Com­plaints force univer­sity to draw up re­li­gious code of con­duct

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - david.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Com­plaints about stu­dents pray­ing loudly in the li­brary and flood­ing bath­rooms to rit­u­ally wash their feet have forced the Univer­sity of Ham­burg to draw up a re­li­gious code of con­duct, a first for a Ger­man univer­sity.

As many uni­ver­si­ties through­out the world grap­ple with how to ac­com­mo­date an in­creas­ingly re­li­giously di­verse stu­dent body, a philoso­pher and a group of re­li­gious schol­ars at Ham­burg have drawn up the rules for han­dling re­li­gion on cam­pus.

The univer­sity’s ex­ec­u­tive board had re­ceived an in­creas­ing num­ber of com­plaints about re­li­gious stu­dents “dis­turb­ing univer­sity life”, ex­plained Di­eter Len­zen, Ham­burg’s pres­i­dent. “Ex­ter­nal Salafists” had been pres­sur­ing fe­male Mus­lim stu­dents to wear tra­di­tional Is­lamic dress such as the veil, he said.

Asked which groups were caus­ing the most dif­fi­culty, he said: “To date, there have been no com­plaints about Bud­dhist stu­dents, just a few about Chris­tian stu­dents, but a great many about Mus­lim stu­dents.”

One of the most con­tro­ver­sial rules of the new code is that “re­li­giously mo­ti­vated cloth­ing in the class­room is not in it­self dis­rup­tive” – in­clud­ing the full-face veil – “pro­vid­ing the self-ev­i­dent de­mands of aca­demic ex­change and ex­ams are not im­pacted”.

This has caused an out­cry in some sec­tions of the Ger­man press, with the tabloid Bild ask­ing: “Do you re­ally want burqas at the univer­sity, Mr Pres­i­dent?”

Ger­many’s chan­cel­lor, An­gela Merkel, has pre­vi­ously called for a ban on the full-face veil wher­ever legally pos­si­ble, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of other coun­tries such as France and Aus­tria.

“The Ger­man con­sti­tu­tion does not pro­vide any le­gal ba­sis for pre­vent­ing spe­cific re­li­gious prac­tices, un­less th­ese dis­rupt the pur­pose of the re­spec­tive es­tab­lish­ment,” ar­gued Pro­fes­sor Len­zen. “This also ap­plies for uni­ver­si­ties.”

It will be up to in­di­vid­ual lec­tur­ers to de­cide whether a face veil dis­rupts their lessons, he said.

The code, re­leased on 18 Oc­to­ber, takes a rel­a­tively tough line against re­order­ing univer­sity func­tions to fit with re­li­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties. Cam­pus can­teens “re­serve the right to de­cide whether or not to of­fer dishes in line with re­li­gious di­etary guide­lines and re­stric­tions”, al­though the code adds that it would be “de­sir­able” if Ham­burg’s stu­dent or­gan­i­sa­tion were to “in­clude dishes that ac­com­mo­date the di­etary rules of the var­i­ous re­li­gions”.

Stu­dents who miss class be­cause of re­li­gious fes­ti­vals will have to “bear the con­se­quences” and may be asked by lec­tur­ers to make up for missed work.

“Nei­ther course sched­ules nor other univer­sity events are or­gan­ised in ac­cor­dance with re­li­gious re­quire­ments,” the guide­lines add.

Say­ing prayers aloud on cam­pus or in univer­sity rooms is for­bid­den, al­though “quiet prayer may be ac­cept­able in the li­brary”.

In the univer­sity’s Room of Con­tem­pla­tion, set aside for re­li­gious cel­e­bra­tions, “dis­crim­i­na­tion against male or fe­male vis­i­tors by di­vid­ing the room ac­cord­ing to sex/gen­der” will not be tol­er­ated, the code says. Pro­fes­sor Len­zen added that a cur­tain, in­stalled with­out per­mis­sion by Mus­lim stu­dents to di­vide men and women dur­ing prayers, had now been per­ma­nently re­moved. The univer­sity was mon­i­tor­ing whether the code was be­ing fol­lowed, he said, and so far there had not been any new com­plaints.

In 2013, Uni­ver­si­ties UK, which rep­re­sents vice-chan­cel­lors in the UK, was forced to with­draw guid­ance that per­mit­ted vol­un­tary gen­der seg­re­ga­tion on cam­pus after sus­tained crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing from David Cameron, who was then prime min­is­ter.

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