Muslim Prayers At USJ

Everyone should be able to express their conviction in the right place at the right time. This is a conviction of mine. The right place and the right time may vary depending on where you stand regarding an issue but sometimes things are very clear cut and a stance needs to be taken.

A few months ago, the Antonine university had a tough situation with Muslims students who were adamant about praying at their university, which happened to be a Maronite Monastery, so they took the convent’s courtyard to do so. This sparked a debate in the country: should these students be allowed to pray or not at universities with obvious religious affiliations?

The point of view that I expressed back then and which I still stand by is the following: If a Muslim student (or a Christian student for that matter) believes it’s of utmost importance for him/her to pray, then that should go into their university selection criteria. If that student deems prayer not important enough and believes that getting the best education that can be provided, regardless of the university’s religious affiliation, is the way you to go, then that student doesn’t have the right to complain later on.

Université St. Joseph (USJ) had a similar incidence yesterday where more than twenty Muslim students decided to gather around and take a room without permission in order to pray. The incident was reported to the dean who rounded up the students only to have the situation swell by attracting more students to the place where the prayers were taking place. Some took the job of acting as guard to let the prayers continue.

The situation escalated to the maximum point without a confrontation happening and the incident has sparked some Christians at USJ to express outrage at what was happening. They believe that including a prayer room in the faculty of medicine was good enough – forcing every single faculty to adopt such policies is a step too far. The faculty in question was ESIB. For the Muslims who want to pray at USJ, it is their “right” to pray five times and they believe the university should provide them with a prayer room to do so.

It seems that such endless debates are our bread as Lebanese. But here’s what it breaks down into quite simply.

  1. USJ is a university that is obviously Christian. It is run by the Jesuites. It doesn’t hide its Christian affiliation and as such, those applying to study in it are well aware of that.
  2. Given that the nature of USJ is a general fact, weren’t those Muslim fully aware that attending USJ will bring them the best education possible and not spiritual fulfillment?
  3. When a prayer turns into proving a “principle” and rubbing it into other people’s faces, the question asks itself: what’s the point of praying in the first place?
  4. When a prayer becomes a point of conflict, the question also asks itself: are those students really seeking religious salvation or are they simply seeking trouble? I believe it’s obviously the latter.
  5. What forces universities with obvious religious affiliations to provide praying facilities for all its students? Is it something that they’re obliged to do? Absolutely not. If a university had been secular, the problem wouldn’t present itself. The American University of Beirut converted its chapel into an assembly hall and has denied requests for prayers rooms. AUB is secular. USJ is not.
  6. Universities abroad, which provide prayer rooms for students, are not religious in nature. And if the prayer rooms are provided, they are not for one religion and not the other – they are for all religions. Religious ones, on the other hand, are not forced to do so: Case in point: the Catholic Medicine faculty in Lille, France, does not provide prayer rooms for its Muslim students.
  7. Would a Lebanese Muslim university open a chapel for Christians to pray in it? The answer is obviously not. The argument that Christians don’t need to pray doesn’t hold. What if they want to?

Lebanese students in general, both Christian and Muslim, need to know that universities are not churches. They are not mosques. They are not synagogues. Universities are places where they pay in order to learn and build a future for themselves and their families. The fact that all of my Muslim friends at medical school, some of whom are extremely religious (they are Salafists and awesome), have no problem going through our long days without praying is testament enough that those “Muslims” wanting to “pray” at USJ are only seeking to create trouble and tension at a university that’s known of accepting people from all parts of Lebanese society, regardless of religion. But there are lines you cannot cross.

The French Experience – Lourdes

We left St. Etienne and the family that welcomed us for three nights on the morning of August 10th.

We had a ten hour route to Lourdes, the infamous pilgramage sight that many Lebanese have/want to visit/ed. And with delays bound to happen, and with the French law dictating thirty minutes of rest for every two hours of driving, we got to Lourdes twelve hours later.

It was 7:30 pm and time for dinner, as set by the French. We didn´t even have time to take pictures as we ran to the huge grass field we were seated in for some fish and rice.

Soon after, we had about thirty minutes to visit before mass. Naturally, I visited the infamous cave where St. Bernadette dug to reveal a small stream of holy water. Then, with two Lebanese girls, I ran to the statue of Mary that was set as gathering point only to find no one there.

Then, we were joined by ten other Lebanese who couldn´t find the remainder of the group. And it was time for a Marial Procession around the grounds. Imagine ten thousand people of a multitude of nationalities chanting Ave Maria together, to a backdrop of an epic-looking church, and you get the sense of what Lourdes is.

Not only is it a Holy place but it´s a location where I, as non-devout Christian, and despite the looming idea of having to sleep on the floor with two hundred other French guys, in a gym, and not being able to shower, was able to find some peace.

The idea of sitting there, looking at nothing except the statue of Virgin Mary and her smiling at you – there´s just something comforting about that.

Then a French woman came up to us after seeing the flag we were holding. She told us how she visits Lebanon often and how she is mesmerized by the culture of the country. In fact, and I quote, she said the following: “I have no roots in the orient, but I love your country, Lebanon, as much as I love my country, France.”

Needless to say, I felt proud. And this sense of pride about my country – despite all our problems – will only grow as my trip moves forwards.

But back to Lourdes… even at 11 pm in the evening, the queue line to visit the Grotto was about a hundred meter long. So we had to wait for the other Lebanese who actually attended mass (yes, we got reprimanded for getting lost although it wasn´t really our fault) to visit.

And while at Lourdes, I lit a candle as a prayer for many people who asked. My cousin asked me to pray for her success in Lebanon´s second round of official exams. Micheline Hazou asked me on twitter to pray for her too and my aunt had a private wish she wanted to pass on. I did all of those in one candle. And you know what, I think my prayer was answered, at least somewhat. My cousin passed.

I guess we have to wait to see if the remaining part of my attempt at a prayer worked. But I´d like to believe it did…

And so we had a long walk back to the gym. You see, Lourdes was closed soon after 12 pm for rehearsals for a play that was shown on August 15th. After all, Spain and Toledo awaited us in a few hours…