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Back to February Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 265 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS FEBRUARY 2008

Schools Accommodate Muslim Students
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Public universities across the nation are making unprecedented efforts to accommodate Muslim students, provoking round after round of debate over the role of religion in public life and the point at which accommodation becomes an unconstitutional establishment of religion. It is clearly constitutional to set aside a room on campus for students of any faith to use for prayer; but what about accommodations that meet the needs of only one religious group? The mere fact of a religious basis for a request does not mean universities should refuse the request. But unequal treatment of various religious groups does present a problem if it occurs at public institutions.

The Muslim Students Association (MSA), a national group, has formed a Muslim Accommodations Task Force (MATF) that now leads efforts to bring foot baths, halal food, and Muslim prayer rooms to schools everywhere. As of the summer of 2007, MSA announced that at least nine universities had set aside prayer rooms for Muslims only. At least 17 universities had installed footbaths for their Muslim students or were in the process of doing so.

At some of these schools, such as Eastern Michigan University, the footbaths went in without any controversy. At others, however, including Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Michigan at Dearborn, footbaths provoked heated debate and accusations that the schools were favoring Islam over other religions. Terry Gallagher, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, said the footbaths resulted from "years of ongoing negotiations with the Muslim Student Association."

Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, told USA Today that some of these measures concern his group, which believes in the separation of mosque and state. "Unusual accommodations for one faith at the cost of everybody else doesn't fall on the side of pluralism," said Jasser (7-25-07).


Inside one Muslim prayer room

At Normandale Community College, a public institution in Bloomington, Minnesota, Star Tribune contributor Katherine Kersten reports that a meditation room on campus has become a Muslim-only prayer room with a number of features that make students of other faiths unwelcome. A sign posted at the entrance asks visitors to remove their shoes. Another sign lists the schedule for Islam's five daily prayers, and an arrow inside the room points in the direction of Mecca. Most noticeably, a chest-high barrier partitions the room to separate men and women during prayer. The college building crew erected this barrier, and college officials placed the signs asking students to enter barefoot — "basically a courtesy to Muslim students," says Dean of Student Affairs Ralph Anderson.

On the side of the barrier intended for women, there is a pile of shawls and head-coverings, or hijaab. A pamphlet entitled "Hijaab and Modesty" instructs women on proper attire and comportment according to Islam. Women should stay at home, according to the pamphlet, and their speech must not "be such that it is heard." The same pamphlet speaks disparagingly of Christians and Jews, "the enemies of Allah's religion. . . . Remember that you will never succeed while you follow these people."

"For all practical purposes, this meditation room is essentially a Muslim prayer room," Normandale history professor Chuck Chalberg told Kersten. "Something this unprecedented goes beyond religious toleration." (Star Tribune, 12-18-07)

A similar situation occurred at George Mason University in Virginia. Some non-Muslim students protested the barrier dividing men and women and the requirement to enter barefoot they encountered at an on-campus meditation room. Complaints and an article in the school newspaper prompted school officials to request that Muslim students move barriers and prayer rugs aside when not in use.


Muslim accommodations in the U.K.

Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum believes that for proponents of militant Islam, demands for footbaths and other small accommodations are the first steps toward bringing about more sweeping changes in society. "The goal of Islamists is the application of Islamic law," Pipes told USA Today.

Muslims in some other nations have made increasingly insistent and taxing demands on public schools after lesser demands have been met. In the United Kingdom, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) released a 72-page document in 2007 calling for state schools to "remove unnecessary barriers to full participation" for Muslim students in primary and secondary school.

Besides footbaths and prayer rooms, the document asks that schools provide halal food, allow for Muslim traditional dress in the uniform policy, offer Arabic instruction for Muslim students, and eliminate all coeducational sports. MCB would also like schools to allow Muslim students to opt out of activities and curriculum requirements involving music, dance, or drama. Schools should avoid scheduling sex education lessons during Ramadan, as well as swimming lessons (because if students swallow water in the pool they will break their Ramadan fast).

Muslims make up about 3% of the adult population in the United Kingdom, and about 0.6% of the adult population in the United States according to Pew Research. Birth rates among Muslims are very high, which may mean that accommodation of Muslims in schools will become a larger issue in the near future. Numerous polls, however, show that Muslims in the United States are more assimilated to the culture around them than Muslims in the United Kingdom, and significantly less likely to identify with or support militant Islam.

While it is worth considering where accommodations may lead in the future, Richard John Neuhaus opines in First Things (January 2008) that footbaths for Muslim students, at least, do not present a constitutional problem. In response to criticism of the footbaths by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Neuhaus points out that "public schools and other agencies routinely make accommodations, such as providing kosher food for Jews, halal food for Muslims, and scheduling events around their holy days. It has nothing to do with the Constitution and everything to do with consideration. Now if only Christians could get equal treatment in the accommodation of the public and voluntary expression of their faith."


 
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