On a Friday afternoon, Muslim students at UTSC can often be seen lingering after Friday prayers — also known as Jummah — to talk to Imam Omar Patel.

Patel says U of T informed him on January 22 that it was removing him as the UTSC Imam, for allegedly making an anti-Israel and antisemitic post on Instagram. Still, when U of T invited him back to campus just two days later as a “member of the public,” Patel felt it was important to come and lead Friday prayers.

“If I don’t come for Jummah, and they bring in another Imam, the students then complain that ‘we miss our Imam,’ [or] ‘we want our Imam back,’ and I can’t say no to that,” said Patel in an interview with The Varsity

Patel became the Muslim chaplain at UTSC in 2016. As an Imam hired by the Muslim Chaplaincy at the University of Toronto — an independent non-profit organization focused on supporting and engaging Muslim youth — he catered to Muslim students by providing counselling sessions and weekly programs. He was directly employed by the Chaplaincy, not by U of T, but provided services on campus; a university spokesperson explained to The Varsity that the university makes “informal, unpaid, volunteer arrangements” with chaplaincies.

for [U of T] to take it away from us and then not be transparent as to why, they really showed the way that they see us as students,”
Yasmin Said

Patel denies having shared the post that U of T received complaints about in the weeks leading up to his removal. In an interview with The Varsity, Patel described the university’s decision to remove him from his role after approximately eight years as “shocking.” 

Since Patel’s removal, students have advocated for his reinstatement, and over 6,300 people have currently signed a petition by the Muslim Chaplaincy to get him back. 

“I think it’s so unfair, really, because [Imam Patel] was the only resource that we had on campus. And for [U of T] to take it away from us and then not be transparent as to why, they really showed the way that they see us as students,” Yasmin Said, a fourth-year student majoring in population health and double minoring in psychology and biology who had participated in Patel’s weekly program, told The Varsity. “It really hurts.” 

The incident explained 

According to an article by the CBC, Patel’s removal came after Hillel Ontario shared social media screenshots with U of T administrators on December 1, 2023, which it alleged that Patel had posted on his Instagram story. 

Hillel Ontario is an organization that works to support Jewish students across nine different universities, including U of T, through campus programming and educational and religious initiatives. 

The Instagram story in question — which Patel allegedly posted 45 days before Hillel Ontario sent it to U of T administrators — related to the ongoing conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas. It featured a picture of a soldier holding an Israeli flag with a mirrored image of the soldier on the other side holding a Nazi flag. The caption in the story equated supporting Israel with supporting Nazi Germany and described Israel’s actions against Palestinians as genocide.

Multiple organizations that advocate against antisemitism have argued that comparing the Israeli government to the Nazi government is inherently antisemetic. A 2022 post by the World Jewish Congress — an international organization formed to advocate against antisemitism in the years leading up to the Holocaust — argues that comparing Israel or Zionists to Nazis diminishes the pain of millions who suffered during the Holocaust, playing into what it describes as “holocaust inversion.” “The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a territorial and political one, whereas the Holocaust was the attempt to systematically annihilate European Jewry,” the post reads.

Still, some recent commentators have drawn parallels between Israeli policies and policies undertaken by the Nazi regime. In a December 2023 essay in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen — a Russian-American and Jewish journalist who lost family members in the Holocaust — noted similarities between World War II-era ghettos and the “open-air prison” caused by Israel’s 16-year-long blockade of Gaza. They argued that treating the Holocaust as a singular event that can’t be compared to other events obscures potential lessons about our actions in the present.

Patel wrote that, at first, when U of T sent him the screenshot of the story he allegedly shared, he found that the screenshot showed no Instagram username or profile picture. He brought this to administrators’ attention, but he says that U of T still told him to stop providing services because they needed to conduct an investigation into the post. 

Five days later, the administrator sent Patel another screenshot of the same Instagram story, this time with his Instagram username and profile.

At the time the first screenshot was sent, according to the CBC, Hillel Ontario posted an open letter about the screenshot and called on UTSC Principal Wisdom Tettey to hold Patel accountable. Hillel Ontario explained the story posted could entice violence against Jewish people. As of February 25, Hillel Ontario has taken down the open letter published on its website.

U of T’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that no university members should use language or participate in any behaviour with the intent of “demean[ing] others” based on “group characteristics” such as ethnicity and ancestry. However, the policy notes that civility “may, on occasion, be superseded by the need to protect lawful freedom of speech.” 

Patel claims that U of T was not transparent during its investigation of the incident and did not allow his employer, the Muslim Chaplaincy, to take part in it.

“I feel sad, I felt isolated. I felt that the institution that I cared for so deeply, providing services to staff, students, faculty, for a long time, didn’t have enough respect to be able to carry an unbiased investigation or an investigation where they can share the details with myself or with my employer,” Patel said to The Varsity.

He explained he tried many times to talk with U of T administrators to prove he had not posted the story on his Instagram; however, his pleas fell on “deaf ears.” “[U of T] failed me, they failed the Muslim students, and they failed the entire Muslim community. And it’s hurtful,” said Patel.

“[U of T] failed me, they failed the Muslim students, and they failed the entire Muslim community. And it’s hurtful”
Omar Patel

He alleged to the CBC that the second screenshot sent to U of T was altered in an attempt to “smear” him, as the first screenshots had no ties to his profile or account.

When asked about Patel’s accusations, Hillel Ontario’s media relations stated to The Varsity that the organization asked U of T to investigate the issue after they received many reports of the “disturbing social media screenshots” from “_omarpatel,” Patel’s Instagram account. U of T, as of the time of publication, has not published any official statement regarding the investigation or its decision to remove Patel.

Student reactions and advocacy 

Zohal Akram — a third-year studying psychology and biology — has received spiritual and counselling services from Patel. She told The Varsity that Patel’s removal has left a huge gap for Muslim students who rely on him.

“He guided me toward getting the support I needed in difficult situations that I was in. And even now, to this day… he still checks up on students and still wants to know how you’re doing,” said Akram.

Usayd Ashraf, a first-year student studying business and management, shared a similar sentiment. Having known Patel even before attending UTSC, he found that not having Patel as a chaplain makes him feel like he has lost vital resources. “His presence meant a lot to me. And I’m sure it meant a lot for others as well,” said Ashraf. 

Both Ashraf and Akram expressed concerns about U of T’s investigation. “There was no proof of him committing whatever they accused him of committing,” Akram said. 

Ashraf said he felt “scared” at the university’s lack of protections for Patel. “If [this] can happen to Imam Omar Patel then it can happen to any one of us [students],” he told The Varsity.

On February 4, the Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto started a petition calling on U of T to apologize to Patel for the damage caused by accusations against him and to reinstate him as chaplain. In the petition, the Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto states that the university’s investigation lacked “due process” or “transparency” and that the final letter sent to Patel on the investigation included no “evidence or reasoning for his termination.” The petition also brings up the lack of name on the screenshots first sent by Hillel Ontario to U of T. 

As of February 25, the petition has over 6,300 signatures. 

Patel is worried about the lack of mental health support available at U of T that specifically caters to Muslim students and how this might cause students to lose faith in the university. He explained that, although U of T provides students with mental health supports, UTSC currently lacks a Muslim Chaplain available to students. 

Although Chaplains serve primarily religious purposes, Patel has provided mental health support to Muslim students at UTSC. Since he was fired, Patel has had to stop providing counselling sessions and weekly gatherings. “We’re adding to the mental health crisis,” he said. 

“I continue to come in to provide a level of support: a listening ear, a hand, a hug, if possible. Just any level of support to be present with students,” said Patel.

According to Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) President Amrith David, the SCSU and the UTSC Muslim Student Association (MSA) are currently working on steps to “voice the concerns of students to administration.” Currently, their goal is to find a way to reinstate Patel and determine what happened during the university’s investigation. According to David, the SCSU and the MSA have had meetings with UTSC acting vice-president and principal Linda Johnston about this.

Johnston confirmed to The Varsity that the university undertook a fact-finding investigation in response to a complaint about a social media post but wrote that she could not provide more information for privacy reasons. She emphasized that the spiritual support that chaplains provide is distinct from mental health counselling that the campus makes available and added that the university “[encourages] the Muslim Chaplaincy to make other chaplains available to our students as soon as possible.”