On Aug. 28, representatives from the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities came together to express support for John Tory's proposal to fund faith-based schools.
While such unity among different faith-based schools is refreshing, a large part of this debate lies in the fact that, under Tory's proposal, funding would also be extended to Islamic schools. And that is where many get squeamish. Assumptions and fears come into play, ranging from equating Islamic schools with the stereotyped "madrassa" to presuming that these schools will trample over women's rights.
The good news is that these stereotyped views are contrary to the reality of Islamic schools. These false stereotypes are, however, prevalent due to two factors: First, the true facts about Islamic schools are unknown to the general public. Second, some public figures have adopted a strategy of playing on these stereotypes in order to oppose Tory's proposal.
Here are some pertinent facts. Islamic schools are operating in just about every province of this country. They are publicly funded in British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec. Yes, Alberta, despite being Prime Minister Stephen Harper's power base, and Quebec, despite sharing Quebec Premier Jean Charest's "safety concerns" for hijab-wearing girls on the soccer field, both fund Islamic schools.
There is no evidence that the funding of Islamic schools in these provinces has resulted in the isolation of the Muslim community. On the contrary, girls and boys graduating from Islamic schools usually continue on to post-secondary education, and from there to a variety of professional areas. In short, they are no less capable of making a contribution to public life than Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was when he graduated from the Catholic school he attended.
Nor is there any evidence that women's rights are suffering. On the contrary, just as many women graduate from these schools as men, and just as many women continue on to post-secondary education and professional careers.
The majority of the teachers at these schools are women who, through their life experiences and personal accomplishments, serve as worthy role models for the students.
An overwhelming majority of women representing the mainstream Muslim community support faith-based schools. In fact, Muslim mothers usually insist on Islamically educating their children, even though the added expense often imposes genuine strains on parents' limited budgets.
Unfortunately, many Muslim parents are unable to afford these private faith-based schools. Tory's proposal, then, promotes equality within the Muslim community; it makes a faith-based education available not only to the more affluent, but also to those who are unable to afford it.
These are the true facts about Islamic schools that one rarely hears. What one commonly hears is a discriminatory and stereotype-laden language, which is used to attack funding for religious and especially Islamic schools. Although all citizens have the right, and indeed the obligation, to debate the proposal to fund faith-based schools and to adopt positions on both sides of this issue, they do not have the right to fearmonger in pursuit of their agenda.
Unfortunately, this stereotyping of Islamic schools hurts not only the Muslim community, but other faith communities, too, as it could ultimately prevent all communities from benefiting from a faith-based education.
That would be a terrible loss because all faith-based schools emphasize respect for one's parents, teachers, elders and peers, as well as for the values, traditions, observances and history of the religious communities they serve. As a result, their graduates are usually more focused, disciplined and confident – an ideal recipe for producing the leaders of tomorrow.
Unfortunately, in the mind of McGuinty, the enriched academic and cultural experience of a faith-based education is not worthy of recognition and funding. But policy-makers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec think otherwise.
Oct. 10 will provide faith-based communities with an opportunity to show that they, too, think otherwise.
Muneeza Sheikh, Daniel Simard and Khurrum Awan
The authors are recent graduates or current students of Osgoode Hall Law School, and members of the Youth Chapter of the Canadian Islamic Congress.