Conflicts between the religious needs of minorities and those of the
rest of society always have the potential to take a reasoned debate off
That's what happened when the otherwise trivial question of the hours
of operation of a gym on Harvard University's campus become a major
The dispute centers on the request of six female Muslim Harvard
students. Speaking with the support of the Harvard College Women's
Center, they point out that their faith forbids them from wearing
revealing clothing in the presence of men, the school ought to provide
women's only hours at one of its gymnasiums where they can work out in
comfort without any males there to leer at them.
The university responded positively, and since Feb. 4, no men have been
allowed in the Quadrangle Recreational Athletic for sessions amounting
to six hours per week.
NO BIG DEAL?
Given the fact that this is but one of a number of such facilities on
the campus, and the hours set aside are but a fraction of the total
available to everyone, the school probably assumed that the concession
was not a big deal.
If so, they were dead wrong.
The decision to exclude men from the gym has set off a furious debate
not only at Harvard, but on the editorial pages of many of America's
Adding fuel to the fire was Harvard's decision to allow the Muslim call
to prayer to be broadcast across the campus from the steps of the main
library during the recent "Islam Awareness Week."
Harvard computer-science professor Harry Lewis wrote in The Boston
Globe that the university was being hypocritical since it upheld gender
equality under other circumstances, but decided that Islam's needs
trumped other values. Moreover, he added, the school's refusal to allow
the military's ROTC program on campus showed that its devotion to
diversity (which Harvard claimed was at stake) was subject to
exceptions based on the political popularity of the group in question.
On the other side of the debate, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus
answered that "it's reasonable to set aside a few off-peak hours at one
of Harvard's many gyms." Identifying herself "as a member of another
minority religion, Judaism," she added that "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."
But is this just a reasonable accommodation to a few without damage to
The answer is that there are limits to what a minority faith can expect
in the way of accommodation.
Marcus herself cites the 1998 case of the "Yale 5," a small group of
Orthodox Jews who insisted that they could not conform to the school's
rules, which demanded that they live in one of the co-ed dorms on
As one who reported on that story at the time, I remember well how that
case generated support from conservatives around the country, who
perceived them as defending traditional values against immoral academia.
But, as is the case with many such cases, the farther you got from New
Haven, the more attractive the demand was.
What was really at stake was an attempt by an fervently-Orthodox group to
embarrass other equally observant Jews, who saw no problem with living
on a same-sex floor while members of the other gender lived on other
floors in the same building.
The "Yale 5" lost their case because it was understood that if their
sensibilities were offended by what they imagined might be going on in
their classmate's rooms, then they could get an education elsewhere.
The principle at Harvard is the same. The law can require reasonable
accommodations for minorities, but reasonable does not mean that the
rest of society need to alter its values to satisfy the convenience of
It would be unthinkable that public schools here demand, as they have
in France, that Muslim girls take off their head scarves or Jewish boys
their yarmulkes in order to sit in class. But the Harvard decision is akin
to a decision to mandate those girls their own female-only classrooms.
In those cases where institutions do rightly accommodate minorities,
such as the provision of cafeterias where kosher and halal food can be
obtained, as is the case at Harvard and many other schools, the
accommodation does not exclude people since anyone can elect to eat a
Likewise, the passive exhibit of a menorah on Harvard Square or the
sound of a bell is very different thing from authorizing a call to
prayer, whose translation amounts to a public proclamation that all
non-Muslim faiths are false. The public square need not, as rabid
separationists demand, be rendered naked of faith. But it is another
thing entirely to provide a minority a beachhead from which it may seek
to delegitimize everyone else.
CONTEXT OF INTOLERANCE
It would, however, be disingenuous to debate this case without
acknowledging that it's being discussed in a context in which an
aggressive Islam is fighting for control of not only Muslim and Arab
societies, but the West as well.
While the left-liberal milieu of Cambridge might be a long way from a
debate about the viability of the imposition of Sharia, or Muslim
religious law (as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested to a
shocked Britain, which has seen its capital transformed into what
author Melanie Phillips termed "Londonistan") on our society, but there
is little question that Islamists are pushing in a direction that
should worry everyone.
That includes moderate Muslims, who will now face additional pressures
even in hyper-secular Harvard, or anywhere else where such demands
are met to conform to the behavioral norms sought by the
Harvard may have rushed to act to avoid being termed Islamophobic by
pro-Islamist groups like the Council on American Islamic Rights and
other grievance-mongerers who foster the myth that Muslims have been
subject to widespread discrimination since 9/11.
As columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote last week on his Atlantic magazine
blog, "They [Harvard] would never do that kind of thing for any other
religion. … What's next? Removing all gay men from the locker room?"
American Jews, who have always fought to protect the few from having
the majority trample their rights, are naturally sympathetic to the
desire of another minority for respect. But we should shrink from
backing measures of highly selective and politicized "tolerance" which
may be the forerunner of other demands that will restrict rather than
expand religious and political liberty.
A Harvard gymnasium isn't necessarily the place where the West must
begin its defense against jihad. But what at first glance seemed like
an easy way to indulge a minority might well be the harbinger of
something much more troubling.