Saturday, December 03, 2005

Prayer Rooms at McGill University

Earlier today, I saw an interesting post on Safiyyah's blog about a simmering dispute at McGill University in Montreal, which was also mentioned in the Globe and Mail newspaper (which my comment was published on). Until recently, the university provided a prayer room for Muslim students there. But, last spring, they took back the room and converted it into an archeology lab. Over the past few months, the Muslim students at McGill have been quietly protesting the decision, and just recently filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission over the decision.

There has been a fair amount of discussion over the past few weeks about this decision, much of which seems to be steeped in ignorance.

To understand the McGill Muslim students' position, it is necessary to understand a bit about their religion and how they pray. Unlike adherents to most religions, Muslims are required to pray five times a day, and at very specific times (three of which are during normal business hours). When they pray, it is not in sitting or kneeling in a pew like we do in Christianity, it is kneeling on a prayer mat on the floor. If you ask Muslims to use a "multifaith chapel" like you have on some university campuses, it is difficult, since this type of facility is usually setup with pews or chairs, and for Islamic prayer, it is necessary to be on the floor.

From a business perspective, it is also important to realize that three of the prayers are during business hours, and if you have Muslim staff working for you, they will disappear for a few minutes at each prayer cycle. The prayers themselves only take 5 minutes, but if they have to travel some distance, they may be gone for longer than that.

A few years ago, I was running a technology project that had several Muslims on it. These were really good people, and very hard workers, but I noticed a few times a day they'd all disappear for about half an hour. From a management perspective, I wasn't overly concerned, since they weren't gone too long, but one time when I was out for lunch with one of the guys, I asked him what was going on, and was very surprised to learn the group of them were having to walk a couple of blocks out in the sun, rain, or snow to go to a mosque to pray three times a day. After that discovery, I arranged with the client to convert an old cloak room across the hall from their work area into a prayer room, and the results were immediate. The prayer breaks, which were 20 minutes, were shortened to 5 minutes, and these guys, who were already productive, became more productive and happier. And, my client's own Muslim staff heard what we were doing and started coming down to use the prayer room, and it turned out to be a big success.

Muslims don't need a whole lot when it comes to a prayer facility: just a quiet and empty room with enough space on the floor to spread their prayer mats. Nothing fancy. It really doesn't take a lot to allocate a room like this, but the productivity benefits are obvious.

Asking for an empty room is not asking for a whole lot, and I really do not understand McGill's position here. To me, it sounds like a decision that was made by a very short-sighted administrator with absolutely no concept of how important such a prayer room can be. Given the low cost of a prayer room, and McGill's position as an internationally aclaimed university, this decision seems completely asinine to me.