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My son shouldn't have to be afraid during Muslim prayers at school

Friday is a day where millions of Muslims worldwide pray and worship together – the word for the practice, Jummah, literally means "Friday prayers." Together, they pray for peace, for stability, to ease burdens of famine and illness, for relief from war, systemic oppression and justice. Locally, at NHL and NBA playoff time, there are sincere supplications for select teams to advance.

It is a time to see our neighbours and to recharge spiritually. It is a time to be reminded of our duties and responsibilities. At various schools in the Peel District School Board (PDSB), Jummah prayers have been happening for almost 20 years.

My eldest son is in Grade 11 and attends Jummah at his high school every week. On Fridays, he gets up early, showers and wears clean clothes, usually jeans and a shirt that does not require ironing. Some weeks he is the khateeb, the person who delivers the sermon (or khutbah). He loves it and I am happy he has an opportunity to practice his faith in a safe space.

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Jummah attendees are students and staff who are Muslim and choose to attend. They are exercising their right to freedom of religion, one protected in Ontario, where public and Catholic schools are required by law to accommodate religious practice if requested.

Lots of Muslim students don't attend Jummah at my son's school and sometimes non-Muslim friends peek in. Afterward, everyone heads to the plaza nearby to hang out at Tim Hortons or grab a shawarma.

I never thought these Friday rituals would become a trigger for self-proclaimed secularists and I certainly never expected that Jummah would become a reason to manipulate and terrorize children. I was wrong.

For the past little while, Jummah at various PDSB high schools has been targeted by protesters. They claim that Muslim practices are anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-women, a prejudice they're sure of though they don't seem to have had a respectful exchange with a practising Muslim from the Peel district.

They began by arriving en masse at school-board meetings, screaming hateful rhetoric at the families in attendance. Next came anti-Muslim Facebook groups,YouTube videos and pamphlets. Things exploded when the school board decided to let kids write their own sermons instead of reading prewritten ones.

Months of intensifying hate came to a boiling point. A Mississauga imam received a death threat, and Islamophobic graffiti was sprayed on mailboxes near a high school. A Koran was viciously ripped apart at a PDSB meeting, and a $1,000 cash reward was offered for "video proof" of a Muslim youth delivering hateful speech.

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To its credit, the PDSB acted swiftly, e-mailing parents with a pledge to take the situation very seriously. Electronic devices were prohibited at Jummah. On one Friday, two police cruisers parked outside my son's school, and officers stood at the back of the gym as more than 300 girls and boys assembled to pray.

I asked my son if the police make him feel safer. "Not really, it's just protocol," he said. "I might be able to tell them if something was weird." He seems unfazed by their presence, which alarms me for a different reason: I don't want him to think the presence of law enforcement in our racialized community is normal.

I find it both reassuring and troublesome that school-board meetings are now staffed by both plain-clothed and uniformed police, some carrying weapons. Attendees must show government-issued identification. To this, my son says evenly, "They are being careful. That's their job."

I asked how he felt after reading hateful messages online: he says he's angry, yes, but not scared. He admits the amount of blatant Islamophobia in our local area is shocking to him, and I agree. We both thought our richly diverse Peel neighbourhood might be more tolerant.

When I wondered aloud if he'd consider not going to Jummah, he paused for a nanosecond before snorting at my suggestion. "Stop going to Jummah? Seriously? Nah."

"Mama," he said, looking me square in the eyes, "if a guy came to our Jummah and started spewing hate and being violent, he would literally have 300 brown and black kids jump at him."

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Safety in numbers, he seemed to be saying, then got up to rush off to a basketball game. I sat alone at the kitchen table, not as comforted as he might have hoped.

Giving khutbahs is a part of the community experience of being Muslim. One does not have to be an imam or a scholar to offer a 15-minute sermon. At my son's school, the khutbahs are in English, except for very short prayers or Koran verses, and are on topics such as civic duty, patience with family, supporting vulnerable and marginalized people, handling stress and social responsibility.

The supervising teacher has to read through each sermon before it can be delivered, and my son assures me there is nothing "overly political or extreme." To his knowledge, no one has ever gone rogue.

Preparing to deliver khutbahs teaches young people organization, public speaking and how to mobilize, all important skills for adulthood. A few months ago, a mother of another student at his school reached out to me through Facebook.

She told me her son came home and told her how moved he was by my son's words on the day's topic: "respecting mothers and their sacrifices." I was pleased and a little surprised. That very morning, I was shrieking at him to wake up because he was 25 minutes late, threatening to pour cold water on his sleepy head.

The school Jummah is a crucial space of peer support, one where youth can feel as if their choices and identities are not being attacked or threatened. Youth of colour live in communities that are targets of specific forms of hate, in an age when racists regularly suggest the mass deportation of their communities.

What are young Canadian Muslims supposed to do, other than have faith? Perhaps they already know the answer: gather for Friday congregational prayers, no matter what, and then eat a dozen doughnuts.

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