Muslim Student Groups Turn to Jewish Organizations for Inspiration

An interesting alliance has budded on two Michigan college campuses: Muslim student organizations, cash-strapped and unable to finance their religious activities, have turned to the world's largest Jewish campus organization for help.

Muslim student associations generally do not have the money to pay for their own places of worship, often leaving them dependent on their universities and at the mercy of advocates for a strict separation of church and state.

This became national news recently when two public Michigan universities — the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Eastern Michigan University — decided to install footbaths in a few bathrooms for use by Muslim students before prayer, drawing fire from bloggers and advocates who said tax dollars were going to fund religious activity.

Seeking better organization and fundraising methods, Muslim groups in Michigan have informally begun to turn to Hillel, the global Jewish organization with a $66 million budget, as a prototype.

For these groups, Hillel may represent the ideal: It owns houses of worship near campuses across the country, and by funding itself privately it sidesteps many of the church-state controversies Muslim groups face today.

At Dearborn, which recently announced it would install two footbaths at a cost of $25,000, the Muslim student organization runs on a shoe-string budget of about $3,000 to $5,000, and operates out of a small cubicle it gets as a student group, according to Farhan Latif, its campus adviser who also served as president three years ago.

He said the footbath controversy is fundamentally one of finances: "It's more of a funding issue that needs to be addressed," he said. "This is not a religious accommodation."

But without the money to fund the footbaths, much less private property to put them in, the group depends on the university for that funding.

To try to change this, Latif said he turned to Hillel. Impressed by its organization and structure, he researched the group's organization and read its literature, learning a number of helpful best practices that could be applied across the MSA.

At the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Muslim and Hillel student leaders have held informal talks, with Muslim students hoping to learn how to better structure their organization and raise money.

"We looked to Hillel for inspiration, and the way that they're able to do things," said Sakina Alamin, a senior and the vice president of Ann Arbor's Muslim Student Association.

Wealthier, self-sufficient Muslim student associations would likely be welcomed by universities, which today must walk a tight line in trying to accommodate Muslim students without explicitly accommodating Islam. Many have designated "meditation rooms" that are understood to be created primarily for Muslim prayer, and now, some have instituted footbaths in the name of safety.

"We think of this as a renovation of the restrooms," said Dearborn spokesman Terry Gallagher, before adding: "We're not stupid. We understand that it is part of a religious tradition."

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Until they can resolve their financial problems, Muslim student groups in the United States are finding themselves stuck in the middle of a difficult church-state debate.

Dearborn has said that its decision to install the footbaths was made on health and safety, not religious, grounds. They said that Muslim students, who must wash their feet before their five-times-a-day prayer, had been washing in bathroom sinks, producing puddles on the floor and creating a safety hazard for students.

But skeptics in the blogosphere and at some advocacy groups insisted that the expenditure is at heart a religious one. What Dearborn and Eastern Michigan University should do, they said, is ban the improper use of sinks rather than accommodate the ritual.

"It is not up to the government to pay for the accommodation of any religion," said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The raising of private funds for religious buildings and religious functions is precisely the way these matters should be dealt with."

Muslim student leaders said they understood the concerns with washing their feet in sinks, and that some alternative would be preferable. But without cash and lacking the organization that might allow them to fund their rites privately, these student groups are often left with no place or no one to turn to other than university administrators.

In short, if they had the money to build their own off-campus prayer sites and footbaths, they might spare themselves all this controversy over church-state relations that wealthier religious groups can largely avoid.

That's why Hillel may be such a good example for these groups. Its private funding allows Jewish college students to follow their religious rituals without relying heavily on public universities, according to Jeff Rubin, a Hillel spokesman.

"If we had to rely strictly on public funds for our programs and capital improvements, we may run into church-state issues," he said.

A Lot of Work Left To Do

The Ann Arbor Hillel is a prototype for Hillels around the country. It has its own building on property it owns just across the street from campus and has a $1.6 million annual budget it uses to serve approximately 1,500 students each week, according to its executive director, Michael Brooks.

Its full-time adult employees have a close relationship with the university, which includes sharing donor lists, allowing Hillel to raise about $1 million in funds and grants each year.

That money allows the Hillel to provide students with a kosher dining hall at no cost to the university, and gives students ready access to a prayer hall without depending on the university for space. In short, it allows Hillel to avoid many of the church-state clashes Muslim groups in Michigan face today.

It will require a lot of work and administrative overhaul before Muslim groups can match six- and seven-figure budgets, and can provide the same services at the more than 500 Hillel organizations worldwide.

There is a national Muslim Student Association, which serves as an umbrella for local chapters, but unlike the national Hillel it does not give money to local chapters and cannot help them with fundraising efforts, said Hadia Mubarak, a former president of the national MSA.

"There is definitely a lack of financial resources when it comes to MSA chapters. They're completely at the mercy of what is allocated to them by the university itself," Mubarak said.

Until they can manage to raise the resources they need independently, Muslim students and their largely informal associations will also continue to be caught in the middle of political debates that concern theoretical principles of church and state but that rest just as strongly on a question of dollars and cents.