NEW YORK (RNS) — Loud chants carried through the main plaza at Baruch College in the early afternoon on Thursday (April 20) as a group of around 40 students protested near the Office of Student Life. The students, a majority of them Muslim, were calling on the administration to offer better, more accessible interfaith spaces.
The campus, located a few blocks east of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, currently offers an interfaith space (room 3-225 in the William and Anita Newman Vertical Campus) that fits around 15 students, and for a college with more than 500 Muslim students, students say the room is not big enough to meet their needs.
“It’s so hard to pray. The room is so small, people end up stepping over each other and it’s a hazard,” said Ayub Tursonzadah, a Muslim student at Baruch College and one of the protest organizers.
Thursday’s protest, coming on the final day of Ramadan, was one of the larger weekly protests students have organized over the past two months. The prayer room was extra crowded during the holy month of fasting and prayer, Muslim students said.
Muslims pray five times a day, and men and women are required to pray separately. With the size limitations of the current interfaith space, the women have had to find other spaces to pray.
“Because of modesty reasons, the women need a private space to pray. We now use the club space allocated to the Women in Islam club. But it’s the size of a closet,” said Zoya Cheema, the president of the Muslim students’ association and one of the student organizers for the protest.
Uswa Anwar, a Muslim student at Baruch, said it has not been easy. She has had to miss parts of classes because she had to wait for her turn to pray. She believes being part of the protest is the only way forward at this point.
“None of us want to be here protesting for this. But we aren’t being heard. We are being brushed aside,” she said.
The effort for better interfaith space began at Baruch last spring when Muslim students first tried to approach administrators at the Office of Student Life to ask for a better prayer space. Students were given a larger interfaith space during the 2021-22 school year while Baruch College was operating remotely. However, toward the end of the spring semester, administrators reassigned the interfaith space back to room 3-225, which, in addition to being small, has ventilation issues, said protesters.
After receiving no responses from the administrative team, a group of Muslim students started praying inside the lobby of student life to silently protest and gather attention during the 2022 fall semester. The students were able to obtain a meeting with Dean Art King, but said they were disappointed with the results.
“We weren’t offered any solutions. We were told this is a Muslim student club issue, but it’s an issue for everyone,” said Tursonzadah.
Though the protests are for interfaith spaces — and have included students of other faiths and no faiths — Muslim students have been at the forefront, largely due to the size of the Muslim population at the college. But being so visible has been nerve-wracking for some.
“We already have such a reputation being Muslim in this country, so we were afraid of how people would perceive us. But we want to stand up for what is right,” said Cheema.
Student organizers have been working with the Council of American Islamic Relations New York, who have worked with students at other City University of New York schools to secure a better interfaith space.
“Baruch College must adhere to the First Amendment right to not discriminate against students of faith. If they provide adequate space for non-religious students, they are obligated to provide the same for religious ones,” said Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director at CAIR New York.
The Baruch protest comes at a time when university administrators across the country have been grappling with how to best accommodate the growing religious diversity on their campuses — from serving halal and kosher food to allowing athletes to wear head coverings. Last year, students at City College, another CUNY school, faced the same issue those at Baruch are currently dealing with and were able to work with administration to secure an interfaith space that works for students.
Elsewhere, the tensions have escalated to lawsuits. California State University has been sued over a new caste discrimination policy with allegations that it singles out Hindu students and staff. Hamline University is being sued over its decision not to renew the contract of an adjunct professor who showed a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad in her online class last semester.
Kayla Aaron, a Jewish student at Baruch, said she and other Jewish students have faced similar issues as Muslim students when accessing the interfaith space.
“We could not find a place to pray. The room was not big enough. We ended up praying in a public space where people eat their lunches,” said Aaron, describing a time last semester when she and other Jewish students were trying to pray.
Students from non-religious backgrounds have also come out to show their support.
“It’s an important issue and I want to show my support. Having a space for people to congregate creates community, and I am in support of that,” said Matthew Taberas, a student at Baruch.
The administration at Baruch College did not directly respond to yesterday’s protest, but issued a press statement at yesterday’s protest, where they expressed support for the new referendum proposal brought forward by the Undergraduate Student Government executive board last week. The referendum proposes renting an off-campus space for interfaith use that would be funded by a $25 increase in activity fees for full-time students. For the referendum to be considered, the USG board has asked students to sign a proposal for its consideration by end of day Friday.
While some see this as a solution, students at the protest do not.
“Tuition is already an expense for these students, they should not be charging more for students to have a space to pray,” said Rosa Gomez, a Christian student at Baruch College who spoke at the protest yesterday.
Students say they will continue to protest until their needs are met.
“We are going to keep going until we have a space to pray,” said Anwar.