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.