Secularism and bigotry confused once again in student prayer debate

by | January 16, 2017

There’s been a dispute roiling in the Peel District School Board over prayer in the public schools… but not the school prayer dispute we’re used to. Usually when the topic of prayer in public schools comes up, the standard secularist line is that the students are free to pray all they want, so long as the teachers don’t get involved. But apparently, that rule gets thrown out the window when Muslims are involved.

This story has popped up a couple times in Weekly Update (for example here and here), largely thanks to the efforts of reader Derek Gray at keeping tabs on developments.

[Peel District School Board logo.]

Peel District School Board

The problems started , after the PDSB changed its policy to require Muslim students participating in student-led Friday prayers to use school-approved sermons. No, seriously. The school was dictating to the students what they should pray. To add insult to injury, the school only had six approved sermons.

Given how often secularism is discussed on this blog, I hope I don’t have to explain to readers why this is completely unacceptable. Secularism requires that the state and its representatives can neither privilege nor hinder any particular religion or group of religions. Clearly forcing people to get their prayers government-approved before they can pray is a violation of that principle.

This new policy didn’t just come out of a vacuum. The Toronto District School Board (not the Peel District School Board) had faced criticism previously for allowing imams to come into the school to lead prayers. That was a difficult situation, in which having the imams come in might have been a reasonable accommodation – I’d have to look at the situation in detail again to be sure – but at least the school wasn’t directly involved in the prayers (beyond giving tacit approval to their existence). Ironically, a representative of the PDSB was quoted in the papers smugly saying that his board wasn’t allowing imams in to lead prayers, but instead students had to fill out religious accommodation requests to pray in school. Hmm.

Back to the current story; unsurprisingly, Muslims objected to having to get their prayers school sanctioned. At first the Board defended their position, as boards are wont to do. They even cited the Toronto District School Board imam-in-the-cafeteria incident to justify their position. They’ve since claimed they got legal advice saying that censoring prayers was not a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code; colour me skeptical.

But to their credit, they did listen to concerns. They held private consulations with Muslim community leaders to discuss the issue, and consulted legal experts. And eventually, backed away from requiring sermons to be vetted. Sorta. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

So, problem solved, right? All good, right?

Well, no. This is where the islamophobic bigots got involved.

The solution to the prayer problem was scheduled to be voted on at their regular board meeting.

It didn’t go well.

It turned out that some islamophobic activists arranged to protest and disrupt the PDSB meeting. At first their attempts were subtle, mostly long-winded “questions” that were chock full of anti-Muslim dog-whistling. But it quickly degenerated into the more explicit Islam is poison level of “debate”.

And then this happened:

The crazy person waving the Quran and screaming about how Muslims are terrorists and they want to die for Allah is Sandra Solomon, our very own Canadian Pamela Geller. She is a Palestinian-born ex-Muslim whose full time job appears to be agitating against Islam. She is national spokesperson for Rise Canada and founder of Canadians Against Islamization, which appears to be just a Facebook group.

As the video shows, the meeting had to be put on hold while she was ejected to cheers of fuck islam, islam is evil, islam is garbage, islam is shit, oh, and of course: free speech, natch.

But let’s put the asshats aside and approach the issue rationally, like freethinkers.

Secularism tells us that it’s wrong for school officials to either promote or lead prayers, or to prevent them if students want to pray in non-disruptively. So censoring the students’ prayers, or forcing them to use school-approved prayers, is completely unacceptable. That much we’ve covered. But the new/old policy – more or less the one that was in place before the misguided attempt to mandate school-approved prayers, and have now reverted to – has the following requirements:

  1. students can pray in groups at any time, but they won’t be organized or led, and won’t include a sermon;
  2. (for Jumu’ah, or Friday prayers), sermons must be in English, except for verses quoted from the Quran; and
  3. the sermons will be supervised by school staff.

Put aside the first point for the moment, and focus on the latter two. To clarify the last point, the PDSB explicitly states that the prayers must be student-led; school officials will only be present to “supervise” without actually taking part, and certainly not leading the prayers.

The school’s justification for this is they are responsible for everything that happens in the school. Well, true, but taken to the logical extreme, perhaps we should ban any languages other than English everywhere in the school, all day – except, obviously, in classes dedicated to teaching another language. Because if students can say inappropriate things in a sermon… imagine what they’re saying in the fucking hallway!

I hope that makes the absurdity of policing everything the kids say clear, but if it wasn’t enough, then riddle me this: What is the point of school? Is it not to prepare kids to be responsible adults, capable of functioning and contributing in our society? Would we really be doing them a service by treating them like criminals, presuming their guilt, and monitoring their every move? I think not. I think students should be respected as people with rights and freedoms by default. They should be granted responsibilities and privileges. Sure, they might (okay, will) fuck and do something stupid from time to time… but that’s all part of the learning process, and it can be dealt with if and when it happens. So long as the consequences of fucking up aren’t dire… let the kids be kids.

More importantly, let the kids be people – specifically people with the rights and freedoms everyone gets in this country. If we don’t respect the kids’ civil rights, how can we seriously expect them to respect anyone else’s when they graduate? We’d be teaching them the lesson that it’s okay to suppress peoples’ Charter rights if it makes it easier for the administration to control them.

And even all that aside, there’s the simple point that these are stupid rules. I mean, think about it. Let’s say you allow students to conduct sermons in Arabic, and they use the fact that the teachers can’t understand the sermon to preach hate or intolerance. How the fuck does that make them any more “dangerous” than an unsupervised Christian group doing the same thing in English? Why do the Muslim kids specifically have to be monitored? I mean, if you have a group of 30–50 or more Muslim kids attending a sermon in Arabic where the student-imam preaches hate or intolerance… and none of those students report it to a teacher… you have a fucking serious problem on your hands. And if the Muslim students really are all bigots, 1) they’re going to exchange their bigoted views when the teachers aren’t looking anyway; and 2) if they really wanted to, they could just flat out say the bigoted messages in Arabic while pretending they’re Quran verses, right under the damn noses of the supervising teachers. It’s all just so stupid.

And it’s unnecessary. Shock of shocks, just because students are Muslim, that doesn’t mean they’re all ticking time bombs of hate and intolerance that must be closely monitored. Just… let the fucking kids have their little prayer time. Don’t “supervise” them. Give them their space, and let them be themselves. If any problem comes up, trust your students to bring it to your attention… if you can’t trust them to do that, then, seriously, you have much bigger problems on your hands.

It may sound surprising for a committed secularist to advocate letting prayer happen in schools, but I have always been crystal clear about the way secularism should be applied: the state and its representatives – in this case, the school administration and teachers – must not promote or inhibit any religious (or nonreligious) beliefs or practices without a good reason (like health or safety) … but the students can do as they fucking please so long as it doesn’t disrupt anything or threaten anyone.

So the school shouldn’t be meddling with the students’ prayers at all; not to “supervise” them, and certainly not to dictate how they do it. A secular state should not meddle with religion without a very pressing reason. Secularism is not suppressing religion; it is doing absolutely nothing about it, for or against, unless absolutely necessary for sound reasons.

Let’s look at the PDSB policies again:

  1. students can pray in groups at any time, but they won’t be organized or led, and won’t include a sermon;
  2. (for Jumu’ah, or Friday prayers), sermons must be in English, except for verses quoted from the Quran; and
  3. the sermons will be supervised by school staff.

See that first point? That’s getting it right in the first half. It falls apart in the second half because how could you ever enforce that if a group of students get together, one of them isn’t giving a sermon to the others?

Secularism is actually really easy. It’s really not complicated. Here, I’ll demonstrate.

Let’s start by drafting a smart policy for Muslim student prayers for the PDSB:

  1. Muslim students can pray:

    1. anywhere they want;
    2. any time they want; and
    3. any way they want;

    so long as their activities do not disrupt any classes or organized activities, do not damage any school property, and do not threaten, harass, or infringe on any students’ rights.

  2. If a Muslim student or a group of Muslim students requests space or any other accommodations in order to pray, it shall be granted unless there is a sound reason why it cannot.

That’s a pretty reasonable policy, no?

Okay, now remove all references specific to Islam.

Now you’ve got a pretty reasonable prayer policy that applies to all religious groups. There’s no reason that Muslim students need to be singled out.

Is the policy secular yet? No, not yet. There’s one more step.

Remove all references specific to prayer.

Now what you’ve got is a reasonable policy for handling any activities that students want to do, whether it’s praying, or doing a book study, or starting a rock band, or quilting. There’s really no reason to single out prayer as an activity. Or any religious practice for that matter.

That’s what a secular policy looks like. It’s actually a lot less work that trying to draft policies to deal with religious specifics. Think about it: What is the practical difference, from an administrative perspective, between students getting together to pray versus getting together to knit, or getting together to discuss shared religious beliefs versus getting together to discuss opinions on the latest films? There’s really none. So don’t create one; that’s all that secularism really requires.

Granted, secularism won’t make the bigots go away. But as this case shows, failing at secularism gives them reason to come out in force. When you make unreasonable rules, reasonable people will come to protest… and the crazies will take advantage of the discussion to usurp it for their own ends.

And let’s stop treating kids like criminals in schools, presuming they’re all up to something and monitoring them all day.

7 thoughts on “Secularism and bigotry confused once again in student prayer debate

  1. David Lacey

    please view BBC’s DISPATCH – British Islamic teaching (in English) caught with hidden camera by BBC undercover reporter. I am intolerant of Salafist/Wahabi fundamentalism… and have come to be convinced that the Islamists intend to do what they are promising.

  2. Brian Mackenzie

    There is nothing irrational about islamophobia. All four major branches of Islam call for the death of apostates, as an example. Please study Islam, you will be fearful as well.

    1. Indi Post author

      However many times this gets repeated, it doesn’t seem to get through some people’s thick skulls: Islamophobia is irrational fear or hatred of Islam or Muslims. If your fear/hatred is NOT irrational, then it is NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA.

      How hard is that to understand? You can dislike Islam (or Muslims), you can distrust Islam (or Muslims), you can criticize Islam (or Muslims), and so long as your dislike, distrust, or criticism are rational, it is NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA. But the moment you go irrational, then it becomes islamophobia.

      So it is ridiculous to say there is nothing irrational about islamophobia. Islamophobia itself is irrational. By definition.

      Now that that’s clear: Being afraid of Islam because there are calls for the death of apostates is idiotic – as stupid as being afraid of Judaism because there are calls for the death of people who work on the Sabbath. That’s islamophobia, and you seem to suffer from it.

  3. Rob

    Good article and I must say a refreshing change from the usual discussions but may I add somewhat naive as David above pointed out, freedom of religion only hoes as far as it doesn’t conflict with our values. .

    1. Indi Post author

      I always cringe when I see talk about “our values”. Because what exactly are our values? Kellie Leitch, for example, claims there are a coherent set of “Canadian values”, and that she can even test for them… but on the rare occasions she actually gave concrete examples of what they are, it turns out that they would rule out a third of the leadership candidates of the Conservative Party. And in fact, there are values I have that Leitch doesn’t: she opposes abortion, legalization of cannabis, a carbon tax, and she *supports* “conscience exemptions” for assisted dying. So whose values are “Canadian values”, mine or hers?

      No, the values play is a bad play. Instead, someone’s right to freedom of religion (more technically, freedom of belief or conscience) has to be balanced not against “values”, but against other peoples’ rights. For example, someone’s right of freedom of religion obviously doesn’t trump anyone else’s right to live, but does it trump their right to freedom of association? Standard practice in Canada has generally been that negative rights override positive rights – in other words, my right to not be interfered with trumps whatever right you might have that interferes with me. So someone’s right to freedom of religion (§2) will never trump someone else’s right to, say, treat me differently under the law (§15)… which means sharia law (for example) will never be possible in Canada, because it discriminates between genders (for example).

      This position is not “naïve”. It is deeply studied, well-evidenced, and, frankly, the way things have been in Canada for generations now. This idea of “values” is what’s naïve.

      As for David Lacey’s comments, they are a complete non sequitur. The fact that there are extremist religious groups teaching intolerance and hate is no more relevant than the fact that there are extremist non-religious groups doing the same. Yes, we know there are Islamic extremists. This is not news to anyone. If you seriously think Canadian law or Canadian society has never had any concept of extremists – religious or otherwise… well, clearly *I* am not the naïve one here. Our laws and our society has weathered religious extremists in the past, and we can do so again. There is nothing particularly new or shocking about the current generation of Islamic extremists. It’s only new and shocking to clueless idiots who don’t have any sense of history or law; that is, the usual crop of knuckle-dragging, ignorant bigots.

        1. Indi Post author

          That’s not a bad article for what it says, but it isn’t really relevant to the point here.

          I am not saying that secular, rational, or democratic values values are not good, and I am not saying they aren’t better than religious, traditional, or authoritarian values. They are.

          But here’s the thing. They aren’t better just because they’re ours. There are *REASONS* why those values are better than other values. Most values are just “preferences” that aren’t objectively better or worse than other values, but *THOSE* values are objectively better, and there are *REASONS* why.

          If we are going to take a stand, taking a stand on a platform of “our values versus their values” is a *terrible* idea. Because most values are just “preferences”, so we would get mired down in pointless arguments about subjective preferences, and the fact that there are objective reasons why those particular values are better will just get lost in the noise.

          Instead, if we just forget about all this talk of values, and play those cards *directly*, we avoid all that confusion, and all that hassle.

          Don’t say “if you want to come to our country, you have to accept our values” – that will just trigger arguments about which values are really our values, whether someone’s preferences matter more than others, and so on. Just say: “if you want to come to our country, you must accept secularism and democracy”. Boom. We’re done. There’s nothing to argue there. No one can say “secularism isn’t really Canadian” or “democracy isn’t Canadian”. They *have* to accept those premises… or try to argue why they have something better, and they’re welcome to try (there’s always the non-zero possibility that they *do* have something better!).

          The whole language of “values” is dangerous, vague, and too easily exploited by the wrong people (who might throw in other “Canadian values” that you don’t agree with, like that “Canadian values are Christian values”; actually, that’s the game Kellie Leitch is playing, talking about “Canadian values” in order to slyly slip in her own “values” and get them passed off as *everyone*’s ideas). Using that language is fraught with risks, for no benefit.

          So don’t use it. Say what you really mean. You don’t want people to accept “Canadian values”. You want them to accept rule of secular law, tolerance for others, and… whatever else you want to list.


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