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You gotta fight for the right to pray

23 September 2009 16 Comments

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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.”

By: Contributing Author

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16 Comments »

  • Annie said:

    This is a great article. You are absolutely right, and I hope that the MSA receives their request. It is admirable that they are doing this for all the students, and I find it encouraging when I see fellow students centering themselves and feeding their souls as well as their minds. Kudos!

  • Dilbert said:

    I believe this article was well written, and underlines a common problem becoming more pronounced as people worry more about political correctness rather than equality or separating religion and education. It’s all well and good for Muslims to want to practice their religion, but NVCC has no obligation to create a special space for their practices. If they are that committed to praying five times a day, then they should schedule around it, and do it off-campus. They certainly shouldn’t be doing it in the library! The Muslims I know are hard working, generous, friendly people, and I respect their choice of religion even though I don’t share it. By no means should Muslims be discriminated against, but everyone (Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Hindu, etc.) needs to keep their personal beliefs PERSONAL. A school is NOT a church. If the students referred to in this article have immutable religious practices, then perhaps they should attent an Islamic school, where religion is at least as important, if not more important than academic pursuits.

  • jdavis said:

    Dilbert

    Airports often have some sort of “chapel” or “mediation room,” that is open for someone of any religion to pray. I don’t see the difference in having a mediation room versus a gaming room or student lounge makes. So long as the room stays open to people of all religions I wouldn’t see a problem with this.

  • Ehsan said:

    It was a well written article Ms. Armradit.
    Dilbert,
    Islam is a religion of practice and dedication, and I think all the religions of the world needs dedication, sacrifice. As a Nova student myself and all the dedicated practicing muslims and students of other religions need a place to connect with the creator in a suitable place. One of the most beautiful and amazing of our country (USA) is that it embraces any culture and religion with respect, therefore I think this should reflect in the campuses as well by providing suitable spaces for this purpose.

  • Carla said:

    To think a police officer would come and stop a group of students from praying is frightening.

    Just the other day, I recall heading toward the cafeteria before one of my evening classes, it was about sundown and one of the Muslim students was crouched up against the wall praying. I remember thinking what a shame it was that this was the best place he could find to pray, and it was apparent in his demeanor that he was extremely self-conscious.

    I think a quiet room for the purpose of quiet time, prayer, meditation, or whatever would be beneficial to the campus. As long as no one is excluded from its use, I don’t see why it would be a problem.

  • Steve said:

    I agree with Dilbert. The school is certainly not obligated to provide any resources solely for the purpose of practicing a religion and I would be very upset if my tax dollars went to fund this. I’m not necessarily against students praying at school as long as it’s not disruptive to those around. However, I am against any special accomodations or funding for the purpose of religion.

  • Kulsoom said:

    I believe that the school should support the student associations. Giving a room is not so hard. After all, there are many rooms that are not being used when prayer times come in. Students pay NOVA for an education and to feel more at ease. If they cannot follow religious obligations, how can they have a good time at NOVA? Getting students to come to a certain college is like a business. If you cannot provide a growing association with basic needs, future generations may not want to come to the college.

  • Neutral said:

    Your article is based on a faulty premise–namely, that NOVA should provide you with a place to pray. NOVA is a state-run institution; as such, providing any single group with space to pray sets a precedent that then trickles down to all religious groups. People in “majority” religions sometimes do not realize that here in the US we have many, many religions AND denominations (Christianity is not just one denomination). Setting aside space for one means setting aside space for all, which is not practical, nor is it consistent with our beliefs that religion and state are separate institutions. Also, one of the comments said “To think a police officer would come and stop a group of students from praying is frightening.” The article does not say that the group was stopped. Did he create an atmosphere of intimidation? Perhaps–in that case, you should have taken your complaint to the appropriate authorities. This article is extremely biased. Where is the balanced perspective?

  • Tim said:

    I find the article interesting. Personally, I would not mind if a room was set aside as a quiet room, a place where you go to have some peace and quite. I’ve been attending the Alexandria campus for a while now, and every time I head for class I notice that there is never a time that every room is filled with students. Even a rotating designated quiet room would work fine as long as there were little charts to show when a particular room is open and at what times. This, however, is my personal opinion. I don’t mind if other people pray in my presence, as long as they’re not trying to force any beliefs on me. Never have I had someone try to force any beliefs on me in the past, so I have no reason to believe that a quiet room would be blown out of proportion.

    However, I can understand the position of those in charge. They are funded by the state, and they are expected to use the money they receive for state approved activities. State approved activities don’t include funding religious areas. If the students who want a quiet room, prayer room, or something similar start a fund raiser and offer to pay for the use of a room on a semester or yearly basis, then I think it would go far to alleviate any problems with procuring a room. I understand that NOVA isn’t generally in the business of renting rooms, but if there are spaces that aren’t utilized by professors, why turn down a source of potential profit? I would propose the cost being comparable to the number of classes that would normally be held in that room. Not the maximum capacity, as that would be unrealistic. For example: If the class would normally play host to a class of 20 students every day, five days a week, then the cost to rent the room would be comparable to as if the room were being used for those classes. The main problem with this idea is that it sets a precedent for the school to charge rental fees to club activities. But then, I never said the idea was perfect.

  • Sashi said:

    I thought the story of the group praying together was very interesting and after what happened, disappointing at the same time. The fact that this article has become so popular with, to my knowledge, the most comments shows how much religion interests all of us.

    It would definitely be a very good idea to have a little room for ALL religions where EVERYONE could go and pray, because just like our campuses spend so much on things from sports to thousands of other activities to keep us active and make it a good experience for all of us, this can also be solved.

    WHEN THERE IS A WILL THERE IS A WAY!

    I do not know about others but the manassas campus librarian would definitely appreciate it if I didn’t ask her to open the lecture room 3 times a day for me 🙂

  • John Omar said:

    Ughhh, someone needs to shut-down this meditating arena in the Annandale Library. Some Muslims are very loud and i get frustrated since its hard to concentrate while they pray and sing. I just wish they could keep it DOWN, that is all i wish. I have nothing against Muslims, its just that when you are studying for your midterms or final exams one goes to the library because its quiet and peaceful. Sometimes i get very frustrated and takes over me and noises in my head tells me to go there and tell them to shut the ekk up!, but i don’t do it because i am very religious too.

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