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Muslim convert lashes out at teachers

2005-12-07 16:31:00

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By GREG MCARTHUR

Monday, December 5, 2005 Page A11

A 21-year-old Cornwall man recently suspended by his adult Catholic high school after an argument over his Muslim cap says his conversion to Islam isn't being taken seriously because he is white.

But the school board says Yousaf Antoine, who recently went by the name Jody Antoine, is allowed to wear any religious headgear he wants, as long as he gives teachers advance notice about his new faith.

It's been about a month since Mr. Antoine, a high-school dropout who bounced between group homes and jail cells as a teenager, found salvation in a mosque, changed his name and declared there is no God but Allah.

Last week he decided to wear a black cap, worn for Islamic prayer, to the St. Matthew Catholic Learning Centre where he was finishing his high-school education.

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Mr. Antoine said he was asked to remove his cap by at least five teachers, all of them citing the school's no-hat rule. When he refused on religious grounds, he was suspended and escorted off the property by police. All of his Muslim friends at the school, whose parents have come to Cornwall from Pakistan and Afghanistan, wear similar caps. None have been asked to remove them.

Three of those friends say that when they argued on his behalf and explained that Mr. Antoine was expressing his religion, they were also asked to leave.

Jane McMillan, the superintendent of education with the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario, said no student has ever been suspended over religious headgear.

"Anybody who wasn't wearing the headgear before, and decided to wear it, might be asked why," Ms. McMillan said. "It may come as a surprise to the staff."

The incident was a misunderstanding that could have been avoided, she said. "I'm confident that, had a request been made by this student, with courtesy and respect, that the request would be dealt with appropriately and the religious headgear would be allowed."

She wouldn't specify why Mr. Antoine and the other students were asked to leave, but a school board trustee, Gerald Samson, said he was told it was because they were aggressive and confrontational.

Mr. Antoine said he raised his voice only after he was told he was suspended. He acknowledged that his past has been riddled with disruptive behaviour at school, but said that's all changed since his conversion. His stand on Thursday was one of principle, he said, and that's why he returned to the school the next day with his Muslim and non-Muslim friends to hold a protest on the sidewalk.

"They think this is a joke or a fashion statement. They think this is an attempt to be accepted into some sort of group," Mr. Antoine said yesterday. "It's not."

He has scheduled a meeting this morning with his local member of Parliament, Conservative Guy Lauzon.

The suspensions have riled many of Cornwall's 1,000 Muslims, some of whom are planning to meet with principal Beverley Bellefeuille this morning to voice their anger.

"The teachers are supposed to be knowledgeable. They can't be spreading this type of hatred," said Ashfaq Malik, an executive member of the Pakistani Canadian Muslim Association of Cornwall. "If the other Pakistani Muslims are allowed to wear the cap, why should she mind if it's worn by a Caucasian?"

This incident is another example of the difficulties Muslims face in Cornwall, he said, adding that as their numbers increase, so do tensions with the predominantly Roman Catholic population.

Mr. Antoine, who was baptized Catholic as an infant, was introduced to Islam by friends. He said he had been looking for spiritual answers that he could never find in Catholicism. He became a Muslim in early November, exactly a year after his father died of a heart attack.

He calls Islam "the truth" and said it's one of the only religions that has stayed rigid in its values. He has since given up drinking and smoking marijuana, he said.

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