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’.