence of our Region’s character."

On that note, the mayor is right. Brampton is one of the country's most diverse cities and, like its other GTA counterparts, its multi-culturalism has worked.

While visible minorities have no doubt experienced racism in the city, the multicultural landscape of Brampton makes residents — younger ones in particular — less fearful of some great foreign “unknown.” We’ve grown up with diversity and the idea of disparate but coexisting cultures isn’t new — the GTA is, in many ways, defined by that very coexistence. Cities like Toronto, Brampton and Mississauga have incredible layers and pockets that celebrate and represent the global fabric of the cities. We have Chinatowns and Little India’s and Italy’s. We have Koreatowns and Middle Eastern garment stores and Polish and Ukrainian community centers.

We’re an example of multi-culturalism working — and working well.

We function well because of our openness, our tolerance and our lack of fear. When Muslims come to Brampton, they aren’t confined to ghettos, treated with distrust by residents and authority figures and isolated by abrasive and discontented stares.

Discrimination can and does happen — but not as frequently as it might in more homogenized communities. Our city’s treatment of newcomers neutralizes the feelings of hopelessness and alienation that might drive a depressed or frustrated person into the embrace of extremism. Extremist organizations like ISIS/ISIL work because they don’t just instill terror in recruits or promise a spectacular afterlife (although they do both of those things) — they extend a hand first. They promise everything from prosperity to recognition to a sense of belonging. They ask people to die or kill for a cause that unites them with a greater, broader community. Sure, they appeal to goons and violent zealots, but they also appeal to the displaced and disaffected. The lonely. The angry. The ignorant.

Our values make us special. They’re shared by so many, including the Muslims who live, work and play in Brampton. They’re not only positive, they’re protective — Canada has been spared so much of the tension plaguing Europe because it’s adopted and enacted a fair, careful and intelligent immigration process.

Here's hoping the more hysterical aspects of the school debate die down in time.

As for far-right pundits worries about the fate of Canada, its future will speak for itself.

And it doesn't look like it will be a dark one.

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