I learned recently that Carleton University in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, following in the footsteps of other Canadian universities, has set aside a designated and enlarged prayer space, intended mainly for Muslim students who, as the Ottawa Citizen reports, “pray five times a day and for years have suggested that they need more room.” Otherwise, as president of the Muslim Student Association Mohamed Abdalla informs us, students end up praying in stairwells or libraries. That would clog up the works p.d.q., especially when convened five times a day.
Such accommodation, however, has no place in the public mandate of the academy’s parietal affairs, and Muslim students who proceed to foreground their faith in this disruptive manner should perhaps consider attending a Muslim university, or no university at all. The easing of the prayer crunch by constructing or expanding a designated venue, accepted by the author of the Citizen puff job as a prudent expedient, should not disguise the fact that public prayer (and in particular numerous prayer sessions punctuating the scholarly habitat) has no place in the Western university whatsoever.
I do not believe that Muslim students need more room. I believe that they need less mollycoddling and fewer concessions made in the name of their religious convictions. The university is a secular institution operating under an implicit code of academic conduct, which stipulates, inter alia, that classes be attended, that academic work proceed under rules of normative and respectable behavior, that examinations be held and properly invigilated, that modes of dress not be offensive, and that religious observances not interfere with a course of study. Allowing students to march five times a day to a prayer room in the midst of pursuing a concentrated program of academic activity, whether in the middle of a class or in the middle of a test or in the middle of a joint research project, does not seem an optimum means of following a university curriculum.
Of course, one need not stop at prayer rooms. Recently, the University of Regina has accommodated its Muslim students by installing specialized sinks for pre-prayer washing of feet, at the cost of $35,000. The entire tone of the Saskatchewan News article reporting on this glorious event is complaisantly favorable; after all, as journalist Aaron Stuckel educates us, “All Muslims have to purify themselves before they can pray to their god, Allah”—and the temporal Western university is, on this view, just the right place for foot baths to assist a sacralised washing ritual at multiple intervals during the academic day.
A controversy has recently erupted over a species of abject propitiation at York University that illustrated the academy’s dilemma over competing rights. A male student, whose name is being withheld, had asked to be excused from attending a class where female students form the majority, because the presence of women interfered, as Martin Singer, dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies deposed, with his “firm religious values.” The professor in question, J. Paul Grayson of the Department of Sociology, rejected his request on the principle of gender equity. The administration, however, sided with the student and admonished the professor for refusing to “accommodate” the defector, on the principle of religious freedom. Singer afterward glossed the episode by declaring he was bound by the Ontario Human Rights Code, a fancy title for the sanctimonious folly of cultural, ethnic and religious appeasement that is denaturing the province and the country.