As the kids get ready to go back to class, school board trustees prepare themselves for another round of bitter politicking with a Muslim parents group so vociferous they've been shunned by some in their own community.
The Toronto District Muslim Education Assembly came together when the newly amalgamated board was putting together a human rights policy that was too pro-gay for their liking. Nevertheless, it passed, and life at the board of ed went on as usual. Or almost. Although many mainstream Muslim groups are willing to work out an appropriate balance between religious sensitivity and human rights, the Assembly decidedly is not.
No let-up Board officials say the calls and letters have not let up, even in the dog days of summer. And the group's Web site continues to propound outlandish views about the connection between AIDS and gays and what should be done with them to stop the spread of the illness.
The mainstays behind the Assembly are a husband-and-wife team. "In my religion, (homosexuality) is not normal -- at school the teacher says it's normal, and this is not good for the kids," says the woman who answers the phone Tuesday afternoon at the home of Ibrahim El-sayed but refuses to give her first name. "We do not promote hate.... We just want the same rights as everyone else."
Mrs. El-sayed explains that as a parent she wants sexuality expunged from school altogether. "In our religion, we do not have dating," she says, "so our kids are not interested in that. We don't want our kids to learn anything about sex."
That means no sex education in health class and no dances. For the Assembly, any reference to sex is an inducement to it, and any reference to homosexuality is a promotion of that "morally corrupt lifestyle." Mrs. El-sayed tells me that homosexuality is a "sin," just like theft or murder.
She says her group is mainstream, and claims that it has "thousands" of members and tens of thousands of sympathizers, all merely concerned parents.
But board chair Gail Nyberg tells a different story. She describes them as fractious and intolerant, "crashing meetings" and forcing all other issues off the agenda, bringing meetings to an end. "Sometimes they would just scream," she says. On one occasion, she had to deny a gay Muslim the opportunity to speak to the board for fear of the reception he'd get from the Assembly.
And all, she says, because the board was trying to obey the Ontario Human Rights Code, which requires equal treatment for gay and lesbian students.
That means not only that queer students are to be protected from harassment, but also that they must have access to support and counselling and advocacy and must be visible on the curriculum. In other words, books by gay authors will show up in English class, and gay historical figures will take their rightful place. The nature of Socrates' relations with the winsome Phaedrus will not be kept secret.
The policy has passed, but the protests have not. The Assembly Web site (http://members.tripod.com/tdmea/) invites readers to an upcoming protest, but when I ask Mrs. El-sayed when it is to be held, she will not give me a date.
Other contents of the site are, in Nyberg's words, "manipulation and lies... approaching libel." For one thing, it misrepresents the board's human rights document, splicing together words from the original and the Assembly's own propaganda. Thus, while the original reads, "to act as a resource centre in areas of human sexuality, ensuring a comprehensive and inclusive curriculum," the version on the Web site reads: "to act as a resource centre in areas of human sexuality, ensuring a selective curriculum to promote sex and moral corruption in our schools." And so on.
Mrs. El-sayed is surprised that I have come to think of the Assembly as homophobic, so I remind her of a piece of writing on the Web site penned by one Jann Flury entitled AIDS And Homosexuality.
Behavioural disease Flury takes as his starting point some recent scientific skepticism on the provenance of AIDS and its relation to the HIV virus. From this he makes two points. The first is that "to state categorically that you can't get HIV from a hug... or from sweat through body contact on the basketball court is irresponsible, regardless of whether the virus is the cause of AIDS or not."
The second is that if HIV doesn't cause AIDS, it is because homosexuality does. "AIDS is a behavioural disease," Flury writes. He endorses compulsory testing, the identification of carriers, the dismissal of carriers from their jobs, "quarantine and possible sanitarium-type confinement" of AIDS patients. However, all these measures, the writer complains, have been ruled out by powerful homosexual lobby groups.
Not surprisingly, Muslim groups are tripping over each other in an effort to distance themselves from the Assembly. Nyberg faxes NOW a wad of letters from mosques and other groups explicitly disavowing any affiliation with the organization. All the letters, including one from the Islamic Council of Imams of Canada, express an earnest wish to work together.
Imam Abdul Hai Patel, the coordinator of that organization, will not comment on the letter, pointing out that he sits on the Ontario Human Rights Commission. But he says he sees no reason to challenge the board's equity document. "It's in keeping with the Human Rights Code, and that's that," he says.
Diverse community Mohammed Khan, founder of the Toronto chapter of Al-Fatiha, an international organization of gay and lesbian Muslims, says it's hard for any one group to speak on behalf of the Muslim community, since it's heterogeneous. Some members of his group have come out to their families and been accepted with open arms. Others have been ostracized and disowned or worse. Some are refugees and immigrants fleeing persecution in their home countries, and they do not relish finding the same homophobia here.
Khan, who attended board hearings and even tried to address the Assembly (only to be asked to leave), argues that the Koranic evidence that homosexuality is forbidden (an episode that corresponds roughly to the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah) is "blatantly misinterpreted" and that the sayings attributed to the Prophet are often unreliable, as they were written two generations after his death. In other words, Islam is not intrinsically homophobic.
Besides, Khan points out, "There is no central figure or ruling body in Islam. It is incumbent on individuals to find a space for themselves to nurture their own faith and spirituality on their own terms."