The Muslim community of Newcastle University carried out a peaceful protest against the university’s alleged plans to limit access to the campus prayer space.
On Sunday, October 23, members of the Islamic Society gathered to pray outside the King George VI Building in an attempt to show the importance of the prayer space remaining open throughout the week. Despite the strong gusts of wind, about 100 people came to take part in the protest, hoping to regain the 24/7 access to the room, as it was for years before.
This summer, the prayer space was closed for two months to remove asbestos from ducts beneath the room. It was reopened by the beginning of the academic year in late September with new opening times, limiting access during weekends. It is now open on weekdays, and Saturdays from 8am to 1pm, though those practicing Islam requires five prayers each day throughout the year.
“If you go to the library, it’s open on Saturdays and Sundays. The university is aware that students study during weekends. And likewise, we pray throughout the week. It’s very important for us - praying is part of our lives”, said Mielad Niekzad, a Biomedical Science student.
5 hours - the only opening times on a weekend are 8am to 1pm on a Saturday
Currently, during weekends, Muslim students are pray either outdoors on the ground or seek alternatives on campus to avoid the public eye.
“A prayer is something very personal and private in your life, and when people walk past, they’re scared and staring at us. So, we ask the university to let us pray in a specially dedicated place”, said Niekzad.
The Muslim community on campus comes to a few thousand students, and the Islamic Society boasts to be the largest and the most ethnically diverse society on campus. The prayer space brings the Muslim community together, and most of them see it as a place to escape from the mundane problems and meet with the “sisters” and “brothers”.
“You can work hard for hours at university, and then come to the prayer space to find that relaxation and to meditate”, added Niekzad.
“There is a huge number of Muslims on campus, and a lot of them are international students, who are paying huge tuition fees. The bare minimum we can ask for is somewhere to pray and express our religious freedom”, said Omar Ali, a medical student.
“This prayer space is a well-established place. It has been here for decades. Why is it suddenly being removed?”
Talking to The Courier, the members of the Islamic Society admitted that they fear there is a “hidden agenda” behind these plans, referring to the Islamophobic sentiments injected by the mass media.
But the university denies such allegations, pointing to the “unexpected building issues”.
"There have been some operational difficulties with the King George VI Prayer Space - such as members of the public sleeping in there overnight and others trying to gain access not for prayer purposes"
Newcastle University spokesperson
A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “We are aware of the expressed desire for 24/7 prayer space facilities within the University.
“However, as there have been some operational difficulties with the King George VI Prayer Space - such as members of the public sleeping in there overnight and others trying to gain access not for prayer purposes - we have invested in a staff member whose role it is to ensure the health and safety of our student and staff users across all faith spaces.
“Part of this management is to temporarily alter the custom of the prayer space being open 24/7, while the University takes the time to form a Student and Staff Multi-Faith Space Task and Finish Group.
This group will meet from November onwards to look at the needs of all faith groups within the University and will also consider the issue of opening hours.”
The group will “ensure suitable provision in line with a Higher Education Institution setting” and report its findings by 2018.
“The Students’ Union is doing everything in its ability to assure students feel confident in their faith and belief"
Hasham Jamil, NUSU Faith and Belief Officer
Hasham Jamil, NUSU’s Faith or Belief officer, said: “The issue regarding the Muslim Prayer Space is indeed a matter of absolute significance.
It is understandable how important it is for the Muslim students to be provided with an appropriate prayer space as their routine revolves around the prayer timings.
“The Students’ Union is doing everything in its ability to assure students feel confident in their faith and belief and to allow them to practice their faith with confidence.
“Several motions have been addressed at the Student Council to ensure urgent problems surrounding the timings of the prayer space are resolved at first instance. Long-term plans are being made to safeguard interests and rights of all students.”