As It Happens

Why this Mississauga mom fears for her son's safety at school prayers

A Mississauga mother of four says she fears for her eldest son's safety after a number of high-profile incidents targeting Muslim school prayer's at the Peel District School Board.
Writer Shireen Ahmed is speaking out after a number of high-profile anti-Muslim incidents at the Peel District School Board in the Greater Toronto Area. (Erica Ngao)

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A Mississauga mother of four says she fears for her eldest son's safety after a number of high-profile incidents targeting Muslim school prayers at the Peel District School Board.

"This topic is starting to enrage a lot of people and, I think for community safety, there is definitely heightened security across the board," Shireen Ahmed told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Ahmed wrote an article for the Globe and Mail titled "My son shouldn't have to be afraid during Muslim prayers at school," in which she describes the heightened tension around school prayers in recent months. 

The PDSB has held voluntary Friday prayers for Muslim students at its schools for 20 years. Ahmed's 17-year-old son attends them every week, sometimes leads the service with his own sermons on topics like exam stress or youth engagement, she said.

"He's been going most of his life on Fridays," Ahmed said. "There's more than 300 students that go. They go hang out after. Like, it's just sort of like something they do together."

But in recent months, these routine prayers have ignited a firestorm of controversy, sparking a series of anti-Muslim incidents after the board sought to review whether students should be allowed to write their own sermons or instead be required to use pre-written ones.

Last month, a man disrupted a school board meeting with Islamophobic comments and ripped pages from a Qu'ran.

A few weeks later, Kevin J. Johnston of the far-right Freedom Report put families on edge when he posted a video offering a $1,000 reward for recordings of Muslim students in any school in the region "spewing hate speech during Friday prayers."

And earlier this month, a Mississauga imam who works with the PDSB on religious accommodation received several death threats.

Peel District School Board meetings have become the focal point of controversial and Islamophobia in recent months over the issue of Friday school prayers. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

"It's extremely upsetting," Ahmed said. "I think because we live in a very diverse neighbourhood and a very diverse city, it's not something I expected, and it's something I'm very uncomfortable with, particularly because it also targets children."

Imam Omar Subedar took this picture of a Qur'an destroyed at a Peel District School Board meeting last Wednesday as part of a protest of religious accommodation in school. (Shaykh Omar Subedar/Facebook)

All of this has forced Ahmed to have tough conversations about safety with her children. 

Her teenage son has brushed off her concerns, she said, assuring her that if anyone made trouble at a prayer meeting, he would have hundreds of his peers at his side.

But that's cold comfort for a woman raising Muslim children in the aftermath of January's Quebec mosque shooting, in which a man opened fire on an Islamic cultural centre, killing six men died and wounding 19 others while they prayed. 

"Canada loves to talk about its diversity and its multiculturalism and its tolerance, and these conversations essentially make people very uncomfortable, but they are important," Ahmed said.

"And as a parent and as a member of the community, I want all children to feel safe. I want all kids to be able to feel like, regardless of their ethnicity or faith background, I want them to feel safe."

In a statement posted to its website, the PDSD condemns the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has sprung up around school prayers.

"It has caused some of our students to feel unsafe, to feel targeted," it reads. "We must not allow hatred toward any faith group to flourish. We will not stand for that. It is not consistent with our board values, with our role as trustees, or for us as Canadians."

Past incidents at Peel school board meetings, including this one, in which a man ripped pages from a Qur'an, have prompted the board to bring in extra security measures. (CBC)

Meanwhile, Ahmed said her daughter attends a publicly funded Toronto Catholic District School Board school, where kids regularly attend mass without trouble.

"It just tells me it's really not about faith. The issue isn't about religious practice," she said. "This is just targeting Muslims and it's just blatant Islamophobia and to call it anything else than anti-Muslim rhetoric is really not OK."