Last month, the Toronto Star published a story on the saga of Ayman Elkasrawy, a 32-year-old, Egyptian-born, student who’d worked as an assistant imam at the Masjid Toronto mosque.
Until recently, Elkasrawy was an obscure figure, a reportedly bookish tech nerd who was pursuing a PhD in engineering at Ryerson University. But in the age of YouTube, any of us can become famous.
Elkasrawy was filmed leading prayers, which suggested that Jews are contaminants who needed to be “purified” from Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But as the article notes, there is disagreement over what Elkasrawy meant to say, over the correct way to translate his words and about whether his real intent was to express support for the mosque. Nevertheless, the words were deemed offensive enough that Elkasrawy was publicly rebuked by Muslims and Jews alike.
Since his fall from grace, Elkasrawy has been a model of contrition and self-improvement, reaching out to the Jewish community extensively, apologizing unreservedly and examining his own behaviour. As Benjamin Shinewald noted in a recent CJN column, Elkasrawy lost two jobs in the fallout – one at his mosque, the other at Ryerson – and has had to endure a hate crimes investigation. Till the end of his days, this episode likely will dominate any Google search containing his name.
Shinewald argues that Canadian Jews should accept Elkasrawy’s apology. In his column, he draws inspiration from the Biblical tale of Balaam, who resisted the impulse to curse the Israelites, thereby showing “how even those who wish us ill might still have a change of heart and recognize us as fellow human beings.”
I agree with Shinewald. Anti-Semitism is a problem in many Islamic communities, in part because negative references to Jews have been embedded in Muslim scripture since the religion’s creation. There likely are dozens of Canadian imams who could have been called out in the same way. What distinguished Elkasrawy wasn’t his words, but rather the admirable way he responded when Jews called them out as hateful.
But I would go further and remind my fellow Canadian Jews what kind of precedent we set when we insist on ruining the lives of Muslims who are accused of hate speech or thought crimes.
Jews were among the leaders in the revolt against human rights mandarins who sought to muzzle criticism of militant Islam in the years after 9/11. Our community understood that censorship in the name of human rights is still censorship. We also understood that you don’t need a formal regime of censorship to force people to shut up. Instead, you can punish them by getting them investigated by the police, pressuring employers to fire them and shaming them on social media. Which is exactly what happened to Elkasrawy.
As a pundit, I’ve had plenty of people try to ruin my life – arguing that I am a peddler of hate against (take your pick) Muslims, indigenous people, blacks, even my fellow Jews. But I’m lucky: I have a voice in the media, which allows me to fight back and protect my reputation. Elkasrawy doesn’t have that.
I often get the chance to participate in public speaking events at Toronto-area synagogues. Some of the politically active Jews who appear at these events use the Q&A sessions to speak about Muslims in much the same negative tone as Elkasrawy was heard speaking about Jews. In some cases, these comments are good faith critiques of militant Islamist ideology. In other cases, they blur into outright Islamophobia.
I am something of a free speech absolutist, and support the right of all these people, on both sides, to have their say. I don’t want to live in a country where Jews, Muslims or anyone else will lose their livelihood or freedom because they are overheard saying something that seems odious. Even in extreme cases, haters should have the chance to educate themselves and seek forgiveness.
When we deny these rights to a man such as Elkasrawy, we implicitly deny them to ourselves. Today, he is the one suffering for his words. But tomorrow, Balaam’s shoe may well be on the other foot.