I belong to a religious community that excludes my wife. I am an Ismaili Muslim and my wife is a Sunni Muslim. Ismailis are defined by their belief in the Imam (a figure broadly similar to the Pope in Catholicism and the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism) who is held by Ismailis to be their leader and spiritual guide, the rightful interpreter of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition.
Only those who have declared formal belief in the Imam are allowed to take part in Ismaili spiritual ceremonies, or to enter certain Ismaili religious spaces. Ismailis are especially sensitive about these matters because we are minorities within the broader Muslim community who have experienced no small amount of life-threatening discrimination, and frankly still do.
This means that when I take our two children for prayers, my wife cannot come. When Prince Karim Aga Khan, the current Imam, made a special spiritual visit to the United States last year to celebrate being in office for 60 years, my wife was left out in the hall as the rest of our family went inside to be in the Imam’s sacred presence.
As you can imagine, I don’t like this very much. My wife likes it even less.
It’s also not something I have a vote in. There are no elections in the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. The Imam of the time is appointed by the previous Imam, has full authority to shape the rituals and practices of the faith, and then appoints representatives (both a priestly class of sorts and administrators) who are empowered to lead the community.
This Ismaili practice is distinctive in its particulars but not so strange in its general approach. Many religious communities have boundaries that include some and exclude others. If you are not Muslim, you cannot go to Mecca. If you are not Catholic, you cannot take communion. If you are not male, you cannot become part of the priesthood in either the Catholic or LDS churches.
Generally, there are not enough Ismailis at a college to form an official Ismaili Students Association. If there were, and if such groups needed to have some kind of recognition from an official Ismaili administrative body, it would surely say that at least the leaders of the group needed to be Ismaili. How could it be any different? How could the leaders of a religiously-oriented group be unable to enter the prayer hall of that group?
Under all-comers policies, a college would have to de-register an Ismaili Students Association. That would obviously negatively impact Ismaili students, who would lose access to college facilities and also lose the ability to advertise widely. It would also negatively impact the wider campus community. Ismailis love running social events and organizing service projects, and those are open to everyone. An organized Ismaili group would likely be involved in broader awareness campaigns around humanitarian issues in Central and South Asia, where a lot of Ismaili-run development projects take place. They would also simply be part of the diverse civil society of the campus, and by their presence educate people about the range of religious and cultural groups on the planet.
Doesn’t a college campus have a stake in the flourishing of identity groups like a hypothetical Ismaili Students Association? Doesn’t a diverse civic fabric require strong individual threads, including religious ones?
One important criticism of all-comers Policies is that they ignore how religious identities function. As my friend Greg Jao of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship says on this fascinating Neighborly Faith podcast , members of religious communities do not generally get to vote on their doctrines on a regular basis. The belief is understood to have been established not in the material world of democratic citizenship, but in a cosmic world where different authorities reign.
What further complicates this is that different religious communities operate in remarkably varied ways. Ismailis have a highly centralized authority structure. Catholics have a similar structure, but not quite as centralized (the authorities within various dioceses often emphasize different things, and some Catholics view themselves as principally being governed by different orders like Jesuits or Dominicans.) Unitarians are highly decentralized and typically do their own thing from church to church and group to group.
On the podcast, Greg makes the further point that while many university administrators are highly knowledgeable about a range of identity issues, religion is generally not one of them. There is a reasonable chance that nobody in Student Affairs has heard of Ismaili Muslims or has any idea how the community operates. It would be a sad situation if the first time a college administrator substantively interacted with the Ismaili group was to force it into compliance on an all-comers policy rather than to appreciate how the group supported its members and contributed to the campus. One of the things I like least about all-comers policies is how they frame religious groups as a problem to be solved rather than as gift to be celebrated.
It is also very likely that Ismaili Muslims gently telling a non-Ismaili that she can’t run for office does not trip off any alarm bells for the typical college administrator. But an Evangelical Christian group telling a gay student he can’t run for office – that is a five-alarm fire.
Indeed, the proximate cause for every all-comers cases that I am aware of (Vanderbilt, Rollins, Bowdoin, Iowa, Cal State, Tufts) involves some sort of exclusion of gay students by Evangelical Christian groups.
I understand this. I find anti-gay exclusion offensive and hurtful. When a gay student is excluded because of his/her/their identity or expression, I instinctively want to help that individual. I can see myself reaching into my toolkit as an administrator and doing whatever I can to help that gay student and to send a message.
But a whole set of problems emerge when the instinct to protect a gay student from being excluded by a Christian group is turned into a general all-comers policy.
As soon as you click one level up in principle/policy/abstraction from the instinct, you catch a whole bunch of other groups in your net. You kick off the Feminist Union, the Pro Life group, the Ismaili Students Association. You may even find yourself pressuring the LGBT group to change its charter.
Interestingly, Greg states in the podcast highlighted above that there are all sorts of creedal and conduct reasons why InterVarsity as a national religious organization excludes people from leadership in its campus chapters. One is sexual activity by heterosexuals. Another is moving away from a Trinitarian understanding of God to a Unitarian conception.
I am not aware of any case where InterVarsity’s barring someone from leadership because of a doctrinal disagreement is the proximate cause for college administrators to de-register the group, although this too would violate an all-comers policy.
A further example: most Muslim groups have a practice of men leading prayers and giving religious sermons (interestingly, Ismailis are an exception to this). I am not aware of this practice – which is clearly discriminatory towards women – being the occasion for the de-registering of a Muslim group or the triggering of a general-application all-comers policy, although it is certain to come under scrutiny once such a policy is announced.
So, what is it about Evangelical groups and the particular exclusion of gay students that sets off alarm bells in the minds of college administrators? I’ll explore that in my next piece.