Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You Won't Believe What Natash Fatah Saw When She Visited the Notorious Mosqueteria

Natasha Fatah (Tarek's daughter) has a piece in the April Toronto Life about the mosqueteria kerfuffle. Unfortunately, the article is not yet available online, so I will have to quote from the paper copy of the magazine. Fatah, who describes herself as someone who "grew up in a progressive, moderate home," wanted to see for herself what went on at Valley Park Middle School, where for at least part of the school year, Muslim kids pray in the school's cafeteria. So she approached the school's principal, Nicholas Stefanoff, with her request. Initially, he was rather dismissive, advising Fatah to "learn something about Islam" before questioning him. When she told him she was Muslim, he softened "but remained resolute that the school was doing nothing wrong."

Nothing wrong? Well, that's one way of looking at it. But only if, like Principal Stefanoff, you, too, have failed to look into Islam (and I'm not speaking about books/articles by such apologists/sharia enablers as, say, John Esposito and Karen Armstrong). Or at least, are unfamiliar with Islam's resolute insistance that mosque and state/state and mosque are indivisible--the reason the devout Muslim couple with kids at the school insisted that these prayers be said in a public space during school time. That's something that the principal, alas, appears to neither know nor understand. If he did, he couldn't possibly have been "dumbfounded," as Fatah describes him, over the uproar that ensued when intrepid blogger Blazing Cat Fur first spilled the beans about a Saudi-style mosque--boys in front; chicks in the back; chicks on the rag at the very back and prohibited from taking part--in, of all places, a Toronto public school.
Ah, but it's really no biggie, according to Jim Spyropoulus, superintendent of the TDSB Equitable and Inclusive Schools department (equitablity and inclusiveness looming as large in this pedagogic landscape as reading, writing and 'rithmatic used to in a bygone age).  He tells Fatah
that the school was faced with a difficult decision about using the cafeteria for prayers. He says most of the time when requests for prayer services arise at other schools, solutions are found for individual students. According to Spyropoulos, these types of prayers--congregational and individual--are being accommodated at hundreds of schools within the TDSB, though usually in small, multi-faith prayer rooms. The boards's policy does not distinguish between individual requests and group requests--and in the case of Valley Park it was the responsibility of the school to accommodate a large group. The cafeteria was the only practical solution.
That's the thing about sharia. It is implaccable such that giving into it bit by bit (as happenened at this particular school, which eleven years ago bowed to a couple's request to hold congregational prayers at the school once a week during the month of Ramada; the same couple later went on to champion the weekly prayers for months at a time at the mosqueteria) inevitably becomes "the only practical solution."

So what did Fatah see when she attended that Friday service?
...Boys and girls entered through separate doors--boys from the front, near the stage, girls through the back.
Several of the girls were in long black robes. But many wore jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts. All wore a hijab except for one tiny girl in a purple long-sleeved T-shirt and black jeans with bedazzled back pockets. There was a bit of panic among the parent volunteers because her curly black hair was exposed. They scrambled to find her an extra scarf. The girl herself had a laissez-faire attitude to the whole thing, and when she wandered over to the front area where the boys pray, two parent volunteers ordered her to go to the back of the room with the other girls. Finally a scarf was given to her, and she found her place with the other girls.
The children removed their shoes and kneeled on the carpets in neat rows. Students at the school wear ID tags around their necks, but tuck them into their shirts during prayer. Baig [the female member of the mosqueteria-pushing parent duo] ran the prayer like a tight military operation, issuing orders for students to get organized and finish their sunnahs--a specific series of prayers to be recited before the formal sermon begins. She asked a group of girls who were sitting on benches to immediately get on the floor and join the other girls.
The sermon commenced and the parent volunteers stood at strategic spots around the room to catch any misbehaviour. They recited the same prayer I've heard thousands of times over in my lifetime. There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet. I watched as the students bowed and kneeled and looked side to side--the ritual movements of Muslim prayers performed all over the world.
What sort of churl/"Islamophobe" could possibly object to any of that taking place at a taxpayer-funded public school?

Natasha Fatah, for one. She accompanied the Baigs to their home mosque, the orthodox Sunni one in their neighbourhood where kids were going for services (and often not returning to school afterwards) prior to the Principal Stefanoff' came up with his "practical solution". Upon arriving at the Darus Salaam, a nondescript building in an industrial park with no outward indications that it is indeed a mosque, Fatah decribes how Mr. Baig
went up the front steps and Shamiza [his missus] and I walked to the side of the building, toward the so-called sisters' entrance. Not only were we not permitted to enter through the front doors, we were also segregated from the men. The sisters-only room is about 20 feet by 10. It's carpeted, with one broken shelf containing books on Islam. Shamiza pointed out that the students use some of these same books to recite prayers at the school on Fridays. There were a couple of posters on the wall with prayers in Arabic, and a clock at the front. The women are supposed to be able to hear the prayers in the main space through speakers, but there was no sound coming though...
Rather symbolic, no? Just goes to show that if you're a chick at the Darus Salaam, you are so insignificant that get the small, crappy room, where they care so little about you that they don't even bother to ensure you can hear the prayer. Which is fine--at least from the standpoint of religious freedom--if that sort of treatment occurs within the confines of a mosque. But when it bleeds out into a the public sphere, and is the modus operandi at a public school, well, then, there is a problem--a big one. Here's Fatah's takeaway from the whole flap, a hard-hitting wrap up that will no doubt get her into hot water with certain devout members of her community:  
The Baigs, I decided, are likable and seem well-meaning, but I don't share their unconditional acceptance of Islamic customs. What they're doing at Valley Park sets a dangerous precedent and legitimizes sexism. The school may be following a policy of accommodating special requests, but there's a striking difference between designating a room for a handful of students and converting the largest room in the building for group prayer. The school becomes, in effect, a mosque.
Yes, but a "practical" one--right Principal Stefanoff and TDSB brass? So as far as they can tell (which is not very far, their vision being decidedly myopic when it comes to the persistent creep, creep, creep of sharia), even with all the bad PR, all remains for the best in this, the best of all possible Trudeaupias.

Update: Ms. Fatah informs me the link is now accessible here.


Mrs. Pinkerton said...

Does this school have to host a gay-straight alliance club? And if so, how do the Muslim parents feel about that?

Sanwin said...

I read the entire article on a facebook page that Tarek Fatah has posted.


Natasha Fatah said...

Hi there,
Thanks for your interest in my piece in Toronto Life. It's true, it's not available online yet. It's in the April issue which on stands right now. And my understanding is that it will be available online by the end of this month.

It's an important issue, with a lot of misunderstandings, and I hope I've done a small part in answering people's questions.

Take care,

scaramouche said...

Thanks for the heads up, Natasha. And congrats on the piece.

Natasha Fatah said...

Thank you so much, and guess what? The story is now available online: