Are CAIR-CAN and the MSA battling McGill University in the name of freedom of religion?

Ever since last May, when McGill University’s new administration took back a room previously lent to the Muslim Students Association (MSA) as a prayer space, the Canadian chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) and the MSA have been making noise about the alleged violation of Muslim students’ religious freedom.

Today, CAIR-CAN and the MSA held a joint press conference on the downtown campus and announced they filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission against McGill University, charging that “the university is denying their right to practice their religion by failing to provide a safe, clean prayer area”.

Curiously, though, Muslim students are fighting a lonely battle. Indeed no other religious group present at McGill University feels its religious freedoms are being violated by McGill University’s policy on prayer rooms. In fact, most faith groups are quite content to have their own off-campus prayer rooms. But for newly appointed CAIR-CAN spokesperson and former MSA official Sarah Elgazzar, the consensual solution among other faith groups is a non-starter. Asking Muslims to purchase their own space would be tantamount to saying that “freedom of religion is only available for the rich”.

If there ever was anything irregular about religious freedom and the place of Islam at McGill University, it is indeed the fact that Muslim students have long been the only faith group to enjoy the privilege of having a, in effect, state-funded prayer space in a public establishment of higher learning and another on-campus room for Friday communal prayers.

“We have to pray on the dirty floor, with the mud tracked in on winter boots. People walk by, talking loud enough that it disturbs our concentration. It also disturbs the mobility of other students. This isn’t fair to anyone at McGill,” says Idil Issa, another MSA spokesperson. Yet, it seems completely lost on the MSA that Canadian establishments of higher learning are not places of worship, nor are they required by any law or human rights consideration to offer its students any facilities to practice any faith. For all the noise being made about religious freedom by Islamic organizations such as CAIR-CAN and the MSA, it would appear that, given the lack of any feelings of grievance toward McGill University on the part of other religious groups, this battle is less about religious rights than securing a privileged status for Islam in a secularized environment.