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Myths and facts about the Muslim prayer space

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There's growing hysteria against the prayer space for Muslim students at the Valley Park Middle School in Toronto. It's claimed that it gives special treatment to Muslims, undermines public education and imposes sexism on society, and that we should support a supposedly broad-based multifaith coalition that opposes it. But this is based on a series of myths.

MYTH: The prayer space gives special treatment to Muslims and undermines secularism.

FACT: The prayer spaces promotes secularism by providing equal access to public education.

According to Toronto District School Board Education (TDSB) Director Chris Spence: "As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs." With its weekends and vacations, the school calendar already accommodates students who pray on Saturday or Sunday, and those who observe Easter and Christmas. Furthermore, as Omar Qayum, a TDSB teacher pointed out,

"At my school we have Christian invocations every year during our Remembrance Day assemblies and during the Christmas holidays through carols -- nobody complains! Furthermore, some schools partake in Hanukah, Diwali and Kwanza to honour their Jewish, Hindu and African-American students."

The prayer space for Muslim students ensures that they are not excluded and forced to choose between their education and their faith. Rather than demanding the cancelling of Friday classes or having Muslim students miss class, the Friday prayer space ensures no disruption to non-Muslim students while promoting access to education for Muslim students. This is the essence of secularism: equal access to public services irrespective of religion.

Banning prayer spaces undermines this principle, and there's a history of such discrimination towards Muslims. As an article in the Ottawa Citizen reminds us:

"It's the same as the flap about civil arbitration back in 2005. For more than a decade, the government of Ontario had a system that permitted Orthodox Christians and Jews to settle family disputes according to their faith's rules provided the outcome did not violate generally applicable laws and principles. Not controversial in the least. Then a handful of Muslims asked to do the same, there was a mighty backlash, and the government scrapped the whole system."

MYTH: The prayer space undermines public education.

FACT: Opposition to the prayer space is scapegoating Muslims for government cuts.

The Toronto Sun claimed that "the taxpayers are funding religious schools after all. Or at least one that we know of. If it's not stopped now who knows where this will end up or how much it will cost."

Firstly, taxpayers are not funding a separate Muslim prayer space, it is happening in the existing school cafeteria, organized and paid for by the local Muslim community. Secondly, we know of many religious schools that receive public funding: Catholic schools, which segregate boys and girls not only in separate prayer spaces but in separate schools.

Most importantly, the erosion of quality public education is not because of accommodation to religious minorities. Prayer spaces have not reduced education budgets and extra-curricular activities, or increased class sizes, budget cuts have. It's no coincidence that minorities are being scapegoated in times of economic crisis and austerity measures. Britain's conservative government is imposing massive cuts to jobs and services, including the tripling of university tuition. At the same time it's blaming "multiculturalism" and giving confidence to extremist groups like the English Defense League who target Muslims.

MYTH: The prayer space is imposing segregation on education and society.

FACT: Muslims are being scapegoated for segregation that pervades society and all its institutions.

The hysteria against the prayer space gives the impression that girls and women would be liberated were it not for an optional weekly half hour Muslim prayer at one school. But segregation of the sexes exists in all religions -- including the segregation of menstruating women in some orthodox Jewish communities. As Aisha Sherazi, a formal principal wrote recently, "Growing up in a Hindu family, men and women always sat separately…It is up to the Muslim community to have a debate about whether they want to have mixed prayer or not." But the Islamophobic campaign against the prayer space does not open up space for this debate, it closes it.

Furthermore the campaign suggests segregation is isolated to Muslim prayer space. But throughout society women face segregation -- in pay, reproductive choice, media images that shame their bodies, and levels of violence. Campaigns in Western countries against Muslims are scapegoating them for these far broader forms of segregation, while denying that Muslim women have any agency in their own lives. In France where less than 25 per cent of MPs are women, the government has claimed to liberate women by banning those who wear niqab from public space.

In Canada the federal Harper government refuses to investigate missing and murdered Aboriginal women, purged funding from women's groups, imposed a maternal health plan that denies reproductive choice, and told women's groups to "shut the fuck up." As women are segregated into lower socio-economic status, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's massive proposal of cuts will disproportionately hurt those who rely on city services -- from bus routes to dental care. Why aren't the groups up in arms over prayer space organizing protests against these policies of segregation affecting far broader population?

MYTH: A broad multi-faith coalition opposes the prayer space.

FACT: A small number of fringe groups with a history of Islamophobia oppose the prayer space.

Far from being a large multi-faith opposition, the main organized opposition to the prayer space are fringe political groups with a history of Islamophobia: the Jewish Defense League (an extremist Zionist group), the Christian Heritage Party (a fringe right-wing party that calls for a moratorium on immigration from Muslim countries, and that opposes women's choice), the Canadian Hindu Advocacy (a Hindu nationalist group whose spokesperson claimed that Islamic civilization had contributed "less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys") and the Muslim Canadian Congress (a small group whose spokeperson Tarek Fatah has become a media darling for supporting campaigns against religious accommodation for Muslims).

It's obvious that what unites these groups is not their love of public education or their commitment to women's rights, but their Islamophobia. Despite their fringe numbers and beliefs, the media has helped them spark a hysterical reaction against an optional weekly half hour of prayer that doesn't interfere with non-Muslims and which allow Muslim students to better integrate into public school -- but which like all religions and most of society has some form of segregation. These groups are trying to import the politics of David Cameron and the English Defense League, paying lip service to women's rights and public education as an excuse to whip up Islamophobia, providing a scapegoat to economic crisis and austerity.

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