The University of Toronto is being urged to cancel an 18-week course led by Toronto-based Islamic scholar Abdullah Hakim Quick because of his public homophobic and antisemitic statements.
The controversy began last month when the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), a British organization seeking to establish itself in Canada, began publicizing its “Calling the World Back to Allah” conferences in Toronto and Montreal.
Four of the speakers who were scheduled to speak at the conferences – Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, Abdur Raheem Green, Hussain Yee and Quick – have made homophobic and/or antisemitic remarks either in lectures or in writing.
Tzortzis has argued that open displays of homosexuality should be criminalized.
In 2006, Yee, a Malaysian convert, said Jews are “the most extremist nation in this world,” and Quick, an American convert who received his history PhD from U of T, said in a lecture that the Islamic position on homosexuality is that it’s punishable by death.
Quick also made a comment about purifying Islam’s “third-holiest shrine from the ‘filth of Christians and Jews.’”
Jewish groups, such as Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), as well as Christian and gay advocacy groups, have denounced the speakers’ messages and some demanded that the events be cancelled.
Although some venues, including the Sheraton Toronto Hotel, responded to the outcry by refusing to host the event, IERA was able to pull off last-minute venue changes to accommodate the conferences.
The Muslim Student Association (MSA) at Concordia University was scheduled to host a lecture by Green on Oct 21, but the MSA decided to cancel the event in light of the negative media attention.
MSA president Musab Abu-Thuraia said, “We found that it wasn’t in the best interest of the association to hold such an event,” CTV Montreal reported.
FSWC president and CEO Avi Benlolo received a letter from Concordia president Frederick Lowy that said the school “does not espouse or support the attitudes ascribed to the speakers slated for that event,” FSWC spokesperson Stacey Starkman confirmed.
FSWC has called on U of T to follow Concordia’s lead in distancing itself “from the bigotry expressed by Mr. Quick,” by cancelling the seminar organized by U of T’s MSA.
CIJA senior vice-president Howard English said his organization is concerned with “the appearance on university campuses of people who consider themselves educators and have expressed views that are derogatory to identifiable groups and inconsistent with the values held by the majority of Canadians.”
He added that Hillel of Greater Toronto has been in touch with U of T administrators and is continuing to draw attention to the matter.
U of T spokesperson April Kemick said that the “event is a booking by a campus group – one of hundreds that happen over the course of the year – and there is no connection to the university.”
When asked to address concerns some have with the decision to have Quick lead the seminar, which will run until the end of this semester, Rameez Mahmood, president of the MSA at U of T, issued a statement that said “Dr. Quick is a qualified historian, having graduated from the University of Toronto history department. He is teaching a history course on the life of the Prophet.”
Saleem Chagtai, an IERA spokesperson and lecturer from the United Kingdom, said in a phone interview while he was in Toronto that, based on the media reports, he can understand why people were alarmed by the speakers.
“When I read it, even I cringed. I thought, ‘Oh my God, not again… it set relations back so many years.”
Chagtai said he personally investigated each of the allegations and “saw exactly what was said and what was not said.”
Chagtai said Tzortzis “was misquoted very badly,” adding that Tzortzis and any other IERA speaker have only ever classified homosexuality as a moral sin, and he condemns any physical or verbal abuse against the gay community.
Referring to statements made by Yee –who accused Jews of being “extremists” who “kill Palestinians every day,” and of celebrating the 9/11 attacks – Chagtai said, “I didn’t know about that until I got [to Canada]. I investigated that. That statement wasn’t made at an IERA conference and that speaker is not an IERA affiliate. We merely invited him.”
He added that in the end, Yee wasn’t able to attend the conference because of another commitment.
“The comments that were made by Hussein Yee, they were factually inaccurate and I was disappointed by that,” Chagtai said. “We would never knowingly invite somebody who has said something like that unless they clarify or retract that position.”
Quick wrote a blog post on Oct. 23 that defended the two statements he made that were singled out by the media as being antisemitic and homophobic.
In his blog entry titled “How I was digitally transformed into a hate cleric,” Quick wrote, “toward the end of my talk, I made a supplication for God to purify Islam’s third holiest shrine from the ‘filth of the Christians and the Jews.’
“I was asking God to heal the spiritual corruption that afflicts some members of religious groups, which in turn leads to injustice against innocent people.”
Quick asserted that as a counsellor who has witnessed violence toward gays, he has spoken out against such violence and has “always stood against racism and ethnocentrism.”
But in an audio clip from a speech delivered by Quick, he described homosexuals as “one of the most dangerous groups coming up to the surface.”
He explained that he was approached by an Islamic LGBT support group to provide an interpretation of the Qur’an that is more “politically correct” on the issue of homosexuality.
“They said, ‘What is the Islamic position?’ And I told them, ‘Put my name in the paper. The punishment is death. And I’m not going to change this religion.’”
On his blog, Quick wrote, “I understand now that [the statements] did give off the wrong impression. For that, I am sorry. I have never advocated violence, vigilantism or disregard for the rule of law.”
Chagtai defended Quick’s views as well, saying that the Islamic laws on sexuality are harsh because, “we see from the human experience that if we don’t have harsh deterrents against public displays of sexuality… the ramifications of a lack of morality can cause lots of problems in society.”
Chagtai said in light of the concerns expressed by the Jewish, Christian and gay community members, Muslims need to reach out.
“There is plenty of what to work on in terms of improving the Canadian society – how we can bring out morality and the teachings of God and the teaching of scripture – to make Canada an even better place than it already is.”