Muslim students are set to take a British university to court after its decision to shut down their weekly on campus Friday prayer meeting over their refusal to allow staff members to view and pre-authorise the sermons before delivery.
The City University, London, ordered the students to submit their weekly sermons ahead of the gatherings so that they could check “the quality and appropriateness of what is being delivered”. The students refused, saying the demand was tantamount to outright censorship on campus.
Wasif Sheikh, a 23-year-old optometry student who helps organise the prayer meetings, said human rights lawyer Saghir Hussain had agreed to represent them in the court. “Asking us to submit sermons in advance opens a dangerous door,” he said. “Once you submit sermons to be pre-approved and monitored, it opens doors for a university to dictate what is allowed to be talked about and what isn’t. It’s an attack on student rights, not just Muslim students’ rights,” he added.
Hussain said he believed that the students might have a point against the university under the law. “Any action which is targeting students because of their face or faith will breach the Equality Act 2010,” he said. “Higher educational institutions should promote freedom of expression and the proposed vetting of sermons resembles autocratic regimes in the Middle East rather than a place of learning. The law requires justification and a proportionate response to potential discrimination and interference with fundamental rights. The argument here is that all Muslims are being punished for the alleged indiscretions of a minority in the distant past. This is at odds with the ethos of such institutions and the law,” the lawyer said.
According to Independent on Sunday, the City University has previously struggled with radicalism in its Islamic Society. In 2010, the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank, published a report accusing its members of intimidating other students, particularly those at the campus newspaper, as well as gay, Jewish and female students.
The Muslim students on campus believe that they have been unfairly targeted. Sheikh said the Islamic Society was intimately involved in organising and publicising the Friday prayers. They have set up a campaign group – Muslim Voices on Campus – to protest against the closure of prayer facilities.
In a series of video messages on their Facebook page, Muslim students have voiced their outrage at the decision. “I feel the utmost anger,” one student said in the video without disclosing his name. “If I was to recommend this university to other students, I would think twice… This is not just a concern for Muslims in the university, but we should get everyone involved as well,” he said.
Another added: “Many Muslims on campus and international students will go elsewhere to a different university, who accepts us, accepts our religion, our values and our morals.”
In a statement, the City University said the room used was never a dedicated space specifically for Friday prayers, and was instead an area which the students could use for various activities, ranging from meetings to pilates classes. Last year, the university asked those organising the prayers to submit their sermons in advance and keep them online afterwards for people to view.
“Friday prayers were deemed university events open to all students and staff, and are not solely a student or student society event,” the statement read. “As such the university needs to be assured of the quality and appropriateness of what is being delivered and that all students eligible to deliver prayers and sermons are considered equally and given the opportunity to do so.”
The statement added: “Despite repeated requests and assurances, the information from those students leading Friday prayers was not forthcoming. Whilst this was a disappointment, the university could not continue to condone an activity taking place on its premises where it cannot exercise reasonable supervision.”
The university also said that it had given students alternative options for Friday prayers that were away from campus but nearby.
Giulio Folino, president of the City University Student Union, said he had sympathy for both sides of the argument and was working to try and find a solution. “It is important that both the university and students recognise the importance of balancing rights and responsibilities,” he said. “Whilst it is right that the university needs to be reassured of the appropriateness of discussions on university property, I also believe that this should not interfere with freedom of speech on campus,” Folino added.