Friday, March 31, 2006

U of T Muslim association turns 40
Hart House gave first public prayer space for Muslims Naylor condemns isolated incidents of campus racism

Mar. 30, 2006. 01:00 AM

As the sun passed its high point over the University of Toronto, Muslim student Mobashsher Khan had to find somewhere to pray.
It was 1969, back when Toronto had no downtown mosque and only a few thousand Muslims, and this new PhD student from India had to figure out where he could perform the Friday midday prayer required of faithful Muslims.
To his surprise, he didn't have to go far.
The U of T's Hart House — then a male bastion of culture and Ivy League tradition — offered Toronto Muslims their first public prayer space, as the initial wave of Muslim newcomers began to arrive in the late 1960s.
In an unlikely third-floor Hart House sitting room at the top of a narrow set of stairs, Khan and about 15 Muslims came for years each Friday to pray.
That was then. What a difference almost 40 years make.
Last Friday, Khan — now a retired professor of plant science who made a career at the U of T — walked past those same Hart House stairs to the sweeping Debates Room where 700 Muslim students now pray every Friday.
"We were a small group back then, only about 15 to 20 of us came for prayers, including 10 workers from the nearby Ontario Hydro building and a few more from the government offices — but Hart House staff was always great," recalled the botanist, whose three children have all graduated from the U of T.
Those early days seem a world away from today, where the U of T Muslim Students' Association boasts more than 1,500 members and has several prayer spaces on campus, a Muslim student newspaper and a number of campus cafeterias with Halal items on the menu.
The growth of the campus Muslim community mirrors the growth of this city's Muslim community, where more than 400,000 Muslims from countries around the globe have established more than 50 mosques and form more than half of Canada's Muslim population.
"But now that I think of it, there was one small problem back then," Khan confides with a grin.
"The water we used for our ablutions started to leak through the floor of the prayer room. But even then, the people at Hart House were wonderful," Khan said.
"They set up a special sink and chair in the basement where we could wash exactly the way we should without any leaking — and it's still there."
Both Khan and Adeel Siddiqi, a lifelong friend he met at Friday prayers at Hart House, have donated to a new scholarship fund being created by the U of T Muslim Students' Association to celebrate its 40th anniversary. They say they want to give something back to the university they feel was such a pioneer in cultural diversity and religious accommodation.
"The U of T supported us in so many ways. When we came in each week for prayers, we used to have to cover up the photographs on the wall with cloth or newspapers to comply with our religious practice — and then take it all down when we were through," said Siddiqi, who came from Pakistan and is now a supervisor at the university's zoology teaching labs.
"One day we arrived to find that Hart House staff had custom-made special coverings for the pictures, that slipped on and off very easily.
"I have spent 38 years here at the U of T since I arrived in 1967 as a Master's student, and I have never felt unwelcome."
Lately that has not always been the case.
A Muslim student was shoved and harassed with racist insults recently at Hart House. Anti-Muslim flyers were dropped on-campus. Two female Muslim students were pelted with eggs on International Women's Day March 8. A student newspaper printed cartoons showing the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus Christ kissing.
President David Naylor condemned racism in a statement last week to the university's Governing Council and said the U of T "remains opposed to Islamophobia, anti-semitism, and every conceivable form of discrimination based on race, religion or faith, or ethnocultural identity."
While the university will uphold the right to free speech, Naylor said it will not condone racial discrimination anywhere on campus.
Muslim PhD student Safiyya Ally says she believes the recent incidents were isolated, but given global tensions, she said it is comforting for Muslim students to have an organization that feels like a spiritual home base.
"Sept. 11, 2001 was my very first day of classes at the U of T and it was devastating to sit in class watching the professor replay the tape over and over of the planes crashing into the towers and know that, like it or not, the people who did this are probably Muslim," said Ally, communications director for the Muslim Students' Association. "When people feel threatened, it's easy to close ranks and look for comfort among people who understand."
Ally said while some campus eateries adjust their hours to accommodate students who must fast during the Muslim festival of Ramadan, the student group is still lobbying for more Halal foods on campus — many students leave campus to eat Halal food at nearby Popeye's restaurant and the Kebab House.
The club also wants the engineering faculty, with its relatively high number of Muslim students, to block off an hour each Friday for prayers, something the school is considering.
But while the Muslim Students' Association offers a busy range of social and religious activities — from an upcoming "Sisters' Formal and Talent Night" to Muslim poetry readings and film screenings — there is a growing focus on outreach with the non-Muslim community.
"We're not segregationists. We're working with other groups in April to make sandwiches for homeless shelters," says second-year student Asim Ashraf. "We provide services to our community but we also care about the larger world."
Different groups working together reflects the spirit of a university, says astronomy student Mubdi Rahman, who has spearheaded the club's 40th anniversary and new scholarship fund.
"That's what makes a university great — you can walk across the street on campus and see people from seven different religious backgrounds.
"It's the nature of how we treat diversity; we allow ourselves to be comfortable being different."

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