Statement On Muslim Prayer Room Issue

Follow-up on the RMIT Islamic Prayer room…
This is the official RMIT response – published on 23 March.
Very interesting – the Muslims ALREADY have two Muslim prayer rooms on the city campus -and eight in total across all campuses.

Universities are places in which ideas are contested, sometimes hotly. Facilitating scholarly debate is part of our core business. But what happens when the arguments turn, not on academic opinion, but on religious belief? What then are a university’s responsibilities?

Later today, members of the RMIT University Islamic Society will protest on the City campus over what they believe is an injustice. It is a protest that the University believes to be both unnecessary and unfortunate. At the heart of the issue is how public organisations in Australia satisfy the sometimes conflicting demands of civic secularism and the needs of religious groups.

RMIT is in the midst of a $500 million capital works program. In 2007, a building on the City campus was gutted in preparation for major works. Among the facilities demolished was a Muslim prayer space. The University continues to offer two other Muslim prayer rooms on the City campus. However, the Islamic Society is campaigning for two multi-faith prayer rooms within the University’s City campus Spiritual Centre to be designated as Muslim-only ““ rooms to which Muslim staff and students already receive preferential access. The University’s policy, however, is that prayer rooms in its Spiritual Centre are multi-faith, open to bookings by members of all faiths.

Here then is the nub of the problem: how should we balance the needs of active religious groups with the University’s overarching responsibility to provide a place of learning and research for all? RMIT is a secular institution focused on education, not matters of faith. Secularism is often misunderstood as a codeword for indifference, even hostility to religion. Yet the spirit of secularism is to respect matters of faith as an individual choice, while privileging none.

Accordingly, RMIT takes no position for or against faith, while respecting the rights of its 65,000 students and 3,500 staff to practise their chosen religions ““ if any. The University recognises that, in the same way that it provides facilities or services for a wide range of social and extramural needs (housing and employment advice, counselling, sports and arts), it should provide quality resources for those who choose a spiritual path. But as a secular institution, such resources do not include consecrated spaces such as churches, synagogues or mosques.

The Spiritual Centre is accordingly open for bookings by all faiths. At the same time, the University also recognises the special needs of Muslims, especially those who act on their religion’s injunction to pray five times a day. The situation is complicated by the lack of mosques in the inner city. Many other religions tend to worship at times that fall outside of working hours. Many Muslims feel the need to pray during the studying or working day. This is a challenge for the whole community, as evidenced by the growing number of non-RMIT students participating in Muslim prayers on our campuses.

RMIT has gone out of its way to accommodate the needs of Muslim students and staff. The University already provides eight Muslim prayer rooms (male and female) ““ two on the City campus, two on the Brunswick campus and four on the Bundoora campus. The rooms have ablution facilities. In addition, RMIT Training is opening an additional Muslim prayer room to meet demand caused by growing student numbers for English language education at its Swanston Street premises. Our chaplaincy staff includes the Imam of the West Heidelberg Mosque, Riad Galil.

Yet despite this goodwill by the University, we are still at an impasse. Our offers to the Islamic student society have gone more than half-way and gestures of good faith have been rejected. It is difficult to see how we can improve on eight Muslim prayer rooms, with one more opening, as well as providing Muslim students with preferential access to two prayer rooms in the multi-faith Spiritual Centre.

A university’s responsibility to its students is to provide them with a quality education. Recognising that the educational experience is not confined to the classroom, RMIT offers other services, including prayer rooms, which support this goal. It falls to religious communities to provide the consecrated spaces that their congregations demand.

Dr Maddy McMaster, Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students)

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