Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hijabs at Harvard - Seeing Crimson

The latest debate on the Harvard University campus is the amount of accomodation to give to practices of Islam. Should they admit only women to a gym a few hours a week, should they allow a muezzin's call to prayer to be heard in the Harvard Yard...

These are some of the issues that many universities - the ivory towers of academic and free-thought - are being challeneged with. Opponents have suggested that the imposition of Islamic strictures on the Harvard student body contravenes the ethos that the institution is trying to foster, and may impede or even offend other students in their daily goings on.

Ruth Marcus has an article about this in today's WashPost.

Here's an excerpt:


My reaction is more along the lines of: "Get a grip." It's reasonable to set aside a few off-peak hours at one of Harvard's many gyms. It's not offensive to have the call to prayer echoing across Harvard Yard, any more than it is to ring church bells or erect a giant menorah there.

I share the apprehensions stirred up by the more radical followers of Islam, with their drive to restore the caliphate and subjugate women. But I come to this issue as a member of another minority religion, Judaism, whose adherents often seek flexibility from the majority culture in order to practice their faith. As with Islam, my religion's more observant believers endorse practices -- segregating the sexes at prayer, excluding women from engaging in certain rituals -- that I find disturbing, bordering on offensive. I have relatives who would shrink from shaking my hand. Still, I would defend to the death their right not to touch me.

Certainly, accommodation has its limits. Ten years ago, Orthodox Jewish students at Yale sued -- unsuccessfully -- after the university refused their requests to live off campus because, they claimed, living in co-ed dorms would violate their religious principles. Muslim students at Australian universities are demanding course schedules that fit into their prayer times and separate, female-only dining areas. In Britain, female Muslim medical students have objected to being required to roll up their sleeves to scrub and to exposing their forearms in the operating room. Fine with me if they need a place to scrub in private, but your right to exercise your religion ends where my safety begins.

A regime of reasonable accommodation inevitably entails difficult -- Talmudic, even -- line-drawing. That's not true of the claim that the call to prayer offends because it proclaims publicly what other religions are polite enough to keep private: the exclusive primacy of their faith. Surely even Harvard students aren't so delicate that they can't cope with hearing speech with which they disagree -- in a language they don't understand.

All of this matters not because it's Harvard but because it underscores that America is not immune from the tensions over Islamic rights that have gripped Western Europe. In the Washington area earlier this year, a Muslim runner was disqualified from a track meet after officials decreed that her body-covering unitard violated the rules.

There have been similar disputes over women seeking to wear headscarves on the college basketball court or while walking the police beat. More problematically, Muslim cabdrivers at the Minneapolis airport sought unsuccessfully last year to be excused from picking up passengers carrying alcohol.

The wisdom of the Framers ensures that some of the excesses of Europe -- in both directions -- won't be replicated here. The French ban on students wearing headscarves would not only be unimaginable in the United States, it would also violate the Constitution's free-exercise clause. The archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that the British legal system should incorporate aspects of sharia law; that, too, would be unimaginable here and would violate the establishment clause.

But the Constitution goes only so far to help American society navigate the familiar issues raised by this unfamiliar religion. Muslim women who enroll at Harvard and turn up in hijabs at its gyms reflect a strand of Islam that society ought to encourage, the better to compete with its more odious cousins.""

Where would you draw the line - between accomodation, and compromising one's own freedoms?

Ruth's rule that all is fine up to the point "wherel my safety begins." I think i disagree? This issue is not about safety, it is about how accomodating a society should be to the many divergent views and practices that it has within it. For increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious societies like many in Europe, America and Asia-Pacific --- this is a major issue for them. It cannot be a free for all... there need to be rules and restrictions governing every right. That is the price of inclusion in a modern society.

So how do we accomodate, not alienate, but at the same time how do we embrace, without losing anything in so doing?