City University: Friday prayers are part of campus life

Five rows of young Muslim men standing in the open facing in the same direction, praying, with another man (the imam) in front of them.BBC News: University locks Muslim prayer room (video here)

Last Friday it was reported that City University in London had locked the room used by Muslim students for Friday prayers, having asked the organisers to let them screen Friday sermons, which they refused. The University claimed that it needed to be satsfied of the “appropriateness” of sermons at what are authorised campus events and had, according to the Huffington Post:

“repeatedly” asked the students leading the Friday prayers to work with the university’s Imam to “ensure that the process for selecting students is transparent and that the content of sermons is made known to the University in advance and is freely available afterwards for those unable to attend”.

The university’s spokesperson added: “Despite repeated requests and assurances, the information from those students leading Friday prayers was not forthcoming. Whilst this was a disappointment, the university could not continue to condone an activity taking place on its premises where it cannot exercise reasonable supervision.”

The University has also published a list of other places supposedly nearby where Muslim students could pray Friday prayers. The Muslim students affected have formed a group called Muslim Voices on Campus and have responded: “when you start submitting your sermons to be monitored and scrutinised then there’s a chance for it to be dictated what’s allowed and what’s not allowed”.

As the media reports say, concerns about the content of Friday sermons given out at City University (and a number of other British universities) were raised by the Quilliam group in a report titled “Radicalisation on British University Campuses”. Usama Hasan of the same group told the BBC that there had been “quite a vicious and nasty history”, involving the university’s Islamic Society being led by a confrontational group of Wahhabis during the 2009-10 academic year which had caused a lot of problems for both other Muslims and other students in general that year. However, that was more than two years ago, and student society leaderships change every year. The BBC said in their report that they had seen no evidence of similar events since, which raises the question of why the university has suddenly closed the prayer room now.

The University has also made mention of its own imam, which raises the question of why he is not leading the Friday prayers himself. The man is one Shaikh Musa Admani, who previously worked at London Metropolitan University, and a Google search for his name reveals that, although he studied at Deobandi religious schools in India, there is very little by him which is unrelated to the matter of campus extremism. There is very little about his history other than he was a chaplain at London Metropolitan University until 2011, and more recently at City, and various conferences he has spoken at on extremism and inter-faith issues and occasions where he has told the media about radicals on campus, but no evidence of him having worked as a straightforward imam at any mosque in the UK or indeed anywhere else. This could explain why people want to have a Friday prayer without him as the imam.

The university has also provided a guide to places supposedly nearby where students can perform Friday prayers. It should be added that a Friday prayer is only valid if offered in a publicly accessible place, so if only students or university staff can get to the prayer room, it is not a suitable place for Friday prayer anyway. However, the nearest mosque is a small one in Holborn, which is 20 minutes’ walk away and currently has three Friday prayers; the nearest full-size mosque is the Suleymaniye in Dalston, which at the most direct route is 30 minutes’ walk away, although it is run by the Turkish community and last time I prayed there, its sermons were all in Turkish which most British Muslims do not speak. Whether either mosque could accommodate all the Muslim students from City as well as their current congregation is unclear (although Suleymaniye is quite large). The nearest Asian-run mosque is Brick Lane, also more than 30 minutes’ walk away. The case for a properly-run public Friday prayer at the University itself is quite strong, then, although the college really should recruit someone with more authority in the community than Admani.

To a certain extent, the university is right to be concerned that the content of the sermon is not inflammatory or threatening, either to sections of the Muslim community or to people outside it. There are certain aspects of Islamic teaching that have no relevance in a country where we are not dominant; there are aspects that are simply not appropriate for a sermon on a mixed campus, and such sermons have often had far more of this material than sermons in proper mosques. The college has a responsibility to make sure everyone on campus is safe, and has no responsibility to act as a recruiting ground for every ridiculous ideology going. Parents who are funding their sons’ and daughters’ education (and a fair proportion of the students will be funded this way) have a right to expect that they will not be intimidated, turned against them or significantly distracted from their studies. Islamic societies are meant to maintain a prayer area and library, provide food for iftar in Ramadan, and the occasional lecture or other religious gathering, and Muslim students have a right to expect that if they pay subs to the Islamic society, it will not take on an overly sectarian character and be heavily biased against them.

So, prayer facilities are a necessity if there is a large Muslim student population and campus Friday prayers have become a part of university life in many British universities. If there is a known problem with the Islamic Society giving out inflammatory sermons, the university should hire a reputable imam (of which there are plenty in the UK) and organise the prayers in a hall that is open to the general public. If not, they should let the society get on with its business.

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