Province to investigate school after student's anti-Semitic report

Ministry responds to fear of Islamic schools becoming 'incubators of hate'


Juliet O'Neill

The Ottawa Citizen

March 25, 2005



CREDIT: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

Principal Aisha Sherazi of Abraar Islamic School at 1085 Grenon Ave. has had to deal with a lot of fallout over the contentious story written by a child attending the school.


Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy launched an investigation yesterday into the "deeply disturbing" situation at the Abraar Islamic School after two teachers were suspended for their involvement in a young student's writing project, which glorified martyrdom and violence against Jews.

Mr. Kennedy said he hoped an Education Department supervisor's investigation "into what is going on" at the private school will find this is an isolated incident. He also said it could lead to a reference to the Ottawa police for a hate crimes investigation. He said the government is also looking into its powers to deregister a private school. If the teachers are certified by the Ontario College of Teachers, they may lose their certification.

The education supervisor is scheduled to go to the school Tuesday. Abraar School provides full-time education for about 260 students ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 8.

Mumtaz Akhtar, president of the Muslim-Community Council of Ottawa-Gatineau, said he was stunned when he saw the student project published on the front page of the Citizen.

"This is against our religion, against our character," he said in an interview. "Whoever did it must have a very low esteem. I am really shocked. We all ran away from those countries to come here and live peacefully. The only thing I can say is it's very shameful."

The government intervention under a never-used power in the Education Act was requested by the Canadian Jewish Congress, which said it was astounding and frightening that a teacher could permit, let alone encourage, the glorification of violence.

"The danger to students is so great that we believe that the Ministry of Education has no choice but to become involved," said Frank Bialystok, chairman of the Ontario community relations committee of the CJC.

B'nai Brith Canada, a Jewish human rights organization, warned that if no action is taken, "such schools will become incubators of hate." The organization's executive vice-president, Frank Dimant, called for intervention by educators, police and Muslim leaders "to prevent a poisonous and dangerous environment from firmly taking hold" in schools and other institutions.

The Congress request was backed by Ed Broadbent, Ottawa Centre MP and former New Democratic Party leader, who issued a statement saying that encouragement of hatred by teachers must be strongly condemned. "Such activity is not only immoral in Canada, it is also illegal," he said.

An Ottawa police spokeswoman said no formal complaint had been laid under hate crimes law, so there is no police investigation under way. A Canadian Security and Intelligence Service spokeswoman, Barbara Campion, could not confirm or deny that the agency has been, or is, investigating, but she said such things concern the service because "it is the type of activity that could be construed as inciting extremist or radical beliefs."

The education investigation came amid statements of shock and alarm from an array of Jewish and Islamic organizations about teacher involvement in a student's eight-page story of revenge on Israelis. It was illustrated by a drawing that showed a burning Star of David, a machine gun and the Palestinian flag atop the Dome of the Rock, an ancient Muslim shrine in Jerusalem. One teacher allegedly helped with the illustration and another praised the story in marginal notes.

It should be kept in mind the story itself was a work of fiction by a boy who is of Palestinian origin and whose extended family "lives under the jackboot of Israeli occupation," said Riad Saloojee, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It is the teachers, he said, and not the boy, who must be investigated and whose actions must never be repeated.

"The teacher should have moved quickly and addressed in a very balanced manner the importance of working towards a peaceful resolution and saving human life in any conflict, and certainly not praise the contents," Mr. Saloojee said. "That's the more troubling dimension." The council released a statement saying Canadian Muslims reject the glorification of violence or the promotion of hatred against any ethnic community.

While Mohamed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress, also joined the chorus of shock about the incident, he also noted that while there was great media interest in the Abraar school, no reporter had called him the previous day when he called for Jewish leaders to re-evaluate what young Jewish Canadians are taught at Hebrew schools. He cited a recent letter to the editor of the Kingston Whig Standard from a nine-year-old Hebrew school student which said Israel does not want to fight and the Palestinians wanted to push the Israelis into the sea.

"It's the responsibility of the ministry of education to look at the curriculum of all private schools, including Jewish and Muslim schools," Mr. Elmasry said. He hoped both communities would learn a lesson from these incidents. He also said the boy may have learned his views from TV or the Internet, not from teachers. "I hope it's a single incident."

Israeli Ambassador Alan Baker was affronted by Mr. Elmasry's comment. "It's very sad that when we're all faced with this blatant evidence of what's being taught in an Islamic school, that anybody is trying to move the attention to Jewish schools when it is simply not the fact," he said. "To teach understanding of Arabs of Islam, I'm all in favour, but to turn this into some kind of balancing act just adds to my concern."

Mr. Baker had weighed in with a call for "drastic action" by Canadian educational authorities and Muslim leaders, saying it is a short leap from glorified fantasy violence to the real thing. "The last thing I would like to see is for this type of thing to happen in Canada, to move from the story mode in a school project out into the street and out into society," he said. " I think this should be treated as ringing a very loud bell and turning on a very bright red light for attention within Canada."

Mr. Kennedy said in an interview that even though private schools exist in an unregulated "wild west" environment, the education ministry and he "have responsibility for the welfare of those children." He said the regulation is so light over private schools that basically all the department does is periodically confirm that there are at least five children in a classroom.

"We're treating it as a general power to go in and check what's going on in that school and we'll deal with our findings when we've arrived at them," Mr. Kennedy said. "This power has not been exercised before that we know of. It's important that we send a signal that we are interested that standards are not being breached even in the private schools that are not directly supervised by the ministry. Obviously we are deeply troubled by the potential ... for any kind of school that would seem to be a site for that kind of intolerance."

Mr. Kennedy said he was heartened that the administration of the school had suspended the teachers. The teachers were suspended Wednesday after a translated version of the writing project, which was handwritten in Arabic, was brought to the principal by the Citizen for comment. She called an emergency meeting of the seven-member school board and the instructors were suspended pending an internal investigation.

Mr. Kennedy said there's a better than 50-per-cent chance the teachers are not certified "and that's partly why we're looking into it." "It's deeply disturbing," he said. "We would like there to become some reasonable expectation on any institution that has minor children in this province, that they would have some standards they have to meet. Certainly we may end up exploring that out of this incident. Right now we'll just deal with the incident itself."

Bernie Farber, director of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the story and teacher's praise "comes close to the legal definition of hate propaganda and it has to be taken very, very seriously." "It's a major eye-opener and it's something that the ministry of education has to take seriously," he said. "This is not something for an internal investigation. This is something for an objective educational specialist to come into a school and to ensure that this is not going on any place else."

Juliet O'Neill Ottawa Citizen 239-3870

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On the web for seven-day subscribers: Read the full text of the student writing project that has shaken Abraar School.

Private Schools: Anyone can start one, page F1; Editorial: Foreign hatred must not infest our schools, page F4

 The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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