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AMOSSHE Futures

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Segregated in prayer: has the model of a separate Muslim prayer facility on campus had its day?

As part of its policy work, AMOSSHE hosts a series of strategy and policy discussions, called AMOSSHE Futures. The second AMOSSHE Futures policy breakfast took place from 11:00 to 12:30 on Friday 9 May 2014 at the University of Manchester.

Introduction

The topic was ‘Segregated in prayer: has the model of a separate Muslim prayer facility on campus had its day?’ and Fay Sherrington, Student Wellbeing Services Manager, Lancaster University chaired the discussion. Participants included representatives from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the National Union of Students (NUS), and representatives of nine AMOSSHE member organisations.

Participants discussed the following motions:

  • Motion 1: What are the practical reasons for and against having a separate Muslim prayer facility on campus?
  • Motion 2: How does having a separate Muslim prayer facility fit with a higher education provider’s moral and legal responsibilities to promote an inclusive campus and good relations between people of different faiths?
  • Motion 3: Are Muslim-specific prayer facilities more difficult for higher education providers to oversee? Do they create any risks for the institution, particularly if higher education providers hand over a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities for running these spaces to student Islamic societies?
  • Motion 4: Given that specific Muslim prayer facilities tend to be gender-segregated, how does this fit with a higher education provider’s responsibilities to prevent and tackle sex discrimination on campus?

This paper outlines the themes explored during ‘Segregated in prayer: has the model of a separate Muslim prayer facility on campus had its day?’ The paper does not represent the policy stances or convictions of AMOSSHE or any of the groups in attendance. The paper is intended as a record of the issues considered and a starting point for further conversations.

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Discussion

Separate versus shared prayer facilities

The practical reasons for separate prayer facilities surround the difficulty of enforcing fair and equal management of shared rooms among different faith groups. The management of a shared space may become contentious due to the differing practices and demands of faith groups. For example, the demand for prayer spaces for Muslim students during Ramadan and other special days would put tremendous pressure on an institution’s shared room booking system, and create the impression that the shared facility is a ‘Muslim-only’ facility. Additionally, for some faith groups, there is an argument that preserving the sanctity of the prayer room is seen as integral to the practice of their faith. Visceral fears of contamination with other faith groups in a shared area may therefore hinder the ability of students to fully express themselves in a shared facility.

The scarcity of on-campus facilities and spaces across the higher education (HE) sector, is one of the practical reasons for shared prayer facilities. Shared prayer facilities are an effective way for institutions to equally accommodate the growing diversity of faith groups on campuses across the UK. Shared faith spaces break down barriers leading to greater cohesion and awareness of issues within faith groups. This is integral to the responsibility of higher education institutions (HEIs) in monitoring activity of faith groups on campus, particularly with regards to the Prevent agenda. Shared ownership creates an environment of transparency and mutual accountability between faith groups, the Students’ Union and the university. This may help guarantee the appropriate safeguarding of students on campuses across the UK.

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Moral and legal responsibilities

Universities have a duty of care to their students to ensure the learning environment is tolerant and safe. Separate prayer facilities need not be problematic as long as the campus environment is inclusive. For this to happen it is important for provision to be driven by the needs of the student body at a given institution before considering the suitability of shared or separate models. At some institutions there have not been complaints by other faith groups regarding the use of shared spaces by Muslim students. This may be due to a variety of reasons, such as high availability and greater access to places of worship in the wider local community. It was suggested that equality legislation does not equate to equal provision. Therefore, responding to the needs of the student body rather than providing the same service to all groups in order to achieve equality is most effective. However, it was also argued that there may be practical hindrances to addressing the needs of all faith groups, such as limited spaces on campuses.

As universities expand and the international agenda becomes more prevalent across the sector, HEIs must consider the facilities available to accommodate their international strategy. Many institutions refer to themselves as secular despite this not being reflected in their student body. With growing internationalisation, universities will need to be proactive rather than reactive, in their obligation to provide support for international students from diverse religious backgrounds.

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Monitoring

Some HEIs have efficient and effective procedures in place that fully engage faith groups and their Students' Union in the monitoring, coordination and institutional management of faith facilities. The Prevent agenda has put particular emphasis on the importance of ensuring appropriate monitoring of campus activity in order to mitigate the risk of radicalisation. It is recognised that due to the diverse nature of HEIs in the UK, the risks can be higher in some institutions than others but the responsibility for managing this sits with the university.

At some institutions the day to day coordination of the prayer room is facilitated by societies such as Isoc. This has proven problematic in some cases as the society does not represent all Muslim students at a particular institution. In fact, some Muslim students do not identify with the society and therefore can feel excluded from using the space. The coordination of prayer rooms by specific societies may therefore result in exclusivity and the exclusion of other students of other factions within a faith, and other student groups. It was suggested that steering groups that evaluate inclusivity, and policy and procedures are proactive tools to mitigate risk and continuously reiterate shared accommodation of all campus faiths.

Participants acknowledged the need for HEIs to alter their insular view of ‘good campus relations’ and begin to look outwards at the wider campus community. Some institutions have adopted a ‘place of worship map’ that highlights affiliate places of worship in the wider local community. This has been a good tool for improving avenues of communication between the institution, the student body, and the local community as well as aiding safeguarding and policing. However, it is recognised that local community faith provision varies greatly across the UK. Nevertheless, although greater communication can mitigate risk, involvement of the wider community may present a plethora of challenges that need to be considered.

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Final comments and observations

Further discussion is needed to identify the best configuration for the provision of student services support and practical ways to truly achieve multi-faith provision. This will vary considerably depending on lots of factors, such as relationships with partners, local faith provision, the make-up of the student body, traditional and cultural factors, demands on existing space and willingness of stakeholders to work together. This will therefore never be a one-size-fits-all model for institutions.

Across the sector, there is a vital need for greater engagement with the Prevent agenda, radicalisation and cultic incursion in HEIs and greater understanding of responsibilities from a safeguarding perspective.

Issues around prayer facilities provided by external bodies, such as churches, mosques and temples, should be explored to a greater extent, along with more discussion from other faith groups.

Additionally, it is important to consider that exclusivity is not exclusive to Islamic groups alone but is spread across faith groups on campuses at HEIs. With growing anxiety in the media against the Muslim faith it may become easier to target this particular group.

Here's a PDF version of this Segregated in prayer discussion paper (PDF 174 KB).

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AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation is a UK non-profit professional association. Company registration number 4778650.
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