Stories Beneath the Shell News, April 5, 2014
University of Maryland College Park students have a place to pray on campus near the Stamp Student Union, but the campus is so large they often have to pray wherever they are in order to get to class on time. Students often pray in empty classrooms, stairwells, and outdoors during good weather. Photo courtesyof the author.
It is 3:30 p.m., and one student is running late to class. She stops to pray in the side hallway of the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Building, where she knows not many students will be passing through; she does not wish to be in anyone’s way. She places her bag before her to make sure that no one steals her laptop as she prays. She is doing no harm to anyone, but one individual thinks otherwise.
A faculty member passing by calls the campus hotline to report suspicious behavior, and security officials from campus appear at the scene promptly. They ask her, “Were you praying?” And when she responds that she was, they ask to see her id, “to verify” they tell her. One of the officials at the scene apologized to her, acknowledging that it was ignorant for one to report such a thing when we live in a “global world,” though they resume with the “standard procedure.” After a series of random questions, they return to the student her id, and confirm that “everything is good.”
More than a week later, police enter this same student’s class around 12:45 p.m. They ask to speak to her, and they take her to the room across from her class. There, a detective and another police officer wait to question her. They begin as most interrogations do, with officers asking questions they already know the answers to, such as asking for her address. Again, they excuse their questions as simply part of the process of verifying the student’s information. At times when the student feels uncomfortable answering a certain question, they reassure her that they already know the answer. No one mentions the incident that happened the previous week until the student asks, whereupon they confess that this had to do with her praying in the hallway. The captain tells her there is “nothing to worry about.”
In the room is an officer who claims to be Muslim. Ironically, it is he who is asking her the most sensitive and toughest questions. He asks her why she was praying in the Chemical and Nuclear Engineering Building. She replies that she had class there, whereupon this officer tells her that she knows “what is here in Maryland.” When she recalls this part of the interrogation, you can tell she is confused at this statement. He mentioned something about radiation, she said, and he spoke as if she knew what was hidden beneath, or within, Maryland.
He continues to persist with a method that interrogators and psychologists alike find success in using, that is, the “I am like you, and I am for you” tactic. This officer reassures his subject, “I am Muslim, and I support you,” then proceeds to ask her where she is from, though he already knows. When she responds that she is from Pakistan, he asks her the most recycled question directed towards Muslims. “Do you have any ill feelings towards America?” The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, thought it outrageous to be addressed with such a question.
The interrogation ends with the subject asking the officers to provide her with an excuse for why they called her out of class. They tell her to say she was called because she was a witness for a hit and run.
The question hovering above this incident is clear: was this not an odd reaction to a student who simply prayed in a quiet hallway? And let us assume this student was praying in the oddest places on campus. Still, would this heightened response been necessary?
Thus, this incident must be addressed for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that this was an obvious inappropriate and offensive application of justice.
For one, Muslims are constantly pressured to accept things which their religion demands they reject. Thus, to request acceptance from a sector of society, society must be willing to, in turn, grant acceptance to that sector as well. But we are increasingly seeing the latter used as a means of merely bringing about the former.
When I shared this incident with the Muslim Student Association on Facebook, Rabee Haq, senior individual studies major, commented, “I’ve prayed numerous times all over campus and never had a problem.”
Haq was therefore understandably surprised to hear of the incident.
“I think this is definitely an exception,” he said. “UMD’s community is pretty welcoming.”
And while this is a reassuring statement, it makes this incident all the more incomprehensible, for it is a common conception among many Muslims that attend this university that they have the liberty to pray in almost any place on campus so long as they do not stand in anyone’s way.
What then, made this student’s case exceptional? Could it be that a close-minded faculty member happened to cross her path at the wrong time? Or could it possibly be the location she chose to pray at? Certainly, it was on the minds of those who questioned her, for they insisted the subject knew something of the area she chose to pray that she shouldn’t know.
Pursuing this sort of conjecture may lead one to endless cul-de-sacs of unanswered questions. Perhaps it is not the answers to these possibilities that Muslims seek, but a renewed commitment from the university that it will uphold the same promises it made to attract Muslims, and people of other religions, to its campus. Maybe it is not an apology this student seeks, but an admission of their lapse of judgment in overestimating the seriousness of her praying publicly. And if none of these are offered, at least we were granted the opportunity to voice the silenced injustices that Muslims face all around the nation for simply carrying out their religious duties.