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The Islamic Republic of Harvard?

The symbolism could not be more striking: Harvard College, an institution founded for men by men has, for the first time in its history, banned men. For six hours every week, only women will be allowed in one of the university’s three major gyms--a new policy implemented in response to a request by female Muslim students, who were uncomfortable exercising around men.

Since announcing the new policy, the university has been besieged by vitriolic criticism, with some commentators characterizing the decision as “appeasement” and “capitulation” to the demands of “radical Islam.” One blogger, in a post entitled “Slouching toward Constantinople,” compared the decision to the Turkish conquest of that city in 1453. One commentator called it Harvard’s “Islamofascist gym.” Even Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan lamented the onslaught of “Sharia at Harvard.”

Though these reactions are clearly alarmist, the decision raises significant questions about how far universities must bend to accommodate religious observance, and the extent to which political correctness is beginning to overshadow other liberal values on American campuses.

One of the most surprising aspects of this story is how detached Harvard’s Islamic community was from a decision for which it is being castigated. The impetus came from Howard Georgi, the master of one of Harvard's residential houses, who told me via e-mail that he was approached by one of the house administrators--he couldn’t remember which--who had been contacted by “some of the Muslim women in the House.” He then sent an e-mail to Susan B. Marine, the Director of the Harvard College Women’s Center, asking her to look into the policy. Ola Aljawhary, the student Marine asked to confirm the interest on behalf of the Muslim community, told me that she casually consulted with friends “who certainly didn't mind the idea”--which administrators took as sufficient demand to adopt the policy. Neither Georgi nor Marine spoke directly to the women who requested the policy in the first place. The Harvard Islamic Society--the active campus organization for undergraduate Islamic affairs--did not know about the change until it was being formalized and in its final stages, according to the society’s president. This clearly wasn’t Harvard “capitulating” to Islam, considering how minimally Muslim students were involved in the decision.

But the decision put Harvard in the awkward position of having to arbitrate what constitutes legitimate religious practice. Marine claims there was a “moral and ethical responsibility” for the administration to act on this request, telling the Associated Press last month that “it’s a pretty big breach of their moral and religious code … and it’s just not possible for them to be in a mixed environment.” But according to Aljawhary, “It’s not like we can’t work out when men are around.” In fact, “we were not ‘demanding’ women-only hours," Aljawhary said. If the administration had said no, she said, “it would have been okay.”

Universities are often forced to alter their policies to accommodate the religious views of students--such as changing test dates on religious holidays or accommodating special dietary restrictions. But what happens when students hold a relatively extreme version of religious practice? And perhaps more importantly, what happens when that practice comes into conflict with other values important to the university?

Yale faced this question in 1997 when five Orthodox Jewish students filed a lawsuit against the university for not exempting them from Yale’s rule requiring freshmen and sophomores to live in dormitories. Yale refused, claiming the on-campus requirement was essential to the college experience, and the students eventually lost their case. The incident’s most striking aspect was the university’s confidence in asserting its own imperatives. Dick Brodhead, then Dean of Yale College, wrote a letter to The New York Times declaring, “Yale College has its own rules and requirements, which we insist on because they embody our values and beliefs.”

In the Harvard case, as in the Yale case, religious observance clashes with another important value: equality. Since when is a subjective criterion of “discomfort" surrounding an issue that is not essential to a student's academic experience a good enough reason to exclude a large part of the undergraduate population from common space? A private institution like Harvard should certainly respect religious differences and take reasonable steps to accommodate religious needs. In fact, as Harvard tried to justify this decision, it cited the precedent of prayer rooms for Hindu and Muslim students, and dining halls that serve kosher and halal food. But the obvious difference between these policies and the gym ban on men is that anyone can take part in a Hindu prayer or eat a Kosher meal. They do not exclude.

Even if Harvard decided this were a necessary accommodation, there are certainly better ways for it to have been executed. MIT, for example, recently implemented single-gender swim lanes for two hours each week--women on Tuesdays, men on Thursdays. Though women requested the policy, men-only hours were also included in the interests of equality. Additionally, though Muslim women initially requested the policy, the university involved several religious communities in the decision, including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups. “I didn’t register any opposition here,” said MIT chaplain Robert M. Randolph--a sharp contrast to the way Harvard’s decision was regarded on campus.

In what seems to be a hasty nod to political correctness, Harvard missed an opportunity to implement a gender-sensitive interfaith initiative that might have been welcomed on campus. Furthermore, the resulting media frenzy has put the Muslim community at Harvard in an unnecessarily bad position. According to Shaheer Rizvi, the president of the Harvard Islamic Society, the group's initial positive reception of the arrangement eventually gave way to the “shocking realization that the media would pounce on these issues and turn it into a picture of Harvard buckling under Muslim pressure.” “I'm tired of having to justify myself,” Aljhawary says.

When even the people who were supposed to benefit from the change in gym rules are unhappy, it's clear that Harvard has handled itself poorly. The policy will be subject to a reassessment in April. The school should give serious consideration to overturning it.

Sahil K. Mahtani is an undergraduate at Harvard College.

By Sahil K. Mahtani