Ibtihaj Muhammad is a New Jersey-born fencer who is ranked seventh in the world in the saber. This summer in Rio, Ibtihaj will be the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing hijab, the Muslim head scarf many women wear – a tribute to the diversity and inclusiveness of the United States of America, a nation of many colors, many faiths, many cultures brought together under one flag – indivisible.
There’s no such inclusiveness in Charleston, S.C.
Last Tuesday, The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, rejected the appeal of a young Muslim woman whom they’d accepted for admission for a religious accommodation in order to wear hijab as part of her uniform. She also asked for accommodation to be able to cover her body, using long sleeves and presumably tights or leggings of some sort, for those activities like swimming that generally require minimal covering.
While there’s disagreement among some scholars and many Muslims as to what extent Muslim women should – or should not – cover themselves in public there’s general agreement that a woman’s personal choice – to cover or not to cover – be honored without compulsion.
The Citadel, an institution whose administration, faculty and students presumably takes our Pledge of Allegiance (including “One Nation under God”) seriously and who presumably pledge to honor and protect all American rights, including the First Amendment as part of their mission, sacrificed honor and truth on the altar of uniformity and privilege.
“Uniformity is the cornerstone of this four-year leader development model,” Citadel president Lt. Gen. John Rosa, USAF (Ret) said. “The standardization of cadets in apparel, overall appearance, actions and privileges is essential to the learning goals and objectives of the college. This process reflects an initial relinquishing of self during which cadets learn the value of teamwork to function as a single unit.”
In denying the applicant’s request I believe Rosa failed The Citadel, failed America and failed to think outside the box. He failed to consider American national interests and consider whether having more Muslims in our military might serve our nation’s strategic interests – he failed to realize that a more inclusive Citadel would elevate us all.
While this was perhaps its first request for religious accommodation, the school has made accommodations before. It yielded to public pressure in 1966 to accept its first African American student, and when The Citadel began to accept female cadets in 1995, it made necessary adjustments in its uniform (i.e. skirts), living quarters were adjusted and codes of social conduct were modified.
The record is clear that it handled both those transitions poorly, but it didn’t learn from them. This week’s decision shows it still has a lot to learn about a diverse America that lives well beyond its hallowed Islam-inspired Moorish-style architecture.
Today, America is engaged in what many envision as a possibly generations-long conflict against international elements that are calling upon Muslims to embrace the use of terrorism to achieve political ends – a call most Muslims are resisting, especially in America.
And when a young American Muslim woman applied to join The Citadel – to enlist herself in support of America’s military, the Citadel’s leadership could not recognize her quest for what it is – an affirmative signal to America’s enemies that all Americans – including Muslims – repudiate all forces of terror and instability that threaten this nation.
That the Citadel leadership could not embrace this young woman to be part of their community – that they could not see her quest to join the Citadel as serving America’s security interests is a failure of vision and leadership.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and many other citizens, secular and religious, fund the taxpayer-supported Citadel, and I question whether it can legally refuse to make a religious accommodation for this student or others. Should they be permitted to hang out a shingle, “Truly Pious need not apply?” Can they deny a devout Jew the right to wear a yarmulke at all times, or deny a Sikh his turban and beard?
Even if they could, should they?
The United States military has already made such accommodations: Maj. Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, the first Sikh to whom the Army granted religious accommodations, told the Christian Science Monitor, ”If we want a modern progressive military that looks like America, we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that not all Americans look alike.”
A recognition that not all Americans look alike is reflected in Army procedures that permit JROTC units to allow hijabs and Sikh turbans and beards.
On Dec. 9, 1805, Tunisian envoy from the Barbary Coast to the United States Sidi Soliman Mellimelli was hosted at dinner by President Thomas Jefferson. As Mellimelli was in Washington during the month of Ramadan, Jefferson, to honor his guest, changed the time of dinner from the usual “half after three” to “precisely at sunset.”
That is leadership – even in a time of conflict.
Change is never easy. That The Citadel preferred to honor its white privileged history rather than lean forward to affirmatively honor the inclusive, aspirational vision of our Founding Fathers and American national security interests diminished The Citadel, South Carolina and those of all faiths and traditions who nobly serve America.
If The Citadel was truly interested in leadership, it would order the South Carolina Corps of Cadets to liberate its Summerall Chapel from the oppressive presence of the Confederate Naval Jack, remove it to a museum and challenge state legislators to force them to put it back.
Perhaps Ibtihaj Muhammad could lend the liberating forces her saber with which to cut it down.
Such is leadership.