Students have been laying their prayer mats and reciting their prayers on the floors of staircases, hallways and between bookshelves in the hottest, dustiest and least-frequented public spaces of the library and around campus.
Muslim students on campus, particularly of the Islamic Society and the Muslim Women’s Education Initiative (MWEI), have been voicing their concerns on the issue of lacking a permanent safe space to pray on campus, a mission they have been pursuing for years as active clubs, and until recently haven’t made much progress.
“What we’ve been pushing for is a space that is large enough to fit us and that’s close enough to our classes,” said Mahad Najam, a computer science major and member of the Islamic Society. “As Muslims we pray five times a day and prayer is a staple of our faith, it’s the most important action and we are very devout in terms of praying. It’s stressful that such a basic aspect of the identity of being Muslim isn’t being accommodated.”
As one of the five pillars of Islam, praying is integral to the religious practices of Muslim students. Out of the five daily prayers, in which times directly coincide with the sun’s elevation, at least three and sometimes four prayers depending on the season, will have to occur while the students are on campus. During prayer, men
and women must remain separated.
Students of the Islamic Society and the MWEI have been using their respective club space to pray, with the men in the basement of Ingersoll Hall and women in Roosevelt Hall. The issue is not only the limited space, but the distance and constant changing of locations, which has been noted in a petition conducted by the Islamic Society earlier this year which included over 59 student signatures, written justifications and a letter to Dean Jackson of Student Affairs.
“We cannot manage it with the space we have. Since I’ve been a freshman, we have been going back and forth with the dean to ask for a bigger space and they tell us they’ve been working on it,” said Muhammad Bhatty, president of the Islamic Society. “Now I’m a senior and we haven’t been given a bigger space. But we have made progress.”
As of two years ago, club spaces are determined through an application process, where each club provides a document stating what kind of space they need and the rationale behind it. A committee consisting of student government representatives and two staff members then sort through the requests and allocate available space accordingly.
“Clubs need to clearly articulate what they’re trying to do. All our planning has to be based off this document because that’s the only way it’s going to be fair,” said Dean of Students Ronald Jackson, and interim vice president of student affairs. “We cannot grant prayer spaces. As a public institution, we cannot give out partisan spaces, however after meeting with them [the Islamic clubs], we can grant them club spaces. In terms of what they do with that space, is up to them.”
A lot of the Muslim women students took
to the more hidden spaces of the stairwells and library to pray, where conditions were described as dusty, hot and uncomfortable. An issue in itself, as washing and cleanliness of prayer space is integral. In those few spaces the women have found to pray, behind a now-locked door, there are signs posted that prohibit “congregating.”
“I always feel uncomfortable and pray much faster than I should because I’m afraid of people seeing me or it’s too dusty and dirty, so I’d pray in about a minute as opposed to about five,” said Mosabbiha Nafisah, an education and history major and member of the MWEI. “We just want our clubs to have safe, clean rooms for us to pray together in with peace of mind.”
Zunera Ahmed, a psychology major who looked to the Islamic clubs on campus to further her own religious commitment, found the lack of prayer space disheartening.
“It was sad and the conditions were just heartbreaking,” said Ahmed. “Itwas incredibly hot and a small hallway, where you had to tip-toe around people so you didn’t break their prayer by stepping in front of them. And praying times are the same, so everybody goes at the same time. But I couldn’t keep doing it, I needed to find a new place. It was the early stages of me being religious, so I did not want to be judged. I stopped praying on campus and it’s a shame that I compromised my religion because of that… the conditions.”
A larger issue that is also in the national spotlight is that of Islamophobia. While it has become a buzzing topic in the presidential election, it has also sparked prejudice on campus. After a photo of the male students praying outside surfaced on Facebook last semester, hate comments stacked underneath the picture.
The comments, like “Ignorant is ignoring that Christians are being slaughtered in the name of Islam (sic),” and “3rd guy from the right. Definitely iSIS (sic).” As well as “college is a place to learn not practice religion.” The clubs desire for a space that is not only large enough, but a safe space where they can pray in peace and without judgment, as they express is their first amendment right to freedom of religion.
“It’s kind of scary praying in front of non-Muslims. And I feel judged,” said Ahmed. “It’s gotten to a point when the club sends out emails, they’ll always include ‘please be careful,’ because you just don’t know, it’s just the way the country is now.”
Administration has also taken into account this aspect of the issue and is currently brainstorming ideas on how to make the campus more open to the coexistence of ideals.
“We’re going to keep working on this. But the biggest thing that we really want to tackle is this campus-wide concern about safety and security. For all of the students,” said Dean Jackson. “So that’s a larger conversation that needs to be had at the college, as to how do you create a climate where students can express themselves via religion or sexuality or whatever else… they need to feel safe on campus.”
As for the future of the club spaces, the Division of Student Affairs has secured funding to renovate and reevaluate all club offices over the summer. Clubs will re-apply for locations and all spaces will be repaired, painted and furnished with a desk and two chairs.
“We just want consistency. There will always be Muslims coming to Brooklyn College, and we won’t be here to advocate for them,” said Aichetou Diarra, president of the Muslim Women’s Education Initiative. “We don’t know who will be leading these clubs later, so we just want to give them something that will be permanent, that will be there and not just go.”
After petitions, letters and meetings with administration, the Muslim students are still in active pursuit of finding a place for prayer, a means to exercise their freedom of religion and a safe place to practice.
As according to Ahmed, “a space for us would mean that I would know I am praying with people who are there for the same purpose that I am – to know that it’s okay – that I could let my guard down.”