Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nerd News: Harvard's Brush with Religious Accommodation? -- Plus, Grad Students Speak Up!

Here's an interesting little something.

Harvard recently had an "Islamic Awareness Week," during which the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast over the campus from loudspeakers on the library steps.

3 graduate students wrote to the campus newspaper to express their objection. Well, good on them for having the nerve and stomach to speak out -- because, and you know this as well as I do, on any campus these days you risk being labeled all kinds of unpleasant things if you say something unpopular.

So, I give you what the Harvard dissenters have to say. Two of them, by the way, are graduate students in Middle Eastern studies, and 1 is from the Kennedy School of Government.

Two weeks ago, the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan in Arabic, was broadcast from the steps of Widener Library across Harvard Yard as part of Harvard Islamic Society’s “Islam Awareness Week.” No doubt, the week’s events have broadened some horizons, and exposed some in our community to facets of a religion with which they were not previously familiar. This is certainly a good thing. However, it should be asked if other, more important concerns have been overlooked. We feel compelled to write this editorial to initiate a discussion on the intersection of pluralism and Islam, and the content of the adhan itself, which translated into English reads:

God is the Greatest

I bear witness that there is no lord except God

I bear witness that Mohammad is the Messenger of God

Hurry to prayer

Hurry to success

God is the Greatest

There is no lord except God

It is wonderful that we embrace the free practice of many religions at Harvard. We are thankful that most members of the Harvard community understand the importance of respecting people’s rights to have their own beliefs. We are deeply committed to respecting and protecting the rights of others to believe at they choose, and we believe that one of the first principles of respectful conduct and religious practice is to avoid unnecessarily criticizing or confronting others’ personal beliefs. We cherish the fact that it is possible to discuss our differences with our classmates and neighbors without that discussion erupting into conflict and sowing the seeds of division and disrespect.

We believe that the adhan, issued publicly in a pluralistic setting, does indeed sow those seeds of division and disrespect. It does so by declaring that “there is no lord except God,” and that “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” To the extent that this statement is a profession of faith, it is benign; however, by virtue of its content, it is also a declaration of religious superiority and a declaration against all beliefs that conflict with those two statements. This puts the adhan in a different class of religious expression than, say, the sounding of church bells or the displaying of a menorah because it publicly advances a theological position. By doing so, it comes precariously close to crossing the line between the legitimate creation of awareness and proselytization. Imagine, if you would, a Southern Baptist evangelist standing atop the steps of Widener Library, exhorting passersby to pray, denying the validity to other faiths, and declaring the divinity of Jesus. Would such an activity be congruent with Harvard’s tradition of liberalism and tolerance?

We do not believe so. Indeed, other religions make truth claims similar to those contained in the adhan, but those claims, as a matter of practice at Harvard, are voiced privately or not at all. The adhan, it seems, is the exception to Harvard’s unspoken rule of religious respect and tolerance.

The authors of this piece do not believe that there is no lord but God. Nor do we believe that Muhammad was God’s prophet. In fact, we do not believe in prophets. We expect that our statements might be offensive to some, and for that reason, we believe that it wouldn’t be appropriate, in the name of spreading awareness about our beliefs, use a public address system to declare to everyone in Harvard Yard that God is imaginary, that prayer is a waste of time, or that Muhammad was not a prophet. Similarly, it is best that those who hold similar beliefs about Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion avoid loudly declaring the falsehood of other faiths.

The Harvard community should be very aware of Islam, as it is one of the world’s most influential religions. We believe that Islam Awareness Week ought to continue, but in a way that does not foist Islamic doctrines upon everyone. We believe that students who resent the forceful infusion of theology with their Harvard experience should be spared the indignity, and we believe strongly that our community 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.

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