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Toronto Textbook Controversy and the Media Circus

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Sayyid Rizvi delivers a lecture addressing the media allegations.On Monday, May 7, the Islamic Shia Ithn'Asheri Jamaat of Toronto, one of the largest Shia centers in North America, was rocked by a press release issued by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) alleging the practice of hate crime at the East-End Madressah (EEM), a private Sunday religious school working under the umbrella of the ISIJ. The press release alleges that key passages from a textbook that was being used by the EEM for its grade 8 level students were anti-Semitic. The press release pinpoints a few lines from the 170-page document that references the Jews of Arabia during the time of the Prophet (1400 years ago) to be "treacherous" and "crafty" while drawing a comparison between Islam and various other religions and in turn grouping the "Jews" and "Nazis" together.

The few quotes that were pulled from a 170 page document were quick to make headlines and airwaves across the country. Media reports from various sources were quick to frame the ISIJ as one that endorses hate crimes against the Jewish faith, despite historic evidence which clearly demonstrates ISIJ's commitment to support and promote multiculturalism and tolerance – the very basic tenets of Canadian society. Within 24 hours of the press release by the CIJA, the ISIJ responded with its own press release "unreservedly apologiz[ing] to the Jewish community for the unintentional offence the item has caused".

It was noted by the ISIJ that the questionable material was derived from an online website, and the addition of such material was not approved or directed by the religious authorities responsible at the ISIJ. Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi, resident scholar of the ISIJ who has been at the face of the issue, has assured the wider community that an internal review is underway to determine the lack of process in this addition. News organizations have discovered that the addition, although taken from a website by the EEM, was originally in a book published in Iran. Various organizations have tried to draw a baseless and unsupported link between the government of Iran, the book, and in turn the ISIJ – a desperate attempt to further the cause of the CIJA by deceiving the Canadian people in suggesting a false, deceitful link.

ISIJ is no stranger to the various religious communities in North America, but most importantly to its neighbors. Encouraging religious affairs, the ISIJ has undertaken an important mission in ensuring it supports and propagates various social efforts within its own community. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, ISIJ was the first Islamic organization in Toronto to hold a joint press conference with a neighboring Jewish synagogue to condemn the attacks. The ISIJ also issued a joint condemnation when a Jewish school in Montreal and an Islamic center in Pickering was subjected to arson attacks. ISIJ is a founding partner with a Zoroastrian temple, a synagogue, and a church in the "Out of the Cold" program to provide hot meals and shelter to the homeless during winter months. ISIJ was the joint recipients of the Harmony Award with Temple Har Zion, presented in recognition of promoting Canadian values.

In a lecture delivered to the local Shia community on Thursday, May 10, Sayyid Rizvi explained a verse from the Holy Quran: "O you who believe, if a sinful person brings you a report, verify its correctness, lest you should harm a people out of ignorance and then become regretful for what you did." (49:6) In an article posted by the National Post on May 11, the paper highlights this lecture by suggesting "he [Sayyid Rizvi] quoted Muslim scripture that warned against believing information received from sinners." Taken out of context, the paper makes no attempt to explain the historical context of the verse, all of which was explained in the very same lecture by Sayyid Rizvi, in English. Having made no attempt to understand the message of verifying information before believing and spreading it – an underlying principle that can save numerous conflicts in all faiths and cultures – the newspaper continues in an attempt to twist and turn an innocent mistake by the organization into a hate-fuelled uproar about anti-Semitism.

For a country that encourages diversity, multiculturalism and freedom of speech, the aggressive attempt by various organizations and the right-wing media to suppress the spread of Shia and Islamic history has been appalling. A news organization has suggested a review of madressa materials by Jewish and public officials, to ensure that the material is in line with their accordance, yet fails to explain the need to have religious materials of one faith examined and approved by another. The attempt to sideline and eradicate a portion of Islamic history that is not favorable to another group of individuals is unacceptable. More so, the purporting of such ideas that are appeasing to a particular group by a news organization is baffling and disheartening to the concept of journalistic responsibility.

The ISIJ has made no excuse for the material. While factually accurate, the organization has apologized for the bad choice of words and assured a review process that will prevent such mistakes in the future. It is disappointing to see that such a press release by the CIJA would invoke such a level of passion. The Premier and leader of the opposition have made statements that are in accordance with the media reports that unfortunately have illustrated the ISIJ in a manner that is astounding.

But the Shia community is not one to be intimidated by such a storm. Bred of firm religious principles and a history of oppression, the Toronto community made no secret of its mistakes and did not hesitate to apologize, yet at the same time has stood firm in supporting the oppressed and denying all exaggerations and fallacies that are being spewed by various organizations and the local media.

Author of this article: Islamic Insights
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