Don’t roll your eyes at Islamic incursion into the Toronto Public Library

Last Tuesday (2010.04.13), the Thorncliffe branch of the Toronto Public Library reopened after a lengthy renovation. Obviously TPLFans attends and documents all library reopenings. (Photos.)

The library is located in Thorncliffe Park, a neighbourhood of typical Toronto high-rise apartment buildings hidden behind the giant concrete East York sign at Millwood and Overlea. The sign doesn’t say this anymore, but until the ’90s it claimed East York was A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE · WORK · SHOP. A bit Orwellian. East York: The maximum-security suburb.

Thorncliffe Park is now and has for decades been a low-income neighbourhood. Like other such neighbourhoods, it has found itself populated by different waves of the poor over the years. Now it’s dominated by Indics and Muslims.

Queue of people outside community centre and library

Among the couple of hundred people waiting in line for the library reopening, I counted no blacks, no East Asians or Orientals, and three white people other than me. (One of them represented a previous caste of Thorncliffe Park poor who spent her time passive-aggressively berating an Indic mother for keeping her kids out of school for the library reopening.) The four whites were outnumbered 2:1 by women in full-body niqab (ethnic origin obviously indeterminate) and about 20:1 by women in hijab, mostly Southeast Asian or Indic or Arab. I drew the obvious conclusion about the men who closely accompanied these women, namely that they were their husbands.

A glorious multicultural mosaic? No, a glorious mosaic of a couple of cultures. An ethnic enclave, you might call it, or a ghetto, though Toronto thinks it’s too good for ghettos. Chinatown isn’t much different, nor is Rosedale. What’s the problem here? There is no problem here, apart from poverty and the concentration of same.

The problem is inside the library.

Interior decorating

Once upstairs and through the unergonomic pathway that is the front door, I shook the hand of my Jewish acquaintance. “Welcome to the future, when the Muslims take over,” I told him. He just scoffed and rolled his eyes. We don’t allow that sort of thing here, I soon found.

The new library is twice the size of the old one, but being new, it uses the infernal RFID self-checkout system. I always like to be the first person to return something to a new library, but when I tried that at the desk, the middle-aged white librarian told me to use the return slot in some distant corner. She doesn’t have anywhere to put a returned item behind the desk, she said. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I said, and rolled my eyes. “Don’t roll your eyes!” she shouted, pulling the items from me and plunking them on top of the desk. “Don’t tell me not to roll my eyes,” I shot back, picking everything up again and making my way to that corner.

Welcome to Your Library, where dissent is discouraged.

Soon I found the architect behind the renovation, Phil Carter, who also designed my favourite renovation, that of Beaches branch. (He later boasted of having designed 25 of the library’s 99 branches, though that isn’t what his Web site says.) I was thrilled to meet him and immediately started gushing about the perfectly chosen gaudy floral carpets at Beaches. I also mentioned the epicyclic carpets at S. Walter Stewart. Well, that was mostly Sheilagh’s doing, he said, pointing to interior designer Sheilagh Fletcher, who had just joined us.

Phil Carter, Sheilagh Fletcher, Ricardo Linares

I introduced myself and repeated my spiel. “So!” I said excitedly. “Tell me all about the carpets!” Well, she said, they’re in more of an Islamic motif because of the makeup of the community. Like damask, she said, memorably stressing the latter syllable.

Rug design
Rug design

Are you kidding me? I asked her. Where’s the minaret, I also asked her? Why don’t we just declare Sharia law? She was surprised by my alarm and really didn’t say anything, or if she did, I couldn’t hear it despite being silent myself. I asked her if she really didn’t understand why it was a bad idea for a public space, the public library, to use religious symbols in its carpeting. No answer.


Of course there seems to be a perfect dodge available to Muslims and their apologists in this specific context. For centuries, Islamic art has used geometric and abstract forms in elaborate avoidance of depicting the human form, which is presumed blasphemous. (There is a wealth of detail you could look up yourself, but the foregoing is accurate as far as it goes.) We’ve all channel-surfed through TV real-estate programs, often those that show British tourists shopping for vacation homes in Spain, in which the realtor extols the beauty of “Moorish architecture,” which uses the same motifs.

Hence Islamic art, and the patterns on the Thorncliffe library floor, do not depict the crucifixion of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Moses, a celestial bearded God, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, or other people of religion. Islamic art’s geometry and mathematical patterns are a response to an edict to avoid such depictions. That doesn’t make them secular or nondenominational; they’re still religious art in a way that, say, equally geometric and mathematical Mandelbrot fractals are not.

The argument is not available that Thorncliffe’s carpets are mere decoration. By the interior designer’s own unprompted declaration, they are Islamic art. Carpets are a semipermanent component of a building; you can replace them, but to do that in a library you have to shut down the entire branch and laboriously move huge collections of objects. Islamic art is now part of the infrastructure of the Toronto Public Library.

I view this as scandalous. Public space absolutely must not be converted to a space that favours one religion. Islamic carpeting favours Muslims by depicting their own religious art. When non-Muslims stand on that carpet, they are surrounded by Islam in two dimensions.

This isn’t a question of freedom of conscience

A public library must collect a selection of all legally available items without favouritism. I have ample evidence that Toronto Public Library draws widely from all available items. Religious items, including books and definitely including holy books, can be and are part of such collections. I object to anyone who attempts to distort a library’s acquisitions so they conform to that person’s own biases. As I like to say (I’m not the first to do so), a library that doesn’t have books you absolutely loathe isn’t much of a library. And I am not suggesting that I loathe, or anyone else loathes, holy books in TPL’s collection. I merely state that library collections have nothing to do with library infrastructure.

Nor do I have any objection to transitory library displays and programs on various topics, including religious topics. TPL could quite easily welcome speakers on religious topics or install a temporary display case of Islamic books. It does exactly that on a wide range of topics – just in recent memory, everything from banned books to Vonnegut and Ballard to studies of the Paralympics. This too is a freedom-of-conscience issue that is unrelated to library infrastructure.

But the minute you build Islam into a library, church and state no longer remain separate. They absolutely must remain separate in a free and democratic society, even one whose constitution and (English-language) national anthem mention God.

I hold strenuous objections to Islamization and Islamic extremism, both of which represent threats to my freedom and, as a gay male, my life. I am much, much more upset about Islamic symbols semipermanently installed in public space than I would be about, say, Christian or Jewish or Sikh or Bahá’í symbols. I don’t have to treat Islam equally, but I would object to all those nonetheless. I have a categorical objection to violations of separation of church and state. I reserve my strongest objection to Islamic intrusion into public space, which is exactly what’s happening at Thorncliffe branch.

What does management think?

At the opening, I had another chat with Toronto city librarian Jane Pyper, who obviously knew nothing about it and credibly stated she left decisions like that to Sheilagh. Separately, another architect affiliated with the project paused his efforts to take joint credit for the library long enough to act shocked at my objections.

I definitely had a question for the branch head. I asked the first librarian I could find where the branch head was. “She’s right here,” said this librarian, who knew my name despite the fact I’d never met her before. She introduced us. I congratulated the branch head on her new branch and asked her what she was most proud of. (The enormous children’s area.)

If this branch is meant to serve the local Muslim community, I asked her, where is the gay and lesbian collection? Pregnant pause. Well, we aren’t one of the branches that has special collections like that. (Only Yorkville does, she did not mention.)

But you’ve got a whole shelf of books in Urdu, I told her, which wasn’t really fair since I don’t know what they were actually about. Where’s the gay and lesbian section? We don’t really have that kind of special section, she said, looking away.

So what items do you offer for a gay or lesbian person? I asked her. Well, we’re just not equipped with that kind of special section, she replied.

I checked the library catalogue. Doing searches and inspecting each entry in the results, I count 99 books with subjects containing Islam or Muslim and 27 with subjects containing gay, lesbian, queer, or homosexuality. Both totals include a few duplicates appearing in more than one subject heading.

Both communities, which have scarcely any overlap and one of which is broadly hostile to the other, are served by this public library’s book collection. But even accounting for duplicates, Muslim books outnumber queer books about 4:1. Sort of like niqabis outnumbering whites in line. But only sort of.