By Katherine Kersten,
Last week, I wrote about Minneapolis Community and TechnicalCollege, which is planning to install facilities to help Muslim students perform ritual washing before daily prayers. It's a simple matter of extending "hospitality" to newcomers, says President Phil Davis -- no different than providing a fish option in the college cafeteria for Christian students during Lent.
MCTC is apparently the first public institution in Minnesota to enter this unfamiliar territory. Where is it looking for guidance?
Dianna Cusick, MCTC's director of legal affairs, is overseeing the project. She referred me to the Muslim Accommodations Task Force, whose website she is using as a primary resource http://www.startribune.com/2617"They've done all the research," she said.
On the site, I found information about the handful of public colleges that have "wudu," or ritual bathing, facilities.
But I also discovered something more important for colleges seeking guidance on "accommodations": Projects like MCTC's are likely to be the first step in a long process.
The task force's eventual objectives on American campuses include the following, according to the website: permanent Muslim prayer spaces, ritual washing facilities, separate food and housing for Muslim students, separate hours at athletic facilities for Muslim women, paid imams or religious counselors, and campus observance of Muslim holidays. The task force is already hailing "pioneering" successes. At SyracuseUniversity in New York, for example, "Eid al Fitr is now an official university holiday," says an article featured on the website. "The entire university campus shuts down to mark the end of Ramadan." At HenryFordCommunity College in Dearborn, Mich., "halal" food -- ritually slaughtered and permissible under Islamic law -- is marked by green stickers in the cafeteria and "staff are well-trained in handling practices."
At GeorgetownUniversity, Muslim women can live apart in housing that enables them to "sleep in an Islamic setting," as the website puts it. According to a student at the time the policy was adopted, the university housing office initially opposed the idea, on grounds that all freshman should have the experience of "living in dorms and dealing with different kinds of people." That might sound appealing, Muslim students told a reporter in an article featured on the website. But in their view, the reporter wrote, "learning to live with 'different kinds of people' " actually "causes more harm than good" for Muslims, because it requires them to live in an environment that "distracts them from their desire to become better Muslims, and even draw[s] weaker Muslims away from Islam."
The task force isn't operated by overly enthusiastic college students. Its professional staff, based in the Washington, D.C., area, includes coordinators who provide legal advice, teach students to lobby, write letters on their behalf, and help them overcome "obstacles" such as college administrators' concerns about violating the separation of church and state.
The Muslim Accommodations Task Force is a project of the Muslim Student Association of the U.S. and Canada. MSA's mission is to enable Muslims here "to practice Islam as a complete way of life," and its "main goal" is "spreading Islam," according to its website. The association calls itself the "landmark Muslim organization in North America," and says it has chapters on 600 campuses.
On MSA's website (http://www.msa-national.org/), the sort of inclusive language used by the Muslim Accommodations Task Force gives way to hard-hitting advice for insiders. One downloadable publication --"Your Chapter's Guide to Campus Activism" -- describes how activists can advance political positions such as "restoring justice within the Palestinian territories," and opposition to the Patriot Act and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cover features a student with a megaphone, and the slogan "Speak Out! Stand Up! Say It Loud!"
MSA views itself as America's moral and political vanguard. "As Muslims, we are a nation elected by God to lead humanity," the guide announces. On campus, that means initiating "mass mobilization" through "direct action campaigns" à la the 1960s, when students were "itching to fight" for change.
The guide explains how Muslim student groups can obtain funding, identify coalition partners and "bodies of power" on campus, work within student government, and use the media. "Marches, rallies and protests on campus" can "generate massive amounts of exposure for your MSA and its cause," it advises.
In all these endeavors, however, establishing credibility is vital to success, the guide emphasizes. Activists must "take full advantage of the open-minded environment" on campus, and skillfully employ the language of patriotism and rights. "[M]obilization commences the moment you speak in a language that resonates with your audience," the guide adds.
Thus, activists should take care to position themselves as mainstream Americans. "Make use of terminology like 'our country,' 'our security,' and 'we, the American people,' " the guide suggests. "Unless you identify with the people, you will never gain the legitimacy to criticize state policies," though "identifying yourself as an American" will not necessarily preclude criticism.
Activists should also frame their objectives in language that Americans embrace. "Most Americans identify with concepts such as 'justice,' 'self-determination,' 'human rights' and 'democracy,' " the guide explains. "These terms will be constructive when delivering your message, regardless of the issue."
For example, if you want to bring a speaker to campus to discuss the importance of hijab (Muslim women's headwear or covering), you will be "more effective" if you broaden the topic to "women's rights." Is this where MCTC is headed? Or is nothing more dramatic going on there than fish on Friday?
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