Hundreds of Muslim students have been holding prayers outside City University London for a month in protest at the closure of a prayer room used exclusively by them.
The students declare that “multi-faith” alternatives are unacceptable because “a vast number of Muslim scholars throughout history believe it is impermissible for Muslims to offer prayers in a place where [a god] other than our Lord, Allah, is worshipped”.
In an open letter, the protesters also point out that the multi-faith room can accommodate only 40 people, which is too small for the number of Muslims who need to pray at least three times per day.
All-male groups have been praying on the pavement outside City since 15 February, with more than 200 reportedly turning up for Friday prayers in Northampton Square.
The protest follows a fight between members of the City Islamic Society and a gang of youths last November outside the Gloucester building in Whiskin Street which previously housed the Muslim prayer room.
Police described the attack, in which two students were stabbed, as racially aggravated. Earlier the same week, students reported being pelted with stones as they left the room.
As a result of the incidents, the university closed the room and set up temporary multi-faith facilities in a different building. The students want the previous room reopened.
“We would like to think that there is an amicable rapport between all faiths and societies at the university,” the letter says. “But, if circumstances arise – which they inevitably will – that each society has to restrict its time in the multi-faith rooms to accommodate other societies to the detriment of their beliefs and practices, naturally, there will be a breakdown of good relations.”
A university spokeswoman said the new room had been set up in consultation with Muslim scholars and was “in line with what many other higher education institutes are providing”.
“Practice in other universities shows that many Muslims pray where others have been – City has already seen its new space used by some of its Muslim students,” she said. City’s great hall was available for Friday prayers, she added.
Fran Singh, editor of The Inquirer, City’s student newspaper, said most students – Muslim and non-Muslim – backed the protests. “I think the stance the university has taken is partly in response to complaints that they have let the Islamic Society have their own way for too long for fear of being branded as discriminatory,” she said. “They are trying to take a tough line but are somewhat missing the point.”
Relations between the City University Islamic Society members and other student groups have been strained since last year, when the society invited cleric Abu Usamah to a fundraising event.
The preacher featured in a Channel 4 documentary, Undercover Mosque, in 2007, in which he said homosexuals should be “thrown off a mountain” and labelled women intellectually deficient.
The Inquirer ran an article and editorial criticising the society for inviting Mr Usamah.
In its response, also published by the paper, the society warns The Inquirer and City staff to “submit to Allah” or face “severe and painful punishment” in the “next life”.
A second response, from anonymous Muslim students at City, points out that “male chauvinists are everywhere” and asks non-Muslims to “take a critical look at the myriad media reports of angry Muslims shouting ‘death to the infidels’. There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and if Islam advocated violence and sexism, the whole world would be up in flames by now,” they write.
City’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Society also demanded an apology from Julius Weinberg, acting vice-chancellor, for allowing Mr Usamah on to campus.
Professor Weinberg said he had since reviewed the way the university vets its speakers. He said: “It is not appropriate for the university to hold speaker meetings where there is segregation by gender, as this is not consistent with the university values statement.”