A Toronto imam was accused of hate-preaching against Jews. But that wasn’t the whole story
Ayman Elkasrawy’s controversial prayers sparked outrage and condemnation from many, including members of his own faith. In the aftermath, he reached out to the Jewish community to educate himself and learn from his mistakes. Still, a key question remained unanswered: did he really say what he was accused of saying?
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Ayman Elkasrawy got the phone call late on a Sunday night in February. An incredulous friend was on the line, with a strange and troubling question.
“Did you pray for the killing of the Jews?”
The friend sent him an online article about Masjid Toronto, the downtown mosque where Elkasrawy worked as an assistant imam. It included a video: rows of Muslim worshippers standing under fluorescent lights, their eyes closed and hands cupped. At the front of the crowded room was Elkasrawy, dressed in white and praying to God in Arabic.
“O Allah! Count their number; slay them one by one and spare not one of them,” read the article’s translation of his prayers. “O Allah! Purify Al-Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews!”
Elkasrawy remembered the scene, filmed during Ramadan eight months earlier. He also remembered praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, a bitterly contested holy site.
But he was shaken by the English translation. “I was surprised,” he says. “When I (saw) that, I even doubted myself. Did I say that?”
Elkasrawy woke up the next morning feeling calamitously misunderstood. He was bursting with things he wanted to explain, but he also realized he had made serious mistakes, for which he needed to apologize.
“Neither I, Masjid Toronto or the congregation harbour any form of hate towards Jews,” he wrote on Twitter later that day. “And so I wish to apologize unreservedly for misspeaking during prayers last Ramadan … I sincerely regret the offence that my words must have caused.”
His apology only fanned the flames. Elkasrawy was suspended from his mosque and fired from Ryerson University, where he worked as a teaching assistant. Toronto police opened a hate crime investigation and condemnations rained down, from Parliament Hill to the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Elkasrawy also became a bogeyman in the federal Conservative party leadership race, cited in campaign literature as an example of Muslim extremism.
“We need to clarify what is going on at this mosque,” Meir Weinstein, head of the far-right Jewish Defense League of Canada, told the Toronto Sun. “Is this a den of worship or a den of hate?”
Eight months later, the story is crystallized online as a putative reminder of the hatred that can fester within Canadian society. A Google search for “Ayman Elkasrawy” — once yielding just a smattering of academic papers and social media profiles — now turns up pages of hits that brand him a genocidal anti-Semite.
Offline, however, new layers of the story began to reveal themselves.
Elkasrawy went quiet soon after his Twitter apology, advised by everyone in his life to stop talking. But a month after the scandal broke, he reached out to a stranger for help.
Bernie Farber is a household name in Toronto’s Jewish community, the former head of what was once Canada’s leading Jewish advocacy group. Both affable and combative, the white-goateed Farber has spent most of his career tackling anti-Semitism. For the past two years, until his retirement in early October, he also ran the Mosaic Institute, a non-profit that promotes diversity.
Farber opened his email one day to discover an unusual request: would the Mosaic Institute help Elkasrawy learn from his mistakes? Farber immediately said yes, assembling a team of experts and planning a cultural sensitivity curriculum.
But after meeting the young imam, Farber was puzzled by the facts of this case. Elkasrawy was always quick to admit he made a serious mistake — it was wrong to pray about “the Jews.” But he also insisted his words were twisted, an explanation he struggled to articulate.
Farber was bothered by the discrepancy between the “quiet, dignified” man he had come to know and someone who would pray for Jewish people to be slain. Over the years, he has developed “almost a sixth sense” for detecting anti-Semites. Elkasrawy did not fit the mould.
At a time when white supremacists are mobilizing across North America, the fight against anti-Semitism has taken on renewed urgency. But this is a story that is far more tangled than it first appeared.
It is about an imam who made hurtful mistakes that he could not adequately explain. But it is also about the slipperiness of language — especially in a climate of viral misinformation, polarized debate and geopolitical conflicts that have found fresh battlegrounds in Canada.
Elkasrawy’s prayers were undeniably problematic, but they were also distorted to fit a certain narrative that gave his words added potency amid rising anti-Islamic sentiment.
In a controversy that hinges on his words, a central question was never fully investigated: Did Elkasrawy really say Jews were filth? Did he really call for them to be killed?
According to several Arabic experts contacted by the Star, the answer is no.
“I’ve learned a personal lesson throughout this entire process,” Farber says. “Do not take anything for granted. Not even words.”
Ayman Elkasrawy prefers not to speak at all, whenever he can help it.
At about six feet and 285 pounds, the bearded and bespectacled 32-year-old has an understated presence for someone who looms so large. He speaks softly and hesitantly; in the presence of strangers, he tends to fade into the background.
“I’m not so good at being social,” he says. “The more you talk, the more you make mistakes.”
Born and raised in a devout family in Egypt, Elkasrawy has dual Canadian citizenship through his father, an agronomist who immigrated here in 1976. He spent three summers with his dad in Toronto, “a different planet” in the eyes of a 13-year-old kid from Cairo.
After university, he moved to Canada to continue his education and is now at Ryerson pursuing a PhD in electrical engineering. While he sometimes wears traditional dress at the mosque, at Ryerson he blends easily with the campus crowd — just another grad student riding his Bike Share in jeans, sneakers and a backpack that looks slightly shrunken on his broad frame.
Elkasrawy and his wife, Somaia Youssef, found a religious community in Masjid Toronto (“Toronto Mosque”) on Dundas St. W., located in an old bank building near the bus terminal. The mosque opened in 2002 but did not hire a resident imam until 2015, so it sometimes asked Elkasrawy — who had memorized the Qur’an — to lead prayers or Friday sermons.
He was timid at first, even avoiding eye contact with congregants, but received positive feedback and was officially hired as an assistant imam in 2015. Elkasrawy sees this work as a spiritual duty and found himself spending hours at the mosque nearly every day — not just leading prayers, but also teaching and planning events, such as networking socials for Muslim professionals. “I felt that’s like my second home,” he says.
Over the years, Canada has become home for Elkasrawy as well. But as with many immigrants, an invisible umbilical cord connects him to the part of the world where he was born. His Twitter feed is dominated by Egyptian and Middle Eastern politics. He mostly retweets accounts he follows, including one called “Friends of Al-Aqsa.”
The silver-domed Al-Aqsa mosque is located on an elevated limestone compound in East Jerusalem. The compound — known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and to Jewish people as the Temple Mount — is Islam’s third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina), and Judaism’s holiest.
Over the past century, the compound has become an explosive flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 2000, a provocative visit by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon sparked clashes that escalated into the deadly Second Intifada. This summer, the mosque was at the centre of some of the worst violence, and biggest demonstrations, Jerusalem has seen in years.
For many in the Muslim and Jewish diasporas, stories about the holy site are front-page news. On June 26, 2016, the latest headlines were about a skirmish between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers.
What people understood about the incident depended in part on the media they consumed. According to the Arab press, Israeli officers “stormed” Al-Aqsa mosque, beating worshippers and deploying tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets. According to Jewish newspapers, “masked Arab assailants” were arrested after hurling rocks, chairs and slurs at Jewish tourists.
For Muslims, the Al-Aqsa violence was particularly alarming because it broke out during the last 10 days of Ramadan, an especially sacred time in Islam’s holiest month. So Elkasrawy decided to include the mosque in his prayers at Masjid Toronto. “I thought maybe this will help, praying together for this place,” he says.
It was nearly midnight by the time he finished reciting the Qur’an and began his supplications.
Unlike sermons, which are more like religious lectures, supplications are invocations to God; during prayers, they are recited by imams who face away from the congregation. While made in the highly technical style of Quranic Arabic, and typically in a rhyming scheme, supplications are often improvised.
Elkasrawy spent 10 minutes thanking God and asking for help — for protection from evil and greed, for beneficial knowledge to humanity, for good health, empathy, benevolence and love of the poor.
He then prayed for victimized Muslims around the world. He thought of Syria, a recurring topic of prayer at his mosque, invoking a quote from the Hadith (reports of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions). He also prayed for Al-Aqsa, repeating a supplication he had found on the internet earlier that day.
Meanwhile, someone was filming. This didn’t bother Elkasrawy; prayers are sometimes recorded for worshippers unable to attend. When the mosque posted the video on YouTube, he scanned various parts, curious about his performance. Then he forgot about it.
The video sat there in its corner of the internet, barely seen. The next time Elkasrawy watched it was eight months later, when he got the phone call: “Did you pray for the killing of the Jews?”
On a sunny morning in May, Elkasrawy rode an elevator to the 34th floor of a Bloor St. office tower, where two prominent members of Toronto’s Jewish community awaited him.
Dressed in jeans and an electric blue sweatshirt, Elkasrawy sat across a boardroom table from Bernie Farber — the one-time CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress — and Karen Mock, a former director with B’nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. He was also joined by his mosque’s senior imam and officials from the Muslim Association of Canada, which owns Masjid Toronto.
Everybody was there for Mock’s anti-racism workshop, one of five sessions Farber had organized to educate an accused anti-Semite. The mood was friendly and relaxed, with pleasantries and business cards exchanged.
But those abhorrent words loomed over this group of newly acquainted Muslims and Jews: “Purify Al-Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews!”
When it comes to Jewish-Muslim relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the ever-present “elephant in the room,” Farber says — even in Canada, where both minorities share the burden of religious discrimination. According to Statistics Canada, Jewish people are the most frequent targets of police-reported hate crimes, while attacks against Muslims are the fastest-growing.
But there is also enormous diversity within both groups, which are sometimes the source of one another’s pain. There is mounting concern over anti-Semitism in certain corners of the Muslim world; meanwhile, Jewish people on the far right are among the loudest voices in the anti-Muslim movement. Israeli-Palestinian debates also have a tendency to slide into accusations of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.
Farber, who once ran for the provincial Liberals, says Muslim issues have become a divisive topic among Jewish Canadians. He says he has received criticism from right-leaning members of his own community for defending Muslim Canadians and for supporting M-103, the parliamentary motion to recognize and condemn Islamophobia, which prominent Jewish advocacy groups opposed.
But he remains a vocal ally of Canadian Muslims. After the Quebec City mosque shooting in January, he joined people who gathered at mosques to form “rings of peace” across the country — an act of solidarity spearheaded by a Toronto rabbi that was covered by media outlets around the world.
But just two weeks later, that feeling of solidarity crumbled. “Supplications at Masjid Toronto Mosque: Slay them one by one and spare not one of them,” read the headline on a story published by CIJ News, an obscure right-wing website that has since been taken down.
Elkasrawy’s prayers quickly gained widespread coverage, from the Star and Sun to the CBC and the Canadian Jewish News, the country’s largest Jewish weekly. B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, also wrote about the incident after urging Ryerson to fire Elkasrawy from his job as a teaching assistant.
The imam became a topic of heated discussion around Farber’s Sabbath table. “I was very troubled by it,” he says. “I was hearing a lot of anger. I was also hearing a lot of ‘How could this be? Just last week I was involved in a circle of peace, and now this happens.’”
Farber wasn’t exactly surprised, however. This was not the first time an imam had been accused of preaching hate against Jewish people, even in Canada. Elkasrawy’s story emerged around the same time as other accusations of anti-Semitism in Canadian mosques. This summer, a Jordanian cleric was also charged by Montreal police after allegedly praying at a local mosque for Jewish people to be killed.
But something about the Elkasrawy case struck Farber as odd, and he was skeptical of the website that broke the story. “I’ve been in this business long enough to know that before judgments are made, you really need to get all the facts,” he says.
So in April, when a mutual friend reached out to Farber on Elkasrawy’s behalf, he was intrigued.
The imam said he wanted to gain a better understanding of Canadian norms and values, in the hopes of learning from his mistakes. Farber — who once helped a repentant neo-Nazi leave her white supremacist organization — agreed to help.
Given the disturbing anti-Semitic prayers Farber had read about in the news, his initial plan was to prescribe intensive anti-racism training. But he changed his mind after meeting Elkasrawy.
“We’re not dealing with a racist or anti-Semite,” he says of his gut reaction. “I really saw a young man who felt beaten down for something that he didn’t quite understand.”
Farber switched gears. He organized five workshops to help Elkasrawy develop a better understanding of Canada’s cultural, legal and human rights landscape. (The workshops were provided at no cost, though the mosque later made a small donation to the charity.)
Elkasrawy learned about anti-racism, hate crime laws and Canada’s human rights framework. He also visited his first synagogue — Beth Tzedec, Canada’s largest Jewish congregation — where he learned about Judaism and discussed interfaith issues with a rabbi and reverend.
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl did not ask Elkasrawy to explain himself, but he expressed how his language was harmful. “We are concerned about discrimination against Muslims,” he said, as Elkasrawy nodded. “But we are also concerned about extremism that comes out of the Islamic community.
“Our people hear the extremism and when you speak that way, that’s what they hear. They become afraid. And they become angry.”
During each session, Elkasrawy listened intently and occasionally jotted notes. He also asked questions, including one he repeated several times: “How do you speak (clearly)? How do you tell things?”
When the program ended, Farber reached a conclusion. “I just do not believe that Ayman is a hateful person,” he says. “He came in here with an open heart and a real willingness to understand.”
But he still couldn’t wrap his head around the words Elkasrawy had been accused of saying, or the imam’s muddled attempts to explain himself.
Two things were clear: Elkasrawy was sorry. He also felt misunderstood.
“I made this mistake,” he said at one point. “But not that mistake.”
Translation is not an exact science. Words are like prisms, refracting different shades of meaning. A good translation is one that captures the right hue.
Elkasrawy’s prayers were first translated on CIJ News, a website founded and edited by Jonathan Dahoah Halevi.
Halevi describes himself as a retired lieutenant-colonel and intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces, who now researches the Middle East and radical Islam. He learned Arabic in school and university, he once explained to an interviewer.
He has also been a go-to pundit for the now-defunct Sun News Network and its offshoot Rebel News, a right-wing media website that has drawn controversy for its anti-Muslim coverage.
Halevi’s writings and statements suggest that he sees himself as a soldier in the information wars — particularly when it comes to allegations against Israel, which he challenges by using “continuous, intensive and thorough” research, according to a profileon the Economic Club of Canada’s website.
This work includes counting “Gaza fatalities in his free time,” according to a 2009 NPR article that described his “macabre hobby.” During the first Gaza war, NPR wrote, Halevi suspected Palestinians of exaggerating their civilian fatalities and spent six months scrutinizing 1,400 deaths listed by a human rights group — checking each name against a terrorist database he personally compiled and “whatever he finds on the internet.”
Halevi has also written extensively about Islam and Muslim Canadians on CIJ News, where his Arabic translations have drawn praise from the “anti-Islamist” blog Point de Bascule. “His knowledge of the Arabic language gives him an advantage when it comes to understanding the ambitions of the enemy,” the Quebec-based blog wrote last year.
On Feb. 18, CIJ News published a story about Masjid Toronto, which included his translation of Elkasrawy’s controversial prayers.
Halevi later told the Toronto Sun that he was prompted to dig up the material after reading media coverage of a rally outside the mosque.
The rally was ostensibly to protest the federal Islamophobia motion, but demonstrators brought signs that read “Say no to Islam” and “Muslims are terrorists.” The protest was roundly criticized, including by local politicians who denounced it as an Islamophobic “display of ignorance and hate.”
But in his interview with the Sun, Halevi suggested the real hate was happening insidethe mosque. “The double standard and hypocrisy was appalling,” he said.
After the story broke, Masjid Toronto took all its videos offline but it was too late; a new, edited clip was posted on YouTube, crediting Halevi with its translation and referencing an extreme anti-Muslim ideology known as “counter-jihad.” The account hosting the clip also mentions “Vlad Tepes Blog” in its video description.
The “counter-jihad” is described by researchers as a loose network of people and groups united by the belief that Muslims are plotting to take over the West. A recent National Post investigation described Rebel News as a “global platform” for the counter-jihad, and linked Vlad Tepes Blog — regarded as a key website in the movement — to a frequent Rebel News contributor.
Rebel jumped on the story about Elkasrawy’s prayers, which it credited “our friend Jonathan Halevi” with breaking. In a video segment, “Rebel commander” Ezra Levant plays the YouTube clip while imploring his viewers to “look at what the folks inside the mosque were saying.”
“Look at the translation written on the screen,” Levant says in the video, which has now drawn more than 35,000 views. “Here they are talking about Jews — there’s a lot of Jews in Toronto — and how they need to be killed one by one.”
But such stories contained a glaring oversight: this was not at all what Elkasrawy said.
This is the consensus that emerged from five Arabic experts who independently analyzed Elkasrawy’s prayers at the Star’s request. The experts — from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom — are Arabic translators, linguists and university professors with published book chapters, academic papers and textbooks. None of them knows Elkasrawy.
The experts found that the imam’s prayers were not without fault, and many clarified that they do not condone or excuse some of the language he used.
But they also described the initial, widely circulated translation as “mistranslated,” “decontextualized” and “disingenuous.” One said it had the hallmarks of a “propaganda translation.”
The YouTube clip was particularly troubling for Arabic sociolinguist and dialectologist Atiqa Hachimi, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.
This is because the clip was digitally manipulated: the first two seconds were cut and pasted from a different prayer Elkasrawy had made two minutes earlier. A slanted translation then transformed this Quranic verse from “Thou art our Protector. Help us against those who stand against faith” to “Give us victory over the disbelieving people.”
“It changed their meaning in such a way as to promote the dangerous myths that violent extremism and hate are inherent to Islam,” Hachimi said.
Elkasrawy also was not referring to Jewish people when he said “slay them one by one,” a line from the Hadith that is often invoked as a cry for divine justice. This line was misunderstood as being part of his prayer about Al-Aqsa mosque; in fact, it was the closing line in a previous supplication that he made on behalf of suffering Muslims around the world, Hachimi said.
As for “Purify the Al-Aqsa mosque from the filth of the Jews,” a more accurate translation is “Cleanse Al-Aqsa mosque from the Jews’ desecration of it,” according to Nazir Harb Michel, an Arabic sociolinguist and Islamophobia researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The crucial word here is danas. Arabic-English dictionaries list several possible definitions — among them “besmirch,” “defile,” and spiritual “impurity” or “filth” — so context is key in determining the appropriate translation. Harb Michel said “no translator worth two cents” would choose the “filth” definition in the context of Elkasrawy’s prayer.
When danas is used in reference to a holy place — like Al-Aqsa — the common definition is “desecration,” the experts agreed. “He does not say ‘the filth of the Jews,’” said Jonathan Featherstone, a senior teaching fellow at the University of Edinburgh and former Arabic lecturer with the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
But what did Elkasrawy mean by “desecration”? Again, context is instructive. Days before his prayers, he and his congregants were reading reports of Israeli police deploying tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets inside Al-Aqsa mosque — actions many Muslims would consider to be a desecration of the site, especially during the 10 holiest days of Ramadan.
Elkasrawy now realizes how wrong it was to mention “the Jews,” especially since his intention was to pray for the mosque, not against people.
“If I could say it in a more clear way,” he says, “it would be ‘O Allah, protect the Al-Aqsa mosque from occupation. Or preserve the sacredness of the Al-Aqsa mosque from violation.’”
He said “Jews” is widely used in the Arabic-speaking world to mean “Israeli forces” or “Israeli occupiers,” not as a sweeping reference to all ethnic and religious Jews. But he acknowledges this common usage is problematic. And, he asks, “How is it perceived in my (current) community? It’s something I didn’t take into account.”
“I have never thought of anything against people of Jewish faith,” he says. “In Islam, we believe that no one should be forced into any religion. We cannot hate any people, any group, because of their ethnicity or their religion.”
Halevi declined requests for a phone interview but, in emailed responses, he stood by his original translation of Elkasrawy’s prayers. He did not answer specific questions, including why he chose the “filth” definition, but sent links to various websites and Arabic-English dictionaries.
He also did not answer questions about the source of the digitally manipulated clip, saying only that the original video was available on his website until the mosque deleted its YouTube channel.
But Halevi provided context that he considered important: excerpts from Islamic books that promote praying against disbelievers; translations of violent, aggressive or anti-Semitic statements made by other Muslims; links to CIJ News, which Halevi took down shortly after being contacted by the Star.
“Canadian imams deny any rights of the Jews over the Temple Mount or in (the) Land of Israel/Palestine,” Halevi wrote.
B’nai Brith Canada said two Arabic experts independently verified the original translation before the group urged Ryerson to fire Elkasrawy. B’nai Brith said it also reached out to the imam on Facebook but did not get a response. (Elkasrawy deleted his account shortly after the story broke.)
“Statements like this have been made in many parts of the world and it’s actually been used directly as incitement,” said B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn. “Jewish people have lost their lives over statements like this.”
Mostyn rejects the linguistic opinions obtained by the Star, in one case accusing an expert of having an anti-Israel bias. But he would not identify his own translators, citing concerns over their safety. The Star’s request to interview them anonymously was also declined.
In response to the Star’s questions, B’nai Brith solicited a third opinion from Mordechai Kedar, an assistant professor with the Arabic department at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
In a phone interview, Kedar did not remember being asked to evaluate Elkasrawy’s entire supplications, just the phrase that referred to “Jews” and danas. But he said he didn’t need any context to interpret Elkasrawy’s prayers because “when it comes to what Israel is doing, it is the worst meaning of the word.”
“Nobody should give them the benefit of the doubt that they mean something else, because they don’t,” he said. “(They want) to make the mainstream media in the free world believe them that they are the targets, when they are the problem in the whole world.”
Like Halevi, Kedar is a former Israeli intelligence officer and media pundit. His views have also drawn controversy, and Kedar once served on the advisory board for Stop Islamization of Nations — an organization co-founded by the anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a U.S.-based civil rights watchdog.
Kedar argued Elkasrawy’s language was “meant to create a religiously charged rage and anger against the Jews.”
“Reacting violently against (Jewish people) in revenge for their deed is almost a required reaction,” he wrote in an email. “You can call it, in one word, terrorism.”
B’nai Brith Canada has not gone so far as to allege verbal terrorism, and said it is glad Elkasrawy has undergone cultural training, but its position remains unmoved: “Mr. Elkasrawy’s message at the mosque was irrefutably offensive and anti-Semitic.”
Farber feels differently. He says Elkasrawy chose his language poorly, especially when he referred to “the Jews,” and failed to understand the harmful impact of his words.
But he now believes Elkasrawy’s prayers were misrepresented to the public. Like many people, Farber accepted the initial translation unquestioningly, but now says “if people were going to take that and ruin lives, we should have been a lot more careful.”
“He said something that’s highly charged and highly political and could be anti-Zionist — but it’s not anti-Semitic,” Farber says. “And that changes the flavour of this.”
In the rush to condemn Elkasrawy’s prayers, Muslim organizations were among the first in line.
“Unacceptable” and “inappropriate,” his mosque said in a statement. “Appalling and reprehensible,” wrote the National Council of Canadian Muslims, the country’s largest Muslim advocacy group.
There was much to disapprove of, in addition to the mention of “Jews.” Many Muslim Canadians disagree with praying negatively and feel frustrated when religious leaders speak in ways that reinforce harmful stereotypes.
Prayers like “slay them one by one” also have no place inside a Canadian mosque, says Mohammad Aboghodda, a lecturer with the Understanding Islam Academy, an educational charity in Mississauga. Aboghodda was one of the Arabic translators consulted by the Star.
This quote from the Hadith has a specific reference to ancient Islamic struggles but is sometimes used in prayers for divine justice; Elkasrawy says he invoked it on behalf of Syrian people killed and tortured by the government regime or by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists.
But Aboghodda finds this language inappropriate, even if well intentioned — it would be like a priest delivering a Sunday sermon and quoting Bible verses that say “wrongdoers will be completely destroyed.”
“That’s a very common old prayer, but it implies violence that we don’t need,” he says. “I think many young and novice imams go to the old books and just copy these from it.”
These were some of the concerns Muslim groups had in mind when they denounced Elkasrawy’s prayers — public statements that many took as an implicit acceptance of the initial translation. But those statements did not reveal whether the Muslim community thought the translation was accurate, or whether they understood Elkasrawy’s words at all.
How many Canadian Muslims speak Arabic? Contrary to assumption, only about 20 per cent of the world’s Muslims are native Arabic speakers; according to the latest census, 1.2 per cent of Canadians cite Arabic as their mother tongue. Quranic Arabic, which Elkasrawy used in his prayers, is also notoriously complex and difficult to deconstruct.
Hachimi pointed out that several Arabic-language newspapers also clearly relied on English reports of the incident, because when they back-translated the word “filth,” they chose a different Arabic word — najas — from the one Elkasrawy used in his prayers.
And who bothered to check the original video? The translation was not verified by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, executive director Ihsaan Gardee confirmed in an emailed statement.
He said the organization is now “deeply troubled” to learn that the widely circulated clip of Elkasrawy’s prayers was manipulated and the translations called into question. But in the fast-moving aftermath of the scandal, he said, the organization “could only respond to what was being reported” — in other words, it reacted to the CIJ News translation.
“Unfortunately, we are living in a time where the very worst is believed about Canadian Muslims — contrary to the reality that the vast majority are contributing positively,” Gardee wrote. “So when a story like this emerges that contains the words of religious leaders speaking in a way that is understood — rightly or wrongly — to be promoting hatred against anyone, it is critical that human rights advocates be quick to condemn such language.”
Officials from the Muslim Association of Canada said their first priority was to reach out to the Jewish community and apologize for their employee’s inappropriate language, which violated the mosque’s stated policies.
But that doesn’t mean they considered the translation to be accurate — they didn’t. “We avoided this detail because a clear position was required so that there will be no confusion of our stand on this,” spokesperson Abdussalam Nakua wrote in an email.
Elkasrawy’s prayers exploded into view at a particularly fraught time.
Only weeks had passed since a gunman stormed into a Quebec City mosque and massacred six Muslim worshippers. The United States had just inaugurated a new president who campaigned on a Muslim travel ban. The acrimonious debate around the Canadian Islamophobia motion had reached a fever pitch, with Liberal MP Iqra Khalid even receiving death threats.
Elkasrawy’s prayers were quickly taken up by politicians. A month after they emerged, MP Steven Blaney — who was then running for the federal Conservative party leadership — cited Elkasrawy in a campaign email seeking donations to “stand against violence and radicalization.” (“Should Allah kill all the Jews? I don’t think so but frighteningly, some do.”)
Right-wing groups also latched on to the story and Elkasrawy’s picture was used on a poster at a rally against M-103. A hate crimes complaint was filed by the Jewish Defense League, which has been active in anti-Islamic protests. (A local JDL member is himself facing possible hate crime charges in the U.S. in connection with an alleged assault on a Palestinian-American man in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.)
“We’re dealing with a community in fear,” Farber says of Muslim Canadians. “Even if the community itself might feel that ‘Well no, this translation isn’t exactly right … we don’t want to make people more angry.’ In the end, I’m not particularly surprised that the mosque and others involved said, ‘Let’s shut this down and apologize.’”
Elkasrawy said his first priority after the story broke in February was to apologize to the Jewish community. He worried, too, about further inflaming the situation. “I feared for the people inside the mosque, that they might be attacked because of this.”
He decided to let things calm down before attempting to explain himself. But within days, posters were plastered around Ryerson’s campus, where Elkasrawy had been a teaching assistant on and off since 2008, a job that partially funds his graduate studies.
The posters had a picture of his face and the words “Fire him now” — a demand that was echoed by B’nai Brith Canada. The student who led the postering campaign, Aedan O’Connor, recently announced on Facebook that she is now working with Rebel Media.
Ryerson and its new president, Mohamed Lachemi, were already under pressure to respond to previous reports of anti-Semitism on campus. A meeting was quickly called between Elkasrawy and the dean of Ryerson’s engineering department.
Elkasrawy attended the meeting and brought a more accurate translation of his prayers, assuming this would be a first step in the university’s investigation. According to Elkasrawy, his translation was disregarded and Ryerson officials deliberated for about 15 minutes before handing him a two-page termination letter.
Ryerson declined to be interviewed for this story, stating that it does not discuss human resources matters.
For Elkasrawy, this was the moment that killed any hope he had of eventually explaining his side of the story. The YouTube clips, the media coverage, the public statements, his suspension, the police investigation, the termination — it all braided together into a knot that felt impossible to unravel. It all happened in 10 days.
Elkasrawy says he agreed to speak with the Star because “I have nothing to hide.” He has contemplated leaving Toronto or changing careers, but for now, he wants to move forward.
He has returned to his mosque, which conducted its own internal probe into the incident. He has applied, unsuccessfully, for new teaching jobs at Ryerson. And while the hate crime complaint against him remains active, Elkasrawy says he has yet to be contacted by police.
When asked what this experience has been like, Elkasrawy sighs heavily, his eyes drifting to the floor of his modest downtown apartment. He explains in a wavering voice that he has tried to take an Islamic point of view.
“People go through difficult times, hard times, in which they have to be patient and have some forbearance,” he says. “You have to listen to people and learn from this experience.”
He is holding tight to the lessons he’s learned, including those from the Mosaic Institute. Chief among them: when you speak, your meaning has to be clear — not just in your own head or to the people in front of you, but to Canadians of all backgrounds.
“Once the word comes out, even if the person who was hurt later understands your meaning, it will leave something in his heart,” Elkasrawy says. “It will not be the same as before.”
The Star consulted five Arabic experts for this story. They are:
- Mohammad Aboghodda, Understanding Islam Academy
- Atiqa Hachimi, University of Toronto
- Nazir Harb Michel, Georgetown University
- Jonathan Featherstone, University of Edinburgh
- Kristen Brustad, University of Texas at Austin