Consultation to decide future of Muslim prayer space

A multi-faith space?: NUSU President Ronnie Reid and Education Officer Rowan South get a tour of the Muslim prayer space in the King George VI building. Image: James SprostonA multi-faith space?: NUSU President Ronnie Reid and Education Officer Rowan South get a tour of the Muslim prayer space in the King George VI building. Image: James Sproston

The Muslim Prayer Room in King George VI building has been the centre of an ongoing debate between the Newcastle University Islamic Society and the University itself over the last few months, as questions have been raised over the future purpose of the space.

Having been a Muslim prayer space for over 30 years, Newcastle University announced on the 7th of July that the space was to be closed over the summer period. Whilst being surveyed for the incoming School of Pharmacy in the building, asbestos was found in the ducts beneath the prayer space, resulting in its planned closure.

Regarding the timing, the Newcastle University Press Office commented that “We have chosen the summer holidays to do this work as many of our staff and students are away, there are no undergraduate lectures and we were also keen to avoid key religious dates.”

With the prayer space being closed, the University took the opportunity to readdress the purpose of the room. Since the University has not been able to offer the Windsor Terrace Chaplaincy due to structural issues, the only remaining dedicated prayer room on campus has been the Muslim prayer space in the King George VI building.

Consequently the University has concluded “to cater for the very diverse needs of our staff and students, and to ensure that all faith groups have equitable provision, we will be opening the prayer rooms as a multi-faith space in the Autumn.”

The Newcastle University Press Office added to this, stating to The Courier “the University is a secular organisation where we celebrate and value the diversity of our student groups and our intention is to create a more inclusive environment for students and staff of all faiths on campus.”

“We have chosen the summer holidays to do this work as many of our staff and students are away, there are no undergraduate lectures and we were also keen to avoid key religious dates.”

Newcastle University Press Office

According to Revd Catherine Lack, Newcastle’s University Coordinating Chaplain, multi-faith spaces are becoming more common in universities. Having sent out a survey to UK universities, 75% of respondents claimed to have a multi-faith chaplaincy centre.

Adding to this, Revd Catherine Lack commented that “many also said that they are in the process of re-visiting their faith provision. I have visited a number of different universities to see their facilities, and each one is different.”

Having conducted their own research, the Representation and Democracy Office in Newcastle University Students’ Union have learned that 75% of Russell Group universities also have a specifically dedicated Muslim prayer space.

Upon being informed of the news, the Newcastle University Islamic Society, commonly referred to as ISOC, launched a petition to retain their prayer space. Having accumulated over 5,984 signatures at the time of writing, the issue clearly hits home to the Muslim community in Newcastle.

ISOC protested the decision, primarily arguing that there was a lack of a short-term solution. With the closest mosque approximately two miles away, the lack of an alternative for staff and students still studying and working on campus seems obvious.

Despite announcing the closure, the Press Office claims that an alternative is still to be found. “During the period of closure, every effort will be made to provide alternative, suitably-sized space on campus for Friday prayer. The University and the Students’ Union are working together to arrange suitable rooms and students and staff will be notified of the arrangements as soon as possible.”

Moreover, many ISOC members have argued that in the long-term a multi-faith space isn’t viable. Similar named centres at fellow Russell Group universities aren’t comparable to the current plan proposed by the University since other universities house multiple faiths in different rooms, whilst the majority of the existing prayer space is one large room.

Speaking exclusively to The Courier, an ISOC representative claimed that the multi-faith space would be “problematic” because “it barely fulfills the need of the Muslim students as it is, so it requires more support/space, not less. Muslim students feel they have no value and are being treated unfairly and unjustly.”

As well as this, Activities Officer Rebecca Bainbridge claims that there is little demand from other faiths for more prayer space. “There’s never been any demand from any other faith groups or faith societies for extra space. Therefore, while the intentions of university are in the spirit of equality, the requirements of Muslim students are greater than that of any other faith, consequently there is currently no need for a multi-faith space.”

63% of Russell Group universities have both a multi-faith centre and a dedicated Muslim prayer space

However, there are other issues with the space that the University feel need to be addressed before anything is reopened. Predominantly, the current ISOC management of the space is not deemed appropriate for the service that is being provided.

Bearing in mind that no other society has autonomous control over a space on campus, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the University to take control, especially considering the space is not only for members of ISOC, but for over 1,500 more Muslim students and staff that aren’t associated with the society.

One of the biggest issues relating to the management is that members of the public are using the space, even though it’s only meant to be for staff and students of the University. It is thought that many of these people are former students who have little alternative, since there are no areas for a Muslim to worship in Newcastle city centre.

To tackle this, the University have applied smart card access to the room, and have issued the space with a sign-in book, so any visitors can be accounted for. Yet among Muslim students it’s believed that it wouldn’t be a problem if there were provisions for Muslims provided by the council.

However, it can be said that criticism of ISOC management isn’t entirely fair. Under the management of the society, the area now is more accessible to disabled students. An ISOC representative told The Courier that the entrance now had “interlocking floor tiles so wheelchairs can enter the prayer room, and there is a modification for the toilets to accommodate the disabled needs.”

Other aspects of the service provided have also been adapted to meet student needs. Currently, prayer lasts only 15 minutes so that staff and students alike do not miss lectures or take too much time out of their day. This is believed to dissuade many members of the public from coming to the space since it’s not tailored for a different cohort of people.

With both the University and ISOC resolute in their stances, talks commenced with Newcastle University Students’ Union about resolving the issue.

“It barely fulfils the need of the Muslim students as it is, so it requires more support/space, not less”

Newcastle University Islamic Society representative

Upon meeting with both the University and the ISOC committee, and visiting the prayer space itself, Rebecca Bainbridge and NUSU President Ronnie Reid concluded that a compromise must be met between the two stakeholders.

In an open letter, Ronnie Reid outlined three aspects to the Union stance. Firstly, there’s an urgent need to find an “appropriate temporary prayer space” for Muslim students due to the presence of asbestos, and that should be the priority in the short term.

Secondly, Muslim staff and students must have a “permanent space on campus to pray at the beginning of the academic year.” Finally, Ronnie Reid stated that a change in management of the space is necessary, instead being “run by the University in conjunction with a Muslim chaplain and the elected ISOC committee.”

This open letter was received well by ISOC, and was believed to be a step towards a fitting compromise. The Courier has learned that in the days following the release of the letter, the University have opted to adjust their stance on the matter.

In an email addressed to the President of ISOC, Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Tony Stevenson outlined that there will now be a consultation in the Autumn term, with proposals being brought forward by December 2017. Therefore, in the interim, the room will reopen as a Muslim Prayer Space at the beginning of term, and will remain open until December 2017 at the earliest.

This consultation has been celebrated as a success, with Ronnie Reid adding in a public statement that “all parties remain committed to a longer term solution that works for all.”

Moving forwards, the prayer space remains an integral part of the University, not only for Muslim students, but also for university admissions. It is widely considered a pivotal reason for the arrival of many prospective Newcastle students; a point that ISOC believe will work in their favour once the consultation beings.

Regarding the developments, Rebecca Bainbridge believes that the right course of action has been taken. “We feel that the students needs are now being taken into consideration, and I believe that a suitable solution for everyone awaits us in December.”

It’s been a baptism of fire for the new sabbatical officers, with Rebecca Bainbridge adding “we were thrown in at the deep end really, but despite the challenge it’s good to see that the University does actually listen to us as sabbatical officers, which really bodes well for the rest of this year.”

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