EDUCATION

McGill’s prayer problem

Devout Muslims say the university owes them a special room

BENOIT AUBIN November 21 2005
EDUCATION

McGill’s prayer problem

Devout Muslims say the university owes them a special room

BENOIT AUBIN November 21 2005

McGill’s prayer problem

EDUCATION

Devout Muslims say the university owes them a special room

BENOIT AUBIN

There is no intifada brewing on McGill University’s campus—yet. But an ongoing dispute between a group of Muslim students and the management of the secular Montreal university shows the traditional firewalls Canadians have built between public and private life are under attack, by new Canadians formulating new demands. A group of devout Muslims claim they have been forced to pray outdoors or in crowded hallways since they were “rudely shut out” of their dedicated prayer room last spring when that space, on the cramped downtown campus, was used to build an archaeology lab.

Not so, the college says. Students were warned a full year ahead of time that the space—loaned to them for free—would be taken back, and they could use whatever free space available to congregate or pray. The Muslim students reply that, even when empty, most classrooms are inadequate, because chairs and desks are bolted to the floor, and can’t be moved to make space for prayer. “We have to pray five times a day, at set intervals, and we never know which rooms are free

or not,” says Sarah Elgazzar, a 24-year-old Ontario-born, hijab-wearing neuropsychology student who graduated in June but remains the spokesperson for McGill’s Muslim Students’ Association on this issue. “There is no dignity in praying in a hallway, when you hear the remarks of people walking by.”

The dispute boils down to a conflict between what the university views as its secular mandate, and what some students call a vital religious right. The McGill campus is surrounded by churches of various denominations and halls belonging to other religious or cultural organizations, but there are no mosques within easy walking distance because Montreal’s Muslim population of more than 100,000 is scattered in small pockets all over town.

McGill’s management says the university doesn’t have to concern itself with the religious needs of students. “Basically we don’t believe we have a legal obligation to provide this particular group with a religious space on campus,” Jennifer Robinson, associate viceprincipal of communications, told Maclean’s. “We are an academic institution and our main

mission is teaching, learning and research. We’re not in the business of religious activity.” But the students have a ready reply. “The secular status of McGill is no reason for the university to rid itself of its responsibilities toward its religious students,” Elgazzar says.

McGill has gone out of its way to help the students solve their problem by trying to find a place off campus, Robinson says. “For a year now, our legal staff, our real estate experts and senior management have been working closely with these students week after week, but my sense is they prefer to spend their time saying we have the responsibility to provide for them.” The students reply that they haven’t been able

£My sense is they prefer to spend their time saying we have the responsibility to provide for them’

to find the money to set up a charity—the proposed way to raise funds to buy a building in the neighbourhood.“You can’t expect students to raise $2 million in a few months to acquire property downtown,” Elgazzar says. “We need an interim place now. We don’t mind if it’s called a multi-faith or a meditation room.”

Universities elsewhere are watching McGill— because most have been confronted with the same issue. In one instance two years ago, the case went all the way to the Quebec Human Rights commission after Muslim students at a technical school affiliated with Université du Québec said they were denied a dedicated prayer room. The commission is still pondering its decision. But what creates really bad optics at McGill is that Concordia University, its cross-downtown English-language rival, is currendy expanding a dedicated prayer room that Muslim students there have been using since the early 1980s. M

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