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What is the controversy over clandestine prayer rooms at the Free University of Brussels all about?

1 September 2023 Expertises   6329  

Nadia Geerts

For several years – some witnesses say more than 15 years – Muslim students have been praying every day in part of the library of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). A practice that has become so commonplace that they have even stored a few boxes of equipment there: prayer mats, veils, laminated texts of invocations to recite. And the statue that decorates the room is permanently covered with a sheet. But ever since the facts came to light in the press, thanks to the anonymous testimony of a member of staff, the question has come up again and again: “So what’s the problem?” So, I’m going to try and answer it.

Forget for a moment that we’re talking about prayers, religion and Islam. Imagine… that a group of table tennis players decided to get together every day to play a game. That for a few weeks they had the tedious experience of carrying a table tennis table around campus, morning and night. That, fed up, they end up asking the academic authorities if they can’t leave their table in a corridor at all times, neatly folded and stored along the wall. And when they are refused, they decide to go ahead anyway, leaving their folded table in the corridor at all times, along with a box containing balls, pallets, a spare net, a few sports T-shirts, etc.

Of course, the scenario can be varied ad infinitum: imagine film buffs storing their projector and film reels; members of a wine club stocking up on a few bottles of wine, cups and spittoons; oil painting enthusiasts depositing their aprons, palettes, brushes, canvases and paint pots; or BDSM enthusiasts putting their whips and various utensils in a university corridor!

Let’s be serious: would anyone dare to claim, in this case, that it shouldn’t bother anyone, since after all these practices are perfectly legal? Wouldn’t the unanimous reaction be to point out that there are rooms dedicated to sport, others to cinema and other activities, and even places adapted to the practice of sexual games? As far as the latter is concerned, there is even a precedent: in 2021, an activity during which students mimed naked sex games provoked an immediate reaction from the academic authorities, who immediately suspended the activities of this student circle!

But strangely enough, as soon as we start talking about religion in general and Islam in particular, things change: suddenly, to be upset that students are praying in a corridor is to be intolerant, secular, Islamophobic, extreme right-wing and so on.

Why such a difference in treatment? Obviously, freedom of worship is guaranteed by law and even by the Constitution. But does that mean that the followers of a religion have the right to worship anywhere? Obviously not. There are also places dedicated to worship and, as the French language is full of expressions, we even call them “places of worship”!

In the past, the academic authorities have refused to authorise a “place of worship”, i.e., a prayer room, within the ULB. I repeat slowly: they said “no”. And what did the students do? They went ahead and set up their place of worship anyway! There’s a name for that, in fact there are several: “disobedience”, “breaking the rules”, something that normally merits a call to order and, in the event of a repeat offence, sanctions.

Not to mention the fact that crates permanently lying around in a corridor must have aroused the curiosity of security, these days. And it seems odd, to say the least, that no-one has ever simply seized this “abandoned” equipment: is it just lying around? Don’t know who it belongs to? Then bin it!

But clearly, this logic does not prevail on the contrary: the question that remains in many minds is “So what?” Are we to conclude from this that, in these minds, the (Islamic) religion now enjoys a kind of safe-conduct which means that the rule does not apply to it, that the mere mention of a “religious obligation” must open the door to all kinds of derogations, because the opposite would be disrespectful, intolerant and phobic?

Contrary to this general trend, I dare to claim that there are perfectly objective factors which mean that, far from being more “tolerant” of religious practice in general and these prayers in particular, than of sporting practice or any other social activity, it would be perfectly legitimate to be less so.

First of all, ULB is not just any university. Heir to an anticlerical tradition, it claims to promote free examination, in other words the rejection of dogma, the exercise of rationality and the rejection of all arguments of authority. But what is praying five times a day, at set times, if not obeying religious dogma? The university obviously cannot prohibit this, but it can remind students that there are places dedicated to this practice, the famous “places of worship”, which are obviously not the buildings of a free-examinist university!

Secondly, there are certain aspects to this religious practice that should shock anyone committed to progress, freedom, equality and reason. Apart from the fact that men and women do not pray together, the laminated invocations to be borrowed include the following: “There is no divinity apart from Allah, worshipping Him purely in spite of the disbelievers”. We are therefore dealing with a double separatism, sexual and based on convictions, the second even being tinged with clear hostility towards disbelievers, accused of wanting to prevent the practice of “pure worship”.

Clearly, it is not the ULB, nor secularists, free-examinists or miscreants who reject Muslims, but some of them who are developing, within the universities themselves, bigoted practices based on an excluding ideology, in which miscreants are the object of rejection, suspicion and contempt. The real problem, then, is that these students feel more “at home” than all those who claim to be part of the ULB’s historical heritage, who reject dogma and practise rational doubt and free criticism of all ideas.

Since the existence of this place of prayer was made public, many of them have expressed their unease, their indignation and their relief that someone has finally dared to break the silence. This shows not only that there are many people who are disturbed by this, but also that most of them knew about it but kept silent.

And this is perhaps the most serious aspect of the whole affair.

The ULB has now promised that it will take action to contain this phenomenon, which is said to have grown recently, and will make it clear to students at the start of the academic year that places of prayer are not permitted on campus.

As for the students, the revolt is growing, with no fewer than sixteen student organisations co-signing a press release “in support of stigmatised students” entitled “We deserve better than an Islamophobic controversy”. It is hard to find any argument in favour of the right to pray in corridors without permission, but it does say that it is important to protect students from “a reactionary attack” that “stigmatises” and “demonises” them on the basis of their faith.