Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Is Vanderbilt Tolerating Intolerance?

Uh-oh. Vanderbilt University is in a little bit of trouble with GLBT activists since this video started making the rounds:

Asked by a student whether he accepts or rejects that part of the Koran which calls for execution of practicing gays and lesbians, Vanderbilt’s Muslim chaplain Awadh A. Binhazim tried to pass the buck and say, well, Islam is not the only religion which has intolerant views towards gays and lebsians.

Binhazim also indicated it didn’t matter really since there is no such thing as a country which follows Islamic Law 100% of the time, that all Muslim countries follow a mixture of laws. The student pressed on, however, and Binhazim was forced to admit that homosexuality is punishable by death under Islamic Law.

Well, this is a bit of a pickle. I don’t know very much about Islam and have never read the Koran, but I don’t get the sense that Muslims are allowed to do too much interpretation of their holy text. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems that unlike Christianity, where the Bible is interpreted in hundreds of different ways and as a result there are hundreds of different Christian denominations, the Islamic faith is a little more rigid on that score. So while one can argue that there are Christian religious denominations that take a dim view of homosexuality, there are plenty of others that do not.

And I think that was the corner Binhazim got backed into here. He can't come out and say that some Koranic teachings are still valid while others are no longer abided in modern times, so he danced around it with his "mixture of laws" point.

Anyway, this blogger opines:
All of which has Vanderbilt racing to distance itself from Binhazim: "Vanderbilt University is dedicated to a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of race or sexuality," the school says in a statement. "Awadh A. Binhazim is not and has never been a Vanderbilt employee, and is not paid by the university. He is the university's Muslim chaplain under a working agreement that is similar to those signed with chaplains of other faiths at Vanderbilt. This working agreement requires Binhazim to observe Vanderbilt rules, including its non-discriminatory policies. Vanderbilt does not limit the free speech of its students, faculty, staff or its chaplains in any way."

Not limiting the free speech of its chaplains is a fantastic policy, and one we support at any school. But what would happen if a visiting chaplain came along and said his religion called for the extermination of Jews? Would Vanderbilt be letting him return to campus?

Of course there is no religion that calls for extermination of Jews so that’s a bit of a straw argument. And as a general principal I think it’s bad form to make people defend their religion. You shouldn’t have to defend why you accept or reject your religion, and your job shouldn’t be on the line when you can’t.

That said, when a religious teaching is itself intolerant, and calling for the execution of gays is certainly that, then people have every right to speak out. Especially when there have been news reports that gay teens are possibly being executed in Iran.

In Judeo-Christian religions we debate what the Bible says about anything and everything; indeed there are entire fields of study devoted to Biblical and Talmudic hermeneutics. But hermeneutic debates on cultural issues like homosexuality are never fruitful because a progressive Christian will never convince a fundamentalist that they are wrong, and vice versa. So we end up with this uncomfortable stalemate and endless bickering when cultural issues enter the public policy arena.

Where Islam is concerned, I just don’t know. Is there a Koranic hermeneutic discipline? Do people debate what the Koran actually says about homosexuality, what the intent of the text was or the context in which it was written? I don’t know. If anyone does, please enlighten me.

In the meantime, while I’m all for being tolerant and accepting of our nation’s religious diversity, I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so at the expense of our GLBT citizens. So I’m less concerned about Binhazim’s interpretation of Islamic Law than I am with how he would counsel someone on this issue.

We follow American laws here, not Islamic ones.