The experience of Ramadan this year was unique across the world. There were (and still are) lockdowns in place to try and impede the spread of COVID-19. However, in many places the unique challenge also offered some unique opportunities to build up the spirit and momentum of the Muslim community during Ramadan.
Canada is one example. As Muslims explored creative ways to engage with their communities, share iftar meals, give charity, support local businesses, study the Qur’an, and more, the resilience of the community seemed to captivate and inspire Canadians of many backgrounds. Thus, it is not surprising that, as the adhan (call to prayer) was called out loud from mosques across the country during Ramadan, many Muslims and non-Muslims appreciated the beautiful, non-disruptive experience of hearing it (just once a day) after sunset.
Amplifying sound in public areas is prohibited by the Toronto Municipal Code and other by-laws across the country, but exceptions can be made. Realizing that the over one million Canadian Muslims would be deprived of attending mosques during Ramadan, which is generally a time of peak attendance, mosques worked with local politicians to obtain exceptions to the by-law so that the adhan for Maghrib prayer could be made publicly, especially in neighbourhoods with a large population of Muslims.
The first example was that of Madinah Masjid in Toronto, which called the adhan on April 25 after the permit for doing so was facilitated by Councillor Paula Fletcher. Many were there to see it in person, and recordings spread quickly across social media. In the following weeks, mosques across Canada were able to call the adhan as well.
Of course, not everyone could tolerate the few minutes of “disruption” this was causing, and it quickly became the cause célèbre of non-Muslim and “Muslim” Islamophobes. Tarek Fatah was among those who led the charge. He immediately “found” the nonexistent “connection” between the adhan at Madinah Masjid, which is on Toronto’s Danforth Rd, and a shooting which occurred on that road two years ago at the hands of a mentally ill Muslim man. He then claimed that the Muslims wanted the public adhan to become a “permanent feature”, and that Greek Town (as the neighbourhood of the mosque is known) might soon become “Islamabad”.
A few days later, by which time the adhan was being given publicly in cities across Canada, he took his claims to the next level by saying that this was a step towards “predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, which we see in Paris, Amsterdam and cities in Britain and Germany”—a widely discredited “claim” often used by Islamophobes. To top it all off, he claimed that for 1,300 years of Islamic history, the adhan was never called loudly. Only in Fatah’s mind would it make sense for a public call to prayer be given in hushed voice.
Of course, Fatah was not alone. Mayor Patrick Brown of Brampton stated in a tweet that mosques could call the adhan due to the same exception to the noise by-laws that had allowed church bells to ring since 1984. A Twitter user and “community volunteer” going by the name of Ravi Hooda, replied to the mayor’s tweet: “What’s next? Separate lanes for camel & goat riders […] Bylaw [sic] requiring all women to cover themselves from head to toe to appease the piece fools [a play on “peacefuls”, i.e. Muslims] for votes.” As it turned out, this person was a realtor with Remax Canada and the chair of a school council in Bolton; thankfully, he was quickly removed from both positions. He then returned to Twitter to “apologize”, saying that his tweet was “misinterpreted” and not directed at any particular community.
Others followed a different course of action. Faith Goldy, a notorious Islamophobe, described the permissions for the adhan as evidence that Muslims were a demographic threat to Canada. A man in Edmonton trespassed and stalked a mosque, telling his social media audience that he was going on a “Ramadan Bombathon”. In the political sphere, Mississauga Councillor Sue McFadden and some colleagues tried to introduce a motion against the public adhan, but quickly retracted it. Hani Tawfilis, a pharmacist of Coptic background and a failed Conservative Party of Canada candidate during last year’s election, posted an open letter on Facebook claiming that Canadian soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan might be “hurt or traumatized” by hearing the adhan again, and even went as far as to compare the adhan to slogans used by ISIS and to call it a “violation of human rights”.
Attached to the open letter was the link to an online petition urging the City of Mississauga to reverse its decision to allow the adhan. The petitions gathered over 20,000 signatures before it was shut down by Change.org, the platform on which it was set up, for violating hate speech guidelines. Another petition was quickly set up, and gathered 11,000 signatures. Both petitions were set up by John Girgis, a prominent member of the Egyptian Coptic (Christian) community in Canada. This prompted a response from the Canadian Coptic History Project and a group called Progressive Copts; they called for respect for Muslim traditions and solidarity with the Muslim community.
Meanwhile, some “Muslims” were also trying to undermine the adhan. On one hand, an unheard-of group called the Canadian Islamic Institute published an article citing obscure Islamic scholars from Egypt’s al-Azhar University and elsewhere who are opposed to the calling of adhan through loudspeakers. The mind-numbing article received very little attention. An incident at the Jaffari Community Centre just outside of Toronto caused more of an uproar, once again led by Tarek Fatah. An individual set up his own equipment on the mosque premises, apparently without any authorization, and then recorded himself not only giving the adhan but also following it with a discussion about Zionism and the Palestinian cause. The mosque issued a statement saying that the individual was not authorized to do this, but it was too late: MPP Gila Martow issued a press release raising questions about the mosque’s activities, while failing to actually contact the mosque for clarification. Thus, the unauthorized and less-than-sensible actions of one individual became a rallying cry for Fatah and other Islamophobes in their campaign to vilify the public adhan.
For most Muslims, hearing the adhan echo across their streets and neighbourhoods was a beautiful and unforgettable experience. For many non-Muslims, based on comments seen online, it was an opportunity to express their respect and appreciation for a tradition which they may not adhere to. It was no more “anti-secular” and more disruptive to public life than road closures for cultural festivals such as the Caribana and the Santa Claus Parade, or the regular ringing of church bells and playing of Christmas-related songs in shopping malls in December. There have been no petitions going around to shut down any of these traditions, nor tweets caricaturing the people who celebrate them.
Opposition to the adhan, then, has little to do with upholding secularism and everything to do with demonizing Islam and Muslims. All conscientious people must continue to strive against this kind of bigotry, and Muslims must make use of such opportunities in a very diligent united and respectful way.