The decision to allow mosques to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer every evening during Ramadan in one of Canada’s most diverse cities is causing a lot of backlash, including among the far-right.
The City of Mississauga passed a motion last Wednesday to temporarily exempt mosques from a noise bylaw so they can broadcast the sunset prayer call over loudspeakers until Ramadan ends on May 24. The motion also said the calls could not encourage people to physically gather. Multiple cities across Canada, including Toronto, have done the same for their mosques.
An open letter attached to three petitions, two of them hosted on Change.org, calls on Mississauga to reverse the decision, arguing that broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer amounts to a “violation of human rights.”
“Those who would like to celebrate religious holidays should be allowed to do so without infringing on the rights of others,” the letter said.
It also suggests that hearing the Islamic call to prayer would trigger PTSD in soldiers who served for Canada in the Middle East. (Veteran Affairs Canada didn’t answer if any soldiers actually experience PTSD from hearing prayers but said any personnel needing help can reach out to them.)
Mayor Bonnie Crombie raised the request to broadcast the call to prayer after a suggestion from the Muslim Council of Peel and Councillor Pat Saito tabled the motion. The idea is to foster a sense of community for Muslims who are barred from going to mosques during Ramadan due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Twelve percent of Mississauga’s 715,000 residents are Muslim and more than half of the city identify as visible minorities.
“Since we passed this motion, I have unfortunately received many disturbing emails, calls, and posts on social media in opposition to our decision,” Crombie told VICE in an email. “While people are entitled to their own opinion, there is zero place for hate or intolerance in our city.”
The petitions on Change.org have since been taken down by administrators for “violating hate speech community guidelines,” a Change.org spokesperson said in an email to VICE, but not before one of them had received 20,000 signatures.
A petition with the same open letter popped up on CitizenGo.org on Saturday and currently has more than 11,000 signatures.
The organizer of the Change.org petitions, John Girgis, is a prominent pharmacist from Mississauga’s Egyptian Coptic community.
Girgis is president of the United Pharma Group, Canada’s largest network of pharmacy owners, and was named 2019’s “Pharmacist of the Year” by the Ontario Pharmacy Association.
“I believe that every religion, ethnicity, and people need to be treated equally, and that there should be no preferential treatment,” Girgis told VICE. “I’m totally against the hateful comments that appeared under my petitions and in a way I’m glad they got taken down.”
He added that not all Muslims agree that the Islamic call to prayer should be broadcast.
Girgis said he’s not the author of the open letter attached to the petitions and doesn’t know who posted the petition on CitizenGo.org.
A different open letter posted on Facebook by Hani Tawfilis, another prominent member of Mississauga’s Coptic community who owns two pharmacies, says the call to prayer will remind vets “who fought in Islamic countries as Afghanistan or Iraq, who are traumatized and suffering from PTSD” of their violent experiences.
Tawfilis ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative Party candidate in the last federal election for Mississauga-Erin Mills.
“Everything I have to say is in the letter. I’m not trying to go against any people or community,” Tawfilis told VICE. “But there’s a noise bylaw that was made for everyone and the city did not follow the right procedure to give an exemption to mosques.”
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said it is within council’s power to “temporarily suspend” enforcement of a bylaw.
Crombie said the city has been open to accommodating religious services, many of which have had to shutter their doors during the lockdown.
“Should other faiths make similar requests for exemption or accommodation, Council would consider them just as they did this one,” she said.
Allowing mosques to broadcast the prayer call has also galvanized some of Canada’s far-right. A man in Edmonton staked out the city’s largest mosque in what he calls a “Ramadan Bombathon,” hoping to catch Muslims breaking lockdown rules. White supremacist Faith Goldy tweeted that the prayer call bolstered Islam’s demographic threat against Canadians.
Though Crombie “does not agree with the position outlined in the petition,” she said in an email that “people are entitled to their own opinion and are free to express it as they wish.”
She also noted that her office won’t be taking any formal action regarding the petitions.
“Haters will be haters and there’s not much you can do,” said Rabia Khedr, the executive director of the Muslim Council of Peel who first contacted Crombie about the idea. “How is a prayer call disrupting you? Church bells don’t bother me; I actually want to hear them ring. We can’t keep talking about celebrating diversity without allowing people to actually celebrate.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mayor Bonnie Crombie introduced the motion.