Muslim couple’s human rights case spotlights importance of religious accommodation


In my previous work with the Canadian Jewish Congress and Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, I often became involved in differences of opinions between landlords and tenants.

Can a building accommodate a Sabbath elevator? Is the mezuzah a decoration that may be forbidden under condominium regulations or a religious requirement for which accommodation must be made? Can tenants request that their apartment not be shown to prospective renters on Jewish holidays?

A recent decision of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against a Brampton landlord has highlighted the importance of religious accommodation in landlord-tenant disputes.

Unfortunately, some reaction to the decision in online discussion groups has characterized the Muslim couple at the centre of the case as Islamists, the tribunal as a kangaroo court and the decision as the thin edge of the wedge of sharia law. The Toronto Sun ran a front-page story with the headline, “I’m A Racist?” next to a photo of the landlord in question, who happens to be Black.

The tenants, Walid Madkour and Heba Ismail, appear to have had a difficult relationship with their landlord, John Alabi, from the beginning. Indeed, the parties agreed to end their rental agreement shortly after the couple moved into the main floor of Alabi’s house in December 2014.

Before Alabi started showing the unit to prospective renters, he indicated he would provide Madkour and Ismail with 24 hours’ notice. The tenants, who are devout Muslim, requested that Alabi also call five minutes before the apartment was to be shown to ensure they would not have to interrupt their daily prayers, and that Ismail, who wears a hijab, would have time to put on modest attire (as per the rules of Islam that a woman should not be seen with her body or hair uncovered by men who are not her blood relatives or husband).

According to the decision, Alabi did not provide notice on two occasions when he showed up with prospective tenants. The tribunal heard that Alabi refused the couple’s request to remove his shoes before entering the apartment, as well as the couple’s bedroom, which was used as their prayer space. The couple submitted video to support their claim.

At the hearing, the landlord testified that he did not remove his shoes because, in his view, the tenants were attempting “to impose their way of life” on him.

The argument was rejected by tribunal vice-chair Jo-Anne Pickel, who wrote in her decision that “attempts by Muslims to practise their faith have increasingly been interpreted as an attempt to impose their way of life on others.”

Madkour and Ismail also entered into evidence a Facebook post shared by Alabi about a devout Arab Muslim who got into a cab in London and asked the driver to turn off the radio. When the driver asked why, the passenger replied that there was no music, especially Western music, in the time of the Holy Prophet. The cab driver, according to the post, switched off the radio, stopped the cab and opened the door for the passenger to get out.

When the passenger asked what he was doing, the cab driver said, “In the time of the Holy Prophet, there were no taxis, no bombs, no plane hijacks, no West-invented loud speakers in mosques that woke up the newly born, the elderly and the sick at unearthly hours, no suicide attacks, no RDX [explosives], no AK-47s, only PEACE everywhere. So shut up, get down and wait for a camel.”

Alabi testified that he shared the post because he thought it was funny. In evidence presented to the tribunal, one of his Facebook friends commented that the post was “divisive,” to which Alabi responded: “This is my Facebook[.] I post what I want. Don’t like it? Unfriend me.”

Pickel allowed the post to be entered as evidence, finding it “relevant to discerning the respondent’s views on religiously based accommodation requests by Muslims.”

The Ontario Human Rights Code states that “every person who occupies accommodation has a right to freedom from harassment by the landlord [on] a number of grounds, including creed.”

Ismail, who was unemployed at the time and often home, told the tribunal she felt scared and intimidated after Alabi told her husband that he would enter the apartment without his permission.

One day, following another heated exchange between her husband and Alabi over showing the apartment, she said the landlord showed up to shovel snow on the steps outside the unit. She testified to “hearing someone making a loud noise by pounding a shovel on the steps.” The banging continued for 15 to 20 minutes. She called her husband at work, who called the police. Ismail said that Alabi had never shovelled snow outside her door before.

The couple said they felt humiliated, disrespected and insulted by Alabi’s actions.

But Pickel’s decision also turned to a large extent on Alabi’s credibility as a witness. She described his testimony as “inconsistent on several key points,” while noting Alabi’s “inclination to tailor his evidence in an attempt to justify his actions.”

The tribunal awarded the couple $6,000 each and ordered Alabi to take the OHRC e-learning course Human Rights In Rental Housing and review the commission’s Policy On Human Rights And Rental Housing.

Certainly, this is the sort of complaint that could have been resolved if the parties had been more respectful in their dealings with each other.

But as the tribunal decision made clear, the relationship between Alabi and his tenants came off the rails very quickly.

It’s regrettable that litigation was necessary, but in this case, the tribunal got it right. 

Len Rudner is a human rights consultant based in Toronto. | @nowtoronto



Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content