Former U of T imam says he was let go for social media post he never made, petition calls for reinstating him

Omar Patel, an imam who formerly offered chaplaincy services at University of Toronto Scarborough, says the school conducted a flawed investigation that ultimately led to his dismissal. (CBC - image credit)
Omar Patel, an imam who formerly offered chaplaincy services at University of Toronto Scarborough, says the school conducted a flawed investigation that ultimately led to his dismissal. (CBC - image credit)

A former campus imam alleges he was dismissed by the University of Toronto Scarborough after a social media post he says was falsely attributed to him, which he maintains the school failed to properly investigate.

Omar Patel says the university formally cut ties with him on Jan. 22 after nine years of offering "Islamically integrated" mental health and spiritual care to Muslim students — a service paid for by the Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto and not the university.

"I loved working with the students of U of T, I loved working with administration. I had an extremely good relationship with them, which is why I thought everything was going to be okay," Patel said.

"I thought, the university trusts me, and I trust them to do an investigation."

His dismissal came roughly seven weeks after screenshots of an image related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, allegedly shared on Patel's Instagram stories, was flagged to administrators. Patel denies ever sharing the image and alleges he was unfairly targeted.

The screenshots were sent to administrators by Hillel Ontario, a group that says it "works to amplify Jewish campus life" at nine schools across the province. Hillel Ontario is part of Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.

The image depicts an Israel Defence Forces soldier, standing with an Israeli flag, mirrored with the same soldier holding the battle flag of Nazi Germany. Two superimposed captions suggest support for Israel is tantamount to support for Nazi Germany and genocide.

The Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto, which directly employs Patel, has called for him to be reinstated at U of T Scarborough, saying the school's investigation lacked transparency and due process.

Questions emerge about screenshots

On Dec. 1, a U of T administrator sent Patel an email with a screenshot attached, telling him the school was deeply concerned. Patel was told to stop going to campus and to postpone counselling appointments with students while an investigation got underway.

"To me, when I saw the image, I was shocked. I was appalled," Patel told CBC News. He said he noticed that the screenshot had no Instagram username or profile picture, which would typically appear in the top left corner of the Instagram stories function.

Patel responded to the school, questioning how the Instagram story could be attributed to him absent his handle or picture.

Five days later, the same administrator sent another nearly identical screenshot, except now the image had both features.

At about the same time, Hillel Ontario posted an open letter on its website, addressed to U of T Scarborough Principal Wisdom Tettey, calling for Patel to be held "accountable." The group said Patel was "spreading lies based on antisemitic blood libel tropes" that could contribute to violence against Jewish people.

Initially, the post included the screenshot without Patel's username and picture. It was then replaced with a screenshot with both. On Dec. 1, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) posted on X, formerly Twitter, directing users to the open letter.

The page has since been removed from Hillel Ontario's website.

Patel said he continued to deny in emails with administrators that he had shared the image. He alleges the second screenshot was altered to "smear" him and questions the 45-day period between the story supposedly being shared and the screenshots being sent to administrators. The story also "tagged" two Instagram accounts that do not appear to exist.

Patel said he believes U of T's investigation was "done in bad faith" and that he's considering legal action.

U of T declines to provide details of investigation

In a statement, Linda Johnston, acting U of T Scarborough principal while Tettey is on leave, declined to provide any further information about the school's investigation.

"We want to be as forthright as possible, but for reasons of confidentiality and people's privacy, we are not sharing more details," Johnston said.

"We continue to offer support to our Muslim students and are striving to ensure there is minimal disruption of services. We are currently looking to appoint a new chaplain," she added.

Following publication of this story, the university provided an additional statement.

In it, the school said it received a complaint regarding a social media post. "Immediate steps were taken and a thorough fact-finding investigation was conducted resulting in appropriate action," the statement reads.

CBC Toronto also contacted Hillel Ontario with questions about the provenance of the screenshots.

"Since Hamas attacked innocent Israelis on October 7th, Jewish students on campus in Ontario have been subjected to increased antisemitism, the likes of which our community has not seen in many decades," said Jay Solomon, chief advancement officer with Hillel Ontario.

"Hillel received multiple reports and numerous screenshots about a disturbing social media post from the account _omarpatel. Upon receiving those reports, Hillel shared the screenshots in question with the University of Toronto, and asked university officials to investigate the matter."

In response to follow up questions about whether Hillel Ontario tried to authenticate the screenshots, Solomon said he had nothing further to add.

Patel provided key service for students, employer says

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for CIJA said it was a "Hillel Ontario matter that we were not involved in.

"As such, we would not comment," the spokesperson said. CIJA's post remains on its X account.

An online petition organized by The Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto calling for Patel to be reinstated at U of T Scarborough had more than 4,000 signatures on Tuesday afternoon.

Dalia Mohamed, a board member with the organization, said Patel's absence will leave thousands of Muslim students without a valuable resource.

"Being able to provide timely and accessible mental health supports and ones that are spiritually informed, that understand the religious values that these students have, is honestly a one-of-a-kind service on campus for a lot of Muslim students," Mohamed said.