Ontario university defends decision to kick non-Muslim out of course that teaches Islamic preaching

A London, Ont., university is defending its decision to restrict access to a course that teaches Muslims how to proselytize.

The Huron College course — The Muslim Voice: Islamic Preaching, Public Speaking and Worship — was, according to the syllabus, “open to Muslim men and women who offer religious leadership and/or speak publicly about Islam on behalf of their communities.”

The school allowed a non-Muslim to enrol in the course, but then kicked him out because, they said, they didn’t want to open the course to auditors. That student, Moray Watson, is an accountant who says he is an opponent of Islamic extremism and enrolled in the course partly to test the prerequisite in the syllabus.

“[The school] gets $6.5-million [from the government]. Some of it is mine and I’m not allowed to take the course because I’m not a Muslim,” he said.

After he complained, the school changed the syllabus, saying the course was “open to men and women who offer religious leadership to Muslim communities and/or speak publicly about Islam on behalf of a Muslim community.” It noted: “Enrollment is limited; preference is given to matriculated students.”

While both the professor and the school have said Mr. Watson could re-enroll in the course if he were willing to take it for credit, they defended the need to restrict the class to Muslims or people who serve the Muslim community.

Stephen McClatchie, the principal of the college, said he regretted that Mr. Watson was allowed to successfully sign up for the course before the requirements were clarified.

“That was clearly something we should have done better. Situations like this arise and it’s an occasion for us to review our auditing policy, which we will certainly be doing coming out of this, as well as our expectations coming out of pastoral colleges,” he said.

Huron College, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario that started out as an Anglican seminary, offers several practical religious courses aimed at teaching future priests and Christian church leaders rhetorical and preaching skills.

This year, the school created a course aimed at Muslims, devised by Ingrid Mattson, the London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies, an academic position that focuses on research and teaching relevant to Islamic thought and theology.

She said that as a practical matter, the course is largely graded on a student’s ability to, for example, preach Islamic scripture and deliver an Islamic blessing. The interactive nature of the course makes it difficult for an auditor, she said, but there’s no religious requirement for this class, per se.

“I thought [Mr. Watson] may have been Muslim. I had no idea when he came to class whether he was Muslim or not,” she said.

Mr. Watson said he believes that the prohibition against auditors was put in place to keep non-Muslims like himself out of the class.

“It was the speed at which I was rejected,” he said, noting another auditor was allowed to take the course for credit. “I [received] an email telling me her course was full. … I was never given the option of taking her course for credit.”

If Mr. Watson continued to pursue a spot in the class, Mr. McClatchie said, the school would talk to him about the practical requirements, as it did when other students made similar requests.

A Buddhist student tried to take a course on Christian homiletics a few years ago. After some discussion, it was decided that the student in that case would not be comfortable with some of the requirements.

“We do not feel we have discriminated against him on the basis of religion. Here, we were concerned about the experience of students in what is a practical class and their need to apply leadership skills from a particular perspective,” said Mr. McClatchie.

Yet Mr. Watson believes he is unable to pursue a spot in the course as he doesn’t meet the prerequisites spelled out in the syllabus.

James Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said his group opposes faith tests. The exception, however, is seminaries. It’s reasonable, Mr. Turk said, to require students who are training to be leaders within their religious communities to adhere to those beliefs.

Mr. Watson believes a course on how to preach is better suited for a mosque or community centre than it is for a publicly funded university. The student believes he should have the right to see what Ms. Mattson is teaching, particularly in light of what he believes is a growing strain of Islamic extremism in the community.

Ms. Mattson encouraged Mr. Watson to take one of her alternative courses on Islam and politics instead.

“I don’t know to what extent he has a genuine interest or to what extent he has an ideological commitment to a certain world view of Muslims,” she said. “There are people who have genuine concerns and there are ways for them to engage in discussions with Muslims, or with me, about these issues. I would think the Islam and politics class would have been much more suited to his interests.”