February 12, 2010
When a chaplain says 'Death to gays'
Posted by: Chris
What is a university to do when one of its chaplains tells students in a calm and clear voice that he believes homosexuals should be executed? The question isn't just an academic one for my own alma mater, Vanderbilt University.
News of the depressing exchange came just weeks after I visited the Nashville campus for the first time in years, welcomed by a story about new chapter of the gay fraternity Delta Lambda Phi plastered on the front page of the Vanderbilt Hustler student newspaper. (Stop your snickering; when I was editor we printed T-shirts proclaiming "we had the name first" -- and we did, by some 75 years.)
But now the smiling faces of those groundbreaking gay frat boys has been supplanted by the hood-covered heads of two teenage boys brutally executed by Iran in 2005 for the crime of gay sex.
I first heard from Tony Varona, an American University law professor, about the matter of fact way in which Vanderbilt's Muslim chaplain told students he favored the murder of unrepentant homosexuals.
The outrageous remarks were delivered in deadpan fashion by Awadh Amir Binhazim during an on-campus presentation about Muslims serving in the U.S. military. The Kenyan native, educated in Saudi Arabia, was asked by a student about whether he agreed with Islamic teaching that unrepentant homosexuals should be killed.
Q. Under Islamic law, if a homosexual person began to actually engage in homosexual relations on an ongoing and permanent way, with no intention of quitting, then the punishment under Islamic law would be death, unless, you know, he agreed to quit. As a practicing Muslim do you accept or reject this particular teaching of Islam?
A. I don't have a choice as a Muslim to accept or reject a teaching of Islam. I go with what Islam teaches. … So, the punishment in Islam is certain rules that govern the determinatin [concerning the act and the number of witnesses]. It's a long story and I probably don't have the time to explain it. But you cannot prosecute someone just because you think they are homosexual. There has to be clear proof.
Q. Under Islamic law, is it punishable by death if you are a homosexual?
Video of the encounter (you can watch it after the jump) spread virally on YouTube, forcing the university to issue a statement distancing itself from its Muslim chaplain even as it defended the free exchange of ideas:
During the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, a student asked Binhazim about Islamic law and homosexuality. Binhazim answered the question with his interpretation of an Islamic law.
For clarification, Vanderbilt strives to bring many points of view on the issues of the day to campus for examination and discussion. This is the purpose of Project Dialogue.
No view expressed at a Project Dialogue or similar campus forum should be construed as being endorsed by Vanderbilt. The university is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. It is the belief of the university community that free discussion of ideas can lead to resolution and reconciliation.
Vanderbilt is committed to free speech. It is equally committed to a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin or sexuality.
There has been some confusion as to Binhazim's role at Vanderbilt. He is the Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt, a volunteer position. He is not a professor of Islam and is not associated with Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He has adjunct associate professor status at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in pathology. This position, which carries no teaching or research responsibilities, is also unpaid.
Some have seen Vanderbilt's reaction as too tepid, and have called for some sort of punishment of Binhazim up to and including dismissal. Others acknowledge the need to preserve academic freedom, even as they argue that a Christian or Jewish chaplain advocating death to gays would undoubtedly be removed.
I stand four-square with those who defend the university for taking no action against Binzahim, even as I join those who are condemning this chaplain's cold-blooded endorsement of murder. If we agree that free speech is crucial to the academic setting, then it is only by protecting more extreme views at the margins that we ensure a free exchange of views by those within the mainstream.
That's why so-called "hate speech codes" ought to be anathema to any university, absent some direct incitement to violence. It's the difference between "Kill the gays in this room!" and "I accept Islamic teaching that the punishment for homosexuality is death."
That said, there is still plenty that is wrong, wrong, wrong with Vanderbilt's weak, if well-intentioned response. The attempt to minimize Binzahim's connection to the university comes off as cowardly as it is irrelevant: Is Vanderbilt saying that the same remarks made by a paid chaplain or religion professor would result in sanction or termination? If not, then let's dispense of the red herring. Either academic freedom extends to everyone in the university community or to no one at all.
Also disturbingly weak was the shrugged-shoulder reaction by Rev. Gary White, Vanderbilt's interim director of religious life and an ordained Unitarian Universalist, who told Out & About newspaper:
"Opinions are a dime a dozen. We as an institution are more about ideas. We believe in the power of those ideas and when we have places of rub and controversy, you’re not going to make much headway when you discuss opinions. You have to discuss ideas behind those opinions. What Binhazim expressed wasn’t an opinion, it was a theological ideal behind Islam."
How's that? What Binzahim was expressing was his opinion that he had no choice but to accept an Islamic teaching that gays should be executed. Where is the "idea" here, much less the "ideal"? Laughably, White even tries to reassure Vanderbilt's gay students that they have "no reason to be afraid or fear [Binzahim] at all." That's right, Delta Lambda Phi pledges. Your Muslim chaplain doesn't want to kill you himself; he favors his faith doing the dirty work.
Even still, asking us to imagine how the university would respond to a Christian or Jewish chaplain calling for death to gays is comparing crosses and crescents. It's not even clear to me that chaplains from a different faith would have been treated any differently, if we take Vandy at its word.
Assuming arguendo that's not the case, the differential treatment might well be justified. For one thing, the role of a campus chaplain is, in part, to explain the teachings of his faith, and a Christian or Jewish chaplain would be grossly misrepresenting those religions by publicly pushing the execution of gays. It would be the equivalent of a history professor grossly distorting basic facts or a Spanish professor teaching Portuguese.
In another way, the Judeo-Christian comparison is reminiscent of the oft-heard rejoinder that intolerance toward gays would result in swift and serious retribution if expressed about racial or ethnic minorities. It's a mistake to conflate the great controversy of our time about homosexuality with broadly accepted views about race and ethnicity (and religion). If we try to short-circuit the debate, we will likely succeed only in extending it. Just look at how the decision in Roe vs. Wade did anything but decide the issue of abortion in this country.
No, what's sorely needed in response to Binzahim's bigotry is not repression of speech, but more speech in response. For example, the notoriety surrounding his remarks represent an excellent opportunity to inform fair-minded folks about the medieval persecution of gays in most Muslim countries.
More speech would also call Binhazim to the carpet for trying to dodge a direct question with obfuscation. When the questioner pointed out that gays are summarily executed in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Binhazim zigged and zagged, claiming that no country follows Islamic sharia law completely. True or not, it's an irrelevant point considering the question concerned one particular teaching of Islam and whether it is incorporated into sharia law and enforced in many Muslim countries. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban are obvious examples.
For a supposed scholar of comparative religion, Binzahim also resorts to a simplistic distortion of how homosexuality is treated by other faiths, claiming they all reject this "alternative lifestyle." In fact, many mainstream Christian and Jewish faiths do exactly the opposite, and he ought to explain his ignorance on that point. More to the point -- the one that Binzahim inartfully dodges -- it has been centuries since any other major world religion has advocated the neanderthal punishment of death for gays.
That's not all more speech can do. The student who asked the question, Devin Saucier (pictured), was apparently a plant by a apparently a plant by a conservative student group called Youth for Western Civilization. (Do they cheer "Wes-tern Civ! Wes-tern Civ!" instead of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"?) Saucier's hope was to "expose the gullibility of leftists who grovel at the altars of tolerance and acceptance." Rather than focus on squelching Binzahim and his ilk, another response would be to call out these campus conservatives on the fact that many mainstream Christian faiths, and their advocates in politics right here in the United States, favor imprisoning homosexuals, even if they wouldn't go so far as executing us.
And isn't it conservative Christians who are so vocal these days about how religious freedom requires "tolerance and acceptance" of those who would fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to facilitate the adoption of children by avowed homosexuals? The very same Youth for Western Civilization complains that campus political correctness threatens their own religious freedom. Just how and where exactly do they draw the line here?
It's questions like these, and any number of others, that will generate real dialogue and expose extremism and hypocrisy in all its anti-gay varieties. Punishing speech, however repulsive, only drives it underground and misses a golden opportunity to make our own case. Let's have confidence enough in our own arguments that we don't resort to bullying into silence those with whom we disagree.
(Top: The execution of two Iranian youths for homosexual acts in July 2005, via Washington Post)
Here's the video:
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