The RMIT Muslim prayer room issue

For 14 years, Muslim students at Melbourne’s RMIT have had a Muslim prayer room in which to offer their obligatory prayers.

In 2007, the University promised Muslim students that it would replace the dilapidated prayer facility at their main City Campus and would commission a Muslim architect to build a new Muslim prayer facility that would accommodate the growing numbers of Muslim students and staff.

Minutes [doc] from the Student Advisory Committee meeting (dated 10/5/2007) confirm the university’s commitment to provide Muslim students and staff with the new facility:

Other activities on the City Campus include discussions on the proposal to develop a University Function Centre on Level 5, Building 28 and the planned relocation of the Muslim Prayer Room from Building 9 to Building 11.

Plans for the new Muslim Prayer Room in Building 11 have been finalised after broad consultation and involvement from the Muslim community, including the employment of a Muslim architect. Janet Burton confirmed that a Muslim Prayer Room will remain available throughout construction.

However, in March 2008, the University reneged on this promise to Muslim students and staff, and, without warning, transformed the Muslim prayer facility into a “Multi Faith Centre” prior to opening.  The verses from the Qu’ran that were on the walls of the prayer room (photos below) were even stripped following complaints from other users of the “Multi-Faith Centre”.

As The Australian reports:

Shortly before opening the rooms, RMIT toned down the original Islamic decor, first covering and then removing the sayings of the prophet that were originally on the walls in Arabic script.

In the 2007 edition of the university’s “guide” (called Salam) for Muslim students, a “Muslim prayer room” is advertised; and in the 2008 edition, the same map is retained but the wording was changed to “Spiritual Centre — Prayer Room”.  However, the Australian reports that, ‘at the nearby Bourke Street campus, signs still proclaim the prayer rooms there to be Muslim prayer rooms.”

Since then, the university’s Muslim community have been praying outside in protest.  Video footage can be found beneath the fold.

After the Muslim students complained, the University sought legal advice on its decision.  A copy of the advice has been obtained and can be viewed here [pdf].  Curiously, the University’s legal representative claims as a justification for RMIT’s decision that a number of other Australian universities with sizeable Muslim populations, such as the University of Western Sydney (UWS), do not have Muslim prayer facilities.  For example, the author writes of UWS:

UWS is a secular university and decided that separate prayer/worship areas would be divisive, so they basically drew some clear lands in the sand, which also dealt with issues such as medical students treating opposite genders.

Members of RMIT Islamic Society contacted the University of Western Sydney to confirm these claims.  The response reads:

The University of Western Sydney does provide Muslim Prayer rooms as listed on the website. I am not sure where information to the contrary may be coming from but I do hope that you are able to correct these misconceptions amongst students who may be interested in studying at UWS

This can also be further confirmed by the University’s own website, campus map, and statement in their annual report [pdf] that the establishment of dedicated Muslim prayer rooms was a key achievement of 2004.

As the RMIT Islamic Society have pointed out, the issue is ultimately just about the university keeping its promise to Muslim students and staff.  Their attempt to get their prayer facility reinstated is also supported by the other religious organisations on campus, the RMIT student union and National Tertiary Education Union.

RMIT’s decision is, of course, all the more surprising given its growing reliance on international students from Muslim majority societies such as UAE and Saudi Arabia.

As RMIT’s 2007 report [pdf] states:

International students on scholarships totalled 209, a 20 per cent increase on 2006, coming primarily from the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. … Other key sponsorship groups were from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education, and the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi Investment Authority scholarship programs…

Given this, one would have thought that rather than dramatically reduce the facilities available to Muslim students on campus,  RMIT would have sought to accommodate their religious needs — if only for purely commercial reasons.  Instead, it is behaving in a manner that, if reported more broadly in the Middle East, might harm the university’s ability to compete with other Australian universities; institutions that, contrary to what RMIT’s legal advisors may claim, have gone to some lengths to ensure that Muslim students can practice their faith with ease on campus.

The below photos show the prayer room before it was converted.  The ayat and hadith on the walls were stripped down following ‘complaints’.

Muslim students praying outside in protest:

YouTube Preview Image

36 comments ↓

#1 Muhammad on 11.01.08 at 12:34 am

I wouldn’t mind complaining to them about this. Who should we write to?

#2 ff on 11.01.08 at 11:53 am

Contact madeleine.reeve@rmit.edu.au. She’s the VC for RMIT International. She needs to understand how much damage this is going to do to the RMIT brand in the Muslim world.

#3 Yusuf al Qhatani on 11.01.08 at 3:28 pm

JZK my brothers,

I will raise this with the Saudi ministry of education, they must deal with these snakes.
We do not need to go to rmit, there are other universities .

Wait until they come to Riyadh , they are not going to get any students to come.

#4 Bilal on 11.01.08 at 6:13 pm

I would urge the students and their backing government departments to use their most formidable weapon, and withdraw enrolments from the uni and challenge the university student recruiters when they come to the emirates and KSA.

As the previous commentator said, there are many other universities who do not betray the promises they have made.

The universities behaviour has been disgraceful and they should be punished financially.

The vice chancellor seems to be lightweight, a PhD from james cook uni, what was that in?… sea shell decorative jewellery

#5 Umm Yasmin on 11.01.08 at 7:00 pm

Yep, hit ‘em where it hurts: the hip pocket. Spread the word to Asian and ME countries that RMIT has reneged on their promise. Mind you, I’ve a brother at RMIT and they are known for their completely and unbelievably Foobar bureaucracy there.

BTW has this got any traction in O/S news?

#6 ex RMIT Student on 11.01.08 at 7:19 pm

RMIT is a disgrace to begin with. They are so messed up that they gave the RMIT TAFE students their results TOO LATE for them to get into RMIT UNIVERSITY.

Good on RMIT IS for taking a stand though. I reckon they canned the prayer room because the jokers who run the place were scared of the backlash from the right wing media if they opened a swanky new Muslim prayer room.

Pity that Howard got booted and so those days are over. Bashing the sand n*ggers is so 2007. RMIT need to get with the program.

#7 Mr.M on 11.01.08 at 8:15 pm

Asslaamau Allykum Wa Rahmat Allah Wa Baraktahu,

I think RMIT is a good University and has provided Muslim students with services for the past decade. But their current decision is a step backwards, after reading the articles I think the University has based its decision on wrong information and should change it.

#8 EL on 11.01.08 at 8:51 pm

If you read their legal advice, some Muslim academic from Sydney gave the impression that it wasn’t necessary to have a prayer room dedicated to Muslims. That might have caused them to change their view.

It’s still very strange though and we should make this known to the broader community.

#9 Ibrahim on 11.02.08 at 12:14 am

It’s very disappointing and inconveniant for international students because RMIT has made this decision and we hope that they will reconsider.

#10 liz on 11.02.08 at 11:55 am

As someone who used to work at the RMIT Student Union I can tell you this much: The Pro-Vice Chancellor, Joyce Kirk, has consistently made decisions and influenced policy that has had the effect of diminishing rights for certain groups of students, and I think in particular international students or non-citizen students.

Her pattern of policy and decision making indicates that she thinks that equity and equality means treating everyone exactly the same, despite what their needs may be. Her comments on the prayer room, as reported in the Australian, are typical of this attitude.

“”RMIT respects all religions, gives special privileges to none,” declared a RMIT statement yesterday from pro vice-chancellor Joyce Kirk. “RMIT is a secular institution, meaning that the university respects all faiths and meets the faith needs of its students and staff, including those of the Muslim faith,” Professor Kirk said.”

What this means of course is that Joyce Kirk reserves the right to tell you how to practice your religion, a right that she actually does not have, secular institution or not.

And this attitude was evident in her hostility towards the continuation of the refugee support program, her hostility towards recognising the disability rights of international students with illness (as reflected in recent policy change about special consideration and deferred assessments).

RMIT needs a PVC Students who takes her role of supporting students seriously. This is just the latest in a long line of decisions that indicate that Joyce Kirk is inappropriate for the role. The issues raised about the calligraphy in the space have been fed up from within her department, but not publicly aired or dealt with in any way. This is a totally inappropriate way of dealing with any complaints, particularly those that effect such a crucial student service. For all we know the complaint could have been lodged by someone who just doesn’t like brown people – is Joyce Kirk going to jump to attention to accomodate every bigot who makes their discomfort with people of other races and religions known?

It is the sisters on campus who have been particularly badly effected by this, and we know that there have been sisters harassed whilst trying to find more appropriate quiet spaces on campus to pray.

Hopefully someone higher up in the university will bring the PVC Students into line on this. But why should students have to deal with a PVC Students who actually seems not to like them?!

RMIT needs to find a new PVC Students – Joyce Kirk’s role in defending the removal of a desperately needed student service demonstrates she’s not fit for it. It was RMIT who commissioned the study that demonstrated that there was a basic need for a bigger space to accomodate the increase in Muslim students on campus. What could possibly motivate RMIT to renege on that decision? I think we probably know the answer to that question…

Congratulations to everyone involved in the campaign – I can’t believe how measured and diplomatic the response from the students has been considering how ridiculous and detrimental this decision has been for students. I just hope it is resolved soon – I know that the sisters have been crying out for a better space for years now, and that this is not the first time that Muslims students have been treated less than satisfactorily as a group by RMIT administration. That’s been obvious to me even as a non-Muslim.

Good luck everyone!

#11 Terry on 11.02.08 at 12:30 pm

I just emailed the VC on vc@rmit.edu.au complaining and suggest you all do the same.

How do we go about getting some attention to this on the overseas media and blogs?

#12 GMan on 11.02.08 at 10:55 pm

Speaking of Riyadh, while you’re busy demanding that a secular university in Australia accommodate Muslims separately to everyone else, can you have a word to the Saudi Royal family and local religious scholars about providing a church or two for Christian visitors to the kingdom?

#13 Padishah on 11.03.08 at 1:13 am

Do you mean the same Saudi Royal Family beholden to Western interests GMan?

#14 Paul Wrout on 11.03.08 at 8:33 am

Universities provide rooms for all sorts of groups. Most unis have a “queer zone” and a “womyn’s room”. If they are going to take away the Muslim prayer rooms, they should also shut down these rooms too.

Even if RMIT is secular, that doesn’t mean they have to force other people to be secular too. Secularism means they keep their hands off and don’t interfere with other people’s religious beliefs and practices.

Let’s not forget guys it’s foreign fee paying students who allow universities to offer lower cost and better quality education to the rest of us. It’s a good idea for RMIT to try and attract Muslim students from the gulf and having a nice prayer room is a big part of that.

#15 LDU on 11.03.08 at 10:22 am

GMan,

There are Christian praying facilities in expat compounds in Saudi Arabia.

#16 Yusuf al Qhatani on 11.03.08 at 1:29 pm

western christians are very welcome to leave KSA if they do not like the arrangements. We are also free to choose another uni or city.

#17 LDU on 11.03.08 at 3:07 pm

So Yusuf al Qhatani,

If they do opt to leave KSA, who will run the country taking into account KSA’s dependence on foreign workers?

#18 Umm Yasmin on 11.03.08 at 5:50 pm

What’s this lowest common denominator business *snort*. Sounds like my five year old having a tanty “if she doesn’t clean up my room, I’m not going to clean up mine.”

#19 ChomFa on 11.03.08 at 7:56 pm

You could always leave? I doubt too many Australians would mind. In fact, it’s just that result many of us are hoping for. Islam is not welcome in our country.

#20 Mr.M on 11.03.08 at 8:35 pm

The Uni is taking away the Rights of Students, like they tried to take away the disability services at RMIT but failed.

Now they are taking away other rights of students. this is injustice.

#21 G-man on 11.04.08 at 4:11 pm

Don’t blame me for the Saudi family being beholden to “western interests”. Not my interests they ain’t. In any case, not just the royal family but the religious scholars as well. Totally agree with you Yusuf al Qhatani.

#22 bintRey on 11.07.08 at 8:03 pm

G-man,

Christians who decide to work here in Saudi know what they are in for before coming here. They know that they will get paid well, but there are certainly no churches here nor can they ask for one.

Student at RMIT though, have been promised something and the uni reneged on this promise.

Difference in premise, I think.

#23 Abdul Rahman on 11.17.08 at 10:40 pm

Perhaps all the losers who feel like telling us to leave since they don’t like us being here and have been since the First Fleet should take their own advice and start up some little dystopia in Antarctica where they can force everyone to be the same or perhaps China or some other dictatorship will do.

#24 G-man on 11.19.08 at 1:02 pm

Indeed Abdul Rahman, or somewhere ruled by sharia where everyone can be free to do as they please. Oh, hold on…

#25 Austrolabe » Report on Imams condoning rape and violence on 11.22.08 at 10:35 pm

[...] as we have reported previously on this site, Muslim prayer rooms are being turned into “multifaith spiritual centers” by [...]

#26 Yahya on 12.11.08 at 10:05 pm

While the reneging on a promise is one issue which shouldn’t be ignored, I don’t think there is a problem Islamically with praying in ANY room. Of course it RMIT is smart they will provide facilities for washing etc (unless they want nearby bathrooms covered in water), but I wouldn’t have a problem praying where others pray. Did not the Prophet allow the Christians of Najran to pray in his mosque?

I would suggest that RMIT make it clear to all students that they are not there to sing, sleep, eat lunch or try and convert other students. If people want to pray, keep the crescents, the crosses and the idols out of there and let them pray to God in their own way.

#27 islam- ex student on 01.02.09 at 1:23 pm

all these years I was proud that Australian universities have muslim prayer rooms, but it seems universties administrations show their true color, they are happy to take our money and not happy to provide the supporting services they promised.

#28 antish on 01.05.09 at 12:14 pm

You can be prouder that they are encouraging religious to mix.

#29 Eudaemonion on 01.07.09 at 6:03 pm

Their is a difference between encouraging and requiring. The former implies choice in the matter.

#30 mike worldly on 03.22.09 at 3:43 pm

Having lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, I think that the fact you can practice your religion at all in Australia shows what a generous society our Christian-based one is. Other religions are banned in Saudi! Islam is intolerant of other religions. As Australians are paying for these facilities (and your fees do not), then accept what you are given with good grace, or go and study at King Faud or other low-rent African or ME uni.

#31 Cam R on 03.22.09 at 9:33 pm

This makes me sick. Minority groups who believe they deserve preferential treatment ahead of others, because, simply, they can make more noise.

Some of the media coverage covering this are flat out lies (i.e. – Muslim students “forced” to pray outside, as opposed to doing so in protest)

You don’t NEED a seperate prayer room, it’s simply a case of being contrary out of principle. Those of Islamic background do themselves little favours when it comes to overcoming issues of tolerance and inclusion into Australian culture, by attaching themselves to public relations nightmares such as this.

Good luck in persuing what you believe in, I just hope in the meantime you can realise that the ends simply do not justify the means.

#32 Shane Pike on 03.23.09 at 6:41 pm

This is a university, not a mosque.
It is a place for learning, not a place tp practice religious dogma.
Religon MUST be TOTALLY BANNED from all learning institutes.
There should be no rooms for religion at all.
I’m sure that these, now wasted rooms, could be put to better use.
Religious nuts need to be placed where they belong, in mental institutes.
Regards.
Shane.

#33 Ilkz on 03.26.09 at 1:52 pm

Shane you could say the same thing about hospitals can you not? It’s a place where there is countless people getting treatment in all different wards, yet there is a place provided for worship. People use it to seek God help and aid for those whom they love.

You could also say that’s a room gone down the drain also, I mean it’s a hospital right? They need all the space they can get BUT they’ve made it available coz it’s a necessity.

Lastly you mentioned ‘these wasted rooms could be put to better use’ if it happens that they never give back the rights of these students then yes, they should open up these rooms and provide special classes to teach and educate people like you that; no matter what race or religion you’re from, if there is a good project or an idea put forward that’s not going harm the community and provide a good service than accept it with an open heart. At the end of the day, this country is a multicultural country.

#34 Eudaemonion on 03.28.09 at 5:51 pm

Ah, Mike Worldly.

First, he advocates taking cues on religious tolerance from a repressive Monarchy. Second, he thinks that religious tolerance in Australia is a product of Christianity. Third, he advocates people being content with what they’re arbitrarily given by the powers that be. Fourth, he exposes his ignorance of Saudi Kings, which puts into question his claim about working there. Last, he conflates Muslims with the typical dark man stereotype.

So, in total, Mike Worldly has a repression fetish, is horribly confused, is a Statist, a liar and a racist. Enough said.

Cam R is not much different.

If this is the quality of the opposition, I wonder what else has kept this situation from being properly resolved.

#35 Abdul Rahman on 04.26.09 at 1:42 am

perhaps we can perform a janazah for this website in the new multi-faith facility.

#36 The RMIT Muslim prayer room issue « UNSW Muslim Life on 06.30.10 at 9:27 pm

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