Last summer and early fall, during election season, the country was ablaze -- literally. Friday, August 27, saw a fire light over gasoline-drenched construction equipment at the site of a planned Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security identified as arson. Anti-Islamic rhetoric played on the campaign trail, as well. Renee Ellmers won her race in North Carolina's second district against then-Rep. Bob Etheridge, castigating Etheridge repeatedly for his failure to speak up about the Park51 Community Center project in Manhattan and running what Salon referred to as "the most baldly anti-Muslim ad of the year" as a campaign spot.
The calendar has progressed, but little else has. Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has scheduled hearings for March 9 concerning "the radicalization of the Muslim community in America." King himself has been quoted by his hometown NY Daily News stating that "85 percent" of mosques in New York and nationwide are operated by "radicals," constituting "an enemy living amongst us." Also appearing is doctor Zuhdi Jasser, a prominent, politically conservative Muslim media contributor who has participated in unfounded criticisms of the Park51 project.
Murfreesboro, site of the late-August blaze, has similarly doubled-down on the politics of exclusion. The Tennessee state legislature is currently considering a bill authored by Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro that would declare following some forms of the Islamic code known as Shariah a felony. The Tennessee bill, drafted by the head of an anti-Islamic non-profit based out of Arizona, is part of a larger national movement. At least 13 other state legislatures are currently considering bills that would forbid judges from considering Shariah law in decisions.
This is a time when it would be ideal for all national leaders to speak up in support of Islam and the estimated 6-7 million Americans who practice the religion. That need, however, is exacerbated at College campuses.
College administrators have the potential to play a valuable role in the national discourse. Last summer, George Washington University President Steven Knapp justified his prominence in discussions over immigration policy to a Chronicle of Higher Education interviewer with the reasoning that Universities have a role to play in fostering climates that break down boundaries, promote innovation and creativity and welcome all potential comers.
This reasoning can apply just as easily to issues relating to a host of other issues. Emory University President James W. Wagner should be applauded for his courageous stand in support of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) population, as a video he filmed on behalf of the It Gets Better Project went public on YouTube on Thursday, March 3. Wagner told the Emory Wheel in an interview that "the message is intended to encourage those who feel or who are made to feel different that, not only is there a place for them in the Emory community, but that Emory's community is incomplete without their ability to engage comfortably as their authentic selves."
It goes without saying that the same guiding principle applies to religious and cultural diversity. The venomous state of the national conversation concerning Islam, however, should obligate university leaders nationwide to go above and beyond in their statements of support. This is a conversation that American institutions of higher education should be leading and encouraging, not just implicitly supporting.