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Retreat rooms aren't Islamic - they're designed for something called multifaith

Analysis — A 'Retreat room' or prayer room at The University of Copenhagen has recently been widely debated, even in the Danish Parliament where a major political party has proposed a national prayer room ban. So we took a look at the literature, and it turns out the story of prayer rooms is pretty complex.

After 12 years of existence, the multi-faith South Campus retreat room recently became subject to controversies when Marie Krarup, an MP from the Danish People’s Party, said that it – and rooms like it – were »de facto Islamic«.

This opened deliberations on whether such spaces should be allowed in public institutions, or closed because they might present a hidden Islamic agenda, or be used by radicalised Muslim students to exert social pressure on their peers (i.e. making sure they pray during school hours). The discussions around this problem seemed to reach its zenith during a debate in the Danish Parliament that took place on 21 February.

The biggest problem with the above considerations is that they are mostly informed by opinion, rather than by fact. As far as facts go, Danish media publicised a case about radical islamists using the room at University College Capital (story in Danish).

In Parliament Mattias Tesfaye, Socialdemocratic MP, said he had been told by local institution managers from the suburbs of Copenhagen that they had elected to close their prayer rooms due to problems with Muslim students putting pressure on other Muslims to make them go and pray.

However, retreat rooms or, as they are jointly called in research literature, Multifaith Spaces (MFSs) have also been put under scientific scrutiny, which has resulted in multiple studies.

If the predictions of the researchers are right, multifaith – defined as the trend towards multiplication of beliefs with only optional, and often unwelcome, involvement of religions – and not Islam is becoming the mainstream religion in Europe. And the prohibition of multifaith spaces in Denmark could only result in the increase of interpersonal and intergroup tensions.

From ‘reflection lounges’ to ‘interfaith chapels’

MFS’s are quite a recent invention. As Terry Biddington, a scholar from the University of Manchester, notes in the paper “Towards the Theological Reading of Multifaith Spaces” the first explicitly all-inclusive Andachtsraum (German: prayer or worship room) appeared only in 1988.

It is hard to come up with any clear-cut definition of the rooms, as even the naming varies significantly between different places, ranging from ‘reflection lounges’ to ‘inter-faith chapels’ – or, in the case of The University of Copenhagen, stillerum and retræterum, meaning quiet room and retreat room. (for more see the online exhibition of the project “Multi-Faith Spaces: Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change“).

In general they can be described as places designed for religious and non-religious people alike to be used for the purposes of spiritual activity, meditation, reflection or relaxation. And while their appearance was an effect of both grassroots initiatives and voluntary decisions of facilities’ management, they began to be promoted and recommended, among others, by government agencies in Europe (for example here or here).

There are no uniform design guidelines that such spaces should be built and furnished around. But, as Andrew Crompton, Head of School of Architecture at the University of Liverpool, notes in the paper “The Architecture of Multifaith Spaces: God Leaves the Building” they can be divided into two major types, negative and positive.

Negative spaces, shared by the majority of multifaith spaces in Europe, are »the architectural equivalent of ambient noise«. This type is typically a bland room »with a few religious texts on a shelf and the paraphernalia of religion, when not actually in use, kept out of sight in boxes.«

While MFS’s offer a convenient solution to many Muslims, their needs are rarely the main motivation for the creation of such spaces.

Positive spaces, on the other hand, are characterised by a »unity by inclusion,« where the artefacts of different faiths are on display, and the spaces are visibly occupied by different groups.

Multifaith spaces at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), that is those at South Campus, City Campus and North Campus, uniformly adhere to the negative design. As The University Post wrote, the controversial South Campus room has »a woven carpet on the floor in addition to some cushions and a small pile of mats that can be used for meditation. On a few shelves there are a variety of religious and philosophical texts from a variety of religions,« which fits perfectly into the above description.

Europeans remain stubborn believers

Multifaith spaces are a result of the changes in the religious population of Europe in the recent years (see Pew Research Center analysis). But to equate the existence of such rooms with the rise in the numbers of Muslims is a simplification at best. While they offer a convenient solution to many Muslims, their needs are rarely the main motivation for the creation of such spaces.

In fact we should search for their origin in a completely different place. Multifaith spaces have their roots in a combination of compromised secularisation and globalisation.

While Europeans are known for leaving the framework of organised religion, they remain stubborn believers. As a WIN-Gallup International poll showed in 2012, the so-called unaffiliated, that is those who do not affiliate themselves with any religious denomination, account for more than half of the European population. However, a majority of them still hold some kind of religious beliefs (according to a Pew Research Center poll) with 77 percent believing in some kind of spiritual reality (see Eurobarometer).

This puts a strain on the notion of secularisation. Because of that Peter L. Berger, prominent scholar and one of secularisation’s former proponents, changed his attitude and argued more recently that »[m]odernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralising

The notion of multi-faith became politically significant, because, as Crompton argues »it is replacing Christianity as the face of public religion in Europe.« However, the mainstream multi-faith retained one characteristic of secularism: the visible preference for private beliefs, rather then public religion (see here).

Because of that it fits first and foremost into the needs of unaffiliated. And in the same time may attract the ire of others.

MFS as a multi-sided tool

While multifaith spaces were born into this picture of pluralism, there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding around them. On one hand they are praised as a ‘new level of religious harmony’ for their role in the facilitation of religious practice, the promotion of tolerance, and the balancing of religious and secular provisions (see here).

On the other hand they can evoke equally strong negative reactions. They have repeatedly been accused (also before the current Danish debate) of being ‘hidden mosques’ that ‘creep into the public spaces, cloaked behind political correctness’ both in the name of secularism and Christianity (see The Economist).

Meanwhile, a few years ago a group of Muslims at the City University in London loudly refused to pray in a multifaith room, demanding a separate space (see BBC News).

The problems seem to come from relying on what Adam Dinham calls the muddle of ‘multifaith paradigm’ in his paper “The Multi-faith Paradigm in Policy and Practice: Problems, Challenges, Directions“. Two contradictory understandings of religion hide under this name. On one hand, religions are treated as heroes of social cohesion that can bring different social groups together; on the other, as villains who radicalise individuals. Thus the multifaith paradigm and the accompanying activities serve a dual purpose: to use different religions to bring tolerance and sense of togetherness, and to fight religion, introducing preference for more privatised faith.

This is especially evident at universities, where the attitude towards religion is often well-defined. Jonathan D. Smith, a PhD student from the University of Leeds, proposed in his review of MFSs at the British Universities a model of assessing university policies towards such spaces with two axes. The first axis is “pragmatism”, that is the degree to which “best practices” are applied by such means as the “careful timetabling, consistent management and regular consultation with users”. The second axis is termed “public religion” and refers to the general policy towards either treating religion as an unwanted part of campus culture (the minus side) or the positive aspect of diversity (the plus side). As Smith argues, multifaith spaces seem to be working better, the more on the plus side of both they are.

And the verdict is …

UCPH seems to be on the minus side of both axes. Its multifaith spaces are open to all but largely unsupervised. And as the recent debate at the Danish parliament showed, there does not seem to be any place for the expression of religious diversity at public institutions in Denmark. Together with the negative design, such spaces at UCPH give a strong impression of preference towards the “hidden belief”.

But that means that the ‘retreat room’ makes Muslims and their prayers, equally to other religions, more private rather than public. There is no positive enforcement of Islam. Unlike some UK universities, UCPH did not introduce separate rooms for Muslims or any kind of gender separation.

The phenomenon of multifaith spaces may be seen as the danger for Christianity only if one sticks to the notion of political domination and public sanctioning of religion. In the sphere of fact such spaces are a result of, rather than reason for, the gradual diminution of the Christian Church’s position.

The problem is to find a better and more inclusive way for housing multifaith spaces. As Crompton and Hewson, both participants in the one of the biggest multifaith research projects around, argue, for now the »[m]ulti-faith design is a provisional business, an act of casuistry rather than synthesis. Although it ams at equality of opportunity, users can never be served equally.«

This is probably where the future efforts should focus: to find a place inclusive like the negative spaces, yet leaving a place for positive distinction.

The author of this analysis is a Religious Roots of Europe student af The Faculty of Theology at UCPH. All of the articles cited above are either freely available or can be accessed by the students and employees of the University of Copenhagen through the REX platform. 

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