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Hijabs at a Harvard Gym

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's a measure of America's multicultural journey over the past half-century that we've gone from "God and Man at Yale" to Allah and Woman at Harvard.

In a contretemps scarcely imaginable in William F. Buckley's day, Harvard has closed one of its gyms to men for six hours a week so that Muslim women can exercise comfortably. "Sharia at Harvard," warned blogger Andrew Sullivan. A Harvard Crimson columnist blasted "Harvard's misguided accommodationist policy."

Meanwhile, a separate controversy has flared over broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer from the steps of Harvard's main library during Islamic Awareness Week. Three graduate students, writing in the Crimson, argued that the prayer sowed "seeds of division and disrespect" by declaring that "there is no lord except God" and that "Mohammad is the Messenger of God." Harvard, they wrote, "should not grant license to any religious group, minority or otherwise, to use a loudspeaker to declare false the profoundly important and personal beliefs of others."

Buckley, who died last month, famously proclaimed that "I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University." Were he still with us, he would no doubt be saying "I told you so," except more polysyllabically. Leave it to the Ivy League to abandon its cherished secularism -- in defense of Islam.

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.

Harvard authorities managed to get this one right -- Buckley's preference for the Boston phone book notwithstanding.

marcusr@washpost.com


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