SHAFAQNA – Hamza Aziz makes sure to stay close to a friend at all times, and his parents have told him not to be outside after dark – precautions the student never imagined would be needed in his quiet corner of suburban Toronto.
But recent tensions between his school board and some members of the community, including anti-Muslim groups, over providing space for Mr. Aziz and other students to pray as a group every Friday have heightened concerns about safety in the Peel region, just west of Toronto.
“[My parents] are afraid of hate crimes towards the Muslim community, especially since that’s been on the rise lately,” said Mr. Aziz, a high-school student in Mississauga.
That anxiety forced the Peel District School Board to step up security measures at its most recent board meeting on Wednesday evening. Police and security guards were present, guests had to sign in and show identification at the door and the meeting was videotaped. Outside, a group who covered their faces with bandanas to prevent nearby protesters from identifying them said they were there to escort people into the board office safely.
Recent incidents in Peel have caused concern among Muslims, who are among the area’s largest religious minority groups. At an earlier school-board meeting, audience members shouted anti-Muslim rhetoric, tore pages from a Koran and stepped on the religious text. More recently, an inflammatory video circulating online offered a cash reward for a recording of Muslim students using hate speech in Friday prayers.
And on Wednesday evening, Peel police were called to a Mississauga neighbourhood after graffiti with the words “White Power” was smeared on a Canada Post mailbox. The words were scrubbed off, and police say they are investigating.
Critics argue a secular school system should not accommodate religion. But Ontario boards, both public and Catholic, are legally required to provide religious accommodation when it is requested.
Devout Muslim students have observed congregational prayers, known as Jummah, in Peel schools for more than two decades. But the issue came to the forefront in the fall, when the board began reviewing whether to allow students to write their own sermons, approved by a school administrator, or be required to choose from six prewritten ones.
After some push-back from community members and students, such as Mr. Aziz, who said the decision to limit their sermons violated their right to religious freedom, the board earlier this year revised its procedure and allowed students to deliver their own sermons or choose from several prewritten ones approved by local imams.
But vocal opponents used the issue to step up their anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Mr. Aziz said he overheard those in the audience at a previous board meeting call him a terrorist. He said another person told him he was not a real Canadian. A friend has been threatened on social media, he said.
A teacher in Peel, who asked that her name be withheld because she fears for her family’s safety, said she asked her teenage son if he wanted to keep participating in Friday prayers at his Brampton school. He told her that the congregational prayer was a form of meditation for him, and he was not going to let fear stop him. The prayer is about 15 minutes.
“I think parents are feeling, ‘Are our children safe during Jummah prayers?’” she said, adding that her fear grew after the video offering a cash reward. “As a parent, I get afraid that what if one day that hate and negative rhetoric becomes escalated and it’s a Muslim child who ends up being in front of that heat.”
The teacher has lived in Brampton for 21 years. She said neighbours have asked her why the situation has grown so heated. Some Muslims in the community said they had been targeted on social media after they spoke out against Islamophobia.
“There is a lot of fear,” she said. “It’s hard for Muslim kids to know that there’s so much hatred against them.”
Ibrahim Hindy, an imam in Mississauga, said community leaders are telling organizations to increase security at their events. The fear is that the rhetoric will escalate. In January, six worshippers were shot and killed at a Quebec City mosque. Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, faces six charges of first-degree murder.
“People are wondering at what point the police will get involved, because they feel like there are targets being placed on their back and there’s a climate of fear that’s being generated against them,” Mr. Hindy said. “Like we saw in Quebec, you create that climate of fear and intimidation and it takes just one person to do something catastrophic.”
Mr. Hindy sits on the Peel school board’s multifaith group, which meets four times a year and advises educators on how to accommodate students on significant faith days.
“Nobody thought it would ever reach this point,” Mr. Hindy said of the anti-Muslim rhetoric in his community. “But it’s not happening in a vacuum … I think that there’s generally been a rise in anti-Muslim hate groups and anti-Semitic groups and there’s general rise of hatred.”
For his part, Mr. Aziz said misconceptions about Muslim prayers are being torqued by “hateful people in order to mislead the general public.” Students at his school participating in the Friday prayers have told him they feel unsafe.
“I feel that sentiment, too,” he said, “however, I will not give in to the fear-mongering.”