You gotta fight for the right to pray
One night last summer, just as the sun began to set, a small group of Muslim students at the Alexandria campus went in search of a place to pray. It was time for Maghrib, or sundown prayers. All the usual spots, such as the library and Bisdorf 147, were closed. So they made due with a secluded stretch of hallway. Facing Mecca, the group silently followed the prayer leader (the only one who actually spoke the prayers out loud). It was a pretty typical scene, banal even: Muslims the world over pray every day at sunset. But the policeman who showed up apparently thought otherwise.
“This cop just approaches us, just stands like right in front of us,” remembers Haroon Ismail, president of the Muslim Student Association at the Alexandria campus. “He put his hand on the handcuffs, and the guy that was leading us just got scared and ran off. We were just left hanging.”
Muslims are required to pray five times a day, which poses a problem for students at all campuses: they don’t have anywhere to worship.
“The morning prayers, I don’t think anyone’s gonna be here,” speculates Ismail.
“Yeah, it’s like dawn time,” adds Omar Khan, president of the Annandale MSA.
But that leaves four other instances – daily — when Muslim students must seek out empty classrooms, noisy lounges and even the aisles between shelves in libraries to perform their prayers.
“One time I prayed in a stairway, and it was so ugly,” says Aymen El Tahir, who acts as the Annandale MSA’s treasurer. “People were looking at me like I was doing something suspicious. It’s not civilized to treat people like that.”
For over a decade, the MSA has been trying to secure a room, a space, anything — just somewhere where students may pray in peace. But they’ve been fighting on behalf of all students, not just Muslims.
“We’re asking for a place where everyone from different backgrounds of faith can use it as a place to meditate, whether to perform their sacred prayer, yoga, whatever you want to call it,” explains El Tahir. “When we lobbied for it, it was not particularly for the Muslim students at NVCC. It was generally for most of the students. Whether you are from Christian or Jewish backgrounds, whatever. However, people who use it the most turn out to be Muslims.”
Before the Alexandria Student Government Association turned room 147 into a student lounge, it was a leisurely multipurpose space where clubs could hold meetings, students could find refuge and everyone could pray. Alexandria MSA member Adam Sbita called the arrangement ‘ideal,’ adding, “Sometimes you have students that just went through a really tough exam and just need somewhere to just sit down and relax and just think.” Other faiths also used the room. A group of orthodox Christians worshiped regularly in 147. “It was really perfect,” remembers Sbita, because it had a little closet where the Christians kept their rosary beads and he and his friends kept their prayer mats.
Despite the MSA’s inclusive approach, which embraces all faiths, NOVA administrators have been resistant.
“It’s like a wild goose chase,” laments Sbita. “The first time we asked for a prayer room, they said, ‘OK, but no. Not a prayer room.’ So we said how about a meditation room? They said ‘No, not a meditation room; can’t have that because that’s just for meditating.’ So we said, OK, how about a quiet room? But by the time we got to that, they said the room we wanted was already taken. So it just kept going. Every time we asked for something, something came up.”
“It’s a sensitive issue of religion and school,” says El Tahir, who recalls some of the rumors that hindered the MSA’s efforts.
At one point, some NOVA officials were afraid to budge because they feared the MSA would push for even grander projects, like an Islamic center or a mosque. Their delusions didn’t surprise El Tahir. “People don’t understand Islamic culture.”
Eventually, Annandale provided a small meditation room in the library.
“The school has worked to give us a solution. It is not big, but it works for the short term,” says El Tahir.
It’s barely sufficient (especially at Annandale campus, which serves tens of thousands of students) because Muslims must face Mecca when they pray, the room can only accommodate eight to 10 Muslims at a time, never mind worshipers of other faiths. Sometimes students must stagger themselves and pray in two or three different turns. The Annandale MSA was once promised a real room by the dean of students, but he retired before he could carry out his promise.
Alexandria is in a similar fix. After numerous false starts and faux plans, the provost recently alerted them to room 331, which is up for grabs.
“I heard rumors that [the provost] accepted, that he approved the room. We’re not so sure now,” sighs Ismail, adding that he’s trying to get an approval in writing.
Sbita thinks NOVA should have supplied a place by now. The MSA has been begging for decades, certainly before NOVA Alexandria added a new wing just two years ago.
“It’s kind of a lack of planning on their part. If you go and look [in the new wing], there are huge areas where it’s just dead space. Nothing’s there. Some of those classrooms are way too big for no reason.” In the mean time, Alexandria Muslims are praying in a ‘quiet corner’ in the library. It’s an awkward arrangement because study groups and librarians frequently complain and ask them to keep it down.
The MSA cannot understand the school’s reluctance, especially since other area universities have obliged Muslim students and their needs. George Mason University has given its students a commodious space with a specially-designed bathroom so Muslims may cleanse themselves after prayer. Georgetown has something similar, but George Washington University surpasses them both.
“They have a room just for the Muslim clubs. I asked them about the room, how did you guys get the carpet, the furnishings. They said the school paid for everything,” recounts Sbita.
He goes on to add, “It’s an ongoing struggle. If we don’t get it this semester, I know for a fact that the students who come here the semester after that and the semester after that, they’re going to be going for it, too.”
El Tahir reckons the Annandale MSA has campaigned for a room since its inception back in 1992. Ismail thinks their efforts are much older. His father, who attended NOVA back in the 1980s, remembers certain students with a similar crusade.
Ruefully, Sbita laughs. “[NOVA students] are going to keep up the tradition — the MSA tradition — of trying to get a room.”