Andrew Trounson | October 15, 2008
RMIT University Muslim students have accused the university of reneging on its promise to provide Muslim-only prayer rooms, instead insisting on designating the prayer facilities as multi-faith areas.
In a dispute that has dragged on for eight months, Muslim students are boycotting two newly installed prayer rooms at the city campus spiritual centre and are instead praying outside.
Hundreds of students have been meeting every Friday to stage an outside prayer meeting in protest.
The Muslim student campaign has the backing of the student union and the Christian and Jewish student unions.
Even though no other religious group has sought to use the two prayer rooms, RMIT is adamant the rooms remain available to other faiths outside of the times they are booked for Muslim students.
The two rooms, one for men and one for women, are Muslim-friendly, complete with washing areas, shoe racks and various decorative epithets for Allah. .
Muslim students had believed the rooms were dedicated for their own use until just before they were opened in March, when they were made multi-faith.
Shortly before opening the rooms, RMIT toned down the original Islamic decor, first covering and then removing the sayings of the prophet that were originally on the walls in Arabic script.
At the nearby Bourke Street campus, signs still proclaim the prayer rooms there to be Muslim prayer rooms.
Muslim students now have a block booking on the rooms from 11.30am to 5pm but the rooms can be booked by other faiths outside those times. However, the Islamic Society says no groups from other faiths have so far made a booking.
"RMIT respects all religions, gives special privileges to none," declared a RMIT statement yesterday from pro vice-chancellor Joyce Kirk. "RMIT is a secular institution, meaning that the university respects all faiths and meets the faith needs of its students and staff, including those of the Muslim faith," Professor Kirk said.
However, according to RMIT Islamic Society vice-president Mohamed Elrafihi, the university has reneged on previous commitments to provide dedicated Muslim spaces to replace the prayer room that had been open since 1994 but was shut last year because of building work.
"All we are requesting is that the university continue with its previous policy of having Muslim prayer rooms," Elrafihi told an audience of about 80 students and staff yesterday as the society sought to put public pressure on the university.
Elrafihi said the university had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the new prayer rooms that was now being wasted.