A tiny room ignited a big fuss and some interreligious tensions at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.
The Meditation Room, which is "the size of a walk-in closet," according to one student, is designated for reflection and prayer by any student seeking a space. But last November, Zea Miller, a Flint student, delivered a petition to university administrators in which he said that the room had become dominated by Muslim symbols and prayer rugs to an extent that made other students uncomfortable.
Miller, said he was voicing concerns he’d heard expressed by other students who he said felt "intimidated," according to his petition. "I took it upon myself to say, 'Hey, let’s solve this problem and avoid conflicts in the future,' " said Miller, who does not use the room himself. "If people are uncomfortable, there’s a problem."
The room was originally requested by the Muslim Student Association seven years ago because, as Noor Hammoud, the group's president, put it, "It’s inconvenient for us to find a corner to pray in five times a day. We need a space." The university designated the room as a quiet area for all students. Because Muslim students used it so often, it became festooned with prayer rugs, a prayer calendar, awards given to the Muslim group, and a picture of Kabba marking the direction to Mecca. "There are also Bibles in there, and other students use it," Hammoud added.
As a result of the petition, the room, once pink, is now four bare white walls. A bookshelf holds copies of the Koran and the Bible, and a cabinet and lockers keep the prayer rugs and awards. Meditation Room users are generally satisfied with its new, sterile version. But students on all sides of the issue are still mystified at how the little room became such a big deal.
“I think the petition really exaggerated an issue that was hardly there,” said Bishr Aldabagh, who recently graduated and was the student council president and a member of the Muslim Student Association.
"I don’t think this would have happened if it weren’t Muslims using the room," Aldabagh added. "I’ve prayed with students of other religions in that room. If somebody had just said something to the MSA, or the student council, we would have handled it immediately.”
But Miller said that he thought his actions were the best way to handle the “usurped” room, and that he would have taken the same action regardless of the religious group using the room.
Greg Storms, one of the students who complained about the room to Miller, said he did not feel comfortable addressing students who use the room directly because he is a pagan, and previously was not eager to broadcast that on the campus. "The room started having artifacts from different religions, but particularly from Islam," Storms said. "It made it difficult to focus and meditate, because I was being bombarded by artifacts by different faiths."
Leaders of Students Defending Christian Principles, whose members sometimes use the room, said that a few members voiced concern about the storage of prayer rugs in the room, but that it never became serious enough to act on. The newly formed Hillel group on campus, however, wrote a letter in support of Miller’s petition. Hillel members said that they had not asked for the petition or known that he was preparing it.
But after the petition was made public, they said, the group's leaders wrote the letter because they anticipated using the room in the future, and wanted it to be a neutral spot. “We felt the laissez-faire governing of the room had come to support one religion,” said J. Michael Cates, the Hillel chapter’s vice president. “We weren’t opposed to the Muslim artifacts, but the room had become inundated with them. It’s not a case of intolerance. It’s a case of tolerance of all religions.”
In response to the petition, the university issued guidelines for the use of the room, including the order that "there will be no permanent posting, or displaying of religious artifacts within the Meditation Room,” nearly echoing Miller’s request that “the Meditation Room be emptied of everything.” The university did allow a bookshelf containing religious texts to remain.
“We posted those guidelines in March,” said Johnny Young, assistant vice chancellor for student services. “We’ve had no further concerns from the students. So for us it’s something that was settled two months ago.”
The students generally agree. “The university worked with us,” said Hammoud. “They were very understanding.” For now, it appears, the students, like eager underclassmen, are amicably sharing their crowded room.