Michael: Hi Zeba. The mid-term elections are over and, as predicted, the Park 51 controversy is also finished. But now it’s time to turn to new controversies. The latest has to do with a new version of “the clash of civilizations.” This time, however, the battlefield is a university swimming pool. Apparently, George Washington University’s decision to grant Muslim women a “women-only” hour at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center reflects some civilizational divide between “America” and “Islam.”
Michael: I figured you’d have a dog in this fight considering your alumni status. Comments on this one suggest all sorts of issues but one that caught my attention had to do with tolerance. According to one critic, “Westerners” should not have to go so far to accommodate Muslim needs. “We’re doing too much for them,” the argument goes. This one strikes me as doubly offensive: I’m a Westerner and Muslim (the two are not dichotomous) and I believe tolerance requires accommodations, especially those we might not like.
Zeba: Hi Michael. I agree. Tolerance is the ultimate test of a pluralistic society. I’d like to add some perspective to this latest controversy. The administration’s accommodation of this request is not surprising to me. The Muslim Student Association at GW is well established and has been active for over 15 years. During this time the MSA has had a good relationship with the administration. When I was there, MSA-hosted events including Friday prayers, interfaith discussions and breaking-fast dinners during Ramadan were well attended by Muslim and non-Muslim students alike, as well as employees from the nearby World Bank and IMF.
Additionally, for those who are unfamiliar with the campus, GW is a small urban campus of 10 city blocks between F and Eye Streets and 20th and 24th Streets in Northwest DC. In addition to Lerner HelWel’s pool, there is a pool at the Charles E Smith Center a block away. Both pools are open 50 hours weekly (not 20 hours as stated in the article); and Lerner HelWel’s pool is only 3-lanes while the Smith Center pool is 8-lanes. So the controversial swim hour is 1% of the weekly swim time and the 3 lanes used by the women are less than 0.3% of the total lanes.
Michael: Context is important and it’s important for everyone to know that this is, in many ways, is a local issue that should be addressed by locals. It doesn’t have to be a “national” issue unless we make it so. That being said, I’m wondering about the American who sees an issue like this as the beginning of a “Muslim takeover.” First mosques, then pools, then it’s Shariah all over the U.S. I guess I’m wondering how to say to this individual that there is a place in America for this, that it isn’t just about tolerating “others.” I say this because what Muslims want is not necessarily an accommodation unlike the requests and preferences of other American communities.
Zeba: Michael, the last thing we want is to take over! We’ve all grown up with Americans of all creeds, races and religions and love America for its diversity and its religious freedom. As part of that diversity we just want to see ourselves and our beliefs reflected in America’s values. It is interesting to note that in the comments section, several women noted that the women’s hour resonated with them because they valued modesty and privacy and preferred to swim with other women.
Regarding religious accommodation, we, along with our fellow Americans recognize Christmas and are respectful of those who keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath. In most cases, all we ask for is respect and acceptance of simple accommodations that make it easier for us to observe our faith. In no way do we seek to compromise others’ rights. I will say, though, that we as a community need to try and not ‘otherize’ ourselves. For example, in this particular case, I would suggest that the hour is not called ‘Sisters’ Splash’ but maybe just a women’s swim hour as all women are welcome.
Michael: Amen Zeba. I think your point is brilliant. Perhaps if more Americans vocalized their appreciation for things like a women’s only hour at the pool, then it would be harder for the staff at Fox News to claim they speak for America.
Zeba: Michael, you know how the media is always asking for the moderate Muslim voice to speak out? It sounds like we need the moderate American voice to speak out, too.
Michael Vicente Perez and Zeba Iqbal are contributors to Altmuslimah. This article was previously published on Altmuslimah’s page at the Washington Post, Altmuslimah @ On Faith