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October 11, 2017 4:15 pm

Toronto School District Says Controversial Islamic Heritage Guide, Which Drew Complaints From Jewish Groups, Won’t Be Further Modified

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The head office of the Toronto District School Board. Photo: PFHLai.

A Toronto school district has announced that it won’t further modify its Islamic Heritage Month guidebook, following complaints from prominent Canadian Jewish human rights groups.

The 181-page guidebook was issued this year to educators by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) for use during Ontario’s Islamic Heritage Month in October. The province also celebrates Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish heritage months.

The document includes writing assignments and other resources to help students gain a better understanding of the history and contributions of Muslims in Canada and beyond, but drew controversy by initially defining Islamophobia as “fear, prejudice, hatred or dislike directed against Islam or Muslims, or towards Islamic politics or culture.”

B’nai Brith Canada raised concerns on October 2 that this “overly broad” definition “could lead to punishment for students or teachers who display ‘dislike’ toward the persecution of LGTBQ people in the Islamic Republic of Iran, harsh restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, and Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, all of which are examples of ‘Islamic politics’.”

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The TDSB responded within hours of the complaint, and subsequently revised its definition of Islamophobia to that adopted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“We have been informed by the TDSB that the original version of the Guidebook with the problematic definition was not widely distributed, and that this updated version has been distributed instead,” Aidan Fishman, interim national director of the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, told The Algemeiner on Wednesday.

However, days following B’nai Brith Canada’s objection, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) sent a letter to TDSB expressing its own dismay over the guide’s reference to the Nation of Islam and one of its former adherents, the late civil rights activist Malcolm X.

“Nation of Islam officials have a documented history of antisemitic rhetoric including Holocaust denial, exaggerating the role of Jews in the slave trade and hateful conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the economy,” FSWC argued.

Addressing the guide’s suggestion that a brief biography of Malcolm X be read to students during morning announcements, FSWC noted, “Malcolm X was accused of making antisemitic remarks claiming that Jews controlled the media and befriended the Black community for their own ulterior motives. Such remarks have in fact been posted on white nationalist websites.”

The group urged the TDSB to recall the guide pending further review.

Jim Spyropoulos, executive superintendent of equity and inclusive schools at TDSB, said in response that no further revisions of the guidebook would be made based on FSWC’s complaints.

The reference to the Nation of Islam “is presented as historical fact only, and is in no way intended as an endorsement of that organization,” Spyropoulos wrote in a letter to FSWC explaining the decision.

After recognizing that Malcolm X “was a polarizing historical figure,” Spyropoulos pointed out that he also “played a central role in the U.S. civil rights movement, and this is taught about in schools across North America.”

“While any reprehensible comments Malcolm X made during his life must be condemned outright, it is our understanding that his views changed over time and that he [publicly] denounced such comments made in his youth as not having been reflective of his true feelings,” Spyropoulos added.

The latest version of the Islamic Heritage Month guidebook can be found here.

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