An Open Letter to Cornell Muslims and Greater Cornell Community:
On Friday February 15, 2013, an unprecedented act of bigotry took place in what many Cornell Muslims consider their safest haven. More than 60 Muslims including students, faculty, staff and community members gathered in Anabel Taylor Hall at Cornell University to seek spiritual knowledge from a khateeb, or Friday prayer lecturer. The khateebs at Cornell offer sermons on a volunteer basis since we do not have an official imam or chaplain. These volunteers lack the required training necessary to lead undergraduates in religious services. Unfortunately, the individual that gave a sermon this past Friday spewed words of hate, ignorance and damnation without filter.
The khateeb has a history of presenting controversial sermons that have previously attacked homosexuals, other faiths, women and Muslims. This past Friday, this individual had a particularly homophobic, sexist and offensive message, which alienated students and left many emotionally distressed. He delivered his sermon in an overly zealous fashion, and resorted to yelling in order to drill his corruption into our tired minds. Some of his messages included the following:
- “Homosexuality is an abomination”
- “Not all homosexuals are pedophiles but every pedophile is a homosexual” (with allusions to Jerry Sandusky)
- “Queers want a pink earth”
- “Religion is not for queers and freaks”
- “Fraternities and sororities have homosexual origins”
- “Better I chastise you than God”
- He proceeded to even use gay voice to mimic Tom Ford, and said: “When I design my dresses I imagine how they look on me first.”
- “We have a partition not to oppress women, but so that we don’t see your thighs”
After reducing women to their thighs, his Friday sermon also criticized women for not wearing veils outside the prayer space, not adopting a modest demeanor and instead dressing like men. He then attacked men for not enforcing his ideals of misogyny and not “encouraging” their female family members to wear the veil.
Many of the prayer attendees were shocked and taken aback from what the individual stated in his sermon. After prayer, students in the room attempted to speak with an organizer, a former Cornell faculty member and a prayer organizer, only to find their voices dismissed. His responses included:
- “You are over-reacting, calm down”
- “Next week I’ll say sisters are the best, does that make you happy?”
As a Muslim and a firm believer in the teachings of Islam and its premise of justice and social equality, I am absolutely disgusted by such behavior. I remember a similar sermon by this individual a year earlier. The experience left me emotionally and physically paralyzed and the silence that followed was shameful. Since Cornell University lacks a chaplain, or rather, any functional resource for Muslim students that students are not already forced to provide themselves, our community is very vulnerable to these types of hateful bias incidents (whether perpetrated by Muslims or non-Muslim). This vacuum of support has enabled out-of-touch individuals to monopolize the Cornell Muslim Friday prayer experience at Cornell. Although undergraduates have in the past attempted to oversee the content shared on Friday prayers, some community organizers have dismissed many of their efforts.
Events like those that transpired on February 15, 2013, are a testament to the lack of support provided for Muslims and Muslim students of marginalized identities at Cornell University. We need a hired chaplain to assist Muslims in transitioning to a community with strong, inclusive leadership and direction. This responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of students and alumni far too long, and is a task too burdensome for them to accomplish. Furthermore, students are fearful to report bias incidents, due to fears of the repercussions and stigma that ultimately harm the broader Muslim community. We currently lack the institutional support necessary for any type of accountability or effective response to this type of devastation.
Some of these khateebs, and I use this term very loosely, completely lack the knowledge or compassion required to provide a safe environment for students seeking spirituality and comfort after a long week of classes. Khateebs like this individual have alienated and emotionally scarred our community by targeting and vilifying young Muslims, women and members of the Muslim LGBTQ community. I am not advocating for community members to be expelled or punished for these recent events, since only a few are culpable. Instead, I ask for more serious communication, collaboration, and transformative dialogue between Cornell students and community members. I ask that students be provided the opportunity and platform to offer their own sermons. I know this community; we are composed of some of the brightest, most accepting and creative students from Cornell. But this is still not enough. We are plagued by fear to speak out, to have discussions surrounding taboo issues and voicing our dissent.
The Islamic faith teaches us to practice our religion through justice. One must be compassionate in order to be just. In the context of the Muslim community, justice means providing a space where male and heterosexual privilege does not govern acceptance into Islam. I demand a space where young men and women are not fearful in speaking out against hate speech. More specifically, I demand the male, Muslim community members respect the leadership and voices of female Muslim leaders. I demand a space, and by extension, a community founded on the principles of inclusion and the freedom from judgment. No longer will I accept the “guidance” offered by this bigot, which ultimately perpetuates misogynistic and prejudiced ideas of Islam. The voices of Muslim undergraduates have far too long been excluded in these services, and our needs have far too long been ignored by Cornell University.
Finally, I ask that people who read this narrative to not allow this hateful incident to skew their understanding of Islam and further perpetuate negative views of Islam as a hateful/misogynistic/homophobic faith. I will be the first to admit that this individual’s sermon is not an isolated incident of prejudice and misogyny; however, his views should not be simplified as views inherent to Muslims. These same ideas of homophobia and sexism are perpetuated by most of today’s major world religions and cultures. Let us acknowledge the connectedness of these struggles rather than approach this individual’s sermon as an incident isolated to the Muslim community.
A disclaimer: I would like to stress that the above letter represents only my views and those who chose to sign in solidarity. I was not physically present at the sermon of February 15, 2013. However, multiple students who were present to witness this incident provided and verified all quotes.
Adam Abboud ‘14
Ali Hussain ‘11
Olivia Tai ‘11
Sara Rahman ‘12
Faraz Butte ‘12
Kwame Siriboe ‘12
Sana Siddiqui ‘13
Fariha Ahsan ‘13
Umbar Sattar ‘13
Zulara Wahla ‘13
Catherine Young Jung ‘13
Ankur Bajaj ‘13
Ulysses Smith ‘13
Ashley Harrington ‘13
Mia McKie ‘13
Marcela Cabello ‘13
Anna-Lisa Castle ‘13
Elaine Lin ‘13
Lubabah Chowdhury ‘14
Anthony Santa Maria ‘14
Nayab Mahmood ‘14
Rebecca John ‘14
Iha Kaul ‘14
Oscar Correia ‘14
Jadey Huray ‘14
Jordana Gilman ‘14
Selam Gebre ‘14
Ailin L ‘14
Anika Alam ‘15
Gina Nauman ‘15
Noor Alam ‘15
Walid Ashmeik ‘15
Tina Ahmadi ‘15
Danny Qiao ‘15
Arwah Yaqub ‘16
Ammar Busheri ‘16
Ovais Tahir ‘16
Samir Khirie ‘16
Aisha Gawad Graduate Student
Tony Leong Graduate Student
Mitch Paine Graduate Student
Omar Figueredo Graduate Student
Shrivatsav Pattabiraman PhD Candidate
Sei Shonagon Community Member