Shaw University closed its mosque in 2020. Its Muslim congregation wants it back open.
When people walked into the mosque on Shaw University’s campus in years past, it was as if they could feel the Muslim prayer of “Oh God, open the doors of mercy to us,” Zainab Qaabidh says.
“When you walked inside of this masjid, you felt like you received God’s mercy,” said Qaabidh, board member of the King Khalid Mosque. “It was a sense of serenity and peace and family.”
But it was stripped away from the members of the mosque, or masjid, that has been open since 1983 on the edge of downtown Raleigh on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Shaw University and the mosque’s board voluntarily closed the King Khalid Mosque in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the university hasn’t opened it to the public since.
Over 50 people braved a cold Saturday morning and afternoon to protest the continuing closure outside of the university’s International Studies Center where the mosque is housed.
Families with children held many signs that included messages of “Open our mosque now” and “My faith matters.”
A man sang verses of the Quran in Arabic through a microphone as cars passed by near the university and the Raleigh skyline.
“We are still not allowed to have this building accessed by the Muslim community at large, despite the Shaw University chapel being open to the public,” said Nigel Edwards, an attorney for the mosque’s governing board, in an interview. “To have this discrimination occur at the hands of a university at the forefront of the civil rights movement is repugnant.”
The mosque’s members are primarily African-American, he said, with many members having migrated from countries such as Palestine, Gambia, Algeria, Morocco and other Arabic countries.
University leaders say that only Shaw students can access the mosque, citing the pandemic as the same reason almost three years later.
But the King Khalid Mosque is a place of worship for the larger Raleigh community of the Muslim faith outside of the university, Edwards said, and members of the mosque are calling the closure discriminatory.
In a statement, Shaw University officials said that access to the mosque is permitted only for students “in the wake of the pandemic.”
“In response to recent protests, Shaw University respects the First Amendment rights of individuals to peaceably assemble and voice their concerns,” the university said. “As previously announced, the International Studies Center on the campus of Shaw University is open and available for use to enrolled students; access to the mosque by Shaw students is coordinated through the University’s Chaplain office.”
Claims of discrimination against Shaw mosque
Edwards and the dozens of protesters who convened Saturday accuse Shaw officials of being biased against the mosque due to its Baptist roots and the public access to the Thomas J. Boyd Chapel on campus.
According to Edwards, the congregation has had many issues over the years regarding access to the building. Since the mosque is operated by a separate nonprofit with a board of directors, the university has denied several requests for public access to the mosque.
The community is hoping to negotiate the mosque’s reopening and caretaking of the facility with the school’s supervision, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim advocacy group in the nation.
“As you know, the mosque was established with financial support from the Muslim community for the purpose of serving the Muslim community. We urge you to allow it to return to that purpose,” wrote Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR deputy director, in a letter to Shaw President Paulette Dillard. “Given that the school chapel is open to all, including members of the public, Shaw University should not keep it closed under the pretense of COVID-19 regulations. Shaw University should also not take any steps to remove or replace this sacred space. We encourage Shaw University to respect the diversity of both its local community and its campus by reopening the mosque to the public again.”
“My children used to play at the playground here... and go to Sunday school,” said Ahmed Jimcale, who has attended the mosque for over 20 years. “(COVID-19) was their excuse. Since then, they haven’t opened it.”
In the meantime, many of the mosque’s members have attended the mosque of the Islamic Association of Raleigh near the campus of N.C. State University.
Shaw University mosque history
It’s not the first time this has happened. University officials sought to turn the mosque into campus offices in 2002, The Chicago Tribune reported then. It prompted protests similar to the ones today.
The history began with a $1 million donation from the government of Saudi Arabia under King Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who died in 1982.
The money was donated to create the International and Islamic Studies Center, although “Islamic” was dropped from the name of the center shortly after the completion of construction in 1983, according to a 2003 Arab News article.
The Saudi gift was arranged by Urabi Mustafa, the late Shaw professor who was director of the International Studies Program and was an expert on affairs in the Middle East.