Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Is it OK to look Muslim in America?

Larycia Hawkins’ solidarity message goes beyond wearing the headscarf for a day. That’s exactly what America needs

January 8, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 6, Wheaton College — a private evangelical liberal arts school west of Chicago — initiated termination proceedings against an African-American professor it placed on paid administrative leave in December.

Larycia Hawkins, 43, was suspended for writing on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated … we worship the same God.” She pledged to wear a hijab for Advent — including on a trip to her home state, Oklahoma, which has an amendment to its constitution barring consideration of Sharia in the public sphere — and encouraged others to do the same in “solidarity with our Muslim sisters.”

In a statement last month, the college said, “Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.” School officials say they initiated the firing process because she “declined to participate in further dialogue about the theological implications of her public statements.”

In their view, her comments conflicted with the college’s statement of faith, which requires that faculty profess belief in evangelical Christianity and conduct themselves accordingly. She said she is “flummoxed and flabbergasted” by the college’s decision to fire her.

Her solidarity statement came in the aftermath of the Dec. 2, 2015, shooting in San Bernardino, California. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had just called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and American Muslims, particularly hijab-wearing women, were reporting hate crimes against them.

The controversy raises two thorny questions. First, do privately funded institutions such as Wheaton College have the right to curb free-speech rights, protected under the First Amendment but contrary to principles such as Wheaton’s statement of faith? Second, should the headscarf — a visible but contested religious symbol — be elevated as a basis for interfaith solidarity?

The first question is easier to answer: Religious institutions such as Wheaton College rely on their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion, which, among other things, allows them to refuse employment to individuals of different faiths.

At a public university, Hawkins’ firing would amount to religious discrimination, and she could have argued that her statements are protected by her academic and free speech rights. But Wheaton is not a public institution. It requires all faculty members to sign on to its goal of working to “serve Jesus Christ and advance his kingdom.” In attempting to fire her, Wheaton College administrators appear to imply that, given her public statements, she is no longer a Christian and hence is ineligible to work at their institution.

Hawkins’ message of solidarity and her decision to don the hijab is an example of the courage that a paranoid nation, obsessed with an imagined Muslim enemy, desperately needs.

The prospects appear weak for a legal strategy to keep her in her job. U.S. courts do not interpret religious doctrine and may not weigh in on whether her statement on the sameness of Christians’ and Muslims’ God excludes her from evangelical Christianity and Wheaton’s stated purpose. The power to determine whether Hawkins is Christian enough for Wheaton lies entirely with the college.

As for the second question, the issue of whether the headscarf is required of all Muslim women is a divisive one. Similar to Wheaton’s stance, the issue raises the question of who gets to decide inclusion and exclusion and requirement versus choice for the faithful. The call for non-Muslim women to don the hijab on Feb. 1 to mark World Hijab Day in solidarity with Muslim women has exposed differences among Muslims about elevating the symbol as an indicator of Muslimness.

Opponents insist that doing so perpetuates oppression, citing the long history of conservative regimes that forced all women to wear the hijab. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Hala Araf and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani wrote, “We see the girl’s headscarf not as a signal of ‘choice,’ but as a symbol of a dangerous purity culture, obsessed with honor and virginity,” adding that the hijab issue has divided Muslims “since the Saudi and Iranian regimes promulgated puritanical interpretations of Sunni and Shia Islam, after the 1970s Saudi oil boom and the 1979 Iranian revolution.”

In the United States, these views are largely irrelevant. Interfaith solidarity exercises such as wearing the headscarf is geared toward societies where Muslims are not a majority and are subject to increasing discrimination. In these contexts, such support has meaning because it involves the dilution of a symbol that is otherwise exclusively associated with Muslims, whether rightly or not. This is crucial because in Muslim-majority countries, where the headscarf is common, Hawkins’ message of solidarity would have little meaning.

To be clear, narrowing Muslim identity to a headscarf is reductionist. But so are the many acts of discrimination against Muslims and groups such as Sikhs, who are often mistaken for Muslims and targeted. Outrage over her act of interfaith solidarity should be directed at the anti-Muslim bigotry it attempts to fight, not the rightness or wrongness of donning a headscarf.

It makes sense to target anti-Muslim discrimination with acts of solidarity based on visible symbols such as hijab, regardless of concerns about their universality. The non-Muslim majority can help desensitize the symbols in ways that a minority faith group cannot accomplish alone, by virtue of its smaller numbers. The wearing of the headscarf in solidarity disrupts the ill-informed narrative that sees Muslims as would-be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

Non-Muslim Americans are defining what they consider acceptable levels of tolerance toward a demonized Muslim minority that is increasingly seen as disloyal. In the rhetorical fog of a rabid electoral season, the headscarf debate is just another effort to create categories of acceptable and unacceptable Muslims, determined not by those who believe and belong but by those who wish to profile and keep out.

Hawkins’ experience with Wheaton College may have put her in the shoes of average Muslim women in the U.S., who are trying to create space for individual choice, on veiling and otherwise, against orthodoxies and institutions similar to her employer. Her decision to don the hijab and openly express what she believes provides a recipe for solidarity that goes beyond wearing the headscarf for a day. It is an example of the kind of courage that a paranoid nation, obsessed with an imagined Muslim enemy, desperately needs. 

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney, a political philosopher and the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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