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    February 12, 2010

    When a chaplain says 'Death to gays'

    Posted by: Chris

    Iranian execution of gays 2005
    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.

    Vanderbilt gay fraternity colonizing 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.

    Awadh Bin Hazim stands 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?

    A. Yes

    Vanderbiltseal_2 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.

    Devinleadership 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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    1. Lucrece on Feb 12, 2010 3:09:18 PM:

      Since when is the death penalty as appropriate punishment for homosexuality ever a valid academic topic to debate in a first world nation?

      It's preposterous. He may not be paid, and he may not be officially linked to the university, but he's still interacting with the student body. And so, what are gay Muslims to do when someone supposed to be a spiritual guide to all Muslims readily accepts such savage approach to their being?

      This kind of validation of a violent view only emboldens would-be gay bashers of Muslim upbringing.

    1. paul canning on Feb 12, 2010 11:18:07 PM:

      This is obviously worth highlighting but if you really want to do something to help muslim gays actually being killed and executed right now support (give donations to, they're both massively under-funded):

      Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees http://irqr.net
      Iraqi LGBT http://iraqilgbtuk.blogspot.com

    1. Joe on Feb 13, 2010 1:44:49 AM:

      I agree that freedom of speech is indispensable for an academic setting and for a democracy in general. However, a university is a setting where knowledge accumulates. If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that programs that target politically weak populations with a call to death are often disastrous.

      If one condones the ability of a muslim cleric to endorse the murder of gays, then would one condone the same cleric to endorse the murder of Jewish people. Should an academic be allowed to endorse the belief that black people are inherently inferior. An academic setting connotes an authority that other venues do not.

      I wonder how long an academic would be allowed to encourage people to kill white christians. I doubt very long at all. Freedom of speech is important, to be sure. However, one can not scream fire in a movie theater. There are laws about libel and slander. There are truth in advertising laws. There is room to limit some hate speech and still preserve the spirit and integrity of the first amendment.

    1. Evan Hurst on Feb 13, 2010 2:52:42 AM:

      First of all, Devin Saucier has gay face. Just sayin'.

      That aside, Vanderbilt has the responsibility to encourage an open exchange of ideas, YES BUT! There is "open exchange of ideas," and then there is "letting just any dumbass fool with an ancient book spout off his genocidal shit to an open audience." You may see a specific distinction between these comments and a more open "Go kill gays now" sort of statement, but I do not, and here's why: Religious extremists know how to play cute with their demented beliefs. They know how to go right up to the edge without literally transgressing the line into a direct call for violence.

      In my capacity as a writer for the gay rights organization Truth Wins Out, we've been reporting the behind the scenes story of the Uganda legislation referred to as the "Kill the Gays" bill. There has been a lot of emphasis on the fact that Ugandan religious leaders have relied on the "scholarship" of American evangelicals, specifically the "ex-gay" Richard Cohen and the homo-obsessed Scott Lively, to make their case that gays should be killed. Scott Lively went to Uganda and told a gullible audience there that gays were responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, the country right next to them. Lively has spent his entire career peddling lies that gays were responsible for the Holocaust, as well. Now, did Lively encourage them to write the Uganda bill? No. If gays are killed in Uganda if the legislation passes, will Lively be directly responsible? No, of course not, because of semantics. He didn't directly call for it, after all! But he handed them the gun.

      And that's the point.

      There's a difference between having an argument over economics with somebody who disagrees with you, even if you know for a fact that they don't understand what the hell macroeconomics is, and you know for a fact that you're dealing with a know-nothing wingnut. It's annoying, but nobody's inherent dignity as a human being is being damaged. But speech like this? No. There's no place for it in America. We're fighting tooth and nail to marginalize this kind of speech from CHRISTIAN activists in this country, and we're going to lay down and die in the name of "academic freedom" because we're scared to offend Muslims?

      Fuck that.

    1. cheap ugg boots on Nov 22, 2010 2:57:07 AM:

      These polls point out something I and many others have said: we just have to wait until more people over 60 die. For same-gender marriage, if you poll only those 40 and under, there is a clear majority in favor. Obviously, the issue of gays serving openly in the armed forces exists under the same conditions

    1. cheap uggs boots on Nov 29, 2010 2:14:47 AM:

      Just so you know classy brutes are not exclusive to the US.

    1. Jaroslaw on May 16, 2011 9:35:01 PM:

      This post highlights why all extreme fundamentalist religionists scare me. It know it is unfair to highlight Muslims, but listening to some of the right wing talk shows, they know all about the court systems and their rights and use them, often to the detriment of the larger community. God help us if people who believe as this cleric does ever get a majority in the USA. (On the other hand, the guys that own the grocery store I shop at are Muslim, but in name only. Their college age children are totally non-religious and could care less about Gays!)

      Lucrece makes a good point that this guy, unpaid or not, is still interacting with the student body - which in this case, I'm glad the cat is out of the bag. We know the truth. Now what to do about it?

    1. Jaroslaw on May 16, 2011 9:44:04 PM:

      Well, I see I'm WAY behind the times, but I wish I had watched the video before commenting. The cleric objects to being interrupted by the questioner (to avoid answering directly YES OR NO to the "is homosexuality punishable by death) - because of course, the answer in "YES" and then interrupts the questioner at least twice by dancing around the question of "Islamic Law" - saying now country is 100% Islamic law, there are mixtures of laws. Implying perhaps that the rules aren't as strict due to being mixed with British and Napoleonic laws?

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