As a leading Canadian university, McGill boasts a diverse and multicultural student body. Muslim students are a sizeable portion of this mosaic and actively contribute to all aspects of student life, with the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) as one of the most active and largest student clubs on campus.
Despite the presence of a sizeable number of Muslims on campus, the issue of prayer spaces has had a long and tortured history at McGill dating back to June 2005. Prior to that date, Muslim students used various premises temporarily; first the Birks and then Peterson Hall, both of which were more accommodating in terms of size. However, in 2005, McGill informed the MSA that it had to vacate the room it was using for prayer, as it was ostensibly required for academic purposes. Muslim students were thereafter advised by the administration of the possibility of worshipping in any appropriate space on campus, as long as it did not interfere in the university’s functioning as an academic institution or pose any safety concerns. This led to a long and unnecessary confrontation between the MSA and McGill’s administration at the time, with sit-ins and letter-writing campaigns organized. Muslim students were marginalized, feeling that their right to practice their faith in a dignified environment was being largely ignored. After a breakdown in negotiations between the MSA and McGill, the dispute over adequate prayer space on campus culminated in a case being brought before the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (CDPDJ), a Quebec agency responsible for upholding human rights.
McGill denied that it needed to provide a dedicated prayer space for Muslims, arguing that as a secular school, it was under no obligation to offer prayer spaces to religious groups.
In 2005, McGill informed the MSA that it had to vacate the room it was using for prayer, as it was ostensibly required for academic purposes.
In the immediate aftermath, Muslim students had to face some serious disturbances to their daily routines, enduring the humiliation of having to pray in the odd corner or hallway, on the grass before the eyes of onlookers, in staircases, or in empty classrooms that could be visited by outsiders at any given moment. Given the serious rupture to Muslim students’ daily communal and spiritual life, and to their sense of dignity as a religious community, SSMU graciously stepped in to accommodate the MSA by offering it the space it currently occupies. Though the MSA was at the time very grateful for the offer, it nonetheless remains a temporary and inadequate solution.
The reality is that the nature of the Muslim prayer ritual requires Muslims to have a spiritual home of their own, just as any religious community would require. While the Catholic community has the Newman Centre and the Jewish community has Chabad House, the sizeable Muslim community has no permanent space good enough to call home. And while the McGill Office of Religious and Spiritual Life is always a welcoming place, its limited space is far from ideal for accommodating the dozens of Muslims who need access to a regular and easily accessible space for their prayers throughout the day.
Despite their number and the fundamental need for a space to guarantee their basic freedom of religion, Muslim students still lack proper prayer facilities.
A significant percentage of students (and staff too) are practicing Muslims who require a quiet space to perform their daily prayers as individuals or as congregrations. Prayer space goes a long way toward fostering a spiritual home for Muslim students and functions as an organic hub of communal gathering and spiritual well-being.
Despite their number and the fundamental need for a space to guarantee their basic freedom of religion, Muslim students still lack proper prayer facilities. Currently, there is a single prayer room, located in the basement of the SSMU building, that serves both as an MSA office and a prayer space, with a mere 13.7 square metres dedicated to prayer. This space is far from ideal for a number of reasons. First, it is simply too small to accommodate its Muslim congregants, particularly at certain times of the day, such as during the midday Zuhr prayer, when congestion requires that the prayer be performed in two shifts, delaying students who have to wait outside until the first round of prayers is completed. Another major issue is the absence of any dignified space for the pre-prayer ablution (wudu) ritual, which consists of washing the hands, face, and feet.
This continues to be an issue of unnecessary embarrassment and misunderstanding, as Muslim students have to wash their feet in public washrooms, occasionally having to explain their actions to curious onlookers.
This continues to be an issue of unnecessary embarrassment and misunderstanding, as Muslim students have to wash their feet in public washrooms, occasionally having to explain their actions to curious onlookers. It surely must also inconvenience other students, who must endure heavier-than-normal traffic at the sinks throughout the day. Finally, the location of this space, which is supposed to be a peaceful and safe space for prayer and meditation, is right across from the busy and often noisy Gerts bar – hardly an ideal setting.
This is a sad state of affairs for McGill, a university that supposedly prides itself on the diversity of its student body. The current arrangement falls far short of the practices adopted by other academic institutions across Canada. Other universities such as Carleton, the University of Toronto, or Concordia, all offer permanent prayer spaces with proper ablution facilities for their practicing Muslim students and staff. Such a gesture goes a long way in making Muslims feel welcome at their institutions as vital members of their respective academic communities. Given McGill’s past history on the issue, the administration should follow the examples of goodwill shown by other universities and step up to the plate.
Omar Eidabat is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies. To contact him, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.