Monday, March 3, 2008

Meet Me Halfway

Monday, 03 March 2008
By Sabria S Jawhar

A Saudi man complained to me last week that some Saudis are becoming too Westernized. He went on to say that they should have preserved their own culture.
Maybe, I thought to myself, the guy should look out the window - he just might remember that he himself is studying in the United Kingdom on a scholarship paid by the Saudi government. If he's not comfortable with that, then he might as well pack up and go home. I remembered this conversation the other day while I was reading a news article saying that Saudi students in Australia are seeking changes in class schedule to accommodate prayer times. They also sought to have men and women segregated in food and recreational areas on Australian campuses.
Officials at La Trobe University said they wanted to "meet the needs" of Muslim by doubling the size of the campus prayer room, but there were no plans to change any timetables. They said that La Trobe is a secular university, and all international students are made aware of that even before admission.
Predictably, any time Muslims ask for special considerations to accommodate dietary, prayer or clothing requirements, the sky drops. Crackpots come out of the woodwork on internet blogs, writing that they are ready to set-up a caliphate and bring Shariah to the West.
We keep telling expatriates in Saudi Arabia that they are guests who should respect our customs and laws, and yet, we tend to forget that the same should apply when we are visiting other countries. We should be especially mindful given the political climates in Australia, the US and UK, where immigration and religious divides are touch-and-go topics.
That said, I do agree that Saudi students have legitimate concerns that should be resolved. However, I am only willing to meet them half way. Those who asked for segregated seating areas for men and women have clearly gone overboard. No Western university will agree to such a bizarre request, since virtually every single one is coed. Besides, common sense stipulates that they should expect to experience a different environment. Therefore, if mixing is too much for them, they are more than welcome to study in Saudi Arabia, their home country.
And yes, they must have known when they applied that they will be attending secular universities, so let's get over this gender segregation issue.
Aziza Abdel-Halim, a former senior member of the Australian government's Muslim Reference Board, said not all Muslims agree that segregation is appropriate in an educational environment.
"There's nothing in Islam that says there should be complete segregation, especially in educational institutions," The Australian newspaper quoted her as saying on February 25. But asking universities to consider prayer times in their schedules is far less trouble some than one might be led to believe. And from what I understand of the media reports, Muslim students made no unreasonable demands. They simply exercised their right to sign and present a petition to university officials in which they asked for the changes.
It is foolish to see attempts to meet the special needs of students, be they Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist, as appeasement or caving in to the demands of a few. Most top-level universities will try to strike some kind of balance between the needs of a few and the wants of the many. And if managed well, it usually works. Newcastle University, for example, is very flexible in dealing with its international students. Newcastle recognizes the assets that international students represent, and thus realize the opportunity to give them a quality education and send them home with a better understanding of Western values. As for Muslim students, they embrace many of those values as long as they are not in conflict with Islam.
At Newcastle, students perform Dhuhr as late as 10 minutes before Asr, and then perform the latter within the first 10 minutes of its due time. As such, they are able to attend classes without sacrificing the most important religious duty. The university's flexible policy does not disrupt classes or cause inconvenience to non-Muslims.
While Australian universities have already indicated that there will be no class changes to accommodate prayer - much, I'm sure, to the relief of Western conservatives - I think the issue will be resolved behind the scenes and off the pages of the tabloids. Top universities, especially those that offer competitive post-graduate studies, want to keep their students by providing a learning environment that allows comfort.
Without making drastic policy changes that will alienate non-Muslims, most university departments and professors permit flexible scheduling on religious or cultural grounds at an informal level.
It's not impossible to accomplish. It's not a case where one group of people gives up its rights to accommodate those of another group. It's about compromise, the spirit of cooperation and ensuring that every student is comfortable and secure on campus.

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