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."
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.