What is Going on at the University of Iowa?

The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

The administration of the University of Iowa does not want a Christian student group called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) on campus because they do not permit LGBT students to hold leadership positions.  After de-registering BLinC as an official student group, a federal judge temporarily re-instated the group.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Eboo Patel writes:

BLinC pointed out that lots of student groups are based around particular identities and affinities, and such associations generally reserve certain privileges for people who share those identities and affinities, thereby excluding people who do not. If the University was going to deregister BLinC, what was it going to do about the Imam Mahdi group, which wants its leaders to be Shia Muslim students? Or the Korean American Student Association? Students For Life? The Feminist Union? Would they all be required to have governing documents that complied with the University of Iowa’s human rights policy?

It turns out that, out of 513 student organizations at the University of Iowa, just 157 were in compliance with the University’s human rights policy. That means a whopping 356 were out of line.

A federal judge, in ordering that BLinC be temporarily restated as an official student organization, wondered why the University had applied its policy so unevenly.

I find this case extremely important and not at all easy.

Patel invokes the work of John Inazu in Confident Pluralism: Surviging and Thriving Through Deep Difference to help make sense of what is happening at the University of Iowa.

Here is a taste:

I belong to a religious community that excludes my wife. I am an Ismaili Muslim and my wife is a Sunni Muslim. Ismailis are defined by their belief in the Imam (a figure broadly similar to the Pope in Catholicism and the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism) who is held by Ismailis to be their leader and spiritual guide, the rightful interpreter of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition.

Only those who have declared formal belief in the Imam are allowed to take part in Ismaili spiritual ceremonies, or to enter certain Ismaili religious spaces. Ismailis are especially sensitive about these matters because we are minorities within the broader Muslim community who have experienced no small amount of life-threatening discrimination, and frankly still do.

This means that when I take our two children for prayers, my wife cannot come. When Prince Karim Aga Khan, the current Imam, made a special spiritual visit to the United States last year to celebrate being in office for 60 years, my wife was left out in the hall as the rest of our family went inside to be in the Imam’s sacred presence.

As you can imagine, I don’t like this very much. My wife likes it even less.

It’s also not something I have a vote in. There are no elections in the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. The Imam of the time is appointed by the previous Imam, has full authority to shape the rituals and practices of the faith, and then appoints representatives (both a priestly class of sorts and administrators) who are empowered to lead the community.

This Ismaili practice is distinctive in its particulars but not so strange in its general approach. Many religious communities have boundaries that include some and exclude others. If you are not Muslim, you cannot go to Mecca. If you are not Catholic, you cannot take communion. If you are not male, you cannot become part of the priesthood in either the Catholic or LDS churches.

Generally, there are not enough Ismailis at a college to form an official Ismaili Students Association. If there were, and if such groups needed to have some kind of recognition from an official Ismaili administrative body, it would surely say that at least the leaders of the group needed to be Ismaili. How could it be any different? How could the leaders of a religiously-oriented group be unable to enter the prayer hall of that group?

Under all-comers policies, a college would have to de-register an Ismaili Students Association. That would obviously negatively impact Ismaili students, who would lose access to college facilities and also lose the ability to advertise widely. It would also negatively impact the wider campus community. Ismailis love running social events and organizing service projects, and those are open to everyone. An organized Ismaili group would likely be involved in broader awareness campaigns around humanitarian issues in Central and South Asia, where a lot of Ismaili-run development projects take place. They would also simply be part of the diverse civil society of the campus, and by their presence educate people about the range of religious and cultural groups on the planet.

Doesn’t a college campus have a stake in the flourishing of identity groups like a hypothetical Ismaili Students Association? Doesn’t a diverse civic fabric require strong individual threads, including religious ones? 

Read the entire piece here.

 

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