Muslim students at a London university who had their weekly Friday prayer meeting on campus shut down because they refused to allow staff members to view and pre-authorise their sermons before delivery have told The Independent that they are seeking legal advice.
City University ordered the students to submit their weekly khutbah sermon in advance of the gatherings so that they could check “the quality and appropriateness of what is being delivered.” The students refused saying the demand amounted to outright censorship on campus.
Wasif Sheikh, a 23-year-old optometry student who helped organise the prayer meetings, said human rights lawyer Saghir Hussain had agreed to represent them.
“Asking us to submit sermons in advance opens a dangerous door,” he said. “Once you submit sermons to be pre-approved and monitored, it opens the doors for a university to dictate what is allowed to be talked about and what isn’t. It’s an attack on student rights, not just Muslim student rights.”
Mr Hussain said he believed the students might have a case against the university in law.
“Any action which is targeting students because of their face or faith will breach the Equality Act 2010,” he said. “Higher educational institutions should promote freedom of expression and the proposed vetting of sermons smacks of a Middle East autocratic regimes rather than a place of learning. The law requires justification and a proportionate response to potential discrimination and interference with fundamental rights. The argument here is that all Muslims are being punished for the alleged indiscretions of a minority in the distant past. This is at odds with the ethos of such institutions and the law.”
City University has previously struggled with radicalism from its Islamic Society. In 2010 the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank, published a report accusing its members of intimidating other students, particularly those on the campus newspaper, as well as gay, Jewish and female students.
In one sermon, which was recorded, the speaker said: “The Islamic state teaches to cut the hand of the thief. Yes it does. And it also teaches us to stone the adulterer. When they tell us that, the Islamic state tells us and teaches us to kill the apostate, yes it does.”
However it is not clear if the Friday prayers, which the university claims is not run by the Islamic Society, have been a cause for concern when it comes to radical or hate speeches. A source at the University told The Independent that the decision to close down the Friday prayers was not triggered by a single recent event or a recent rise in concern of radicalism. Instead it was taken after “long and careful consideration”.
Muslim students on campus believe they have been unfairly targeted while Mr Sheikh said the Isoc was intimately involved in organising and publicising the Friday prayes. They have set up a campaign group, Muslim Voices on Campus, to protest the closure of the prayer facilities.
In a series of video messages on the MVoC Facebook page, Muslim students have voiced their outrage at the decision.
“I feel the utmost anger,” one unnamed student said in the video. “If I was to recommend this university to other students I would think twice. To be taking away this massive right for us. This is not just a concern for Muslims around the university, we should get everyone involved as well.”
Another added: “Many Muslims on campus and international students will go elsewhere to a different university, who accepts us, accepts our religion, our values and our morals.”
The government has repeatedly ordered Universities to take a tougher stance against Islamist radicalism on campus. In 2011 a cross-parliamentary group of MPs and peers claimed fundamentalism was still flourishing. However, many universities and academics are loathe to monitor or crack down on radicalism given that campuses are exactly the kind of places where free speech, radical thinking and the countering of extremist ideas should be openly encouraged.
In a statement, City University said the room used was never a dedicated space specifically Friday prayers and was instead an area that students could use for various activities ranging from meetings to pilates classes. Last year the University asked those organising the prayers to submit their sermons in advance and keep them online afterwards for people to view.
“Friday prayers were deemed University events open to all students and staff, and are not solely a student or student society event,” the statement read. “As such the University needs to be assured of the quality and appropriateness of what is being delivered and that all students eligible to deliver prayers and sermons are considered equally and given the opportunity to do so.”
The statement added: “Despite repeated requests and assurances, the information from those students leading Friday prayers was not forthcoming. Whilst this was a disappointment, the University could not continue to condone an activity taking place on its premises where it cannot exercise reasonable supervision.”
The university also said it had given students alternative options for Friday prayers that were away from campus but nearby.
Giulio Folino, president of the City University Student Union, said he had sympathy for both sides of the argument and was working to try and find a solution. “It is important that both the University and students recognise the importance of balancing rights and responsibilities,” he said. “Whilst it is right that the University needs to be reassured of the appropriateness of discussions on university property, I also believe that this should not interfere with freedom of speech on campus.”