I’m sure that many of you reading this article have gone to, currently go, or are planning on attending a university or some form of post-secondary institution. This may have a lot to do with the fact most of us come from families of recent immigrants, who place a strong emphasis on post-secondary education. Now more than ever, we find this no small feat and with it comes a lot of challenges, barriers, and worries. However, out of all the possible things a practicing Muslim could think he or she has to worry about when attending university, in 21th century Canada, the largest would be, where am I going to pray? The answer to this question varies greatly, and ultimately, on the university you choose to attend. Practically, this could mean you are easily guided with very clear signage and well educated staff to your local university Muslim prayer room. There you find ample space, appropriate ventilation, spacious layout for both brothers and sisters, and a relatively comfortable environment. However, on the other end of the spectrum there may be brothers and sisters who find themselves looking to their own faculties to find what they feel is the quietest, least dusty, smelly, populated corner within the University, and so long as they’re not fortunate enough to be surrounded by 13 meters of concrete, their iPhone should likely be able to find the right direction to pray. With their faith as their foundation, one can easily come to appreciate the added stress a practicing Muslim would experience if something as simple as dedicated Muslim prayer space is absent and/or not accessible.
The reality of a dedicated Muslim prayer space on Canadian university and college campuses varies throughout the country, with the majority providing at least some sort of bookable Multi-faith prayer accommodation on their campuses. However, this can lead to more problems than solutions, as the requirement of five daily obligatory prayers equates to continuous use throughout the school day, making it either problematic for others wishing to use the space and/or problematic for Muslims unable to pray due to other booked events. Hence this is why a dedicated Muslim prayer space provides a viable and mutually beneficial solution.
When seeking dedicated prayer space there are some commonly held ideas that many Muslims will hear from university administrations. Critically thinking through these commonly held ideas around dedicate prayer space, and constructively criticizing those who hold them, as well as working with administrations, instead of against them, can result in meaningful accommodations and mutually beneficial relationships between campus Muslim communities and their university administrations. Below are a few common ideas and their possible responses:
- “The university should treat all religious groups equally”
- “No [religious] group should be privileged over another”
- “Once dedicated space is given for one group we [the university] would be obliged to give the same to any other group that asks, making it too difficult to do”
- “The university is a secular institution and therefore not required to accommodate religious needs”
- This is true, but it has to first be determined that we are actually comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges, i.e. two things that are the same. For example, if we are dealing with disciplinary matters and two classmates are found to be cheating on the same exam, then both will be dealt with equally, irrespective of their religion, sex, ethnic background, or language. However, when we look at Muslims and their daily (obligatory) requirements, we soon appreciate significant differences between what is required for practicing Muslims compared to their Jewish and Christian counterparts. Particularly the times during the day and days during the work week. To treat the Muslim faith as just another Christian denomination would be a far cry from being culturally aware of the growingly diverse campus population.
- It can be easily appreciated that what Muslims are asking for is not a privilege, but rather accommodation of their faith needs. Needs determined by the characteristics and requirements of their faith, and therefore there is really no privilege being given. However, there are other religious communities who have well established relationships with many campuses across Canada for the past 70-80 years who are now benefiting as a result of that today. Being able to appreciate the challenges of minority groups and at the same time realizing the privileges of the majority are what will ensure we as a society/campus have a culturally safe environment.
- Once it is understood that there are many appreciable differences between the Islamic faith when compared to others, and once the accommodations of the religious needs and requirements of Muslims are not labeled as privileges, then this floodgate theory is easily deflated. It should also be noted that hypothetical requests, and the nature of such requests (i.e. qualifications of the requesting group’s needs), does not equate to actual requests, and precedent would reinforce the reality that this has been mainly a Muslim specific issue.
- Secularism does not exclude religion nor does it draw mutually exclusive lines between the religious and worldly realms, but rather it specifies that governance is not determined by organized religious traditions and texts. A secular state is governed by civil laws that do not favor or disfavor any religious group. In Canada one of the most protected laws are those found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in this document we find specific mention of religion and the right to freedom thereof. Moreover, we find in many if not all provincial Human rights legislation the duty of to accommodate the diversity found in Canadian society including religion. Therefore one can be reassured that secularism is not a logical argument against dedicated Muslim prayer space, and may actually indirectly be an argument for it.