By Amir Sharar
Prayer space has been an issue for campus Muslims for nearly a decade now. Muslim students have an obligatory religious requirement to pray five times a day, but also a duty to attend classes as university students.
Currently, the University of Calgary has a “meditation room” on the third floor of the MacEwan Student Centre, an area people of all faiths can use to meditate and pray. Years ago, it became apparent that this room, built for a capacity of 15 people, had become too small to accommodate the large number of students who wish to pray and meditate.
Because of this, Muslim students opted to pray in the hallways and stairwells on the third floor of the MacEwan Student Centre. This was only until the fall semester of 2002, when Muslim students were told the next time they were found praying in hallways, they would be removed. As a result, dialogue with the university concerning a larger meditation centre was revisited.
During Ramadan of that year (December 2002), it was obvious a permanent solution was required. The SU VP Op-Fi at that time, Robbie White, and the Muslim Students’ Association came to a solution where the MSA, as well as many other clubs, would pool their free bookings to book the Shirley Anastasia lounge. This meant the MSA would have to pay $235 a week to use it during the week in the evenings. The SU implied this solution would not have to be pursued again since, by the next year, the Multi-Faith Centre would have been built.
The university allocated $200,000 to be given to the SU to build such a centre.
The 2003-04 academic year has been plagued with problems for the MSA, as communication and cooperation with current SU VP Op-Fi Gavin Preston has been especially difficult. Preston claimed the MSA violated health codes then later admitted it was a miscommunication between the MSA and the SU.
This miscommunication resulted in restrictions that only apply to the MSA.
Preston recently claimed he acted under the banner of “club equality,” which the MSA has taken offense to, since he has targeted the MSA with extra restrictions that only apply to them.
Interest from local media began when the SU made a booking blunder that left over 200 students without a place to pray. All this occurred in the presence of several television stations documenting the beginning of Ramadan. A room was found, but the obvious communication problem garnered attention on a national level.
The situation worsened when, during Ramadan in 2003, Preston dismissed the solution that the SU and numerous clubs agreed to last year, and decided to charge one club, the MSA, a $2,600 fee that doesn’t take into account the free bookings all clubs are entitled to.
He claims “Muslim students freely, and of their own will, give $5 in membership fees to the MSA, essentially paying the MSA to facilitate their prayers. The SU just follows suit.”
That logic doesn’t hold up, as no student joins any religious club to pay them for the ability to worship God. He has claimed the $200,000 given to him by the university is not enough to build a Multi-Faith Centre and that, until it is built, the SU will not accommodate students with the same reasonable solution implemented last year.
Preston has attempted to paint this as an issue where a club simply doesn’t want to pay any fees. That is an oversimplification of the issue that vilifies the MSA, a club that has willingly paid thousands of dollars in fees for social events.
With the election of Greg Clayton as the new VP Op-Fi, the slate between the SU and the MSA will be wiped clean and such issues will hopefully be discussed openly and cooperatively.
Amir Sharar is the Public Relations Director for the University of Calgary Muslims Students’ Association.