Rob Ford, Eid Prayer and the Silencing of Dissent
by Fizza Mir
July 30, 2014
My Eid started out like most, enjoying a morning coffee after a month of abstinence, rushing to get to the downtown prayers at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and navigating through hoards of playful children and beautifully dressed congregants. The khutbah was moving and poignantly addressed the state of our Ummah. Even as we celebrated the end of a blessed month, our hearts were heavy and our thoughts consumed by the horrors unfolding in Gaza, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma . . . it seemed like an endless list of places. The Imam spoke proudly of the Arab Spring, a pride all Muslims shared. He spoke of the courage, fortitude and resilience of people who overthrew decades of tyranny for a chance at democracy and despite the unfathomable violence they suffered, the multiple prison terms they endured, the daily fear they confronted, they fought on.
After prayer, the festivities began. Families gathered around shared meals and children enjoyed carnival rides and activities - my son's favourite was the "Birds of Paradise" presentation. Approximately two hours into the festival my 13 yr old daughter and I spotted Rob Ford and his entourage making their way up the escalator. I was both surprised and disgusted to see him there, but was confident that he would simply be ignored and his appearance would be brief and uneventful. We continued browsing the maze of vendor booths and as we made our way back around I was aghast to see the swarm of people that had gathered around Ford! Taking selfies with him, shaking his hand, greeting him like some sort of celebrated hero and Ford was clearly revelling in it all. What was happening? What exactly was I witnessing here? Were people really not aware of Ford's racist belittling of immigrants? Did they not see how Ford's drug use spurred a police raid on the Somali community, while he and his privilege walked away free and clear? What about his relentless lying, persistent bullying (I could post several links here), his lewd comments directed at other councillors? What about his support for Israeli apartheid? Was this really someone people wanted to shake hands with, be photographed with, share an Eid selfie with???
At first my daughter and I just stood around watching the side-show in disbelief. Then we noticed a man weaving through the crowd shouting "Rob Ford's the best!" Like us, he had a darker complexion and could easily be mistaken for one of the congregants attending the festivities. He continued to yell, "Rob Ford, Rob Ford, Rob Ford!" urging the people around him (mostly boys and young men) to join his chant and it became apparent that he was part of Ford's campaign. What's worse was that there were various media crews filming the entire spectacle. Rob Ford had managed to co-opt our event, use minorities as his doting props and the footage would show the Muslim community seemingly cheering for this man. My spontaneous reaction was to try to counter the chants, I booed, I yelled "Go Home!" Nothing terribly articulate or witty, but nothing remotely profane either. I was immediately confronted by a couple of men and a woman who said I was being rude and that "he was a human being too," and I was obliged to be nice to him on Eid. Really? Was I obliged to let a loathsome man and his manipulative campaign team spin our special day into an apparent pro-Ford rally? Did we not just listen to an entire khutbah about justice and solidarity and standing up to tyrants? Not only had white, male privilege helped Ford evade any responsibility for his reprehensible actions as Mayor, but now I was expected to uphold that system of privilege by members of my own community, to be the model minority, to not make this man feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. My attempt at yelling was getting nowhere, I wasn't loud enough and frankly yelling just isn't my style, so we left, but the circus continued.
I searched for the rest of my family (my husband was at the carnival rides with our youngest) who were completely unaware of Ford's presence. After relating the incident, my older daughter suggested I quietly hold up a sign in protest and her friend suggested a slogan. My goal was to hold the sign behind Ford so it could potentially be captured in all the selfies. It was an attempt to do something; even something minor to interrupt what I feared would become an evening news segment about how Muslims celebrating Eid were expressing their support for Ford. My sign read, "Go Home! We can't a-Ford you!" Again, pretty benign as far as protest signs go. As I made my way back to the crowd and tried to position myself directly behind Ford, it wasn't long before a man, who I'm assuming was an Eid event organizer took the sign right out of my hand. He said it was his event and I wasn't allowed to hold up that sign. He said I was embarrassing myself and when I assured him that I wasn't the least bit embarrassed and that I was proud to express myself, he said he was embarrassed for me.
WATCH VIDEO 1: My sign is taken away. I asked a friend to help me blur out this person's face as it's not my intention to target him. But I did want to include this video because it illustrates what was happening and shows the crowd that had gathered around Ford.
Apparently standing there silently with my sign was more detrimental to our community's reputation than a swarm of rowdy, impressionable youth being incited to chant Ford's name. Apparently it was more necessary to confront me, than to stop the man who was manipulating the crowd. I was silenced, not Ford; I was expected to not make a scene, not Ford; I was treated like I was the problem, not Ford.
Before walking away, the organizer said to me, "Would the Prophet do this?" As if silently holding up a sign was shameful or unislamic. Our Prophet (PBUH) was an example of truth, justice and strength. He was kind, but firm. He was gentle and courageous. And when I think of his example I try to emulate this well known Hadith: "If one of you sees something wrong, then change it with your hand; if you cannot, then change it with your tongue; if you cannot then hate it in your heart - but this is the weakest of faith." (Sahih Muslim)
The bullying didn't end there. Soon after my sign was taken from me, a reporter who had witnessed the incident asked if I would mind speaking with him about why I felt a need to hold up that sign. As we tried to proceed with the interview, the same man who had been urging youth to chant "Rob Ford" began disrupting us. He started shouting at the reporter and then started shouting at me, trying to drown out my voice. At the end of the video you can also see how he was able to get bystanders to also begin shouting at me. Was this not disruptive, offensive, abusive behaviour? Did the organizer not feel a need to intervene when I was accosted by Rob Ford's campaigner? Was my sign more belligerent than this man's behaviour? Of course not! But I'm the easier target. It's easier to shut down a Muslim woman than to deal with Ford's bullies.
WATCH VIDEO 2: Rob Ford's campaigner disrupts my interview. He tries to intimidate the reporter then towards the end he begins shouting at me and encourages those around him to join his chant.
Post-9/11 and especially in the current Conservative climate, I recognize that Muslim communities and institutions operate under tremendous pressure and are justifiably fearful of 'rocking the boat.' The NSA/FBI's surveillance practices remind us that Islam and Muslims are under constant suspicion, and perpetually countering the Islamophobic narrative is challenging and exhausting.
I understand the desire to protect our collective reputation. But silence is not the answer. Quashing dissenting voices will not make us more palatable. As fully engaged and integrated Muslims, voicing criticism is our right, our duty, our strength. It's not an "embarrassment" and it never will be. What's embarrassing is the ignorance, the need to appease and the shameful lack of courage that was demonstrated on Eid.
As a Muslim woman of colour, I'm accustomed to being judged for my beliefs, my choice of dress, my political/social views, but I don't expect and won't accept such discriminatory treatment from members of my own community. Sure, Rob Ford's presence kind of ruined my Eid, but bullying and intimidation is his modus operandi - I know that. Being silenced and dismissed by some members of my own community was far more disappointing.
(Note: I didn't realize until after the fact that my daughter had recorded what was happening on her cell phone. Thanks for your quick thinking, Y!)
[Wmtc note: The man who organized the Eid event responded to Fizza's note, both on Facebook and with a phone call. Fizza thanks all her friends and allies for the support she received, and notes: "I just spoke with Z on the phone, as he reached out to personally apologize and clarify his position. We had a nice chat and I think we've both learned a lot from this experience. I'm so pleased that this has led to such meaningful dialogue, debate and introspection; it gives me such hope for our community moving forward. I still think we need to continue calling out and exposing Rob Ford for the bully that he is. Far too many people are still falling for his lies."]