Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Vanderbilt Chaplain Controversy

A very large minority of elders and deacons of the Tennessee Conference obtained their theological degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. I am one of them. Although the school has no denominational affiliation, it was originally founded as a Methodist seminary. Vanderbilt University was founded as a Methodist-affiliated college. Those bonds were severed in 1915 (if I recall correctly), but the Methodist influence on the Div School remains strong, and vice-versa. The Div School has an endowed chair of Methodist studies, for example, presently held by Dr. Doug Meeks, a scholar of the first rank. About a third of the students of the Div School are Methodist and UM hymnals are used in worship services held there. So there remains a very strong tie between the school and Methodism, especially Tennessee Methodism.

As an alumnus of Vanderbilt Divinity School, I know that the university generally and its religion departments specifically fully embrace conceptually and practically gay rights. This is a very strong institutional value of the university.

So what are we alums to make of Awadh Binhazim, a Vanderbilt Muslim chaplain, who stated at a public forum late last month what those of us who study Islamic law, sharia, already: that Islam calls for the execution of homosexuals. This is explicit in the hadith, the oral traditions of the words and deeds of Muhammed that were finally set to text. Binhazim's confirmation of this fact is not objectionable since any reader can read it plainly. The controversy at Vanderbilt springs from the fact that Binhazim went on to say, when asked, that as a Muslim he agreed: "I don’t have a choice as a Muslim to accept or reject teachings."

The video:

Here is Vanderbilt's official position on the controversy:

A recent forum at Vanderbilt University has generated questions about the university's stances on discrimination and free speech.

The "Common Ground: Being Muslim in the Military" event on Jan. 25 was part of Project Dialogue, a series at Vanderbilt dedicated to bringing diverse viewpoints to campus. It featured Awadh A. Binhazim, Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt, and Army Reserve officer Capt. Darryl A Cox discussing issues military leaders face as they encounter and lead soldiers with Islamic beliefs.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, a student asked Binhazim about Islamic law and homosexuality. Binhazim answered the question with his interpretation of an Islamic law.

For clarification, Vanderbilt strives to bring many points of view on the issues of the day to campus for examination and discussion. This is the purpose of Project Dialogue.

No view expressed at a Project Dialogue or similar campus forum should be construed as being endorsed by Vanderbilt. The university is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. It is the belief of the university community that free discussion of ideas can lead to resolution and reconciliation.

Vanderbilt is committed to free speech. It is equally committed to a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, national origin or sexuality.

There has been some confusion as to Binhazim's role at Vanderbilt. He is the Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt, a volunteer position. He is not a professor of Islam and is not associated with Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He has adjunct associate professor status at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in pathology. This position, which carries no teaching or research responsibilities, is also unpaid.

I cannot even imagine a Christian (or Jewish) chaplain saying gays should be executed. According to, the only reference in the Jewish-Christian Bible prescribing death for homosexual acts is Leviticus 20:13. However,
Over the last few centuries, most Christians and Jews have rejected Leviticus 20:13. They no longer call on the death penalty for homosexuals. Only Christian Reconstructionists and a few Christian hate groups wish to revert to mass executions of gays and lesbians today.
Which is true. But I absolutely guarantee that the university would fire a Christian chaplain who denounced homosexuality as merely abominable. However, execution of homosexuals is a fact in Islamist countries, especially Iran. The photo at right is from the hanging of two teen-aged boys in the Islamic Republic in 2006. The Washington Post reported it was one of a series of photos.

The pictures show a dismally sad drama: Two young men, identified by the Associated Press as aged 16 and 18, are seen shackled in a prison van, sobbing; one of them is then seen being led to a scaffold; other shots show the boys together with dark-hooded men placing nooses around the boys' necks; and two final images show their bodies hanging from ropes, in a large public square, as a crowd watches from a distance.

What Chaplain Binhazim said was that this hanging, and countless others in Iran and other Islamic countries, was dictated by the basic tenets of Islam and that he agrees with those tenets. Hence, these executions are right and proper and unobjectionable.

You may recall that when Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, he said there are no homosexuals in Iran. Now we know why. He has them killed.

Let me be clear of my own position here. Asked a straightforward question, Mr. Binhazim gave an equally straightforward answer: This is what Islam says and I am bound by the tenets of Islam to accept it. I personally do not think he should be disciplined or fired for answering the question, even as bluntly as he did.

But there is not the slightest doubt in my Vanderbilt-alumnus mind that a Christian chaplain would indeed be disciplined by the university. So what Vanderbilt will do now is something of a defining question for the school. It prides itself on being tolerant and inclusive. Well, let's see just how tolerant and for what it shall be.

The whole forum lasted about 80 minutes. The co-speaker, Army Reserve Capt. Cox, is a Muslim convert. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to Congress this week that the Defense Dept.'s "don't ask, don't tell" policy should be revoked and that gays should be allowed to serve openly. A good question for Capt. Cox would be, "As a Muslim officer, do you accept Islam's doctrine that homosexuality is an abomination?" There is no possible answer for him but yes, since textual literalism is a basic tenet of Islam. Then, "If you were directed by your superior commanders to participate in and publicly support a gay rights event, similar to such events already held by the military for ethnic minorities, would you comply?"

The entire forum may be viewed in eight parts starting here. Related coverage from Vanderbilt's campus newspaper:

Sparks fly at presentation on Muslims in the military

Vanderbilt 'Muslims in the Military' event goes viral

Finally, speaking of things Vanderbilti, Gen. David Petraeus will "engage in an open dialogue at Vanderbilt University about his actions as commander of the surge in Iraq and the role of U.S. forces overseas" at the university on March 1 (link). The event will be streamed live.

Update: comments turned on - please read comments policy.

1 comment:

Rev Katie M Ladd said...

Thanks for this post. I hadn't heard of this. I graduated VDS in 1996. It will be interesting to see how the university handles this and if the VDS speaks to it.