Muslim students lack designated prayer space at MU

Four Front and MSO members asked for an interfaith prayer space last year.

When sophomore Adam Mefrakis came to MU, one of the problems he had was finding a space where he would pray.

With no designated spot for Muslim students to pray on campus, Mefrakis would make the trip to The Islamic Center of Central Missouri, located at the intersection of Fifth and Locust streets downtown — the only designated Muslim prayer space in Columbia.

“I didn’t know too many other people,” Mefrakis said. “It took me a while to start making it a habit on campus.”

Mefrakis, now an education officer for the Muslim Student Organization, works the MSO desk in the Center for Student Involvement and uses this space to pray with the rug folded neatly beneath his desk.

MU’s campus includes the A.P Green Chapel, St. Thomas More Newman Center and Baptist Student Union — which accommodate Christian students, who make up the majority of the MU student population — and there is Mizzou Hillel for Jewish students, who make up approximately 700 students in the undergraduate population.

There are approximately 500 Muslim students at MU, graduate student Aamer Trambu said.

Last year, Four Front Minority Student Leaders Council met with former Chancellor Brady Deaton and several members of MU’s minority groups to discuss the potential addition of an interfaith prayer space that could be used by Muslim students and other minority religions on campus, Four Front Co-Chairman Anthony Simpson said.

“There are some things that we can do to be more inclusive and acknowledge (minority religions),” Simpson said.

Islam asks Muslims to follow a prayer schedule of praying five times per day in the direction of Mecca, the Holy City of Islam.

Each prayer is named and performed at certain times during the day. Fajr is performed in the morning, Dhuhr at noon, Asr in the afternoon, Maghrib at sunset and Isha in the evening.

If a Muslim student is on campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., he or she might need to pray two to three times on campus in a clean and relatively quiet environment, MSO President Farah El-Jayyousi said. Finding a place that fulfills these requirements on campus and is easily accessible is difficult, especially for new students.

MSO was founded in the 1970s to serve the Muslim community on campus, to educate the general community about Islam and to eliminate stereotypes, El-Jayyousi said. The organization meets twice a week in the Multicultural Center and is made up of approximately 50 Muslim students.

El-Jayyousi, a junior, has attended MSO meetings since her freshman year. She said she still sees stereotyping against Muslims on MU’s campus.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily overt … people might be hesitant to sit next to me in class or talk to me as much,” El-Jayyousi said. “It’s a historical bias in the West that goes back centuries, but more recently it has a lot more to deal with media representation of Muslims.”

The MSO education board is currently organizing its annual spring conference, which attracts more than 100 students and community members. While it mostly caters to Muslim students, interested individuals of all religions attend, Mefrakis said.

For the last three years, the conference has been part of MSO’s push for an inclusive social environment for Muslim students and further education for other groups on campus and in Columbia.

Four Front’s discussion with Deaton inspired Trambu, who served as MSO’s 2012-13 vice president. He called a meeting last year with Cathy Scroggs, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, three weeks after the discussion.

MSO currently provides a list of unofficial campus prayer spaces for Muslim students to use between classes. These spaces include the A.P. Green Chapel, Ellis Library, Women’s Center rooms, empty conference rooms and the residence halls.

“(Scroggs) said she would look into the chapel and see if it could be made amenable to accommodate Muslim prayer,” Trambu said. “In the last communication I had with her, I requested if S30 Memorial Union (the room below the chapel) could be assigned as a multi-faith prayer space.”

Although there are only 50 Muslim students in MSO, the hundreds of other Muslim students attending MU might not know about this list.

“When I joined MU, I was surprised they did not have a multi-faith prayer room,” Trambu said, “Colleges and universities across North America have such spaces where Muslims can walk in and pray their daily prayers or join other Muslims in a congregation during the prayer times.”

This year, an interfaith prayer space is not a major discussion point for Four Front or MSO, but it is not entirely off the table.

“We’re humans. We’re people. We have obligations and deadlines, and we are students first,” Simpson said. “And so it sucks to table something like this to school work, … but it doesn’t mean that (we’re) not thinking about it.”

Four Front and MSO are still very much in support of an interfaith prayer space. El-Jayyousi imagines it as a prayer space like the one she saw at an airport in Amsterdam. The room was carpeted and was furnished with prayer mats, meditation blocks and religious texts.

“Something like that, with a few pews or chairs, would be best for our campus in order to be more accommodating for people of different faiths, or even someone who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to a certain faith but would like a quiet place to go meditate,” El-Jayyousi said.

Both Trambu and Simpson believe MU could be more accommodating to minority groups on campus with providing information or interfaith spaces.

“It’s just finding the most effective way … to reach students whose religion doesn’t necessarily align with the religious centers on campus,” Simpson said, “Maybe (Four Front should have) an open discussion where we (can hear) from the voices of the people who would utilize it.”

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