Debate Rages as College proposes to install foot baths for Muslim students

The proposal at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College has spurred action at the Legislature and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board.

MCTC staff said foot-washing facilities are available at colleges ranging from Stanford University, the University of Houston, Boston University, St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In 2001, St. Cloud installed a bench and some ground-level faucets in a bathroom-sized room in the student union, said Ed Bouffard, interim director of the student center at St. Cloud State. The idea was to prevent puddles of water and slippery floors in the other restrooms, he said.

The facility, paid for by student fees, generated no controversy, he said. Most days, a handful of people use it, he said. But 30 to 40 people use the facilities on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. About a dozen Christian groups also use the student union for activities, he added.

"We're very happy to be part of a solution," Bouffard said.

A visit to the MCTC campus on Wednesday showed a major reason for the foot-washing facilities -- there are 500 Muslim students among MCTC's 8,000 total. Hundreds of young women, covered head-to-toe in traditional Muslim dress, can be found in the classrooms, library, computer labs and across campus.

Suleiman Isse, president of the Somali Student Union, and the college's Somali student adviser, Jamal Adam, said they were shocked by the opposition and hate mail that the foot-washing proposal has generated. "I thought the American people were more knowledgeable," Isse said.

At the MnSCU board meeting Wednesday, MnSCU attorney Gail Olson said the foot-washing issue raised potential constitutional issues regarding the free exercise of religion versus the establishment of religion. It might be difficult to devise a general policy for the systems' 32 institutions, she said.

Board member Cheryl Dickson said a foot-washing accommodation for Muslims at MCTC "is a safety issue and a religion issue" and could set a precedent with unforeseen consequences.

Abeler said his amendment would clarify what can be permitted in MnSCU workplaces, in light of the Muslim foot-washing issue.

"The foot-washing thing is absolutely a religious accommodations which they should do.," Abeler said. "My point is that as we accommodate one faith, we shouldn't suppress the rights of people of other faiths."

Abeler said he is likely to offer an amendment on the House floor today to send a legislative letter to college officials urging them to remember that as they might accommodate one group, they should accommodate others as well.

Fundamentalist right-wing bloggers and columnists are having a field day with this issue. An editorial writer at the Star Tribune predicts that this is the start of an avalanche of Muslim demands.

Last month, the Canadian Federation of Students issued a report, titled "Final Report of the Task Force on Needs of Muslim Students," that calls for sweeping changes at the country's institutions of higher education. The federation represents more than 500,000 students across Canada, about half of the nation's total. While the report focuses on Ontario, its conclusions are applicable across the country and internationally, said Jesse Greener, the Federation's Ontario chairperson.

Some recommended changes could affect all students. For example, the report criticizes Canada's loan-based system of financing higher education and calls for outright grants to students. "Education related government loans should not accumulate interest," it says, since Islam "opposes usury and involvement with interest-bearing loans." Other changes would be more focused. The report endorses "women-only" time at athletic facilities, and urges colleges to "provide curtains or screens over the observation windows" when women are using the pool.

The report calls not just for Muslim-only prayer space but for "multiple prayer spaces" with "easy access" from all over campus. All new building plans should include prayer space and ritual washing facilities if necessary, it adds.

Food service workers must learn to prepare halal food, which is ritually slaughtered and otherwise permissible under Sharia law. After preparing non-halal food, staff must "change sanitary gloves and wash cutlery and surfaces" to avoid contaminating halal food.

In a previous column she discussed the agenda of the "Mulsim Task Force":

The task force's eventual objectives on American campuses include the following, according to the website: permanent Muslim prayer spaces, ritual washing facilities, separate food and housing for Muslim students, separate hours at athletic facilities for Muslim women, paid imams or religious counselors, and campus observance of Muslim holidays. The task force is already hailing "pioneering" successes. At Syracuse University in New York, for example, "Eid al Fitr is now an official university holiday," says an article featured on the website. "The entire university campus shuts down to mark the end of Ramadan." At Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., "halal" food -- ritually slaughtered and permissible under Islamic law -- is marked by green stickers in the cafeteria and "staff are well-trained in handling practices."

At Georgetown University, Muslim women can live apart in housing that enables them to "sleep in an Islamic setting," as the website puts it. According to a student at the time the policy was adopted, the university housing office initially opposed the idea, on grounds that all freshman should have the experience of "living in dorms and dealing with different kinds of people." That might sound appealing, Muslim students told a reporter in an article featured on the website. But in their view, the reporter wrote, "learning to live with 'different kinds of people' " actually "causes more harm than good" for Muslims, because it requires them to live in an environment that "distracts them from their desire to become better Muslims, and even draw[s] weaker Muslims away from Islam."

The task force isn't operated by overly enthusiastic college students. Its professional staff, based in the Washington, D.C., area, includes coordinators who provide legal advice, teach students to lobby, write letters on their behalf, and help them overcome "obstacles" such as college administrators' concerns about violating the separation of church and state.

The Muslim Accommodations Task Force is a project of the Muslim Student Association of the U.S. and Canada. MSA's mission is to enable Muslims here "to practice Islam as a complete way of life," and its "main goal" is "spreading Islam," according to its website. The association calls itself the "landmark Muslim organization in North America," and says it has chapters on 600 campuses.

On MSA's website (www.msa-national.org), the sort of inclusive language used by the Muslim Accommodations Task Force gives way to hard-hitting advice for insiders. One downloadable publication --"Your Chapter's Guide to Campus Activism" -- describes how activists can advance political positions such as "restoring justice within the Palestinian territories," and opposition to the Patriot Act and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cover features a student with a megaphone, and the slogan "Speak Out! Stand Up! Say It Loud!"

MSA views itself as America's moral and political vanguard. "As Muslims, we are a nation elected by God to lead humanity," the guide announces. On campus, that means initiating "mass mobilization" through "direct action campaigns" à la the 1960s, when students were "itching to fight" for change.

The guide explains how Muslim student groups can obtain funding, identify coalition partners and "bodies of power" on campus, work within student government, and use the media. "Marches, rallies and protests on campus" can "generate massive amounts of exposure for your MSA and its cause," it advises.

In all these endeavors, however, establishing credibility is vital to success, the guide emphasizes. Activists must "take full advantage of the open-minded environment" on campus, and skillfully employ the language of patriotism and rights. "[M]obilization commences the moment you speak in a language that resonates with your audience," the guide adds.

Thus, activists should take care to position themselves as mainstream Americans. "Make use of terminology like 'our country,' 'our security,' and 'we, the American people,' " the guide suggests. "Unless you identify with the people, you will never gain the legitimacy to criticize state policies," though "identifying yourself as an American" will not necessarily preclude criticism.

Activists should also frame their objectives in language that Americans embrace. "Most Americans identify with concepts such as 'justice,' 'self-determination,' 'human rights' and 'democracy,' " the guide explains. "These terms will be constructive when delivering your message, regardless of the issue."

For example, if you want to bring a speaker to campus to discuss the importance of hijab (Muslim women's headwear or covering), you will be "more effective" if you broaden the topic to "women's rights." Is this where MCTC is headed? Or is nothing more dramatic going on there than fish on Friday?

The Star Tribune appears to be fostering intolerance and stirring up suspicion and fears.

Those last questions in the editorial are not at all innocent, or are they?

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