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By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted: April 12, 2007
Cultural clashes involving Islam have recently made headlines in Minnesota. At the airport, some Muslim taxi drivers refuse to transport passengers carrying alcohol; at Target stores, some Muslim cashiers won't scan pork products. Now there's a new point of friction: Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Its officials say the college, a public institution, has a strict policy of not promoting religion or favoring one religion over another. "The Constitution prevents us from doing this in any form," says Dianna Cusick, director of legal affairs.
But that seems to depend on your religion.
Where Christianity is concerned, the college goes to great lengths to avoid any hint of what the courts call "entanglement" or support of the church. Yet the college is planning to install facilities for Muslims to use in preparing for daily prayers, an apparent first at a public institution in Minnesota.
Separation of church and state is clearest at the college during the Christmas season. A memo from Cusick and President Phil Davis, dated Nov. 28, 2006, exhorted supervisors to banish any public display of holiday cheer: "As we head into the holiday season ... "all public offices and areas should refrain from displays that may represent to our students, employees or the public that the college is promoting any particular religion." Departments considering sending out holiday cards, the memo added, should avoid cards "that appear to promote any particular religious holiday."
Last year, college authorities caught one rule-breaker red-handed. A coffee cart that sells drinks and snacks played holiday music "tied to Christmas," and "complaints and concerns" were raised, according to a faculty e-mail. College authorities quickly quashed the practice.
They appear to take a very different attitude toward Islam. Welcome and accommodation are the order of the day for the college's more than 500 Muslim students. The college has worked with local Muslim leaders to ensure that these students' prayer needs and concerns are adequately addressed, Davis told me.
Muslim prayer is an increasingly controversial issue. Many Muslim students use restroom sinks to wash their feet before prayer. Other students have complained, and one Muslim student fell and injured herself while lifting her foot out of a sink.
Some local Muslim leaders have advised the college staff that washing is not a required practice for students under the circumstances, according to Davis. Nevertheless, he says, he wants to facilitate it for interested students. "It's like when someone comes to your home, you want to be hospitable," Davis told me. "We have new members in our community coming here; we want to be hospitable."
So the college is making plans to use taxpayer funds to install facilities for ritual foot-washing. Staff members are researching options, and a school official will visit a community college in Illinois to view such facilities while attending a conference nearby. College facilities staff members are expected to present a proposal this spring.
In Davis' view, the foot-washing plan does not constitute promotion or support of religion. "The foot-washing facilities are not about religion, they are about customer service and public safety," he says. He sees no significant difference between using public funds to construct prayer-related facilities for Muslim students and the cafeteria's provision of a fish option for Christian students during Lent.
College officials claim that the restrictions on Christmas displays apply to employees who are state agents, and so are subject to more restrictions, while students are free to express their religious beliefs.
But where the Muslim prayer facilities are concerned, college authorities themselves are consulting with religious leaders, researching other schools, and using taxpayer money to make improvements to facilitate one group's prayer.
Issues surrounding the intersection of church and state and religious accommodation are complex. But the college's treatment of Christianity and Islam seems to reflect a double standard.
It's hard to imagine the college researching and paying for special modifications to the college to facilitate Christian rituals. And the "safety" justification? Imagine if a particularly strict group of Christian students found it necessary to sometimes baptize others in the restroom sinks. Would the school build them a baptism basin because a student hit his head on a sink?
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted April 17, 2006
Last week, I wrote about Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 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 (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 Syracuse University 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 Henry Ford Community 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 Georgetown University, 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 (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?
By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune
Posted April 18, 2007
Last week, I wrote about Minneapolis Community and Technical College's proposal to install ritual washing facilities to facilitate Muslim prayer. Is this a tempest in a teapot, as some have suggested?
Canada, our neighbor to the north, is farther down the "accommodations" road. A glance north can shed light on whether prayer spaces and ritual washing facilities are likely to satisfy activists for long.
Last month, the Canadian Federation of Students issued a report, titled "Final Report of the Task Force on Needs of Muslim Students," that calls for sweeping changes at the country's institutions of higher education. The federation represents more than 500,000 students across Canada, about half of the nation's total. While the report focuses on Ontario, its conclusions are applicable across the country and internationally, said Jesse Greener, the Federation's Ontario chairperson.
Some recommended changes could affect all students. For example, the report criticizes Canada's loan-based system of financing higher education and calls for outright grants to students. "Education related government loans should not accumulate interest," it says, since Islam "opposes usury and involvement with interest-bearing loans." Other changes would be more focused. The report endorses "women-only" time at athletic facilities, and urges colleges to "provide curtains or screens over the observation windows" when women are using the pool.
The report calls not just for Muslim-only prayer space but for "multiple prayer spaces" with "easy access" from all over campus. All new building plans should include prayer space and ritual washing facilities if necessary, it adds.
Food service workers must learn to prepare halal food, which is ritually slaughtered and otherwise permissible under Sharia law. After preparing non-halal food, staff must "change sanitary gloves and wash cutlery and surfaces" to avoid contaminating halal food.
What if a campus fails to make these changes, and others like them? It is guilty, says the report, of "Islamophobia" -- an "emerging form of racism," according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Islamophobia includes more than clearly inappropriate behavior such as violence against Muslims or unreasonable suspicion of them. It can be as "subtle" as a remark that includes a "stereotype" or betrays the speaker's "lack of understanding" of Islam (such as the notion that Sharia law treats women as second class citizens). Just "one comment" of this kind can create a "poisoned" learning environment for Muslim students, the report says.
"Islamophobic" comments will soon land Canadians in serious trouble, if the federation has its way. The report outlines a comprehensive system "to encourage and facilitate a culture of reporting Islamophobia on campus. Anti-discrimination officers should be notified whenever such a comment is made, it says.
But the report makes clear that systems like this will not eradicate Islamophobia from Canadian campuses. To remove stereotypes, faculty, staff, students and administrators must all learn "the tenets of Islam," it said. "Education modules" for professors should incorporate a focus on "Islam and Islamophobia," while student activities could range from more courses on themes of the Qur'an and the Islamic world today to "socials, programs and other initiatives" to teach about Islam. Everyone on campus should learn to recognize his or her "collective responsibility to identify and stop Islamophobia."
Throughout this process, however, Islam must not be taught from a "Western perspective." This qualifies as Islamophobia, because it "misrepresents Islam." At the same time, the report says, some Muslim students have called for integrating "Islamic perspectives" in disciplines such as marketing, nursing and finance," since Islam's view of these differs from those of the West.
The Muslim Students Association of the U.S. and Canada is heavily involved in the Canadian Federation of Students' new report and lobbying. Its president is a member of the task force, and has been a spokesman for its recommendations. The association is the organization that Minneapolis Community and Technical College has looked to for guidance on the ritual washing issue.
Its main goal, it says, is "Dawah": spreading Islam.
Posted May 1, 2007
Kansas City International Airport officials have acknowledged installing foot-washing benches in a restroom at the airport, but deny they're intended for Muslim cab drivers.
WND over the weekend reported that KCI Airport recently constructed four foot-washing benches to accommodate a growing number of Muslim drivers who requested the facilities to prepare for daily Islamic prayer.
The story set off a firestorm after talk radio host Michael Savage ran with it on his nationally syndicated show. Local media in Kansas City, Mo., also weighed in on the controversy, triggering an official response from airport authorities.
"Recently, a small expansion was made to the building," said Kansas City Aviation Department spokesman Joe McBride in a statement to WND. "Included were wash areas used for any wash purpose by any of the users, including filling car wash buckets."
He insisted the wash benches were not "built for the exclusive use of any ethnic group or culture."
However, the department director in an earlier statement to WND appeared to contradict that claim.
"The majority of our drivers are Muslim, so preventing them from praying at all was not an option, especially in our public terminal restrooms," said Mark VanLoh, director of the Kansas City Aviation Department. "This was the best solution, and those facilities were added without public money."
He added that cab drivers paid for construction through a one-dollar per-trip fee.
In October 2005, the KCI Airport Police first solicited advice from other law enforcement regarding "wash bench facilities for those of Islamic faith," according to internal e-mails obtained by WND. In one e-mail sent to members of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network, or ALEAN, KCI Airport Police brass asked, "If you do have such an area, do you refer to this location as a place for those of Islamic faith to [go to] prepare themselves for worship?"
The KCI Airport Police are responsible for the taxicab drivers and the building they use at the airport to wait on fares. The building contains the restroom with the four new foot-washing benches.
One airport official told WND the police are concerned about "catering" to Islamic rituals at the airport, particularly after the 9/11 hijackings and the more recent transatlantic sky terror plot. Airports have been operating under heightened security. The KCI Airport Police force, in fact, was beefed up after 9/11 to help prevent Islamic terrorism.
Islamic suicide attackers go through a ritual called ablution, or bodily cleansing, before carrying out their martyrdom operations. The 9/11 hijackers performed this ritual before entering airport terminals.
McBride suggested to a Kansas City TV news station, KMBC-TV (Channel 9), that it was, as the station put it, a "myth" that the airport installed foot-washing benches for Islamic taxi drivers. "It's a case of mistaken information on the Internet," McBride is quoted as saying.
However, a Savage radio listener yesterday offered photos he says he took of the benches on Monday in the taxicab facility restroom located in the middle of the airport under the control tower.
Foot-washing benches at Kansas City International Airport (photo: Phillip Morgan)
The photos clearly show four individual wash benches across from knee-high faucets and hand rails. Drains are visible in the floor.
In one corner of the room stands a rolled-up prayer rug. Smaller rugs can be seen lying on a cart behind it.
Prayer rugs at taxicab facility restroom at Kansas City International Airport (photo: Phillip Morgan)
"There are foot bathes [sic] in the cabbie way station," asserted Phillip Morgan of Kansas City in an e-mail. Morgan went on to say he planned to lodge a complaint with the mayor's office.
Some 250 taxicab drivers operate at KCI Airport in Missouri, one of the largest airports in the U.S., linking some 10 million passengers between mid-America and other U.S. cities. One internal KCI Airport Police email said "approximately 70% of the drivers are [of] Middle Eastern heritage and practice the Islamic faith."
Muslims are required to wash their feet and other body parts before praying to Allah five times a day. They often complain that public restroom sinks do not accommodate their needs. Floor-level basins and benches make it easier for them to perform their foot-washing ritual.
Muslim taxi drivers at KCI Airport pooh-poohed concerns about the wash benches, arguing they are not just for their use.
"The guys [sic] making a big issue out of it – it's not just for Muslims," said taxi driver Shareif El-Mahdi in an interview with KMBC-TV.
Other major airports have dealt with increased demands from Muslim cab drivers. Cabbies at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, for instance, recently caused a stir when they refused to carry passengers possessing alcoholic beverages or accompanied by seeing-eye dogs. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and dogs are considered unclean.