I had an acquaintance in college, a man whose parents had moved to America from Bangladesh, an observant Muslim with whom I would spend late nights discussing religion and watching the mountain fog coalesce. We lost touch after he moved off-campus and later graduated, but I still remember one comment he made to me after I did my best to explain to him what a “machloket” is and how the halachic system accomodates (or otherwise deals with) disagreements in matters of law.
He was impressed, and complained about the Muslim student group on campus, saying the form of Islam espoused there was too strict and particularistic. Muslims from Bangladesh, he said, don’t practice the religion the same way as Muslims from Arabia, and the Arab students in charge were intolerant of that diversity. He and other non-Arab Muslims were told that their clothing was “un-Islamic” and their observances were faulty. He objected, saying, “I’m not Arab. I shouldn’t have to follow Arab cultural norms to be a good Muslim.”
Apparently, policy clashes between conservative and liberal Muslim students, and between Muslim students with different traditions, are common on college campuses. Sound familiar? But unlike in the Jewish community where Hillels have a set policy of pluralism dictated from on high by philanthropists and “Jewish professionals”, according to this article by the New York Times’ gloriously-named Neil MacFarquhar each franchise Muslim Students Association chapter (there are more than 200 in the US) sets its own rules as to what food/clothes/events/philosophies are acceptable. Depending on where you go to school, your local MSA may alternately scandalize traditional parents or Imams, and shun students who aren’t “Muslim enough”.
The reporter, who apparently attended last weekend’s MSA West Conference in San Jose, got some good anecdotes, including community reaction to the sexes mingling at a barbecue, a potential member driven away because he wore a Budweiser t-shirt, liberal Yale vs. Wahhabist UC-Irvine, and the kinds of sermons given by Imams who visit college campuses.
I’m wondering what can we learn from this article, and what those of us still in school can learn from our Muslim fellow students. And what can we teach them? Keeping in mind the extensive similarities and deep differences between Judaism & Islam and between the Jewish community & the Muslim community, there’s got to be some productive knowledge to be gleaned. What do you think it could be?