The Hijab Professor


Professor Larycia Hawkins

There have been a couple of interesting cases recently in the US concerning freedom of expression on the part of university professors. This week Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has been in the news (article in the Atlantic) due to an incident that occurred in November, when she threatened to bring “muscle” to help her stop a student journalist filming a campus protest and may also have tried to grab the camera herself. She and students involved in the protest had set up what they considered a “safe zone” on the campus quad, where they were protesting police violence. Now a deal has been cut that will allow Click to perform community service rather than face a misdemeanor assault charge. Click is up for tenure this year, but in the meantime she has been suspended from the university.

In December, a professor of political science from a private Christian College near Chicago donned a hijab as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims. The professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on leave December 15, and now Wheaton College has initiated the process of firing her. The College states that the cause is not her wearing a hijab, but because of a Facebook post in which she stated , “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The evangelical Christian beliefs of the College, in contrast to those of the Catholic Church, do not support this view, given the fact that Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not as divine. Whether that is in fact the reason for the College to fire her is unknown. In an interview on NPR, Hawkins sees her case as going beyond religious views: “It’s a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It’s actually not even just a religious institutional question…I’m not the ‘hijab professor’; I’m the professor that’s trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity.”

Appearance = character?

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Ece B. before her conversion

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Ece B. after her conversion

Given the treatment of women by ISIS (“Dash” or the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan”) it’s hard to imagine women voluntarily joining that radical Islamist group. But in fact a number of young women from Western countries have done just that. The largest number are from Britain, but they have also come from other countries, including Germany. Recently, a 17 and 18 year old traveled to Iraq to Join ISIS from northern Germany. They created a big splash in the German media, particularly because the father of one of the girls committed suicide. One of the aspects of the story that struck me was the gradual change in behavior and appearance of the girls, as they came under the influence of ISIS online propaganda. There was an interview with the mother of one of the girls who remarked on the change in appearance, with her daughter beginning to use a headscarf, then gradually moving to a body-covering outfit. She said in the news story that she had spotted her daughter in town at a bus stop and only knew it was her from the purse she was carrying. She went to her and forced her to take off the robe she was wearing.

In this instance, the way the girls were dressing was a clear indication of their turn to a different way of life, namely radical Islam. A very different case is that highlighted in a new movie called 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, which is about the shooting of four African-American teenagers over the volume of their rap music, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis, by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old Caucasian man. One of the interviews that was conducted for the documentary was with Jordan Davis’ mom. She described him, as did other witnesses, as a well-behaved young man. In an NPR story about the film, she was asked about how he dressed, which was often in hip-hop style with this cap cocked to the side. She said that she told him repeatedly to pull up his pants, but he wouldn’t listen. She warned him that if he kept dressing that way, she would pull his pants down in public, which in fact she did at a mall, much to his embarrassment.

In this case, in contrast to the German girls, how Jordan dressed was not indicative of a major change in his worldview. It was just a matter of fashion, not an indicator that he had become a gang member or anything else nefarious. That, however, may not be how some whites view someone dressed that way, which, as in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, may in this case as well have contributed to his death. The reality is that how others are dressed often provides a powerful first impression, often based on stereotypes of questionable validity.

A living goddess

Nepal's Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9 Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Nepal’s Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, 9
Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

In the US – and probably elsewhere where the movie Frozen has been popular – little girls are dressing up as princesses (and buying lots of princess-related merchandise). There was a reminder this week that there are in fact parts of the world where young girls get the royal treatment, namely through a story on NPR about one of Nepal’s “Living Goddesses”, the Kumari Devi, age 9. The story of her experience during the recent earthquake offers a mirror on Nepalese culture as well as insight into how the natural environment is seen in that country. The goddess is worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists, considered the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. She’s selected as a young child and lives an isolated and secretive existence and is rarely seen in public. According to the story, “Last month’s earthquake brought much of Kathmandu’s historic Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, tumbling to the ground. Nepal’s showcase temples and palaces were reduced to ruins. But save for a few cracks, the home of the city’s Living Goddess remained intact.” According to the goddess’s caretaker Gautam Shakya, the building’s square shape stabilized it, but a priest cited in the story claims it was nothing so mundane: “It’s the power of the goddess; it’s about faith…It’s been the home of Kumaris for ages and we believe the force of that goddess made the house safe.” This is in keeping with an attitude towards the natural environment at odds with mainstream Western views, which maintain a secular perspective informed by modern environmental science. Whether the Nepalese view makes it any easier to deal with the devastation and loss of life caused by the earthquake is yet to be seen.

Nepal is majority Hindu country, with about 80% of the population, and around 10% Buddhist. But the Kumari Devi transcends and integrates the two religions:

Kumaris are drawn from the Newar community, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley for whom planets, karma and an array of gods play a vital role in day-to-day life. Gautam Shakya, in the eleventh generation of Kumari caretakers, says they are Buddhists who adopted the Hindu caste system and embody harmony. “One doesn’t discriminate against the other. We Newars are Buddhist. The Kumari is from a Buddhist family — but she is a Hindu goddess,” he says.

That makes the Kumari Devi not only a divine being, but a symbol of religions coming together, something the world could use more of these days. The life of the Kumari is led mostly in private, with most of her time spent with priests, with only rare public appearances. People strive to see her, as that is considered to bring good luck. When she does appear in public, her feet never touch the ground, being carried in a golden palanquin. She always wears red and has a “third eye” painted on her forehead. But the princess life does not last. The Kumar devi keeps her divine position only till puberty, at which time another young girl is selected through an elaborate and mostly secretive process.

A documentary in 2007 chronicled the life of Kumaris in Nepal:

Fighting Extremism: Integration is key

Pegida movement in Germany

Pegida anti-immigrant movement in Germany

Yesterday President Obama, in the context of a joint press appearance with David Cameron, talked about ways to fight the rise of extreme Islamists who carry out the kinds of attacks experienced last week in Paris. He pointed to the importance of the Muslim population integrating into U.S. society:

There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength. Now, it doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the kinds of tragedies that we saw at the Boston Marathon. But that, I think, has been helpful. There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case.

Providing all residents – citizens and immigrants – the same opportunities for education, employment, and free exercise of their chosen religion is clearly one way to lessen the likelihood of frustration, hopelessness, and anger, feelings which provide a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views. This does not equate with immigrant or minority groups giving up their cultures (including language) and becoming indistinguishable from the majority culture. When groups such as “Pegida” in Germany (“Patriotic Europeans against the islamification of the West”) rail against the threat to Judeo-Christian culture represented by Islamic immigrants, what they are advocating for is religious intolerance, just what fuels the flames of extremist elements.

It’s not just in the West that lived experiences lead to the growth of extremism. In her new book on Afghanistan, Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes describes how the wide-spread practice of bribes and graft create strong feelings of injustice, powerlessness and rage, leading to the embrace of violent means to create a new social order. In an interview on NPR, she cited a number of examples of the humiliation Afghans experience through being extorted for bribes for all kinds of daily interactions (such as using the post office) and how contemptuously people are often treated by officials. This has understandable consequences:

It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that’s around and looking to recruit people, there’s a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or – or five of them or 10 of them – that are ready to get some revenge.

We’ve tried war, nation-building, and demonizing Islam as ways to fight terrorism – none has worked. The common sense – and just – approach is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to build their lives in an open and tolerant society. This is as true in Muslim countries as it is in the West.

Rich and Poor

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis today issued his first written document, the Evangelii Gaudium and in it he takes on an issue of concern in many parts of the world, the growing gap between rich and poor. “How can it be”, he writes,  “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” The Pope’s “apostolic exhortation” is in large part a stinging rebuke of unbridled capitalism, juxtaposing the real lives of the poor with the focus on ever increasing wealth. Pope Francis practices what he preaches, living in a modest guest house rather than in the ornate Apostolic Palace and riding around Rome in a used Ford Focus.  Last month he suspended a German bishop who had spent lavishly on remodeling and decorating his residence.

This week-end the Swiss voted on one of their many national voter referendums, this one stipulating that CEO’s could not earn more than 12 times the pay of their lowest-paid employee.  The measure did not pass, but that it even came up for a vote in a country that values highly the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates its rich multinational firms is an indication of how wide-spread the concern over the increasing gulf between rich and poor is in many European countries. In fact the Swiss passed a referendum in March that already placed restrictions on CEO pay.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the NY Times pointed out in an article this week-end, the mere mention of “redistribution” is political poison.  The article points out that a leading candidate to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Rebecca Blank, had her name withdrawn when it was learned that 10 years earlier she had not only used the word in print but had dared to assert, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system”.  A statement in harmony with Pope Francis’s epistle and one that Christians would seem obligated to support, but seemingly so out of step with American popular opinion that not even a Democratic White House could embrace it.

Boston bombers: Not Czechs

chechnyaWe don’t as yet know much about the motivation of the accused Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, but it does seem certain that they had no connection to the Czech Republic, the EU member country in central Europe, formed from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, along with Slovakia. Chechens are an ethnic group from the North Caucasus region in Russia. Given Americans’ notorious ignorance of geography, it may come as no surprise that the Chechen brothers were quickly identified as “Czechs”. There is a long list of tweets, Facebook messages and even news reports that attack the “Czech” terrorists and call for a reprisal attack against “Czechoslovakia”. The Czech ambassador had to issue a clarification about who Czechs were. There’s speculation that the Brothers were Muslim extremists, with some evidence that the older brother’s views had in fact recently been moving in that direction.  Ironically, the Czechs are one of the least religious peoples in the world, with the largest faith, Roman Catholicism, followed by just 10% of the population.

There are many U.S, Americans with Czech roots and festivals celebrating Czech-American heritage. There are far fewer Chechens in the US., partly because of immigration quotas but also due to concerns since 9/11 about immigrants from Muslim countries where there are active extremist elements. Is it really a problem that Americans misidentified the cultural origins of the bombers?  Many of those posting the misinformation didn’t think so, responding, when the error was pointed out, that it was all the same, after all, weren’t they all Slavs (another mistake).  This is an indication of the lack of knowledge about the world outside the US, but it’s also an indicator of a more serious issue, the tendency to avoid nuanced views or to make fine distinctions.  Blanket condemnations, a disregard for facts, and a refusal to think critically have led many Americans to be uniformed citizens, with sometimes disastrous consequences when they cast votes or help decide what should be taught in schools. Maybe we shouldn’t place all the blame on the willfully ignorant and conspiracy theorists (the “Czech” bombers must be connected to the explosion in the Texas fertilizer factory, as there are is a sizable Czech-American community there), our politicians have become adept at, as Paul Krugman puts it, “how to lie with statistics”, purposely distorting reality to fit their political aims.

Getting clean feet

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 5.25.04 PMMany cultures have rituals to indicate respect, through body movement such as bowing or through using gestures, as in shaking hands. Less common are those involving feet, although of course in many cultures etiquette (and sanitation) call for removal of shoes when entering a house.  A ritual that has been in the news this Easter weekend is foot washing (“Maundy”), a Christian tradition conveying respect and humility.  Many denominations engage in foot washing on Maundy Thursday as part of Holy Week, recalling Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It’s clearly an action that creates a dramatic social leveling between the participants.  In fact, the word Maundy apparently derives from Latin mendicare, to beg.  Apparently, the practice goes back to ancient traditions of hospitality, when guests were given water to wash their feet.

Foot washing is traditionally practiced in the Catholic Church, including the Pope washing feet on Maundy Thursday.  The feet the Pope washes are exclusively attached to males, as the disciples were all men.  Hence surprise this week when new Pope Francis washed the feet of two women.  They were inmates of a youth prison in Rome and one of the girls was a Muslim.  The action was received positively by many, as a further signal that this Pope is charting a quite different course from his predecessor, with less importance attached to pomp and ceremony and more to inclusivity and outreach.  However, traditionalists are dismayed, as they have been by other actions by Francis that go against Catholic tradition.  There is even the fear that including women in foot washing could be a small step towards the ordination of women as priests.  It will be interesting to see if the Pope opens up significantly to other religions in meaningful ways. Comment from Scott Simon (NPR): “Sometimes great change can be revealed in small gestures.”

Habemus Papam

white_smokeFor the first time, a South American, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina will be the Pope, taking the name Francis. Electing a new pope involves of course a host of traditional rituals and practices, most of which have remained the same for centuries.  Modernizations such as use of cell phones or social media are taboo.  From a cultural perspective, the process is particularly interesting in its linguistic and non-verbal dimensions.  As was the case when Pope Benedict announced his surprise resignation, Latin is the language used to announce the election of the pope (habemus Papam – we have a pope), with the name of the new pope Latinized, including having his first name put into the accusative case. Speakers of language which don’t use a lot of inflections (like English) often have a hard time with proper names being declined.  Dealing with names in context is always a stumbling block for learners of Russian, for example.

The non-verbal communication surrounding the election of the pope is extensive. As soon as the cardinals emerge from the conclave, one can identify visually the new pope by the fact that he is the only one dressed in white. There was a lot of debate after Pope Benedict’s resignation about what color his vestments would be, white, red or black.  Even more interest was generated by his shoes – he will be giving up the red shoes typically worn by popes (symbolizing the blood of the Christian martyrs).  The other interesting non-verbal message involved in the process is the use of smoke signals, not the array of signals used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but simply black smoke from the Vatican chimney for a ballot round with no winner or white smoke indicating Papam habemus.

Name: “Jihad”

jihadIs it a provocation or an incitement to terrorism to name your son “Jihad”?  How about if you send your son, Jihad, to school wearing a t-shirt stating “Je suis une bombe” (I am a bomb)?  This actual case is being tried currently in France, with a judgment expected next month.  The boy in question was born Sept 11, 2009 and was given the name Jihad by his parents.  Last fall his uncle gave him a t-shirt with the bomb quote on the front and on the back, “Jihad, né le 11 septembre” (Jihad, born September 11th), which he wore one day to nursery school. Bouchra Bagour, the mother, was reported to police by the teacher and charged with “glorifying crime”.  She and the uncle now face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a 45,000 Euros fine. They say the shirt was supposed to be a joke and highlight the boy’s birthday.

In fact, the actual meaning of “Je suis une bombe” is something like I’m fantastic (like English ‘da bomb’).  Jihad is a first name that has been used for a long time.  The case has created much discussion in France.  Here’s one comment from a reader forum for the French daily Le Parisien:

“Je m appelle Jihad , j’ai fait des études et je n’ai aucun problème dans ma vie. Jihad n’est pas un prénom né le 11 septembre , vous êtes au courant ? Il est donné depuis des millénaires. Le mot jihad à la base veut dire lutte contre ses péchés.” (My name is Jihad, I’m a university graduate and have never had any problems [with my name].  Jihad is not a name created by September 11th, did you know that?  It’s been used for millennia.  The word jihad means to fight to overcome one’s sins.).

It’s not just in France that the word Jihad arouses controversy. Last fall conservative blogger Pamela Gellar’s American Freedom Defense Initiative ran a series of ads on buses which stated, “”In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man…Support Israel, Defeat Jihad.” In response, the the Council on American-Islamic Relations has begun a campaign to educate Americans both about the traditional meaning of jihad and the real nature of Muslims.  The “My Jihad” campaign is running ads on public buses, featuring Muslim Americans talked about the struggles they have confronted (i.e., their “jihads”).

Speaking Latin

popeWhen Pope Benedict announced this week that he was stepping down, he did so in Latin.  The small group of reporters listening to the Pope on a live feed at the Vatican scrambled to understand what they quickly saw was a significant announcement.  Italian reporter, Giovanna Chirri confirmed for her colleagues (and the world through a tweet) that in fact the Pope had announced he was resigning.  My Latin teacher in high school would have jumped at the opportunity to point out – “You see how useful learning Latin can be!  You could be the first to announce to the world something that hasn’t happened in 600 years!” The reporters’ scramble reminded me of the press conference where Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Giddy suddenly quoted Nietzsche in German, “Was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stärker” (What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger). Reporters back then were also struggling to understand.

The Pope’s announcement has led to a flurry of interest and news stories about Latin, not often in the news these days. Latin of course is still studied in schools and universities.  There is a radio station in Finland that has been broadcasting a program in Latin for a number of years.  But learning Latin is quite different in nature from learning Spanish or any other living language, and not just because it is no longer spoken, As Annalisa Quinn puts it, “Latin serves as a cultural signifier — if you are studying classics, you announce either your wealth or your devotion to the selfless pursuit of knowledge. In movies and books, knowledge of Latin or Greek is a little bit like glasses and knitwear — a kind of shorthand for intelligence.”  Aside from the cultural messaging, learning Latin can actually be useful,  even if you’re not a Vatican reporter. It is an essential enabler of classical studies, but also is an excellent way to learn about the nature of language and linguistics, and to learn about the etymology of words in English and many other languages (as my Latin teacher hammered home at every opportunity). According to the Telegraph, Pope Benedict is one of the last truly fluent Latin speakers – apparently not all the cardinals present at the announcement actually understood the momentous news.

Rise of the Nones

empty-church-with-wooden-benchesInteresting series this week on NPR about religion in the United States.  Today’s broadcast was about the increased number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion.  The data is based on a Pew Research Center study released in October, 2012.  The study indicates that about 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, a percentage that has been on the rise in recent years.  The percentage of those under the age of 30 is higher, about 1/3.  Harvard Professor Robert Putnam was interviewed for the report.  His explanation of the drop among young people:  rebellion – based on disillusionment of a generation coming of age during the “culture wars” in the U.S., which created a toxic mix of religion and politics.  He associates the lack of interest in organized religion with the lack of participation by young Americans in civic organizations.  I would offer a different perspective – I assume that under 30’s have simply re-directed from conventional social institutions to online social media.  Maybe the Church of the Internet has replaced the brick and mortar versions.

Putnam points out that even with the drop indicated by the survey, the U.S. stats in terms of religion are high: “Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world…The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today.”  What has been very striking to me is the radical drop in religious affiliation in Germany.  The wonderful medieval cathedrals throughout Germany are virtually empty on Sundays.  More and more Germans are leaving the Catholic and protestant churches.  Part of the reason may be financial:  if you are a (Christian) church member, you have to pay a church tax.

Exercise & Politics


Student during a yoga class at elementary school in Encinitas, Calif (NY Times)

A recent article in the NY Times discusses the protests by some parents in a California school district where first graders are having 30-minute yoga classes.  This would seem to be a beneficial program for small children, doing something positive in the area of physical education, just as art and music classes do, as well as foreign language classes. In the age of strictly controlled and standardized curricula, it’s refreshing to see something creative happening, even if on a small scale. According to the article, the yoga sessions have a noticeably calming effect on the 6- and 7-year olds.  So what’s the reason for the protests?  Religious indoctrination, specifically the protesters “were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs”.  This need to protect children from knowledge has had the unfortunate result in American schools of discouraging teaching about world religions, with a by-product being a wide-spread lack of knowledge about Islam (as well as of other non-Christian religions). In the absence of knowledge, stereotypes replace reality.

The intersection of religion, physical exercise, and politics has had some interesting case histories.  Recently, the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China, combining slow-moving exercises with meditation and a basic moral philosophy, after gaining widespread popularity in the 1990’s, was suppressed by the Chinese government, fearful that such a large movement could threaten state control.  In 19th-century Germany, Friedrich “Turnvater” Jahn (Father of Gymnastics Jahn), who had studied theology, wanted to encourage greater physical fitness among the Prussian youth, after seeing the humiliation of Germany’s defeat by Napoleon.  What started out as gymnastics (he invented the parallel bars, the balance beam, horizontal bar, and the vaulting horse) turned nationalistic and was seen as a threat by the authorities, leading to his arrest.