Universities Install Footbaths to Benefit Muslims, and Not Everyone Is Pleased

Posted by Kendall Harmon

When pools of water began accumulating on the floor in some restrooms at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the sinks pulling away from the walls, the problem was easy to pinpoint. On this campus, more than 10 percent of the students are Muslims, and as part of ritual ablutions required before their five-times-a-day prayers, some were washing their feet in the sinks.

The solution seemed straightforward. After discussions with the Muslim Students’ Association, the university announced that it would install $25,000 foot-washing stations in several restrooms.

But as a legal and political matter, that solution has not been quite so simple. When word of the plan got out this spring, it created instant controversy, with bloggers going on about the Islamification of the university, students divided on the use of their building-maintenance fees, and tricky legal questions about whether the plan is a legitimate accommodation of students’ right to practice their religion — or unconstitutional government support for that religion.

“It’s an awkward thing,” said Alexis Oesterle, a junior. “If I’m sitting with Muslim friends, I wouldn’t want to bring it up. In this country, at this time, it’s not so easy to discuss the issues of Muslims in American society.”

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchEducationReligion & Culture* Religion News & CommentaryOther FaithsIslam

32 Comments
Posted August 8, 2007 at 5:55 am

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1. Br. Michael wrote:

Will they make the same sort of accomodations for Christians?

August 8, 6:54 am | [comment link]
2. AnglicanFirst wrote:

Maybe we should insist on holy water fonts at critical places on campus, such as at the entrances to political science or comparative religion classes.  This way a Christian believer can use it while asking for spiritual protection before entering class and then use it again while engaging in cleansing prayer while leaving class.

August 8, 7:33 am | [comment link]
3. Katherine wrote:

If Muslim students wish to have an appropriate prayer space in or near campus, they should take up a collection and provide one.  Same for Christians, Jews, Hindus, and anyone else.

August 8, 7:50 am | [comment link]
4. Brian from T19 wrote:

Will they make the same sort of accomodations for Christians?

What accommodations are required for your prayers?

The view that has been expressed by all the Instruments of Communion in recent years is that <u>interventions are not to be sanctioned</u>. - Archbishop Rowan Williams

August 8, 8:31 am | [comment link]
5. William Witt wrote:

Universities do make accommodations for Christians and other religions besides Muslims.  At least in some schools where I have worked, it was common practice not to hold classes on Yom Kippur or Good Friday.  During Lent, cafeterias often provide non-meat alternatives on Fridays. Student fees go to support campus religious groups.  Universities often provide chapel space for worship.

There is a practical cost-consciousness question here.  If universities are going to admit Muslims (and the article notes that more than 10 percent of the students at this school are Muslims), and Islam requires ritual foot washing before prayers five times a day, then the university needs to weigh the cost of repairing or replacing sinks (used by more than 10 percent of the students five times a day) or providing an alternative.

August 8, 8:57 am | [comment link]
6. Northern Plains Anglicans wrote:

William Witt’s post #5 is very sober and helpful. 
Read the article - the controversy ties back to the university making a vending cart guy turn off his Christmas music.  That sort of silly quest for secular purity is what raises questions of unfairness and calls motives into question.  The footbaths might not have been so controversial had there not been a petty action like that against the vendor.
Reading the article will also give you a laugh when you read the dithery ACLU statement - comes right out of the TEC style manual!

http://northernplainsanglicans.blogspot.com/

August 8, 9:16 am | [comment link]
7. Katherine wrote:

Dr. Witt makes some good points.  I do think that planning class breaks on holy days which involve large numbers of students, making suitable arrangements for such days on individual bases for smaller groups, providing appropriate food choices in dining halls, and other reasonable accomodations make sense. I don’t think that public universities should be in the business of providing worship space to anybody.

August 8, 9:36 am | [comment link]
8. azusa wrote:

Originally this ritual might have made some sense in the dusty and sweaty land of Arabia, but does it really belong in the west (where hygiene standards are much higher), any more than slaughtering a sheep in the street at the end of Ramadan? Or is that next?
In the past Muslims have made do with a ritual wipe with a damp tissue. I don’t really hold with sacralizing restrooms and don’t think people should be washing their feet there (along with other parts of their anatomy).

August 8, 9:47 am | [comment link]
9. azusa wrote:

#8: but footbaths are for the purpose of facilitating Muslim worship. If anyone is really dirty after sports, they should shower, not use a restroom.

August 8, 9:50 am | [comment link]
10. William Witt wrote:

I don’t think that public universities should be in the business of providing worship space to anybody.

The universities and colleges where I worked were all private.  But again, I don’t see why this should be a problem.  Many public spaces provide worship or prayer space, e.g., hospitals, airports.  Public schools often provide space for churches to worship, as many departing Episcopalians are now discovering.  (My Baptist mother attends a startup church that meets in a local elementary school.) As long as there is no discrimination against particular sects, why should public universities not make worship space available?

August 8, 9:53 am | [comment link]
11. Katherine wrote:

#10, I agree.  Why can’t a Muslim student carry a water bottle, remove his shoes, pour a ritual amount on his feet, and pray?  This business of requiring public-subsidized foot baths is political, not religious.

Dr. Witt, as far as I know, start-up Anglican and Baptist churches rent public school space.  This space could be rented, presumably, by any religious group on an equal basis at times when it’s not being used for school.  It’s not “provided” gratis.  Worship/prayer space in hospitals, airports, etc., is usually not specific to any group—it’s just a quiet place where people can pray individually as they choose.  News reports from numerous public universities indicate (I’m familiar with UNC-Chapel Hill) that Muslim student groups tend to take over these “non-specific” worship spaces and intimidate other student groups who wish to use them.  These drives are political.

August 8, 10:16 am | [comment link]
12. Katherine wrote:

Gordian, every Ramadan there are articles in the NC newspapers about Muslims searching for farms where they can do the prescribed ritual slaughter, or have it done for them.  So far, public health regulations have prevented these from occurring in the streets.

August 8, 10:23 am | [comment link]
13. Dale Rye wrote:

The university clearly cannot prohibit the Muslims from washing their feet without running straight into a free exercise problem. It cannot tell them how to do it, either, any more than it can tell Christians how to perform their private religious rites. If they prohibit using the sinks for foot-washing with the specific purpose of restricting a religious practice, they are going to have the same problem unless they provide an alternative, absent a compelling secular state purpose.

The footbaths can presumably be used by any student, not just Muslims, and for secular as well as religious purposes, so there is no establishment-clause issue. The footbaths are apparently less expensive than constantly fixing the sinks, so providing the alternative actually serves the secular purpose of saving the taxpayers money. Because it saves money, it does not offend the rights of other citizens not to have their taxes used to subsidize a religious purpose.

August 8, 10:47 am | [comment link]
14. Katherine wrote:

Okay with me, Dale, so long as the footbaths are installed in a place where they will reasonably be used by other students, as in a public quad, where they could become a hot-day splash fountain, for instance.  If they’re installed in a quasi-mosque location for, practically speaking, the sole use of Muslim worshippers, then there’s a problem.

And presumably the university could prohibit foot-washing in the sinks for the purpose of preventing damage to the sinks, not to inhibit Muslim religious practice.

August 8, 11:07 am | [comment link]
15. drjoan wrote:

And when a non-Muslim (like a LaCross player) is washing his feet at the same time the Muslim is getting ready for prayers, there should be no question as to who has the “right” to the footbath, right?

August 8, 11:43 am | [comment link]
16. azusa wrote:

#14: of course a university couldn’t prohibit Muslims (or anyone else) from washing their feet. But they could reasonably say that sinks are only for hands and faces, other than for medical necessity. Evidently they’re being damaged by misuse.

August 8, 12:47 pm | [comment link]
17. Harvey wrote:

Question #1: Do people come to school to learn something toward a degree or to find an open forum to evangelize.  Let all major religions or even minor ones provide any necessary religious amenities and let the colleges teach necessary curriculum.  Respecting a faith and providing for their necessities are two different things.  Question #2: Are these the type of expenses that are helping to push tuition to higher levels each year.

August 8, 1:22 pm | [comment link]
18. Reactionary wrote:

Further evidence that the American experiment is a time-limited one.

August 8, 1:49 pm | [comment link]
19. Br. Michael wrote:

I see Brian.  Christians are not required to do anything and therefor the Universities need not accomodate them.

August 8, 1:49 pm | [comment link]
20. Pageantmaster [Katie bought Welby] wrote:

John 13
Marvellous.  Nice clean hygienic feet are to be encouraged, particularly in the summer months when people wear sandals, flip-flops and the like.

Some days I sit and think. Other days I just sit!!

August 8, 2:38 pm | [comment link]
21. libraryjim wrote:

My question would be: would the muslim population at these schools eventually try to prohibit non-muslims from using the restrooms during their ‘foot washing’ as coming into contact with ‘infidels’?  If so, and it may, then there will be a problem.  What if the football players using the rest-room sets their ‘pigskin’ football on the basin?  Another quandry!

“The world is a dangerous place to live — not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”—Albert Einstein

August 8, 3:08 pm | [comment link]
22. Scotsreb wrote:

This is just more political pushing, by a politically savvy and quite aggressive group of folks.

Link that with the fear that at any given moment, probably as many as 10% of practicing mulims are radicals, and you end up with a situation just perfectly designed to give university presidents and chancellors, a bad case of the vapors.

I suspect that university presidents, not normally known for being able to find a back-bone, are simply afraid of muslim terrorism, no matter how near or far-fetched that may be.

It may be quite interesting though, if any non-muslim person enters the area and is run off. That may very well set the cat among the pigeons.

Wait for it.

August 8, 4:05 pm | [comment link]
23. StayinAnglican wrote:

Katherine, that is exactly what I was wondering.
Doesn’t it seem awfully silly to try and wash one’s feet in a sink, when a low cost and much easier alternative is available? I was thinking about portable plastic basins that could be placed in or brought to any convenient bathroom. Install a drain nearby. Student fetches the water necessary and washes away. I think you are right that this is about politics and religious activism.

Its one thing to provide space. Its one thing to provide days off. Its one thing to use student funds for proper meals if the money is available equally for all special dietary requirements. Reasonable accomodation should be limited to the state staying out of the way and not actively violating religious edicts. This covers prayer times, clothing, holidays and meal options no more no less.

25000 dollars for a special use facility (facilities, like chapels, established before the secular era being exempt) crosses the line. I think it is a product of activism and misplaced expectation.

Activist Muslims expect the state or institution to pay for religious accomodations because they don’t believe in the separation of church and state. The more activist the Muslim, the more likely they are to attack that separation as something contrary to God’s will. It is not far-fetched in our system for activists to create a situation which would challenge the system. I don’t think the law cares about intent. It cares about the question.

So you have Muslims creating a destructive and unsafe situation. Maybe one falls and hurts himself. Maybe that is just the fear. Then you have your law suit or the threat of one. Viola! the institution pays for the accomodation the way that God wills for it to.

As much as I respect Mr Witt, I think it is unreasonable to make this accomodation.

Used to be a time when if a religious group needed special accomodation above and beyond the basic liberty from interference or undue restriction, then that group would pay for it out of its own pocket. I see no reason whatever why the Muslim community cannot, for instance, build its own pools and other facilities instead of requiring rule changes and same sex only swims at the public ones. Observant Jews have long done so. I see no reason why with all those oil billions out there, why Muslim students themselves couldn’t raise the cash for a special fancy facility for their use.

August 8, 5:13 pm | [comment link]
24. Pageantmaster [Katie bought Welby] wrote:

I wonder whether, as Christians, perhaps we should be doing the foot-washing?

Some days I sit and think. Other days I just sit!!

August 8, 5:54 pm | [comment link]
25. Wilfred wrote:

So that’s what that strange, built-into-the-floor urinal-looking thing was!

August 8, 6:38 pm | [comment link]
26. azusa wrote:

# 24:Agreed. If a group wants separation of the sexes, burqas, halal food, set times for prayer during the day that don’t clash with classes, special consideration during Ramadan etc - then they should establish an Islamic university, which is their right.
If restrooms are going to provide footbaths, they should be providing bidets as well. Come to think of it, maybe they could double up ...

August 9, 3:02 am | [comment link]
27. CharlesB wrote:

I live and work in the Middle East, and public toilets are disgusting.  Always smelly, wet and messy due to foot washing.  And it is not just related to prayers.  Many of these facilities are still the squat-type toilet, and the feet need to be washed.  I hate to go in them and get my shoes soiled.  Yuk!  Enuf said.

August 9, 4:05 am | [comment link]
28. StayinAnglican wrote:

The Gordian,
Exactly. If the goal really was just to provide a comfortable and compatible environment for Muslim students, then yes, the private Muslim university would be the best solution. But the goal is to transform society to be more Islamic. That is the so-called “greater” or “peaceful” jihad incumbent on all observant Muslims. And so the movement to make campuses Islamic environments. The next step on down the line is to point to the transformation and ask if it isnt much more admirable or superior than before. “See, isn’t this much better. Let’s talk some more about Islam and its divine blueprint for the ideal society…”

Hence the greatest problem with Islam in the West. It simply cannot abide to be separate from society. Although they are often compared as if they were the same thing, Islam and Orthodox or Hasidic Judaism are vastly different for at least one major reason. The goal of Orthodox Jewry isnt to transform all of society into its image. Therefore it is not at all necessary to insert their complex, legal and moral codes into and therefore onto others in society who do not happen to share that code. The inevitable result of special accomodation in greater society for such an all encompassing religious code is that members of other religions inevitably pay a price in freedom or choice.

I think this shows the higher morality and civility that is found in Judaism and that it shows the terrible mistake of Islam. When one does follow a extensively detailed and exhaustive religious code, it is simply impolite and uncivil to expect anyone else to either shell out for it or force them to live under that code when they don’t believe in it.  That is why a religion, if it would be truly tolerant and concerned with liberty for all cannot be both universal in ambition and require a strict and exhaustive legal code. It must be one or the other for all people to be truly free.

These universities are essentially using student funds to build a mosque. These specially designed foot washing facilities are found only in mosques. With all of the traffic in so-called religiously neutral prayer rooms from Muslim students several times daily, these rooms quickly become defacto Islamic prayer rooms. Build specially designed bathroom facilities nearby and the result is in fact the construction of a mosque.

If Muslims are actually serious about religious freedom and really getting along well with others, they themselves should voluntarily renounce any ambitions to make-over Western society and build their own special religious environments strictly separate from everyone else, strictly funded with their own money, built with their own industry alone. Its just the decent thing to do.

August 9, 11:53 am | [comment link]
29. Reactionary wrote:

But the goal is to transform society to be more Islamic. That is the so-called “greater” or “peaceful” jihad incumbent on all observant Muslims.

Correct.  Regardless of how peaceful or law-abiding, the Muslim does his part in the jihad by simply populating the West with himself.  In doing so, he allies himself with the secular Atheist State for protection from the majority, and further de-Christianizing the public square.

August 9, 1:57 pm | [comment link]
30. azusa wrote:

#28: “With all of the traffic in so-called religiously neutral prayer rooms from Muslim students several times daily, these rooms quickly become defacto Islamic prayer rooms. Build specially designed bathroom facilities nearby and the result is in fact the construction of a mosque.”

And when that happens, it becomes inalienable Muslim property under sharia and you will have Iblis’s own job getting the property back. I heard of this happening in a unversity in England, in which a university-owned house was ‘assigned’ for Muslim prayer and it effectively became the mosque for that town.

August 9, 3:23 pm | [comment link]
31. libraryjim wrote:

Nothing a few well-placed pork-rinds can’t take care of.  wink

“The world is a dangerous place to live — not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”—Albert Einstein

August 9, 3:28 pm | [comment link]


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